A new publication by Sue Wilkinson, who recently joined the Department as an Honorary Professor, analyses the work of Unlock - a charity supporting people with criminal convictions to move on with their lives.
Unlock commissioned Sue to evaluate its peer-run telephone helpline. She analysed more than 200 recorded calls to the helpline, providing both a ‘snapshot’ of the service (content and thematic analysis) and a more in-depth (conversation analytic) look at the interaction between callers and call-takers.
The typical caller to the helpline is male, with a conviction for violence, theft or motoring offences. Most are making enquiries about the need to disclose a criminal record, and how much - and under what circumstances – they need to disclose. Call-takers are generally able to provide clear, appropriate and up-to-date information.
The call-takers are all ‘insiders’ – people who themselves have convictions and experience of the criminal justice system. They draw on their own experience in interactions with callers, displaying a considerable degree of understanding and empathy: “Where you find yourself … is quite a lonely place in the world” or “A lot of people … feel a little bit sort of screwed over by the system”.
They regularly offer advice and encouragement, giving up-beat injunctions (“Give it a go”, “Stick to your guns’) and minimising what is needed in order to take the first step into employment or training (“You just need to …”).
Callers to the helpline are very appreciative of the service, and talk about the reassurance and confidence they have gained. They often say things like “Oh that's a weight off my mind”; “I do feel better now that I’ve had a talk to you”. This reflects the success of the helpline in offering peer support and empowering callers to overcome the negative effects of their previous convictions.
The Unlock study is one of a series that Sue has been conducting with small charities, using conversation analytic techniques to help them understand and improve their telephone helpline services. Sue is also co-ordinating a series of courses on conversation analysis in the Department.