Blog: Telling it like it is
Prisoner Policy Network launches first report with evidence from those with lived experience of prison
In this article, originally published in Inside Time, Head of Prisoner Engagement Paula Harriot reflects on the findings of a groundbreaking new report to find solutions to the challenges facing prisons, from those who know them best.
Last year Inside Time met with the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) as we embarked on a new project. The launch of the Prisoner Policy Network (PPN) at HMP Grendon in July 2018 was a commitment to give prisoners a stronger voice in influencing the policies that affect them, and to share their expertise and experience with policymakers.
We spent three months hearing from over 1,250 people with experience of prison. We visited prisons, received evidence from prison councils and community groups, letters, emails, and phone calls.
In January we published the PPN’s first report: ‘What incentives work in prison?’ The topic was chosen to coincide with a Ministry of Justice’s consultation on the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme, and to demonstrate the need for prisoner insight in effective policymaking.
We did not expect nor did we receive a simple collective message, but a number of very clear common themes emerged which should underpin any new incentives scheme.
Getting the basics right
Many people in prison agree with the Prisons Minister, Rory Stewart—there is an urgent need to deliver the basics in our prisons. Talking about incentives made little sense when your quality of life was dominated by the struggle to get clean clothes or access to fresh air.
One respondent quoted in the report said: “How can we talk about incentives when we can’t get the basics right, like safety, toilet rolls and clean socks.”
Restoring trust in the incentives scheme
Most prisoners viewed the IEP scheme as a system of punishments delivered through threats; with little distinction between Basic, Standard or Enhanced. The system is not effectively incentivising good behaviour, engagement or rehabilitation; at least not for most people.
A lack of transparency in how decisions are made, little scrutiny in individual decisions, a bias towards negative entries on records and no right of appeal all instil a sense of injustice and mistrust. As one person put it: “It’s all stick and no carrot”
Many people reported that incentives need to be meaningful to prisoners for any scheme to secure their buy-in. The pressure of trying to live on wages between £2.50 and £17 a week whilst having to buy phone credit to stay in touch with families, to buy toiletries and supplement diets with additional food was a frequent concern.
You told us that you were frustrated by a lack of hope, a lack of purposeful work, and a lack of contact with loved ones. You suggested more use of release on temporary licence, higher pay rates, better quality visits and, crucially, a chance to reduce time in custody.
Supportive prisoner and staff relationships
The quality of relationships between staff and prisoners is crucial to whether any incentives scheme would work or fail. Mutual respect, positive encouragement and collaboration were seen as key principles to a successful scheme.
One prisoner said: “The day I trust this system is the day an officer says he/she is going to sort out my issue and comes back to me with the answer; it’s a long story of lost applications, lost requests and general ‘don’t care’ attitude.”
Giving prisoners the opportunities to rebuild trust
People said they were frustrated that the important roles they play in supporting prison staff to keep other prisoners safe and motivated, such as peer workers, reading mentors and violence reduction reps, were not sufficiently acknowledged in the existing systems.
One prisoner said: “When you come to prison you are immediately in a position where you have broken trust in some way. Rebuilding that, and demonstrating a reduced risk in the process, is extremely difficult. I believe if trust was weaved into the IEP scheme in some way, prisoners would in general respond positively.”
So what now?
The report was launched at HMP Coldingley at the end of January, and brought together current and former prisoners, staff, HM Prison Service policymakers, inspectors, peer-led organisations, academics and charities.
What was clear from the response of staff and officials was that your insight and experience is desperately needed. You see and experience the effects of distant policy decisions made in Westminster. You see the impact that a change to the IEP policy makes.
Making the shift so that policy is something that is created with prisoners rather than to them will take time, but the event marked an important start in that process. We won’t achieve everything we want in the next six months, but we can use our position to bring ministers and officials with us.
The report shows that many of you want to do the right thing. You want to use your skills to help others. You want to show staff that you can be trusted again. But you also feel that the current incentives scheme isn’t supporting you to do this.
The next question
The event also saw the launch of the next question on which we’d like your views.
‘What do you need in order to make best use of your time in prison?’
The consultation will run until the end of April, and you can find out how you or your prison can contribute at the end of this article.
Over the next 2–3 months the PPN will arrange another round of prison visits including, hopefully, all of those prisons involved in the first consultation. This will allow us to feedback our results from our first report and gather responses to the next question.
If you would like us to hold a workshop at your prison, or invite us to a prisoner council, then please contact the PPN, and we’ll do everything we can to try and consult in your prison.
We will also be asking all of our partner organisations to help facilitate another round of discussion groups in prisons and in the community.
It is clear from the work we have done so far that by collaborating we will be able to achieve goals that are beyond our reach when working alone. A powerful message; and a reminder of the value that our collective experience can bring in delivering meaningful change in our prisons.
If you want to contribute to our next question ‘What do you need in order to make best use of your time in prison?’ then please write to the Prisoner Policy Network with your thoughts and ideas at: Prison Reform Trust, FREEPOST ND6125, London EC1B 1PN, or call us on 020 7251 5070 (the number should be already cleared on your pin).