Alice Dawnay's Story

Author: Alice Dawnay
Alice Dawnay's Story

Alice travelled to the US in search of innovative alternatives to custody for young offenders. She returned demoralised at the levels of incarceration and reoffending but with one key concept that she thought might make a difference. She then co-founded a successful charity based on this concept.

The Fellowship

Alice travelled to San Francisco and New York in 2005 and visited 33 organisations in search of creative and successful alternatives to custody. She visited deprived neighbourhoods, prisons, supreme courts, police stations, juvenile detention halls, high schools and a judge’s chambers. She had high expectations of what she would see and learn about but in reality was shocked at the high incarceration rates she encountered.

She came back very concerned that the UK was following in the USA’s footsteps in terms of increasingly using incarceration. Having witnessed the impact of this policy she felt that it was created out of fear, and simply generated more distrust and division.

The Results

The most significant concept Alice returned with was that the key factor in reducing reoffending in young people is maintaining one consistent point of contact. The relationship needs to be developed on the inside, pre-release and continued for as long as necessary, post release.

A private donor offered to fund a four-month study to verify her instinct and establish whether setting up ‘yet another charity' was desirable.   The steering group, which included another Churchill Fellow, Trevor Philpott, concluded that nothing comparable existed.  Alice established Switchback, a charity working with 18-24 year-old male prisoners, with Slaney Wright in 2007.  

Switchback’s mission is to change the way offenders think about and participate in society, enabling them to lead stable, rewarding lives. Each Trainee is matched with a Mentor who is there to motivate and encourage them to build stability in each area of their life. Catering is used as a vehicle to participation in society, with the aim that Trainees then move on and settle into work or education in any field. 

The programme began with a partnership with Crisis, the leading homelessness charity. The Crisis Skylight Café is the central training hub and Switchback Trainees now make up half the team there.  

Over the past seven years this consistency in terms of a sustained relationship through the gate has enabled over 120 young men to work successfully through many life changes. The reoffending rate of Switchback Trainees is less than a third of the national average at 17%.

Observers have commented that, while many organisations claim to work holistically, Switchback really does. The charity was cited as an example of good practice in three reports in 2010, including New Philanthropy Capital's report about young people in trouble with the law.

"My Churchill Fellowship gave me the courage, through evidence, to believe that setting up something small and powerful could make a big difference."