Active citizen forums in prison

A different lens

 Enabling people in prison to take responsibility for day to day life behind bars encourages a greater sense of autonomy and self-respect and contributes to better decision making by prison managers, according to a new report published today by the Prison Reform Trust.

 The report, A Different Lens, outlines the findings of PRT’s innovative active citizens programme, launched in 2015  and which has run active citizens forums in ten prisons (with more to come), working with groups of prisoners to study a specific problem and propose solutions for the governor to consider. Eight to 12 prisoners were recruited to each forum.  Each forum met four times, building up a picture of the problem and its causes. They looked at what the prison is currently doing to address the problem. And finally, the group agreed on what the prison should do to tackle it. On behalf of the forum, PRT submitted a report, with recommendations, to the governor.

 The forums tackled topics such as preventing fights, keeping the environment clean, treating prisoners as adults, and preparing for release. The forums allowed governors to see problems from the prisoners’ point of view. For example, if prices increase at the prison shop (canteen) but wages stay the same, disputes will arise and violence may increase.

 Each forum is a creative process that belongs to the residents. Members determine the ground rules for working together, freely discuss the problem and its causes, and come up with their own solutions. The structure is adaptable. For example, one group was drawn from a single wing; another met on four consecutive days; and one conducted a survey to gather evidence about the topic. No one knew ahead of time what each group would propose; they were free to decide on what to recommend.

 As forums started to think of solutions, the members felt more comfortable taking some responsibility for improving the prison. Just making recommendations was an act of trust that their suggestions would be taken seriously. The approach also worked well at providing senior managers with a residents’ analysis of a specific theme or concern.

The process

The meetings build up a comprehensive picture. Each session begins with a go-round, giving everyone a chance to comment. The facilitators run two or three structured exercises to address the aims of each session. And they conclude with a review of that session: what worked well, what the members think we should do differently. Members think about the theme between sessions, and discuss it with others on the wings.

  1. In the first session, PRT explains how it works and emphasises that the group belongs to its members. Ground rules are chosen by the group. The PRT team explain confidentiality fully. The main part is a free and open discussion on the theme, covering who is affected and how they are affected. It’s about the practical and emotional impact – personal consequences, rather than legal definitions or official policy. For example, a forum on problem debt discussed how families struggle to meet demands for money or when they are threatened to repay a debt incurred by their relative.
  2. The focus in the second session is who is responsible for what aspects of the problem. People share feedback from the wing about the theme. PRT follows the groups’ lead to wider problems linked to the theme. Considering the problem from different perspectives and analysing the factors that cause the problem, as well as accountability, will lay a strong foundation for workable solutions.
  3. The third session discusses how the prison is currently dealing with the problem – what is working well and what is not. The forum’s proposals should not repeat what is already being done. Sometimes, the group imagines an ideal prison where the problem is managed extremely well and that leads to ideas for the final recommendations.
  4. The fourth session starts from a blank sheet. Members reflect on previous sessions, then propose and agree on recommendations. They list these in order of priority. The forum understands that they – not PRT – take responsibility for the recommendations.

The PRT team drafts a report, on behalf of the forum, with the recommendations and how the group got there. Ideally, members can comment and suggest amendments prior to the report being submitted to the governor. We send the draft to the link person who shows it to members of the group for feedback.

Later, the forum meets the governor and/or senior managers to present their recommendations (and explain the rationale) and to hear feedback from senior managers. Notes are taken and action points recorded. The discussion might clarify how a recommendation might be implemented; equally, managers can explain to the forum if they decide not to implement a recommendation.

 

A different lens

Perhaps the most interesting part of the report is Chapter 4 which shares prisoners’ perspectives on prison issues and shows how difficult it can be to abide by what seem to be quite innocuous rules:

One forum was asked to comment on how to treat people as responsible adults. A member described the visits room, where residents must use assigned seats. If they leave it, the visit will be curtailed. Governors who observe visiting hours may be reassured by the good order when everyone is in their allocated seats.

When this man’s wife brought their young children, and the children became disruptive, she had to bring them back to the table. If he tried to discipline them, his visit would be stopped. He said his children knew that he had to behave, just as they did. His role as father – his adult status – was compromised.

One forum, which looked at making the prison safer, came up with a comprehensive approach. The proposals for improving safety targeted:

  • Expand the provision of activities
  • Professionalism among officers
  • Roles for prisoners to prevent frustrations and tensions
  • Measures to resolve conflicts among prisoners
  • Ensuring fairness, and
  • Maintaining a culture of safety in the prison.

Some of the more innovative suggestions included:

  • A monthly survey of prisoners to reward the most helpful officer on the wing
  • A peer peacekeeper role for each wing
  • Involving residents in training officers
  • A time out room on the wing to manage arguments
  • A more systematic effort to record good behaviour and achievements.

Each solution reflected the group’s understanding of the problem. For example, enlisting residents to help train officers was directly linked to the analysis that new staff did not show respect and were often unaware of ‘triggers’. The proposal that the prison do promote a culture of safety emerged from a concern that hurtful behaviour was largely hidden from staff and would only come to light if more people talked about it.

 

All prison posts are kindly sponsored by Prison Consultants Limited who offer a complete service from arrest to release for anyone facing prison and their family. Prison Consultants have no editorial influence on the contents of this site.

 

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