I first saw Edinburgh when a plasterer let my girlfriend and me off in Princes Street, right at the centre of Scotland’s majestic capital. It was 6am on Christmas Day. We ran for a bus to get to her parents who lived in the suburbs by a stream and a hill. It was all so strangely new. And even though it was Christmas Day 58 years ago, you’d have thought it was an ordinary day. New Year was the big Scottish celebration, and Christmas seemed to stop at the Scottish border.
Last week I arrived at Waverley station by train and the noise of Christmas music announced itself. I climbed the steps to Princes Street and the very spot where decades back I had been dropped was transformed. Popular Christmas songs buoyed the festive atmosphere of the large Ferris wheel in Princes Street Gardens, while the Scottish National Gallery was swamped in a kind of German Christmas Fayre. Fun is in the air and all around you. Love too, perhaps.
I was not in Edinburgh for the lights, though, or to measure how in almost 60 years the city had become dripped in tinsel. I was here to talk to an audience of local authorities, prison mentors and social intervenors about the crisis of ‘release’. The event was organised by The Wise Group to showcase some of the work they had been doing around supporting offenders leaving prison and getting back into life.
‘New Routes’ is the Wise Group’s wise way of helping ex-offenders stay that way, to not return to reoffending and prison. They work with 92 per cent of the eligible group of prisoners and when their programme is adhered to they are able to reduce reoffending to around 10 per cent. The eligible group is made up of people with sentences of up to four years (longer term prisoners receive help from the prison service itself).
Wisely, they have commissioned a research group, the Fraser of Allander Institute at Strathclyde University, to measure and report on the achievements and outcomes of the programme. This is so important because, like doubting Thomases, governments and their civil servants need tangible evidence that the programme actually works.
In fact it’s all about ‘mentoring’. I told the audience that I first met a ‘mentor’, my probation officer, when I was 10. He was the first consistent, thoughtful adult I had met. My parents and most of the people around me seemed to be lost in a world of punishment, dismissal and wishing things were different; or at least that I was. There seemed little evidence of careful and thoughtful adult thinking.