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09 July 2019

Give prisoners a sense of hope for the future

Prisons need to promote personal growth as an end in itself, not just a means to reduced reoffending, according to a new report published by the Prison Reform Trust today (9 July).

The report, ‘What do you need to make best use of your time in prison?’ is the result of an extensive consultation exercise with over 1,250 people with experience of prison.

The report is the second of the Prison Reform Trust’s Prisoner Policy Network—a group of current serving prisoners, ex-prisoners and connected organisations who want to share their expertise and experience with policy makers.

Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Rt Hon David Gauke MP, has described the Prisoner Policy Network as “a very welcome initiative”.

“No-one is likely to understand the issues [in prison] more clearly than the people who live and work in them”

David Gauke MP

Prisoners who responded to our call for evidence told us overwhelmingly that they need to feel a sense of hope for the future and to be given meaningful opportunities which allow them to develop and thrive.

One woman quoted in the report said:

“Prisons could be a place to help us find ourselves, find out what we are good at, and for.”

For most respondents, imprisonment was transient rather than life long, although sentence lengths varied considerably. Many wanted a chance to ‘get on’, to ‘live a better life’ or to ‘change’.

The report highlights the valuable role that peer-led initiatives play in developing skills for prisoners to alleviate problems amongst the wider prison community, instilling a sense of purpose and pride.

“Taking on the role of a buddy has given me the opportunity to develop myself and be more caring, considerate and thoughtful of others.”

PPN contributor

Prisoners explained that they want the breadth of the education, employment and training offer to be increased, and to make better use of technology so that prisoners can access educational materials, maintain family contact, and find information about outside agencies on which they will rely in future. This means education that stretches the mind; training that secures industry recognised qualifications; the opportunity to use existing skills to benefit the wider prison community, and work experience that makes them attractive to future employers.

However, people were clear that hope for the future needs to be built on a strong foundation of safety, with prisons meeting prisoners’ basic needs now. Respondents told us that they need to feel safe, and that alarming rates of violence and unrest are “exhausting” and that “the main task is to stay alive”. Failing to meet these needs can hinder wider efforts to help people to spend their time constructively whilst in custody and limit their ability to plan for the future.

Many people highlighted the critical role that staff play in supporting them to achieve this, and a clear will to banish barriers between prisoners and officers. One man quoted in the report said:

“Someone believing in you, this is transformative for people in prison.”

“There are some amazing staff…they conduct themselves with dignity and honesty, which in turn commands respect. They are firm, fair and compassionate. You know what to expect from them and you know what’s expected of you.”

PPN contributor

Many contributors highlighted the specific importance of healthcare, both physical and mental, in helping to provide hope and allow people to plan and work towards their future. This includes continuity of healthcare between the community and custody, and between prisons. Too often prisoners told us of access to long term prescription medication being stopped due to security concerns; anxiety that health conditions and concerns were being ignored; that mental health services were not available or extensive enough; appointments being missed due to prisons being unable to supply escort staff; and difficulty accessing substance or gambling addiction support.

Commenting, Paula Harriott, Head of Prisoner Engagement at the Prison Reform Trust said:

“Giving people the tools to help themselves not only benefits individuals, it benefits the wider prison community. Prisons need to become places where people have the opportunity to begin to earn back trust. The belief from others that you can put your mistakes behind you, and develop the skills to contribute to society in a positive way, is life-changing.”