It’s getting harder for charities to access people in prison

NPC report looks at a double access problem for charities seeking to work with prisoners.

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Charities face a ‘double access’ problem when trying to work with people in prison. It is hard to get through the door of the prison, and once inside there is no guarantee of access to prisoners.

The quote above is the headline conclusion of a new (20 March 2019) report from NPC (New Philanthropy Capital) entitled “How are charities accessing people in prison to deliver vital services?“. 

The report’s main findings are summarised below.

Getting funding

The report details the difficulties of accessing funding to work with prisoners. Regular readers will know that the Transforming Rehabilitation probation reform programme has had a negative impact on the involvement of Third Sector agencies in preparing prisoners for resettlement. Individual prison governors are more concerned with staffing levels and stemming the rising tide of drugs, violence and self-harm and have relatively small funds to spend on other provision.

With prisons over-stretched and under-resourced, independent funders such as charitable trusts are losing confidence that their input will make a difference. And charities working in prison are more dependent on independent funding than charities in the broader criminal justice sector.

Accessing prisoners

Once inside the prison walls, staff cuts mean prisoners spend less time out of their cells and it is harder for Third Sector providers to deliver services. The picture is mixed and many charities find that prisons with a stable population such as training and resettlement prisons, open prisons and women’s prisons are easier to access prisoners in than local prisons, which take people directly from court and have high turnover. Smaller prisons are also easier to access people in, because the task of sequencing services is more manageable. And when prisons have small populations on each wing, it is less likely that entire classes will be shut down due to lock downs, with at least some men or women able to attend.

The report also discusses issues familiar to voluntary sector providers working in prison with staff sometimes reluctant to allow access to the most difficult prisoners. These may be the people that charities most want or need to be working with, precisely because of their challenging behaviour. The ever-present bug bear of security vetting is also raised. The huge influx of more than 3,000 new prison officers over the last two years has bumped voluntary sector staff and volunteers down the vetting list, frequently leading to long waits. This challenge is compounded when services are delivered by charity staff or volunteers who have criminal records, with waits of up to six months. The lived experience of charity staff and volunteers is an enormous asset, but it is getting harder and harder for charities to utilise these assets. With each influx of new prison staff, charities need to build new relationships and re-establish their position in the prison environment. 


© Andy Aitchison

Overcoming barriers

The report highlights five main strategies for voluntary sector providers to overcome the barriers to accessing staff once they have got through the prison gates:

  1. Building strong relationships with staff
  2. Recognising shared aims
  3. Effective communication
  4. Voluntary sector co-ordinators (see Clinks’ Good Prison report)
  5. Influencing prison staff to be enablers for change.


NPS makes a series of recommendations for prison governors, voluntary sector providers, policy makers and funders.

Below I reproduce the six recommendations aimed at prison governors:

  1. Recognise the importance of having charities in the prison. If you need to communicate this to others within your prison, it can help to talk in terms of charities impact on reducing violence, self harm and drug use, and how they can alleviate pressure on prison officers. Partnerships with charities are also good for recruitment. Some of the best prison officers want to work in prisons with a rehabilitative and collaborative culture.
  2. When you do have charities coming into the prison, lead from the top. Give charities personal reassurance of their importance, and demonstrate the importance of collaboration to officers.
  3. Hire a voluntary sector coordinator. They may well bring in more resources than they cost. 
  4. Under the new Education commissioning model of the Dynamic Purchasing System, think about providing funding to charities for a minimum of three years. One year contracts leave charities vulnerable and can undermine the quality of service. Consider greater use of grant funding.
  5. Conduct due diligence on charities, asking for proportionate evidence of their impact.
  6. Think about the systems you need to maximise charities access to prisoners. NPC suggests sequencing tools, a directory of services for prison officers, and involve charities in prison officer training.


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2 Responses

  1. Some good critique and some ideas but DPS is for a maximum permitted contract duration of 12 months and grant funding is centrally coordinated by HMPPS/MOJ and beyond individual governor control. A combination of government procurement rules and centralised control of grant funding means such decisions are outside the discretion of ‘empowered’ governors.

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