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01 December 2017

Taking responsibility behind bars

Enabling people in prison to take responsibility for day to day life behind bars encourages a greater sense of autonomy and self-respect and contributes to better decision making by prison managers, according to a new report published today (1 December) by the Prison Reform Trust.

The report outlines the findings of PRT’s innovative active citizens programme, launched in 2015 with the kind support of the Milo & Violet Cripps Charitable Trust. Additional support from the Bromley Trust and the Sir James Reckitt Charity will allow PRT to take the programme to more prisons in the coming year.

PRT ran active citizens forums in ten prisons, working with groups of prisoners to study a specific problem and propose solutions for the governor to consider. Eight to 12 prisoners were recruited to each forum.  Each forum met four times, building up a picture of the problem and its causes. They looked at what the prison is currently doing to address the problem. And finally, the group agreed on what the prison should do to tackle it. On behalf of the forum, PRT submitted a report, with recommendations, to the governor.

The forums tackled topics such as preventing fights, keeping the environment clean, treating prisoners as adults, and preparing for release. The forums allowed governors to see problems from the prisoners’ point of view. For example, if prices increase at the prison shop (canteen) but wages stay the same, disputes will arise and violence may increase.

Each forum is a creative process that belongs to the residents. Members determine the ground rules for working together, freely discuss the problem and its causes, and come up with their own solutions. The structure is adaptable. For example, one group was drawn from a single wing; another met on four consecutive days; and one conducted a survey to gather evidence about the topic. No one knew ahead of time what each group would propose; they were free to decide on what to recommend.

As forums started to think of solutions, the members felt more comfortable taking some responsibility for improving the prison. Just making recommendations was an act of trust that their suggestions would be taken seriously. The approach also worked well at providing senior managers with a residents’ analysis of a specific theme or concern.

Commenting, Dr Kimmett Edgar, Head of Research at the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“PRT’s active citizen forums enable members to take responsibility for their prison community in a new way. We hope that as we develop the method, the forums can become still more effective at targeting improvements to prisons.”

Inside Time article

Dr Edgar has also written about the report’s findings in Inside Time, the national prison newspaper.

Read the article