July 31, 2023

The Samaritans Listener scheme

Charmaine Best
Samaritans Prisons & Justice Programme Manager

The Samaritans Listener scheme is an award-winning peer support service which exists in almost all prisons in England and Wales.

Now in its 32nd year, Samaritans volunteers recruit, train and support people in prison to provide an emotional support Listening service to their peers. 

Charmaine Best discusses the reach and benefits of the programme.

The Listener scheme provides a lifeline to many people in prison. In 2022, prison Listeners supported almost 30,000 conversations with their peers. People in prison ask Listeners for help about a range of issues, often mental ill health, worries about family on the outside, bullying, prison debts and homelessness, to name a few. 

At Samaritans, we know people in prison are six times more likely to die by suicide, than someone in the community because of environmental factors, including:  

  • Adjustment - being new to prison and transferring between prisons introduces risks due to change and uncertainty. Changes may impact relationships and contact with family and friends,​ which can be a protective mechanism.  
  • Regime and prison conditions - for example, a lack of purposeful activity can increase feelings of hopelessness.  
  • Isolation - physical and social isolation can exacerbate or even cause mental ill-health.  ​ 
  • Uncertainty about prison sentences ​ - remand prisoners are at a greater risk of suicide due to the uncertainty over their future. Court delays caused by Covid related backlogs and other factors might increase the risk.  
  • Shock and distress after a death by suicide​ - suicide is more prevalent in custody and the vicarious trauma it causes could lead to further suicides. 

Listeners are recruited jointly by prison staff and Samaritans and undertake training provided by Samaritans volunteers. Training covers numerous topics such as safeguarding, the Listening Wheel, preventing self-harm, mental health and bereavement. The core skills of being a Listener include being non-judgemental, honesty and the ability to show empathy. 

Listeners are continually supported by Samaritans volunteers who provide at least fortnightly support meetings to Listeners. During these meetings Listeners are assisted with any difficulties that may have arisen and is an opportunity for Listeners to debrief on the calls they have facilitated.  

The Listener scheme is effective in reaching people in prison at high-risk of suicide, provides relief to people in times of need and can help to create a calmer prison environment.  

“When I first came to prison, it was scary and a bad time of my life. I asked for a Listener during a time I was considering suicide. He was there and listened, helped me unburden and I am still alive! Thanks.”  - Caller to the Listener scheme. 

In a recent survey, 58% of Listeners felt better staff awareness and understanding of the scheme would help to increase the support Listeners were able to offer people in prison. 

Building upon the Listener scheme, in 2022 Samaritans launched our ‘Postvention’ service to all adult HMPPS (His Majesty's Prison and Probation Service) prisons. Postvention supports prison communities (including people in prison and staff) following a suicide within their establishment. This involves Listeners and Samaritans volunteers being available to respond to those who need our help.  

As part of insights23, why not click here and join our Online conference on the 5 October at 1pm to learn more about the Listener scheme, the benefits it can provide to your prison, and how you can help run a successful and safe Listener scheme.  

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