A summary of evidence relating to the effectiveness of peer support for prisoners.
Peer support is activity-based support delivered by designated prisoners to their peers. It should have a clearly defined purpose, and be targeted to specific needs. It can help and inspire prisoners in custody. It should last for as long as the support is required.
There are many different types of peer support. These include emotional support, help with education, resettlement work, health advice, and advocacy. It can be provided during induction and/or later in sentences. Well-established schemes exist in a number of prisons. For example, Listeners (suicide and self harm), Insiders, and Toe by Toe (dyslexia and reading difficulties) mentors.
What does the evidence say?
Research into peer support in prisons is limited. The evidence base that does exist suggests that benefits include:
- increased positive self-identity, self-confidence and employability skills for the peer worker
- positive impact on attitudes, engagement and behaviour for the recipients of the services
- positive impact on prison regime
Peer support schemes should have:
- outcomes which are clearly defined by the needs of the people being supported by the scheme
- a clear predefined purpose for the interaction
- activities which are targeted to meet specific needs
- schemes which last for the period that the support is required
To be effective, peer support should be part of a structured scheme. It should be properly planned, implemented, monitored and evaluated.
Evidence-informed effective practice
Guidance on developing and delivering peer support activities, from a range of sources1, centres on four areas. These can provide a useful checklist for prisons introducing and running peer support schemes:
Planning and development - challenge yourself and your plan for the scheme:
- Why do you need it and what do you need it to do?
- What is the target group and what are their needs?
- What resources are available?
- When/ where / how will the service be available?
- How will the peer supporters be recruited / trained / supported/ paid?
- Identify stakeholders like prison governors, staff and current or potential peer workers and how to engage them
- How will you know if it has the intended impact?
Recruitment and implementation - give the scheme time to embed itself:
- Recruit transparently; consider individual suitability; and turnover of peer supporters (sentence length)
- Train peer supporters with core skills – communication, problem solving, and specific needs of the scheme
- Allow time for practice
- Grow the scheme steadily: consider a probationary period and advertise to users.
- Set up supervision for staff and peer supporters
- Have emergency and contingency plans in place
Maintain, support and resource the scheme:
- Check ongoing communication routes / training / support for peer supporters and staff.
- Plan future recruitment, resources and need
- Involve staff and peer supporters and stakeholders in ongoing development
Monitoring and evaluation – understand if it is working, and adjust:
- remain vigilant for possible risks to the scheme - for example, signs of negative attitudes to peer supporters or participants, preferential treatment by staff, or misuse of confidential information
- monitor attitudes towards prisoners using the scheme
- monitor attitudes towards the peer supporters
- monitor risks to confidentiality of personal information about users of the schemes
- evaluate – has it worked as intended?
- ensure objectives are SMART
- ensure it runs long enough to achieve what it sets out to do
- use management information or feedback
- consider formal evaluation and adjust design and delivery according to findings
‘Life in Prison: Peer support’; A finding paper by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (2016). This contains a literature review, evidence from inspections on the benefits and risks of peer support schemes, and examples of good practice. It emphasises the broad range of peer support schemes and aims.
A systematic review of the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of peer education and peer support in prisons Bagnall, A et al (2015). A comprehensive evidence review. It provides strong evidence about the positive effect on attitudes, knowledge and behaviour in relation to sexual health, and reductions in self-harm. It finds that prisoners prefer advice and help from peer supporters to that from professional staff. It provides good evidence for positive outcomes for those who provide the peer support and less evidence about those they mentor.
- Cowie, H., & Wallace, P. (2000) Peer support in action: From bystanding to standing b. London: SAGE. Delveaux, K. and Blanchette, K. (2000) Results of an Evaluation of the Peer Support Program at Nova Institution for Women. Research Branch Correctional Service of Canada
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2003) Peer to Peer: Using peer strategies in drug abuse prevention. New York: United Nations
Adair, D. (2005) Peer support Programs within Prisons. University of Tasmania School of Sociology and Social Work Devilly, G., Sorbellob, L., Eccleston, L. and Ward, T. (2005) Prison-based peer education schemes. Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 10, pp. 219-240
HM Prison Service (2005a) Good practice guide for Insiders peer support scheme
HM Prison Service (2005b) Good practice guide for peer support schemes
Finnegan, L., Whitehurst, D., and Deaton, S. (2010). Models of mentoring for inclusion and employment: Thematic review of existing evidence on mentoring and peer mentoring. London: Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion
This page summarises the available evidence base and is informed by independent academic peer review. It does not represent Ministry of Justice or Government policy.