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Improving behaviour in prisons
Prisons inspectorate explores what eight best prisons have in common

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Bucking the trend

HM Inspectorate of Prisons published a particularly interesting and helpful report last Friday (12 April, 2024). The inspectorate acknowledges that these are challenging times to live and work in prisons, with rising drugs, violence and self-harm and overcrowded, squalid conditions in many jails. Reoffending rates remain stubbornly high, at almost 37%, and the proportion of prisoners recalled to prison is 13% higher than it was a year ago. Amidst these pressures, most prisons are struggling to provide any kind of activity to reduce the likelihood that people will end up back inside.

However, a small number of prisons are safe and calm, and have created more positive cultures that encourage prisoners to take part in employment and education that should help them to secure employment on their release. The new thematic report, Improving behaviour in prisons, explores what these prisons have in common, and what learning there may be for other prisons.

The report

The report draws on fieldwork in eight prisons – Buckley Hall, Drake Hall, Full Sutton, Holme House, Oakwood, Rye Hill, Swansea and Warren Hill. It found a number of common features underpinning more positive cultures. These included setting very clear rules and boundaries for prisoners, with a shift in the focus of behaviour management strategies to reward rather than punishment. For example, prisoners were motivated by and would work hard to earn extended family visits or the possibility of moving to a better wing with more privileges. Work and education opportunities with clear links to life after release from prison also encouraged them to take part, with the Halfords workshop at Drake Hall prison extremely popular with women as it offered good chances of well-paid employment on release. Taking up peer worker roles gave prisoners responsibility, helped them to develop confidence and leadership skills, and created a sense of community that in turn encouraged more positive behaviour.

A positive culture

The report talks a lot about a positive prison culture which it defines like this:

“One that invests in prisoners and staff and values their contribution, encouraging and supporting prisoners to engage and progress in their sentences. Leaders in such prisons have created a community with shared goals, good communication systems, and mutual respect for those who live or work there.”

The inspectors identified five key elements that leaders used to encourage positive behaviour in prisons.

1:  Leadership was critical to determining the culture of the prison and the extent to which it motivated prisoners

Inspectors found the most positive cultures where governors had a clear vision and objectives, which they successfully communicated to their senior teams and staff groups, gaining their commitment and support. This often involved taking decisions to improve opportunities for prisoners that relied on staff placing a certain amount of trust in them. Some of the most successful initiatives allowed for the fact that some prisoners might not cope with this level of trust, but managed any transgressions from individual prisoners without restricting the opportunities of the majority, who embraced and were accountable for the responsibility they were given.

2: Leaders set and reinforced clear boundaries, with an expectation of high standards of behaviour from both prisoners and staff.

Expected standards of behaviour were communicated as soon as prisoners arrived at the prison, but so too were the opportunities and rewards for maintaining those standards. Peer workers in reception and on induction units played a key role in explaining the expectations for behaviour, and new prisoners quickly found that stepping outside of those expectations pitted them uncomfortably against the prevailing culture. Most prisoners understood and respected the boundaries because they were clear and made them feel safe, but also because leaders had successfully incentivised positive behaviour, contribution, and personal development.

3: A focus on reward rather than formal disciplinary procedures motivated prisoners to change their behaviour.

The prisons we visited operated standard disciplinary procedures, including the use of adjudications and segregation, but the focus of their behaviour management strategies was on reward rather than punishment. When incidents of poor behaviour occurred, staff sought to understand the reasons and to address them constructively. Prisoners responded more positively when staff were trying to help them deal with their behaviour problems rather than limiting their response to punishment alone. Punishments were proportionate and staff acknowledged improved behaviour in a meaningful way. This contributed to a mutual respect which underpinned the principles of an effective community.

4: The quality of the incentives and rewards available to prisoners was key to creating a motivational culture.

The report lists a number of key elements of a positive incentive culture including:

  • High quality and fairly paid education, employment and other enrichment activities.
  • Dedicated wings that offered more freedom and time out of cell as a motivating factor.
  • Family and friends were also a strong motivating factor, and some of the most valued privileges were extended visits with families, particularly when they took place in a private space with less obtrusive supervision.
  • Specialist units or community hubs for people with complex needs.
  • Rewards that reflected life outside of prison, such as being able to socialise with peers in a café, visit a proper grocery and barber shop in the prison, or take part in a social activity like Parkrun motivated prisoners.
  • Involvement of prisoners in deciding incentives and in becoming peer mentors.
  • Dedicated multi-agency resettlement teams.
  • Attention to the physical environment.

5:  Clear and effective communication and good promotion of the incentives on offer contributed to a shared understanding of the vision, aims and objectives of the prison.

Visible leadership, regardless of the size of the prison, supported good communication and enabled leaders to demonstrate and reinforce the behaviour they wanted to see. An investment in ICT had enabled some prisons to produce high quality written, audio and visual communication. In cell television and radio channels advertised activities, clubs and events and celebrated prisoners’ achievements. Peer workers wore bright, distinguishing T-shirts, posters displayed their roles, and their intrinsic involvement in the running of the prison promoted the benefits of positive behaviour and engagement to other prisoners.


Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here

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