When Paul started his 13-month sentence at Leyhill Prison, he spent the first eight weeks working in the prison gardens raking leaves and handing out gardening tools.
But despite the fresh air, Paul felt he had more to offer. “I was in Bristol prison for a month before moving to Leyhill and discovered how a lack of formal education was a factor common to many of my fellow inmates. It got me thinking.
“Once I’d completed my eight-week stint in the gardens, I was able to apply for another job or training, so I signed up to do an NVQ qualification in advice and guidance. It was while I was doing the course that someone mentioned the one-to-one mentoring scheme where prisoners support each other in their studies.
“I’d already discovered that many of the people in prison had really poor maths skills – they’d regularly ask me to help them work out their canteen sheets, for example. Many prisoners drop out of school when they are young and have no qualifications. As far as I’m concerned, maths is almost as important as being able to read and write – and I thought I could help.”
During a sentence, the aim is to help prisoners achieve at least a Level 2 in Maths and English. As a peer mentor, Paul was given the training and materials he needed to help people on a one-to-one basis, as well as supporting them in maths classes.
“To become a mentor, I had to have Level 3 in Maths and English – everyone is assessed when they arrive at prison. Gradually I became more involved in recruiting new mentors and matching them,” said Paul.
“Because mentors receive enhanced privileges, we were inundated with people wanting to take on the role, but we had to choose the right sort of person. Not everyone can do it. It’s all about trust and confidence – and there are frustrations if your mentee doesn’t turn up and it’s really challenging helping people who don’t have even the most basic maths skills.
“But being a mentor could be very rewarding – and it also helped pass the time. I mentored five people, both one-to-one with those who were not doing well in the classroom and with people who wanted particular help with a maths ‘black spot’. I think everyone deserves a second chance and hopefully, by being a bit more confident with their maths, it will help people grab that second chance.”