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Experts by Experience: keeping Trainees at the heart of our work

By July 2, 2019July 30th, 2019No Comments

Members of Switchback’s Experts by Experience board (with poet and Switchback adviser Mr Gee) before our most recent meeting in July 2019.

Switchback’s most important value is to keep Trainees at the heart of everything we do. This means supporting each Trainee in all areas of his life and taking into account his individual experiences, needs, strengths and ambitions. When making any decision as a charity we always use the lens: “does this help us improve the prospects of young prison-leavers?”

In the past two years, one way in which we have further embedded the voice and experience of Trainees into our work is through our Experts by Experience (EBE) board – a group of former Switchback Trainees who meet regularly to discuss, inform and improve Switchback’s work and development as a charity.

“A lot of us have friends who are still in the system. We’re trying to change the system to help our friends. We’re trying to make a difference for them.” – Pellum

Since launching in 2017 we have held 12 meetings, attended by an average of five members each time. A total of 22 former Trainees have taken part, 10 of whom have attended more than one meeting and six are now full EBE members. We have increased the frequency of meetings from quarterly to six-weekly, and we’re now inviting every new Switchback Trainee to try out a meeting as soon as they’re ready. While all are men aged 18-30, the group’s strength is in its diversity of experience, with every member at a different stage of their journey out of the justice system.

Members have been instrumental in creating Switchback’s new strategic plan, in particular our decisions to increase our real-work training options for Trainees and expand our efforts to influence change across the justice system. EBE members are playing a growing role in influencing public policy; their views formed the basis of our response to the Justice Committee’s inquiry into the Transforming Rehabilitation probation reforms, while members have recently met with MPs, MoJ officials and the previous Prisons Minister Rory Stewart. Members are also playing a real part in influencing better professional practice, for example by recently co-designing and delivering training for 38 prison and probation staff from across England. And by appearing on Channel 5 News, BBC News, in The Economist, on BBC 1Xtra and more, members are helping to raise awareness and shift attitudes about prison-leavers.

This is just the beginning and we want to do a lot more to enable members to take control of the board’s agenda, activity and influence.

“It’s nice to understand other people’s experiences. Hearing how other people have dealt with things – it might help you later in life.” – Eshan

But we know this won’t be easy. Indeed none of our progress to date has been without challenges. ‘User involvement’ and the role of ‘lived experience’ provokes some strong and divergent views in the charity sector. For this reason it’s important to be honest and recognise that this is a difficult and time-intensive thing to do meaningfully, particularly with young men who have led difficult lives and often not had their voice heard before.

We want to enable our EBE board to organise itself, to be fully integrated into Switchback’s governance, to have a full house of attendees every meeting, to have its own Chair and for members to become staff and Trustees. These things haven’t happened yet, but we believe we’ll get there by being realistic and embracing a gradual approach in which staff and Trainees learn and develop together.

“We normally don’t have a voice.. or we do have a voice but the ‘big people’ out there don’t speak to us directly.” – James

We’re proud of the role that EBE members have played so far. We’re also delighted to see members building their confidence to speak up and growing their belief that real systemic change might be possible – and they could drive it. As one member said at our last meeting, “I knew my confidence was a problem, but before Switchback I never knew there was something I could do to fix it”.

“If you’d told me a couple years ago I’d be on TV, I’d have thought it would be on the news in handcuffs on the way back to jail. I never thought I’d be on the BBC talking about changing the prison system.” – Michael

With Trainees always at the heart of what we do, we’re excited about where the future might lead. If you would like to get involved or discuss the work of our Experts by Experience Board, please get in touch via or 020 7650 8989.

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