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07 November 2019

Blog: We need hope!

In this article, originally published in Inside Time, Head of Prisoner Engagement Paula Harriot reflects on the findings of our second report by the Prisoner Policy Network, exploring what people in prison need to make the best of their time in custody.

‘You can’t create a community unless everyone has a voice’

Judging from the busy chatter filling the visits hall at HMP Stafford on a warm summer morning, its governor Ralph Lubkowski was standing in a room full of people playing their part in building that community.

The room was filled with over 120 people; with residents from Stafford and former prisoners sharing their insights to policy makers, organisations supporting people with convictions, academics and even the Mayor and Mayoress of Stafford. We had all gathered to mark the launch of the Prisoner Policy Network’s (PPN) second report, which asked you; our members, ‘What do you need to make the best of your time in custody?’

I hope that by now, word of the Prison Reform Trust’s PPN is spreading, with more of you finding out about the network and giving your time to get involved. Its success, in promoting your practical solutions to some of the big challenges facing our prisons, depends on your support. It provides a space to share your good ideas and have them heard by a much wider audience, not only your pad-mate or your wing reps but with officials and ministers who have the power to make changes to prison policy, and we want you to make the most of it, and so do ministers.

Former Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice David Gauke MP described the PPN as ‘a very welcome initiative’, and in a message to members he said, “I have discovered in this job that almost everybody has an opinion about prisons. But no-one is likely to understand the issues more clearly than the people who live and work in them. We make better policy and take better decisions when those voices are clearly heard.”

We’ve been delighted with the response so far. Our new report heard from over 1,250 people with experience of prison. Our very small team has been crisscrossing the country, trying to meet with as many of you as we can, and we’d love to meet and hear from even more of you for our next question (at the end of this article).

‘This is about more than reducing reoffending’

You told us overwhelmingly that to make the most of your time in custody, you need to feel a sense of hope for the future and to be given meaningful opportunities which allow you to develop and to thrive. Prisons need to promote personal growth as an end in itself, not just a means to reduce reoffending. Constantly focusing on offending behaviour isn’t enough.

The belief from others that you can put your convictions behind you and develop the skills to contribute to society in a positive way, is life-changing. As one woman quoted in the report said:

“Prisons could be a place to help us find ourselves, find out what we are good at, and for.”

‘Want us to be responsible? Give us more responsibilities and incentive to take them up.’

The report highlights the valuable role that peer-led initiatives play in developing skills for prisoners to alleviate problems amongst the wider prison community, instilling a sense of purpose and pride.

One man quoted in the report said, “Taking on the role of a buddy has given me the opportunity to develop myself and be more caring, considerate and thoughtful of others.”

Beyond important peer schemes such as Listeners, Insiders and Reps, the report focuses on three prisons on particular, HMPs Grendon, Oakwood and Rye Hill, where prisoners are given significant opportunities to work for the benefit of their communities and earn back trust.

You acknowledged the critical role that staff play in supporting you to achieve this, and had a clear will to banish barriers between prisoners and officers. One man quoted in the report said, “Someone believing in you, this is transformative for people in prison.”

‘You need something to stimulate your brain and give you something to aim for.’

It was not a surprise that for many, education was the backbone of their plans. Whilst for some, prison was an opportunity to reconnect with education and work towards their first qualifications – many said that they wanted education, employment and training opportunities to be increased.

This means education that stretches the mind; training that secures industry recognised qualifications; the opportunity to use existing skills to benefit the wider prison community, and work experience to make you attractive to future employers.

Technology was seen as a crucial part of this, enabling you to access educational materials, maintain family contact, and find information about outside agencies and support on your own.

‘You can never take your eye off the ball; the main task is to stay alive.’

You were clear that hope for the future needs to be built on a strong foundation of safety, with prisons meeting prisoners’ basic needs now. People told us that they need to feel safe, and that alarming rates of violence and unrest are ‘exhausting’ and that ‘trouble is only ever seconds away’. Failing to meet these needs can hinder wider efforts to help people to spend their time constructively whilst in custody and limit their ability to plan for the future, and this will be the focus for our next question.

What next?

We’re now focusing on getting your solutions in front of the people who have the power to change things. Ministers, policy makers at the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service, and governors will all get a copy of the report. We’ll be following up on the report’s recommendations with them over the coming months.

We’re also sending out copies of the report to everyone who took part. If you didn’t take part this time, but would like a copy of the report, then do get in touch with the PPN team and find out about our next question. 

The next question: ‘How can we reduce conflict, tension and violence in prison?’

Over the next 2–3 months the PPN will arrange another round of prison visits to gather your solutions. 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.

If you want to contribute to our next question ‘How can we reduce conflict, tension and violence in prison?’ then please write to the Prisoner Policy Network by the end of October 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).

This article first appeared in Inside Time’s August 2019 edition

Picture credit: Erika Flowers