Catalyst (2011-2018) was (and is to a smaller extent) first of all a mentoring work among young inmates and ex-inmates (primarily with ethnic minority backgrounds) up to 30 years old in the Copenhagen prisons and aimed to catalyse a new development for them, including gang-related and/or “radicalized” youngsters who wanted to leave their criminal life.
The mentoring work was done by young and older volunteers with Christian or Muslim backgrounds. The young inmates were contacted and matched in the prisons by me (as prison chaplain), who had got to know them and also worked with them in study groups. The mentors had the task of supporting and guiding the young prisoners through the challenges they faced in their lives and helping them to move on. They thus followed the youngsters from custody through sentencing and out into freedom.
The project-approach was based on a two-years research project that I carried out in the Copenhagen Prisons 2008-10. The report, Life Stories and Crime, which was printed at the Faculty of Theology, Copenhagen in 2010, can be downloaded free of charge here: http://ikstudiecenter.dk/?p=1135. There is a summary in English at the end of the book. The report was based on repeated interviews with 150 ethnic minority prisoners up to the age of 30 and a number of employees.
The conclusion of the Catalyst project was that attempts to empower the youngsters in prisons to move on in a life free from crime should be made through individual, trust-building conversations with volunteer mentors - combined with community-forming group discussions, in which one or two volunteers also participated - all with the aim of getting the young people to leave criminal life and get started or continue their education and/or enter the labour market when they leave prison. Among the participating inmates there would also be inmates accused of having taking part in terror activities or attempts to do so.
Catalyst continuously had up to 25 active volunteer mentors with different ethnic backgrounds and ages who had access to inmates in the prisons' visiting rooms. The centre has had a total of up to 700 mentoring arrangements with inmates since the start of the project. Many inmates did not feel that there was help to be found in the existing exit programmes that the official authorities could offer.
I had four weekly discussion groups with the youngsters – together with 1 or 2 volunteer mentors. The groups addressed various societal and existential topics and got the inmates to contribute to the discussion. There was usually a topic for discussion. Other times, the discussion just took off all by itself. We have had topics like: What is good/bad about Danish society? What do climate changes mean? Trump vs. Putin was a favourite topic. The presentations of the topic were held either by the inmates themselves or by the volunteer or the undersigned.
The aim of the groups was partly to provide space for reflection on the inmates' own situation and possible ways forward. It has been our experience over the years that conversations on various topics that were not related to crime could increase the inmates' self-esteem and belief – a feeling that they have something to contribute and can assert themselves in relation to non-criminal youth (the two young volunteers who also had ethnic minority background). At the same time, the talks served to build a kind of togetherness/community between the inmates, which were bas. The group solidarity extended to life in the prison wings.
The individual conversations and the study groups thus gave the youngsters an experience of not being clients in a system, but first and foremost partners of conversation. Thus, they could become more open about their crime. They felt that they could talk about everything - even what they could not talk to others about.
Since 2018 we have not had the opportunity to work inside the prisons. We still work with ex-inmates to assist them to leave criminal life. We have three study groups wherein ex-inmates take part. In this way they can find new friends and a new network. Those ex-inmates who had a mentor while they were in prison still have contact with their mentor.