‘Giving back and getting on with my life’: Peer mentoring, desistance and recovery of ex-offenders

AuthorSarah Nixon
Published date01 March 2020
Date01 March 2020
Subject MatterArticles
PRB900249 47..64
The Journal of Community and Criminal Justice
Probation Journal
‘Giving back and
2020, Vol. 67(1) 47–64
ª The Author(s) 2020
getting on with my
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0264550519900249
life’: Peer mentoring,
desistance and
recovery of
Sarah Nixon
University of Gloucestershire, UK
Peer work and peer mentoring are dynamic social processes that have reciprocal
benefits for both mentor and mentee in tackling issues around reoffending and sub-
stance misuse. Narratives of peer mentors and desistance were collected from pro-
bation peer mentors, Criminal Justice Drugs Team mentors and health trainers, to
explore identity transformation and how the criminal justice system supports ex-
offenders in desistance. Criminal justice practitioners were also interviewed to
explore the importance of relational support networks. Themes that emerged from the
research include the transformative potential of peer work and how peer workers can
become role models for other offenders. Peer workers are ‘experts by experience’,
using personal narratives of desistance to inspire hope in others. Influential criminal
justice personnel are key to this process. Peer work can be the start of building a
desisting identity, acting as a ‘hook for change’. Peer workers are given spaces within
criminal justice organisations to work, which fosters a sense of purpose, belonging,
trust and responsibility. Seeing ex-offenders from a strengths-based perspective is
integral to supporting ex-offender transition. However, peer workers are inconsistently
validated by criminal justice personnel, which can impede their desistance, placing
them in a liminal position.
Corresponding Author:
Sarah Nixon, School of Natural and Social Sciences, University of Gloucestershire, 50 Swindon Road,
Cheltenham GL50 2RH, UK.
Email: snixon1@glos.ac.uk

Probation Journal 67(1)
peer mentoring, probation peer mentoring, desistance, health trainers, peer support
This article draws upon findings from a wider PhD study around peer work and
desistance, demonstrating that peer work can have a positive impact upon identity
transformation and can contribute to the desistance process for peer mentors (see
Nixon, 2018). Ex-offenders use peer work as a ‘hook for change’ (Giordano et al.,
2002) and the role can be instrumental in helping to construct a replacement self
that is incompatible with further offending. Central to this process is support from
criminal justice personnel, in recognising potential and providing a sense of hope
and optimism that a future prosocial self can emerge. However, ex-offenders in peer
work roles are placed in liminal positions because they receive inconsistent vali-
dation from ‘non-offending colleagues’ for their newly emerging desisting identity,
which can impair the desistance process. It is important to note that peer work and
peer mentoring are used interchangeably in this article. The terms are defined as ex-
offenders ‘working with people who are not in authority over us’ and ‘people that
are the same as us’ (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2003: 8). This
research focuses upon formal peer work interactions rather than informal gestures of
help and support.
Peer work schemes in criminal justice recruit ex-offenders because of their ex-
offender status. Those released from prison tend to experience long-standing
employment problems (Visher et al., 2008), exhibit weaker attachment to legit-
imate work (Apel and Sweeten, 2010), face inequality in the job search process,
are often unskilled and poorly educated thereby making them unattractive to
potential employers (Bushway and Apel, 2012). Peer mentoring is often the first step
towards a successful career in the criminal justice system. Whilst peer mentoring is
not new to criminal justice, the former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling highlighted
its importance, making it a key part of the 2013 Transforming Rehabilitation
agenda, stating somewhat controversially that peer mentoring was useful ‘to help
them [former offenders] get their lives back together’ and to make ‘good use of old
lags in stopping the new ones’ (Grayling, 2012 in Buck, 2017: 1). This research
was conducted around the same time the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms were
Grayling identifies the utility of using ex-offenders to deter others from future
offending, however, it is ambiguous as to ‘whose life’ it actually impacts upon,
because peer mentoring has reciprocal benefits for both mentee and mentor,
something that has largely been overlooked in criminal justice research until
recently (Buck, 2014, 2016, 2017; Jaffe, 2012; Kavanagh and Borril, 2013;
Perrin and Blagden, 2014). It is important to capture the ‘softer’ outcomes of being a
peer mentor, in terms of identity transformation, rather than a narrow focus upon
recidivism rates. Therefore, qualitative research focusing on the impact upon men-
tors rather than mentees is a welcome addition to existing knowledge around peer

mentoring and peer work. The various peer mentoring schemes used in this research
are outlined below:
Criminal Justice Drugs Team (CJDT) train existing service users to become peer
mentors and they work with other substance misuse clients (service users) through
facilitating group tasks. Former peer mentors lead delivery of the 12-week CJDT
peer mentor training. Former peer mentors have progressed to paid roles within
criminal justice, for example, working as a substance misuse engagement coordi-
nator or treatment worker, which shows there is a distinct career trajectory for peer
mentors. Probation peer mentors complete their training at the Community Reha-
bilitation Companies (CRCs) and at the time of their training they are still on licence,
so they occupy a liminal territory, bridging the gap between service users and
probation staff. Probation peer mentors in this study have worked with probation
staff to deliver a service user satisfaction survey and have been instrumental in
setting up the first Rehabilitation Activity Requirement (RAR) ‘Transition and Hope’,
which is a mandatory requirement for service users. The Health Trainers are a team
of ex-offenders who are employed to deliver initiatives to improve the health of
service users.
Using ex-offenders as (peer) mentors in times of austerity will ultimately provide
the criminal justice system with a source of free labour, which can potentially exploit
ex-offenders. Hucklesby and Wincup (2014: 1) argue that ‘transferring mentoring
into the coercive and punitive environment of the criminal justice system results in a
departure from the very principles and values which are the basis of its usefulness
elsewhere’. Liminality experienced by peer mentors and the frustration around
being employed because of ex-offender status is of significance in this article, which
is not reflected in the simplicity of Grayling’s vision of peer mentoring. This article
will demonstrate application of Giordano et al.’s (2002) theory to peer work and
desistance, and findings from the study will illustrate both the enabling and the
constraining elements of peer work in supporting the desistance process.
Literature review
The transformative potential of peer work
Kavanagh and Borril (2013) researched peer mentors who work for the St. Giles’
trust, which is a London-based organisation that provides peer support to those
suffering from exclusion and marginalisation. The researchers found that peer
mentoring yielded many positive benefits for both the mentor and the mentee.
Mentors found the experience to be empowering, whereas previously they had felt
powerless, and the experience of providing help for others was a personally
rewarding venture. Mentors reported that the opportunity to give something back to
the community was a strong benefit of engaging in the programme, which is sup-
ported by Webster (2013). Through mentoring relationships, trust was built and the
mentors acted as role models for mentees. Peer mentoring developed a sense of
hope for their future, gave opportunities for civic reintegration and the development
of a new, prosocial identity (Kavanagh and Borril, 2013). Participants expressed

Probation Journal 67(1)
frustration when their mentees reoffended, which illuminates the extent of their own
desistance, commitment to prosocial values and pathways to successful reintegra-
tion into society. In support of this, Buck (2017) documents how peer mentors
internalise failure when their mentees do not achieve their goals.
Peer mentors felt listened to by staff and felt supported by a range of criminal
justice personnel (Webster, 2013). They were treated as an asset to the scheme,
using their experiences to support others. Previous experiences as an offender and/
or substance misuser were cited as key to having authenticity in the role (Webster,
2013), which has relevance for desistance, in terms of ‘amputation or reconstruc-
tion’ of a past criminal identity (Maruna and Roy, 2007). Peer mentors reported that
they woke up with a purpose and experienced a redefinition of the self (Webster,
2013). Peer mentoring forges strong social bonds between peer mentors, and a
sense of reliance on each other for mutual support helps to build social capital. Peer
mentors experience an enhanced level of trust placed in them, which allows them to
see themselves as more than an ‘offender’ or a ‘drug user’. Maruna (2001) iden-
tifies that ex-offenders are often drawn to roles like...

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