Probationers reducing undergrowth at Bedgebury Pinetum
(Photo: Julian Dormady, Forestry Commission)
'Offenders and Nature' (O&N) schemes are able to address several of the underlying factors for re-offending and have positive impacts on all involved as well as benefiting the wider public.
Causes of re-offending have been summarised as a combination of factors relating to:
- Poor education and training
- Lack of employment
- Drug and alcohol misuse
- Poor mental and physical health
- Problematic attitudes, thinking and behaviour
- Lack of life skills
- Inappropriate or no housing
- Debt and lack of financial support
- Poor or lack of family network.
O&N schemes are usually able to address the first six key factors listed above.
What do the schemes offer?
The schemes offer work experience outside amidst green space – a considerable change from the inside of a prison, and the many in-door based training schemes. Some offenders and supervisors observe a ‘calming’ and ‘focusing’ effect in volunteers.
Some O&N schemes explicitly use ‘ecotherapy’, which uses working in natural environments to support people with addiction problems and/or mental health issues, specifically drawing on this capacity of nature to calm, heal and inspire.
To society and the environment
O&N projects use small teams which usually complete hard physical tasks with highly visible effects, such as ‘tidier’ looking and more open landscapes that allow locals and visitors to enjoy lovely views or benefit from, for example, a new path that is suitable for wheelchair access.
O&N schemes often tackle time intensive conservation work, such as opening up dense vegetation to create more diverse habitats. This important woodland managerial work would otherwise use scarce financial and human resources or remain undone due to resource constraints.
Most tasks require close working between two or three people, ensuring that they are done well and without endangering anybody. This also means that offenders have to closely follow health and safety guidelines and are valued and respected colleagues in their own right. Days spent outside working in all weathers also improve physical fitness.
Participants must be committed and reliable and get used to full-time work routines. This can be in stark contrast to a day inside prison or to being on a training scheme in a workshop or factory. It may not suit everyone; but those who get selected or want to give it a go, often not only learn new skills, but more importantly feel that they can do something that they enjoy and which also is appreciated by others.
O&N schemes can provide an intensive learning and skills programme – a mixture of general and specialist skills that suit land-based employment. Writing and numeracy skills are less prominent and thus not a barrier to becoming a good volunteer.
For offenders, good working relationships with scheme supervisors and employees also usually include receiving informal mentoring and the acquisition of life skills.
Some offenders realise that this type of work would suit them in the longer run and apply for college courses, apprenticeships or jobs in that field.
After successful completion of a voluntary placement, some O&N schemes offer short-term job opportunities for ex-offenders and these are particularly useful as a stepping stone to gaining further credentials and eventually gaining employment and rebuilding their lives.
Once having secured a job or training place, housing also becomes more affordable and easier to come by.
Using joinery and building skills of probationers to improve facilities at Bedgebury woodland
(Photo: Julian Dormady, Forestry Commission)
Internal appraisal of O&N projects suggest that they can have many profound and subtle impacts that benefit the offenders, the host organisation, the offender management institution and local communities.
Comments of foresters and conservationists working with young offenders include:
“The description of the person when we took them and what they were like with us did not match. They worked well and were reliable.”
“You could tell a difference in them from when they started and when they finished working with us.”
Some offenders bring back relatives after their release to show them their work. An ex-offender noted:
"Thank you for the opportunity it has given me in life that I may not have had. My time with the Forestry Commission has changed my outlook to life and work. I really believe for the first time I have a future."
Some O&N schemes have experienced reluctance or even opposition to placing offenders as conservation volunteers on public land. For example, some locals have voiced their concern and disapproval about such schemes.
Similarly some staff supervising and working with offenders are initially nervous and apprehensive. While some people naturally treat others as their equals and are good mentors, others need some time and support to develop new skills and management styles.
However, to date, in all such cases, both staff and communities have been won over and observed the substantial positive effects such projects have had on offenders and the local environment.