In the eye of the Prison Storm

Not another effing online echo chamber

Social media gets a mixed reception but sometimes good things emerge from all the noise. In today’s guest post, Joe, one of the founders of the Twitter site, Prison Storm sets out its manifesto.

What is PrisonStorm?

PrisonStorm is an open debate on the state of the prisons in England and Wales. It uses the social media platform Twitter to enable anyone with an account to join a live and dynamic conversation.

PrisonStorm organisers hold one open debate each month to explore a variety of topics. The topics are pre-announced and are deliberately broad to try to be as relevant as possible for all followers and participants.

Since November 2016, PrisonStorm has debated no less than thirty different topics. And it doesn’t shy away from tough subject areas either, addressing some very difficult topics not often covered elsewhere.

It also works daily by sharing a cross-section of opinion from what’s being said across the prison system overlapping into courts, sentencing, parole and probation.

What is PrisonStorm for?

The organisers say that PrisonStorm is really an initiative that should be considered as “for the people by the people”. It endeavours to inform change, facilitate change and assist change makers.

The community is growing fast and comprises people who have served custodial sentences, families of those presently in custody (including IPPs), prison governors, prison officers, policy makers, practitioners, lawyers, academics, think tanks, charities, authors and bloggers, and activists for prison reform. In addition, some members of Parliament and Police and Crime Commissioners follow the work of PrisonStorm.

In practical terms, PrisonStorm has worked hard to earn trust and a good reputation for unbiased sharing and comment. That’s not to say PrisonStorm hasn’t got its critics:

We realise we have much to learn and we are responsive to feedback, positive or otherwise

Like anyone, we make mistakes but we’re quick with apologies and corrections. We always attribute as accurately as we’re able because we realise and respect that opinions being expressed belong to others. We always make it clear when it’s our own opinion being expressed and I identify things I saw myself in tweets by adding my own name, “^Joe” in tweets. That’s pretty normal for Twitter.

In other words, PrisonStorm aims to be known as a “go to place” on issues that matter to people who live in our prisons, work in our prisons or visit our prisons, or people who are in some other way connected to the criminal justice system.

How did PrisonStorm start?

Back in October 2016, two people sat around a table debating prisons. Opinion on a whole range of issues was little short of astonishing. Then a thought struck them; how many other people are asking the same sorts of questions?

A decision was taken to find out and to try to find a way of arranging a debate on the subject. First thoughts were to organise some actual meet-ups and use social media as a way of inviting people. Then they realised they were doubling the work. Why not, they thought, hold the debate on social media itself. Quite quickly, it was decided to use Twitter and to try to create a “twitter storm”. The concept of PrisonStorm was born.

PrisonStorm began in November 2016 with two founders and a core of twenty people who had expressed an interest. As Joe says:

Whereas most of those twenty-two continue today, a few have moved on for their own reasons. We’ll always be grateful for their support in the early days of PrisonStorm.

@PrisonStorm ran its first open debate on Sunday 13 November 2016 and, from a standing start, saw the hashtag #PrisonStorm trending on Twitter within its first 60 minutes.

@PrisonStorm ran its second open debate on Sunday 4 December 2016 and, once again, saw the hashtag #PrisonStorm trending on Twitter, such was the level of interest and engagement on the four topics being discussed.

Since then, the number of followers has increased from 22 to over 2,270 (at time of writing) and we currently welcome around 5 followers a day.

Feedback from participants of the first and second open debates was beyond expectations. The founders have listened and acted to implement improvements in transparency, structure and clarity of topics under debate. They continue to be responsive to their community and to seek ways to adapt the way the open debates are conducted.

What does PrisonStorm hope to achieve?

PrisonStorm hopes to effectuate meaningful change that perhaps could not be achieved by other more conventional routes.

The first act of learning is listening. It was important to start by listening to how people really think and feel about prisons. It is a very emotive subject because the impact is very deep for those people placed in custody and for their other halves, their family and their friends. Equally, the impact is felt by those responsible for custody, probation or parole decisions.

Learning from what people contribute during an open debate enables a distillation of opinion, which is like a snapshot of how people really feel and think.

We know many people are frustrated by what they see as lack of action by those in charge of our prisons. But before action is taken we think it’s important to understand what sort of action is needed, what it is for and what the end result is that you want. We have to remember that PrisonStorm is still quite a new concept so we try out different things to see what works.

For example, on Thursday 8th June, PrisonStorm held an “Election Night Special” which started at 10pm, after polls closed. Four topics were debated across a very intensive two hours.

How do people get involved in PrisonStorm?

The organisers say that everyone is welcome to PrisonStorm.  It is possible for anyone to join one of the PrisonStorm open debates simply by following the PrisonStorm account and adding the hashtag #PrisonStorm to their own tweets. During an open debate, this helps other people find and share content.

We go to considerable pains to point out we’re not a closed group. Twitter would be entirely the wrong platform for that. We’d much rather views and opinions are expressed in an open way. To be accessible to all, we simply ask that tweets don’t include profanities.  That way, people on both sides of the debate can be heard and ideas critiqued.

The next PrisonStorm open debate will be in July 2017. Please watch @PrisonStorm for announcements.

You can follow @PrisonStorm by clicking on the button below

You can see the latest #PrisonStorm tweets here:

You can get in touch by email:   [email protected]

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