This post is written by David Breakspear and Billa Nanra and shares their experiences of working as peer volunteers for the Shannon Trust and attending a recent Shannon Trust Conference. David writes first…
From 10 am, on the morning of January 27, I was in the audience for Shannon Trusts’ 2022 conference, which this year was held online for the first time. It seemed fitting this year’s conference was held online, especially after many support services, themselves, during the pandemic, had to adapt to a new way of working with people in prison. The timing could not have been better, as Jay Blades, from the BBCs ‘Repair Shop’, appeared on BBC One, at 9pm the night before, sharing his journey of learning to read at the age of 51.
Jay, worked with a volunteer from Read Easy Oxford, using the ‘Turning Pages’ programme created by Shannon Trust. Watching Jay, took me back to the times, whenever I was back in prison, I volunteered as a mentor for Shannon Trust. Coincidentally, in Jay’s programme, he visited HMP Exeter, and spoke to a couple of adult learners in the prison library, not only did it take me back mentally, but, at that point, every fibre of my being was back in prison.
That’s how much power becoming a mentor, had, and continues to have.
When I finally turned my life around and disengaged from the criminal justice system, after what was a very long relationship, I was able to take a breath and reflect on what had gone before. The lessons I knew I would need to learn, which would keep me living a life free of crime, I knew could be found within what was!
I first became a Shannon Trust mentor, in March 2005, whilst serving a sentence in HMP Blundeston. The reading programme then was known as Toe-By-Toe, I must admit, it always will be to me.
Looking back, I could not find that moment, however, what I did see, was when I started to become a better person. The officer who spoke to me, about becoming a mentor, must have seen something in me that I couldn’t see in myself. I was on G wing, which was the induction wing for Blundeston – Although, they did have a first night centre, H wing, the old hospital wing – I had been transferred from Pentonville, and Blundeston wasn’t anything like where I had just left. It’s closed now and I believe housing was built on the land once the prison had been demolished.
Hindsight has shown me, why Blundeston will always hold a special place in my heart. Because it was becoming a mentor for Shannon Trust, in Blundeston, as to why I am here today living a life free of crime.
There was one other obstacle to overcome.
One that probably took me longer than it should, but as the saying goes, “there’s no wrong time to do the right thing.”
Whenever I ended up back in prison, I would always serve my sentence to get out, and not to stay out, of prison. It didn’t matter if I did return to prison, because every time I went back, I had a purpose, and not only did I have a purpose, but I was also valued.
The things we seek can sometimes be found in the unlikeliest of places.
Back to the conference, and after the opening introductions and a welcome from the CEO, who also shared Shannon Trusts’ three-year strategy, we got to hear from the Prison Group Director for Devon and North Dorset, Jeannine Hendrick. In Jeannine’s excellent presentation, we got to read some quotes from learners and mentors:
“It lets you gain the most important tool in life” said one mentor, adding “being able to read opens so many doors in life.” Another mentor was quoted as saying, “As a mentor I get a sense of achievement that I’ve done something good with my time in prison”. One more quote was, “It gives people goals and ambitions to better themselves, a way out, a way forward.”
I second every one of them.
After a lunchbreak, it was the turn of my fellow former mentor, Billa Nanra and I along with Shannon Trusts’, Scott Haines, who is the Community Pilot Manager there. With Scott putting the questions to us, Billa and I, spoke about our experiences of becoming and being mentors for Shannon Trust. You can see the recording below.
On their home page on their website it says, “Shannon Trust transforms lives by supporting disadvantaged people to learn to read. We believe nobody should be left out of learning.”
Billa, other mentors and I, can also say, Shannon Trust transforms lives by providing the opportunity for others to give back. I can promise you; the rewards are priceless.
Looking back now I will always have fond memories on how I was able to change and transform my life for the better, especially in the volatile environment of Her Majesty’s Prisons. A place where justice, rehabilitation and punishment are the order of the day. Of course, in varying degrees from prison to prison.
In this reality I came into prison a broken man, with a long-term substance abuse and deteriorating mental health. Coming into prison I knew I had the chance to change and be eventually happy. If I didn’t change i knew this would be my life or worse. I had a conscious shift and made the effort to reduce my methadone to zero within 3 months. The drugs had landed me in prison, that was my first priority. Soon I had clarity, inner-strength, choice, dignity and hope
After doing Information, Advice & Guidance, Level 2, I became a prison mentor and eventually the Library Orderly. I know it’s a bit of a cliché but I really had the best job in HMP Leeds. This is where I came across the Shannon Trust, a voluntary role I would hold till my release 2 years later. I learnt so much as a Shannon trust mentor and then the coordinator. Things I continually develop now, such as communication, building relationships and time management to mention just a few.
Since my release, one of the things I was able to do was to make a mini-documentary on my time served in which I spoke about the role I had with the Shannon Trust which gave me purpose, motivation and drive to help, not only myself but the mentees with reading and writing disabilities.
I tagged Shannon Trust in a twitter post and I had a response from Megan Jackson (communications and fundraising assistant). That conversation led to a zoom meeting with lan Merrill, CEO. On the strength of that I was put in touch with Scott Haines (Community Pilot Manager) and David Breakspear, another person with lived experience. A very inspirational person, doing some amazing things. It was like I had known them both for years, I was very humbled and proud to be asked to be involved in the workshops. I thoroughly enjoyed speaking about my experiences.
Reading is a fundamental building block for life for everyone. And it is truly life changing, David and I are living proof along with the thousands of other Shannon Trust Mentors.
A big thank you to all involved, especially the volunteers and a big special thanks to Scott Haines for putting this together. I look forward to the next time pal.
If you would like to hear more about my journey, check out my podcast
and my mini-documentary.