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Posted by Philip Patston on 29 June 2010, 3:02 pm in , , , , , ,

Smoke free prisons and the peer mentor

It's Leadership Week! So, in celebration, let's ponder whether banning smoking in prisons an example of the Nats falling prey to political correctness and explore a potential trend away from young people wanting to learn from their elders...

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Remember when Wayne Mapp was National's “Political Correctness Eradicator”?

Dr Mapp told the Herald in Oct 2005, "the political correctness he was most concerned about was "where it had been built into government by way of legislation or advocacy." National "created the menacing-sounding role of political correctness eradicator to counter the Government's 'PC' culture that it says is eroding New Zealanders' rights and freedoms," the paper reported.

I remember lots of talk about "PC gone mad." I went a little mad myself and released this statement in response.

So, five years on, banning smoking in prisons wouldn't be National gone mad, would it?

I mean sure, Judith Collins, "smoking in our prisons poses a serious health risk to staff and prisoners," but I'd say that just "being" there poses a pretty serious risk. I think whether you're doing time or your job, you know that prisons aren't going to be a health spa.

And, as for lighters and matches being used to make weapons? If that was such an issue, wouldn't they have been banned anyway and prisoners made to get a light from staff?

I liked how Celia Lashlie put it: society punishes prisoners by removing freedoms and liberties – why punish them more by making them stop using a legally sanctioned substance?

Any thoughts that prisoners will be magically cured from nicotine addiction are uninformed. As I said on my Facebook page, "Addiction 101: addicts have to want to give shit up."

Of course, this is all being driven from the OSH agenda for staff and an obvious threat of complaints about working in smoke-filled environments. Fair enough, not cool, but surely banning smoking outright is a complete over-reaction. Ban it inside and avoid a riot.

As I said in an earlier blog, ridding the substance won't rid the cause, but addressing the cause might rid the need. Smokers use nicotine to escape stress, anxiety, unhappiness and low self-esteem.

But then, there's none of those in prisons, is there?

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Meanwhile, on the outside, last weekend, while dining with colleagues, the topic of mentoring came up. Someone recounted hearing a panel discussion where young people refuted the value of having an older mentor.

The reason, the young people said, was that they didn't want old-fashioned values tainting their perspective. They felt that their ways of doing things were contemporary and innovative – why would they waste time with someone whose ideas, as far as they were concerned, were outdated and risked compromise to their entrepreneurship.

Earlier that day I had watched a video on YouTube by Aaron Moritz called, "Our Whole Society Needs a Remix," attached below. It was applying the theory from a movie called, "Rip: A Remixer's Manifesto," aimed at the copyright and music industry, to society (our "cultural zeitgeist") in general.

Over dinner, I realized that the Remixer's manifesto could also apply to mentoring.

The manifesto went like this:

1. Culture always builds on the past.

2. The past always tries to control the future.

3. Our future is becoming less free

4. To build free societies, we need to limit the control of the past.

Straight away you can see how these precepts could translate easily into a mentoring context:

1. The skills and experience of young people always build on that of the older generation (or the mentor).

2. The mentor always tries to control the future.

3. Our future is becoming less free

4. To build free thinking and behaviour, we need to limit the control of the mentor.

Having been a professional mentor in the past I've become wary of the tyranny of assumed expertise. While I've wanted to share my experience, I remained uncomfortably aware that the young people I was mentoring – as did I at their age – had experience that was rawer, less developed perhaps, but equally as valid and valuable as my own.

Indeed I have learnt from those I have mentored.

Most good mentors would agree, I'm sure, that learning in the mentoring relationship is a two way street. I think though that this is not conveyed to the mentee through the "brand" of mentoring – it seems to carry the "top-down" quality of a younger, less competent party reaping the benefits of the wisdom and experience of an older party.

So I came away from dinner reaffirmed – for the second time that day – of the place of peer support in the creative and educational landscape. At Diversityworks we designed our Peer Support Network (www.dpsn.net.nz) to encourage "shared support and learning in a social environment". Our homepage says, "Peer support is a loosely structured way of getting support and, in exchange, being there for other people. It aims to create bonds and bridges between people with unique and common experiences, changing how people relate to each other."

I think peer support is the new mentoring. It opens up the possibility of learning from anybody and being the learned to anybody, greatly increasing the benefit of sharing experience through synergetic relationships. It's about acknowledging that the key to human development is realizing our connections with each other, no matter who, what, where or how old.

Think of it as leading while being led.

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What do you think?  Smoking in prisons – is a ban ridiculous? And us there still a place for the older, wiser, more experienced teaching the newbie, or can all benefit from the teachings of the naive, wide-eyed, younger generation?


Aaron Moritz's video applies principles for the copyright and music industries to society's "cultural zeitgeist".