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Switchback’s programme has always centred around meaningful relationships between our Switchback Mentors and Trainees. There are normally so many opportunities for a  Switchback Mentor to check in with a Trainee, whether it’s at a weekly action plan meeting or an informal visit during a shift at one of our Real Work Training Partners. When these opportunities abruptly ceased due to Covid-19, our team faced the difficulties of supporting these young men without being able to meet them physically. Switchback Mentor Maddy reflects on both the challenges and successes of building relationships remotely.

 Switchback has always focussed on the profound and transformative power of relationships with young men which we establish in prison and continue after release. From 12 years of work we know the impact that a strong, professional and supportive relationship can have.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, as a team of Switchback Mentors, we’ve had to closely examine how we can nurture meaningful relationships with young prison leavers without the time and shared physical space we are used to.

Working through-the-gate with Trainees creates consistency, accountability and growth. On release, Switchback Mentors are a reliable presence and can hold Trainees accountable daily – not to us but to themselves. We encourage Trainees to implement the changes they committed to and the growth we know they are capable of. Beginning this process in prison is significant as we are inviting people to draw upon the best and most capable parts of themselves, while in an institution that often encourages the inverse. By holding these conversations in a contained and private physical space, we build trust so that the relationship between a Trainee and Switchback Mentor can endure constructive challenging. This pattern, crucially, is usually continued immediately after release in the community.

Practical support and ‘systems navigation’ have also been a key focus of our work with Trainees. Upon release, there have always been monumental obstacles for Trainees to overcome. Lack of housing, public perceptions of prison leavers, lack of ID and financial hardship. Throughout this pandemic, every hurdle has been intensified. Trainees have had to navigate further uncertainty, a national lockdown and what has effectively been the closure of the entire economy. However, the question remains: how do we as Switchback Mentors build the meaningful relationships we aspire to at Switchback without being able to build consistency through-the-gate?

One of the most beneficial tools that I have found is video calling with Trainees. Through seeing one another, sharing a smile, seeing one’s surroundings, it becomes a much more human and authentic exchange. It’s in the small moments; sharing a walk in the sunshine while on video call, being a part of a Trainee’s day, seeing a Trainee on the way home from fixing his Dad’s car.  While face-to-face meetings have been impossible, through glimpsing the day-to-day activities during a check in with a Trainee I have found I am able to be a more active and familiar presence in their day. This has meant the relationship forms faster and stronger.

Throughout this period, I have come to realise the most crucial element of our relationship-building is supporting Trainees to value their abilities and strengths, and supporting them to return to the best parts of themselves. One of the ways we have continued to find these strengths is by thinking not only about positive goals in the future, but positive memories from the past. Through asking questions such as ‘what has been your happiest memory?’ or ‘when have you been most content?’, we help fundamentally shift the narrative, as many Trainees have not been invited to think of themselves this way before. This is the power of the work we do at Switchback, and this has remained through lockdown. By holding Trainees to high standards, and creating high expectations which we know they are capable of, we are offering a new lens through which Trainees can see themselves.

With the current uncertainty about the future, the relationship with a Switchback Mentor provides a sense of both stability and accountability. It holds individuals to account and keeps standards and expectations high, which builds resilience and focus. Although there have been challenges in working in this way during lockdown, Switchback’s ability to adapt to change, and to centre Trainees and their value, has meant these relationships have endured. As a result, despite even greater systemic challenges than ever, many young men are still choosing to be involved in a brave process of change, every day showing phenomenal amounts of courage and resilience of which they should be hugely proud.

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