A pioneering project that supports young offenders at the Feltham institute in West London has received national recognition in the government-backed Youth Justice Alliances Awards.
The scheme works by providing each of them with a volunteer mentor whose outlook matches their own faith or belief system – and encourages them to draw practical support and moral guidance through it.
In practice the current scheme draws on the principle religious traditions. This is likely to produce protests from those secularists who want religion kept out of public institutions altogether, or who fear that it is a cover for proselytising.
But Ekklesia has been told that in principle mentoring schemes of this kind are open to those of humanist and non-religious moral commitments, too. And Feltham stresses that the scheme works on a voluntary basis.
The Feltham Community Chaplaincy Trust was presented with the award for ‘Best Faith Alliance’ by Baroness Scotland, Minister for Criminal Justice and Offender Management, and Salima Hafejee, a Youth Justice Board member, at a presentation ceremony at the Home Office.
The Youth Justice Alliances Awards recognise youth offending teams and secure establishments which have developed partnerships which are helping combat offending and re-offending by under 17-year-olds.
The project aims to provides the vital support to help young people reintegrate, to make the right choices about education, training and employment and halt their offending behaviour.
Young men in Feltham Youth Offenders Institute who have a belief or faith, or who wish to rediscover it, are matched with a trained volunteer mentor from the same commitment. This volunteer befriends and supports them up to and after they return to the community.
In addition to the volunteers, the project employs a Christian and a Muslim chaplain who encouraging members from local churches and mosques to become involved in the scheme.
So far the project has 68 trained volunteers, from Muslim, mainstream Christian, Pentecostal and Hindu faiths and has helped provide support to around 40 young men.
Lucia do Rosario, Community Chaplain and Project Director, said: “Since 2005 we have worked with a variety of faith organisations within the community to encourage support and get people involved and we now have an amazing number of dedicated volunteers, without whom this project would simply not happen.”
Rosario continued: “By giving the young men of Feltham the opportunity to be supported by people from their own faith and from the community they will be going back to we can help to improve community integration. The volunteers help with developing contacts and access to employment and make that young person feel more accountable to the community for their actions on release, and this is why we have seen improvements in reducing re-offending rates.”
Simon Barrow, co-director of the think-tank Ekklesia, which examines religion in public life, commented: "This interesting scheme raises a number of important questions. Faith and belief can undoubtedly play a positive role in helping people to find a moral compass. Those who want access to that kind of support and encouragement should be free to get it. But such a process needs to be distinguishable from attempts to coerce or proselytise on behalf of any one belief, and in publicly-funded institutions it clearly needs to be open to humanists and non-religious 'people of good faith' too."
Added Barrow: "Many Christians will also want to argue that their message is one of transformation which raises questions about restorative justice and the whole process of locking up young offenders. Using faith in a 'functionalist' way to adjust individuals to institutions rather than to look for alternatives is, on its own, an inadequate approach. More thought is needed about this."
Ekklesia is currently researching alternatives to imprisionment and related questions of social justice in the area of crime, restoration and punishment.