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30 September 2016

Travelling Fellows highlight international best practice in prison reform

From 2010-2015, the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust (WCMT) has 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.

This briefing overview published today, authored by Jessica Jacobson and Helen Fair of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Birkbeck, highlights some of the learning from these Fellowships. This summary of what Fellows saw on their visits, and subsequent more detailed briefings, are being produced to inform the government’s prison reform agenda.

With over 84,000 people currently behind bars after a near doubling in the prison population in the past two decades, policymakers in the UK are keen to learn lessons from abroad to curb any unnecessary use of imprisonment. Prison is expensive and has a poor record at reducing reoffending and many countries and regions across the world have pioneered more effective ways of cutting crime.

The Fellowships, arranged in partnership with the Prison Reform Trust, 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.

The theme of the briefing is ‘connections’. Many Churchill Fellows visited interventions which seek to forge strong, positive connections among and between individuals, groups and organisations. Family connections were the focus of some Fellowships. A number, for example, reviewed interventions aimed at helping people in prison to maintain their family relationships, either through specific programmes or facilities for family visits to prisons; or providing practical and emotional support to family members of prisoners.

Many Fellows visited interventions seeking to harness the power of peer relations towards positive goals, including peer court programmes, the use of restorative approaches, and peer mentoring initiatives. Other Fellows explored problem-solving approaches to criminal justice, including holistic, multi-disciplinary work with children in custody; problem-solving courts working with dependent drug users, those with mental health problems, and the homeless; and collaborative working between the police and mental health services.

The building of a sense of self and responsibility was central to some interventions visited by Fellows. Some Fellows looked at arts and media projects providing opportunities for people who might otherwise have little voice to express themselves and thereby to reach out to others.

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

“Many countries and regions across the world have pioneered effective ways of cutting crime and reducing prison numbers. The experience of these talented and accomplished Fellows shows the scope for innovation in prison reform and the potential for international learning to improve penal policy and practice.”

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 best practice to the UK. 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.”