Listener scheme is saving troubled prisoners’ lives

Prisoners at Wayland prison suffering with problems have been given a lifeline after a volunteer-led support service has gone from strength to strength and saved lives.

The listener scheme, run by the Samaritans, trains up inmates who can help other prisoners experiencing a range of issues, from mental health problems, including thoughts of suicide of self harm, worries about family, adjusting to life in prison and loneliness.

Launched 20 years ago at Swansea prison, the scheme is run throughout prisons in England, Scotland and Wales, and there are more than 1,200 listeners. It was set up after a 15-year-old boy committed suicide at the Welsh prison while he was in custody.

The project was introduced at Wayland Prison, near Watton, nine years ago and is organised by the King's Lynn branch of the Samaritans.

Linda Elder, deputy director for prisons at King's Lynn Samaritans, said: 'It is a special kind of person who can be a listener. Prisoners can talk about their problems without anyone casting a judgement. It has saved lives. The listener scheme supports people who are in distress or who might look to self harm or commit suicide.'

Wayland is a category C training prison for men and has more than 1,000 inmates across 13 wings.

There are currently 16 listeners at the site but following a football match in September between the listeners and prison staff – to celebrate the 20th year of the scheme – 24 prisoners have applied to join the project.

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The scheme is co-ordinated by two prisoners and the aim is to have one listener for every 50 inmates.

Daniel High, 31, is one of the co-ordinators and moved to Wayland Prison from Dorchester Prison in August 2009, where he trained as a listener.

The father-of-two was sentenced to six years in prison in February 2009 for the possession of a class A drug with intent to supply.

He is now a category D prisoner, meaning he has more freedom at Wayland Prison and is allowed to work on the site's garden.

High, a first time offender, is due to leave the prison system on February 29, this year on licence.

'Some people find it easier to talk than others. I became a listener because I wanted to help people,' he said.

The 31-year-old, originally from Bournemouth, added: 'When I was sent to Pentonville Prison I looked in my cell and had to choose between a pillow or a blanket and thought, 'What have I walked into?' It was scary and it is at that point when you either sink or swim. You have to find your feet.

'There is nothing easy about being in prison but you can make it easier for yourself. You are not going to beat the system and the sooner you deal with that the easier it becomes. The listener scheme is run by convicts for convicts. You always come across the people who are more worse off than you.'

Mrs Elder said both the listeners and prison officers work on the same side and over the years the respect from staff at Wayland Prison towards the scheme has increased.

High added there is an unwritten respect from prisoners towards the volunteers, who are carefully selected, and any information said to a listener is confidential. But he added that not everyone's problems can be helped.

Andy Toes, safer custody manager at Wayland Prison, added: 'The listener scheme has gone from strength to strength. It helps my job enormously having a strong listener team and we have proved that. We have not had a self-inflicted death in custody since before 2005 – the scheme works.'

Listeners sometimes work in pairs and if they are needed at night a prison officer will alert them, or the volunteers can be approached by prisoners while they are out of their cells.

High said that being a listener has given him more confidence and he hopes to become a gas safety engineer when he leaves Wayland Prison, where he completed a level two and three City and Guilds plumbing qualification.

If you would like to volunteer for the Samaritans, ring 01553 761616 or visit

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