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08 August 2019

Prisoners should take responsibility for reforming our beleaguered jails

A new report published today (8 August) by the Prison Reform Trust demonstrates the benefits when prisoners are consulted about how to address areas of concern in prisons.

Prisoners reforming prisons focuses on three important areas of prison life—safety, respectful relationships, and the responsible use of time in prison. The prisoners’ input, summarised in this report, suggests solutions to crucial areas in which prisons’ performance have recently shown a marked decline.

The report is the second in a series under the Prison Reform Trust’s active citizens programme. The findings are based on work between the Prison Reform Trust and individual prisons to establish active citizen panels—providing a structure to consult prisoners about an issue that concerns them in their prison.

Since the launch of the active citizens programme in 2015, the Prison Reform Trust has held 19 active citizens panels in prison across England and Wales.

The latest report brings together recommendations from prisoners about how to make prisons safer, restore relationships based on trust and respect, and enable people in prison to use their time constructively. The quality of the feedback should encourage other prisons to tap into their prisoners’ insights in finding practical solutions to tackle the challenges facing their prison community.

Recommendations from panels included:

  • Each wing should have a stable team of officers: “If an officer got to know you, that would build trust.”
  • The governor should appoint a working group, comprised of officers and prisoners, to discuss staff-prisoner relationships and produce a report.
  • Prisoners should be offered ways to reward officers who were respectful, helpful, and professional.
  • Prison staff should also be pro-active in recognising prisoners’ achievements and contributions to the prison community.
  • Launching a new ‘communication orderly’ role to be fulfilled by a serving prisoner. Responsibilities would include answering questions about how the prison works, sharing information among managers, staff and prisoners, and speaking to staff about concerns raised by their peers.

The active citizens approach is based on the understanding that relationships between people in prison are reciprocal—when managers, staff and prisoners treat each other with respect, the environment is more likely to be respectful. When prisoners are given the opportunities to earn the trust of staff, and staff earn the trust of prisoners, communication improves. This means that staff learn about problems before they escalate into violence; and prisoners are kept informed, supported, and are assisted in solving problems (and are told when they can’t).

Writing in the foreword of the report, prison governor, PJ Butler said:

“Today, prisoners widely do good in their prisons, making them safer, more decent, more hopeful and supportive of positive change. Prisoners Reforming Prisons wonderfully captures some of this and is the latest in a series of reports from the Prison Reform Trust about how people in custody can influence positive outcomes using an active citizenship approach.”

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“This report demonstrates the potential of an active citizens approach to improving standards in our prisons. Listening to prisoners’ insights, understanding their frustrations, and allowing them to take responsibility and to demonstrate trust, are the bedrock on which safe and effective prison regimes are built.”