Young offenders are lending an ear to their fellow inmates

Thanks to drugs, bullying and overcrowding, the number of 'vulnerable' young offenders is spiralling. Who better to help them cope than fellow inmates?
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Conspiracy to rob seemed a ridiculous charge to Daniel Wolday. Why should you be accused of some-thing just for talking to someone about it? And how can you be arrested for a crime that never happened? The case seemed so flimsy that he didn't even particularly mind being imprisoned during the trial. After all, before long he'd be home, back at university, getting on with his life.

Today, Wolday is at the Portland young offender institution in Dorset. Aged 20, he's served 14 months and his life will be on hold for another 28. Remembering the moment he heard the guilty verdict, he shakes his head. "The first few months felt like years," he says. "I was so angry. And when you're banged up, there's nothing to do but think." When he couldn't take it any more, like a lot of new inmates, he turned to the Listeners.

Like the Samaritans, who have trained them since 1991, prison Listeners – who are all inmates themselves – are available any time, day or night. There are 1,200 incarcerated volunteers across the prison system and all but a handful of prisons have access to the scheme. Anyone can approach a Listener at any time and go to a private room to talk about their concerns. For particularly insomniac cases, there's a dedicated cell for night calls, where two of the team can alternate listening and sleeping.

The inmates who provide the service have heard it all, from bully boys to girlfriend troubles, from self-harm to drugs, and they never tell any of it to anyone. They don't say they know how you feel, they don't tell you what they think of what you did and they don't tell you how to make it better. They just listen.

In a prison system where 90 per cent of inmates have mental health problems and one in 10 young offenders self-harms, their role is more pertinent than ever. Last month, two separate independent reports delivered highly critical verdicts on the provision of care for prisoners – and young prisoners such as Wolday are getting the worst deal.

According to one of the reports (from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College, London), young offender institutions are "struggling to meet the needs of a group of vulnerable children and young people who require carefully co-ordinated specialist support". And problems among that group seem to be getting worse. In 2002, 432 18- to 21-year-old inmates were designated vulnerable; now, the figure is 3,337.

When Prince Yeboah arrived at Portland, aged 18, he might easily have been included in that number. Like Wolday, he was convicted for conspiracy to rob. And he also found the transition to prison life hard to bear. He came from a good family and could not stop thinking about what this must be doing to them. The first few nights he barely slept and the days seemed interminable. He concedes now that he was suffering from depression. "If you fight it all the time," he says, "the days go very slow."

Yeboah, too, found it helped to share his troubles with someone else. "I was talking to them all the time," he says of the Listeners. "It made a massive difference. But I didn't realise how much it had helped until I settled in." At that point, deciding that four years was too long to spend staring at the ceiling, Yeboah volunteered to be a Listener himself. And Wolday, who was tired of being angry about something he couldn't change, did the same. "One day," he says, "I just thought, 'I'm not sitting about no more'."

Nowadays, Yeboah and Wolday are more concerned with others' worries than their own. But for those who haven't turned that corner, Portland is a difficult place to be. Approaching the prison's cliff-top perch on Portland Bill, one of the most severely beautiful landscapes in the south of England, it is hard to believe that life inside the 160-year-old buildings could be as bleak as inspectors said it was in 2004, when they issued a series of indictments including appalling hygiene and allegations of staff brutality.

There have been improvements at Portland since the 2004 report. A follow-up visit last year found improved mental-health care and a genuine effort at better relations between staff and prisoners. It also praised the help the prison provided for those about to re-enter society. But, inspectors noted, bullying was rife and continued overcrowding – 503 inmates in buildings designed for 386 – rendered futile many of the authorities' efforts.

"It's easy for tempers to flare in here," says Steven Kyriacon, 21, who is serving three-and-a-half years for robbery and now also volunteers as a Listener. "If you don't get it out through talking it's going to come out some other way." His fellow Listeners nod. "You'd be surprised," says Kieran Deslandes, 20, "sometimes people don't even think they want to speak about their problems and then suddenly they spit it all out."

Deslandes has a tattoo on his neck in an extravagant cursive script that reads 'Don't Cry 4 Me'. His 30-month sentence is for possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life, and the adolescent bravado necessary for anyone involved in a Brixton gang, as he was, is still visible in flashes. Mostly, though, it's been converted to something less egotistical. "I ain't really a follower," he says. "It used to be if someone was doingsomething bad I'd want to be doing something one step worse. Now all I want is to do that in a positive way."

There is also a sense of pride. Wolday remembers the tension of his first session, with an obviously agitated visitor, and how when the guy began to calm down, his fear was replaced by the knowledge that he could help him. Yeboah talks firmly about how critical it is that confidences are never broken, how even a single bad Listener would wreck the whole enterprise.

"Doing this makes me stop and think and I didn't really do that before," adds Kyriacon. "And all you have to be able to do is listen, that's all it is. But that's important for everyone to have."

Deslandes agrees. "When someone talks to you and gets it all out, you know you've done something. When I walk around my wing and I see people and I know I've helped them, I'll be like, 'You all right, mate? You cool?' And they're smiling back at me. I say to myself, I did something good there." He pushes his lower lip out and nods. "Yeah, I did something good."

How to be a Listener

'They see that everyone has a story to tell'

Maggie* is a Samaritans volunteer in Weymouth. She trains Listeners in Portland and The Verne Prison

"Coming in for the first time was scary. I found myself thinking, 'What on earth are these boys going to be like?' But very quickly you realise, 'This could be my grandson'. As a group, they treat me far better than if I met a bunch of lads their age outside. But they do find it strange that we do the training for nothing. They are always asking if we get paid for it.

The most striking thing is that they're far better at role-play than people in training outside. They're brilliant – totally uninhibited, they'll talk about anything without batting an eyelid. I couldn't have done something like that when I was 20.

It's probably much harder for them than for us, because they know the people they listen to. At least when I finish a duty at the centre I can go home at the end of it and unwind. It must be very difficult not to have that escape. But it does help them to see that everyone has a story to tell. There may be bad people in here, but I think there's an awful lot who've just had bad luck. When I heard some of what's happened to them, I think, how have you survived?"

* Confidentiality means trainers do not reveal their surnames. To learn about volunteering, go to