Deputy VIEWdigital editor Kathryn Johnston talks to Samaritans volunteer Brendan Magee, above, about the charity’s Listeners service in jails for prisoners.
Brendan Magee, Prison Support Officer for the Samaritans in Coleraine, has been visiting Magilligan, a Category C prison on the North Coast, for years.
Brendan said: “Samaritan volunteers from our branch used to go to the prison, where we did wing walks – going down the wings to speak to the prisoners.
“This soon evolved into the idea that we could build on the work started in England and Wales, and very soon the Coleraine branch of the Samaritans became the first to start a Prisoner Listener scheme in any part of Ireland. That was in 2003.
“We support Magilligan and Belfast Samaritans support Maghaberry and Hydebank.
“Listeners are prisoners trained by the Samaritans to provide support to their fellow prisoners on request.
“A trained Listener has the experience and knowledge of both the prison system and common prison issues. They have their own lived experience to draw on, which puts them in a strong position to help fellow prisoners in need.
“A prisoner can request a callout to discuss any issue that is concerning them. The Prison Listeners are supported by a team from the Coleraine Branch of Samaritans who visit Magilligan on a regular basis.
“Currently Magilligan has eight trained Listeners. We would like to see an ideal ratio of one Listener to 50 prisoners.
“The prison was very supportive in the beginning when we were setting up the scheme, but also a number of prisoners approached us directly, who were very keen to get it off the ground. This was a great help in developing the scheme for fellow prisoners.
“Prison is a difficult environment and obviously a prisoner has a better understanding of the issues on the inside and how people feel, and should therefore be in a key position to provide support to a fellow prisoner.
“From the very start of the NI scheme, when prisoners were trained by us, they felt, quite rightly, that they had gained a skill and knowledge that helps them in relationships, not just with fellow prisoners but with the outside world as well. It is of immense use in terms of their lives inside prison, their future lives outside prison and with wider society.
“It is a skill and a knowledge they can take with them wherever they go.
Brendan added: “We all recognise the immense pressures within the prison service. The Listeners can provide a resource to prison officers that they can call on for help and support.
“As and when a prisoner feels the need, he will tell a prison officer that he needs to see a Listener, who work in pairs. They are on call at any hour of the day or night to support that prisoner.
“A common concern can be loneliness, isolation, the fact that prisoners are obviously missing their families. But we must remember that here in Northern Ireland there is a high incidence of mental health issues, which is certainly reflected in our prisons.
‘As well as signposting services and other organisations which can help, Listeners also maintain ongoing contact. It’s very much the prisoners’ call.
“We provide a service to prisoners, but we feel that we are also supporting the prison service. That’s a win-win situation for all of us.”