Academic journal article Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology

Mentoring, Social Capital and Desistance: A Study of Women Released from Prison

Academic journal article Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology

Mentoring, Social Capital and Desistance: A Study of Women Released from Prison

Article excerpt

Mentoring ex-prisoners is an increasingly popular tool in the burgeoning field of offender reintegration and resettlement. Yet surprisingly little is known about what makes mentoring effective and indeed even whether it can be effective within the domain of criminal justice. This article proceeds in two parts. First, drawing upon desistance theory it attempts to develop a theoretical underpinning for mentoring practice with ex-offenders that would identify appropriate targets for mentoring practice, including the development of social capital or connectedness. Part two of the article utilises data from research on a women's mentoring program in Victoria, Australia, to understand how one key dimension of desistance--social capital--is recognised by women as a domain of need and those women's perceptions of the way mentoring may deliver gains in social connectedness and capital. The article concludes with a discussion of the distinctly gendered nature of women's postprison experiences and the way in which these factors shape both the process of desistance and the nature of mentoring interventions.

Keywords: women offenders, desistance, post-prison support, mentoring


The mentoring of offenders has a long but somewhat chequered history. Of all criminal justice 'interventions', mentoring remains among the least well developed both in theoretical terms and in the empirical base underpinning its deployment. The aim of this article is to address both of these issues, suggesting first that mentoring of adult offenders may usefully be understood as an activity grounded in emerging and established principles of desistance, rehabilitation and an enhancement approach to working with offenders. From this literature we can derive an account of the needs mentoring seeks to address, the mechanisms by which it should produce effects and the sorts of impacts than an evaluation of mentoring efficacy should aim to measure. To illustrate some of these ideas we report preliminary data from an Australian mentoring project that paired female community volunteers with women exiting prison. Our analysis focuses on a key deficit experienced by women after release from prison--the absence of social connections as a result of offending, imprisonment and deliberate choice - and the role that mentoring has to play in assisting the women to build the social capital necessary to make a successful transition from prison back into the community.

This study has been undertaken against a backdrop of an expanding interest in mentoring within criminal justice (DuBois, Holloway, Valentine, & Cooper, 2002; Sherman et al., 1998). Offender mentoring (which for the moment we will describe simply as the pairing of adult offenders with members of the community with a view to bringing about positive lifestyle change) is a form of social program intervention that is attractive to agencies involved in offender support for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is that it gives fiscally stretched non-government organisations the capacity to leverage the services of community volunteers as a way of providing a greater range of after-care services. Any social program has limited resources and has to allocate these in proportion to the seriousness of the problems it is trying to address. This may mean that only those individuals with the most severe problems receive significant attention. For example, it has been argued that many youth-oriented programs focus on older youths who are already active offenders, and not on younger ones who may in fact be more responsive to development and prevention initiatives. In contrast, mentoring is a means to mobilise social resources that can reach offenders who are less problematic, but possibly also more responsive.

A second feature of mentoring programs is that they involve relatively high levels of contact time between mentors and mentees. In contrast, the contacts between professional support workers and their clients are likely to be brief and episodic (Barry, 2000). …

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