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15 December 2016

Lessons from abroad for justice reform

Today sees the publication of two briefings which present learning from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust (WCMT) Prison Reform Fellowships. From 2010–2015, the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust funded Travelling Fellowships with a particular focus on prison reform across the world. The Fellowships are the result of an innovative partnership between WCMT and the Prison Reform Trust.

These two briefings, authored by Jessica Jacobson and Helen Fair of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Birkbeck, University of London, highlight some of the learning from these Fellowships in maintaining contact between prisoners and their families and problem-solving approaches to criminal justice.


The first briefing examines the importance of family relationships. It is widely recognised that the maintenance of family contact is a key source of support for prisoners during their time in custody and on release. A 2014 Ministry of Justice report found that offenders who maintain family relationships and receive visits while in custody are 38% less likely to reoffend than those who do not receive visits. Lord Farmer has recently been commissioned by the government to chair an independent review to investigate how supporting men in prison to engage with their families can reduce reoffending and assist in addressing intergenerational crime.

Maintaining family ties during a term in prison is not just important for the prisoner but also for the prisoner’s children and other family members. It is estimated that 200,000 children in England and Wales had a parent in prison at some point in 2009.

Key learning from the Fellowships includes:

  • Efforts to maintain relationships between prisoners and their families should begin from the start of a prisoner’s sentence.
  • The arts can be an effective tool to help prisoners maintain bonds with their children and wider family.
  • The use of initiatives such as ‘graduations’ to mark the successful completion of programmes in prison can help prisoners’ demonstrate their self-worth and have their achievements recognised by their peers and family.
  • Family visits are vital to the maintenance of family relationships, and extended visits of a few hours to a few days can provide opportunities for prisoners to spend quality time with their families.
  • Recognition should be given to the trauma that can be caused to a child through their parents’ involvement in the criminal justice system, and efforts to mitigate such trauma are to be welcomed.
  • Initiatives that support children and their caregivers to maintain links with their imprisoned parents and which help to reduce the shame and stigma they face are to be welcomed. Schools can play a vital part in supporting such children.

Problem solving approaches

The second briefing focuses on problem-solving approaches to criminal justice. Problem-solving approaches involve integrated, multi-disciplinary practices which target the environmental and psychosocial factors bound up with offending behaviour, as well as the behaviour itself. Three types of problem-solving approach were examined by Churchill Fellows. First, welfare-oriented and diversionary work with children and young people who have offended or are at risk of offending. Second, some collaborative initiatives between the police and mental health services were examined. Third, a range of problem-solving courts were also considered.

The Fellowships offer a way of learning about how other countries respond to crime and whether a similar approach could be taken here. Fellows include frontline prison officers and governors, civil servants, artists, barristers, police professionals and academics from across the UK. In total, 51 Fellows travelled as far as Australia and Africa to bring back learning which could assist UK policymakers in reducing reoffending and prison numbers. Many Fellows are already applying the learning in a range of local and national settings. An overview briefing of learning from the Fellowships was published in September and two further briefings will be published in the New Year.

Commenting, Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“Enabling people in prison to stay in touch with their families and loved ones is crucial for mental health and wellbeing and can help reduce the risk of reoffending on release. Problem solving approaches have also shown great promise in seeking to address the underlying causes of offending behaviour. These briefings show the potential for international best practice to inform the development of policy in the UK in these important areas for justice reform.”

Julia Weston, Chief Executive of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, said:

“Our Churchill Fellows work across many areas of the justice sector. They have travelled internationally to bring back global learning and new ideas that can be adapted to the UK context. We hope that the recommendations they make in this body of work will contribute to the debate and help provide some new approaches and practical solutions to the complex challenges facing this sector.”

Reports from the WCMT Prison Reform Fellowships

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