In line with articles written by my colleagues, I am writing to shed some light on how I have adapted to working from home in my role as a Aftercare and Welfare Rights officer, and as a support worker for our clients in the community.
Our organisation performs many necessary functions in our society, that through no fault of our own have had to be adapted due to the ongoing global health pandemic which is affecting everyone. Over the course of any given week our office has three members of staff in each day, and a team of twenty volunteers who each commit one full day a week to our organisation. Casework files are collected and delivered in order to advance cases in the pursuit of an appeal against conviction. Our office is a hub and a safe space for our clients in the community, many of whom come in for meetings each week, or drop in for a visit.
Whilst studying toward my degree, I was a casework volunteer with our organisation, having co-ordinated our partner innocence project at the University of Strathclyde Law Clinic. Our advocacy and legal education function introduces our volunteers to a side of the criminal justice system they do not learn about as part of their undergraduate degree. Alongside learning and gaining rich experience which will benefit our volunteers when they go into practice, our volunteers come with a keen enthusiasm, genuinely wanting to provide access to justice to those who need it most, by identifying, and seeking to correct, miscarriages of justice.
In the early stages of the spread of the coronavirus in the UK, and in line with our volunteers’ colleges and universities, we advised our volunteers to stay at home in order to limit the number of people in the office, and therefore the spread of the virus, to three staff rather than a team of twenty three over the course of a week. I am incredibly proud of both of the complementary, essential functions our organisation provides, advocacy and aftercare, and of our excellent team of volunteers. We have had to rapidly adapt to working from home, having had no capacity to do so with our existing systems, to having a virtual office set up in each member of staff’s home. In order to protect the safety of our clients, all client facing contact has been stopped. I remain in active contact over the telephone and digital communication with each client and continue to work closely with them during these challenging times.
Since September 2019, I have been the Aftercare and Welfare Rights Officer within our organisation. This role can be broadly outlined as including, but not exclusively, ensuring our clients receive the welfare benefits they are entitled to through meaningful advice and assistance, assistance with finding suitable housing, facilitating appropriate medical and mental health treatment whilst providing ongoing psychosocial support, not only in times of trouble or crisis.
Our bespoke, hands on, client-centred aftercare and reintegration service is designed to identify each client’s needs, goals and ambitions and to support them in every way we can in working to achieve them, whilst providing the support that they require. Our clients in the community are damaged, vulnerable and often forgotten; our role is to support them in every way we can, and we will continue to do everything we can while working from home.
Accessing appropriate mental health support for the complex issues our clients have experienced in the past has been, at times, challenging. The high level of damage caused by the ongoing trauma of long-term wrongful imprisonment is vast. There are very few specialists equipped to deal with this type of trauma. Since 2019, we have been very fortunate to have been receiving some such assistance from a consultant psychiatrist, who graciously gives up his time pro-bono through monthly sessions with our clients in the community, and who produces reports on our clients’ current conditions relating to their mental health. We are utilising video chat service, Zoom, in order to continue these monthly clinic sessions electronically. I have continued to work closely with the consultant psychiatrist from home, to assist him in producing up-to-date reports on our clients’ mental health. Each client has reaped benefits from their time with the psychiatrist and have been quick to vocalise their gratitude, many of whom only recently believed there may be no one out there who could help them in this way.
A client of ours has recently been paroled and released from prison, early this March. We have supported him in the preparation and pursuit of an appeal, provided throughcare throughout his sentence and put preparations in place to render his reintegration back into his life and into society as easy as it possibly can be.
Much of the work we had planned to do in terms of intensive support, re-socialising and assisting his family in readjusting, now must be done over the telephone. Thankfully, this particular client is looking on the bright side of things. He has advised me that he would have to experience measures to stop the spread of the virus whether he remained in prison or not. Given the choice this would not have been the environment we would have ideally liked him released into, but he tells me in no uncertain terms it is a better place than where he was.
The adjustment to life outside of prison for those who have been wrongfully convicted is difficult, and ongoing. The ordinary busy-ness of shops, as well as the ability to choose their own items, of which they have no recent experience, can leave our clients overwhelmed. This particular client seems content with his quiet, albeit limited return to society, which will limit these anxieties – and we will be there to support him throughout this process.
For now he can watch his own television, switch his light off and go to bed when he chooses, and he has a virtual poker tournament with some friends who would have gathered together to play under normal circumstances, none of which he could have done this time last month.
The predominant aim of our aftercare and reintegration service is to ensure that, over and above the core issues such as welfare benefits, housing and appropriate mental health support, our clients do not isolate themselves from the world after release.
It can be easy for our clients to revert back, mentally, socially and behaviourally upon release from prison and in our experience, what we often see are clients who commonly find themselves living in one room of their home in a cell-like environment. It is my role to encourage them not to socially isolate and to re-find themselves in society, learn new skills and not to distance themselves from society – which now we all must do.
A few of our clients have made light of the situation we all now face; they have jokingly told me they are well used to this and that this is nothing new to them. Others find themselves truly struggling and their mental health has been adversely affected. The vast majority of the country is now at home for twenty-three hours a day, perhaps to the detriment of mental health. The self-employed now require state supported assistance. Feeling trapped at home and having to rely on the state through no fault of their own is the reality for many of our clients upon release, during a pandemic or otherwise.
Having to curtail important, personal, client facing contact has been very unnatural, though entirely necessary. However, being a listening ear to my clients, always available on the other end of a telephone, is perhaps the easiest and most natural part of my role, which is why sometimes it can be easy to lose sight of how important that is. It has been very humbling to hear that from the clients this week, as it always is.
I would like to take the opportunity to encourage our service users, their families, our supporters and everyone to stay home, stay healthy and look after those who are vulnerable and may need your help insofar as is possible in line with the government advice.