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The focus of this document is to ensure prison staff are aware of the benefits of mutual aid (MA) and are familiar with security requirements (vetting and access) as they affect MA organisations in England.

Mutual aid (MA) refers to the social, emotional and informational support provided by, and to, members of a group at every stage of recovery. Mutual aid groups are an important source of structure and continuing support for people seeking recovery from alcohol or drug dependence. Groups often include people who are abstinent and want help to remain so – these people are actively changing their behaviour using a programme of mutual aid. They also include people who are thinking about stopping or are actively trying to stop their drug and alcohol use. Groups also exist to support families, carers, children and friends affected by substance misuse.

The most common mutual aid groups in England are 12-step fellowships and SMART Recovery. The fellowships (such as. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA) and Al-Anon Family Groups) are based on a 12-step self-help philosophy developed in the 1930s. SMART Recovery applies cognitive behavioural techniques and therapeutic lifestyle change to its mutual aid groups to help people manage their recovery.


Public Health England (PHE) has collaborated with Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) to develop this guidance for prison governors and directors, and other security staff, to support MA organisations in achieving the clearance their members need to run MA groups in prison, while maintaining the underlying safety and security of their establishment.


A complimentary document from HMPPS is available on Mutual Aid, Prison Security and Pre-appointment vetting. This practical guidance for mutual aid groups helps prospective applicants navigate their way through the vetting process, clear up some common misconceptions and to make the reasons for the checks undertaken more easily understood.

The guidance includes a brief summary of vetting policy and the different levels of clearance in England; a step-by-step guide to the application process and an explanation of the context in which decisions are made. It also includes advice on the main pitfalls to avoid and how the difficulties most commonly experienced by applicants can be addressed.