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Co-production with people on probation and in prison
What the evidence base tells us about Engagement and Co-Production with People with Lived Experience of Prison and Probation

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A synthesis of the evidence base

The latest edition of the Prison Service Journal is dedicated to engagement and co-production. The first article, by Nicola Cunningham and Dr Helen Wakeling, explores what research can tell us about co-production with people with lived experience of prison and probation. The authors starts by saying that the intention of engagement and co-production is to provide benefits to everyone involved — to the people subject to prison and probation and their
families, to staff across prison and probation and to partners in different agencies and to the wider public. They set out four potential benefits.

1: Desistance and social integration

Involvement in activities that contribute to the well-being of others (such as peer mentoring) can change the way people see themselves, and how others see them, resulting in a shift in identity (towards a pro-social identity) alongside the benefits being delivered to others. There is good evidence that activities that enable people to ‘do good’ can reduce antisocial and risk-taking behaviour among young people, and some evidence that this can support desistance from crime. 
Being involved in these activities can also support the development of new social networks and can increase peoples’ social capital. Providing people with opportunities to shape change, drive direction, and improve outcomes can be an important component of supporting desistance. These opportunities also have the capacity to promote civic reintegration, to build trust and respect and can contribute to a sense of social inclusion and community. Gill Buck is our leading academic in this area and you can read her synopsis of the evidence base on peer mentoring within criminal justice here.

2: Promoting citizenship and social justice

The authors say that engagement and co-production can be regarded as examples of active citizenship, enabling people to engage with, and have access to, public services and resources. Such activities can promote social cohesion providing equal opportunities for participation and mitigating circumstances that might otherwise permit exclusion or discrimination.

3: Increasing effectiveness, compliance, credibility and legitimacy

Using the experience and expertise of those with lived experience to inform the development and
delivery of services can enhance the credibility, meaning or legitimacy of those services for users, and potentially make them more fit for purpose and more effective. Evidence suggests that engagement can improve the delivery of services both in operational terms but also in relation to outcomes, such as supporting compliance, and perceived improvements in self-esteem, self-efficacy and confidence. 

4: Improving relationships and culture

Co-production can also encourage collaborative practices between people with lived experience and
professionals supporting the development of positive relationships. For example, prison councils have been described as a conflict management tool aiding greater understanding between staff and people in prison, through discussion and negotiation. Co-production also sits well within the model of a ‘rehabilitative prison’, in which the environment, the staff and everyday processes all aim to create the right conditions for calm, for hope and for positive change.



Although the research literature was limited, the authors identified a range of potential benefits to engaging with people with lived experience and to collaborate on co-production. They list a number of these including:

  • enabling voices and enhancing a sense of fairness
  • improving relationships amongst peer groups and with professionals
  • influencing culture change
  • role modelling and reinforcing citizenship
  • giving hope and autonomy
  • creating opportunities to support processes of desistance
  • demonstrating an inclusive and responsive approach in using different methods, channels, and media for different groups.

The researchers also provide a long list of critical success factors for engagement and co-production activities, I have shared just two of these below.

  • Leadership buy-in and resources – readers will be aware that while almost every organisation now talks of the value of lived experience and benefits of co-production, they do not all follow through with the necessary commitment to make the experience genuine.
  • Ensuring wide participation from a diverse range of people – the researchers point out that when engagement is limited to a small number of people, it can be seen as inauthentic and just a “tick-box” exercise.

Readers interested in co-production within prison and probation settings will want to read the article and indeed the full Prison Service Journal edition in full


Thanks to Randy Fath for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.

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