Making Progress? is the first consultation report of the Prison Reform Trust’s Building Futures programme. It follows collaboration with people from around 30 prisons, who have all served — or will serve — a continuous period of at least ten years in custody.
The consultation found that prisoners were confused and disillusioned by the apparently simple proposition that they are required to reduce ‘risk’. Whilst talk of risk pervades prison life and affects many aspects of prisoners’ experiences, this catch-all term masks important details— risk of what, from what, to whom, in what circumstances?
Demonstrating reduced risk is of particular importance to those whose release ultimately depends upon approval by the Parole Board — and if recent proposals become law — the Secretary of State for Justice.
The report suggests that this confusion stems from a mismatch between what prisons appear to expect from prisoners —broadly, compliance with the rules —and what those in probation and the Parole Board are looking for prisoners to demonstrate to secure their own development and eventual release.
The people in prison consulted for the report talked of spending years of “nothing time” in prison. Years, often in the middle part of their sentence, where the sentence felt purposeless and stagnant.
Building Futures is the Prison Reform Trust’s 5-year, National Lottery funded programme exploring the experiences of people serving long prison sentences. The programme aims to give a voice to people serving sentences of over 10 years in custody, providing them with the space to advocate for themselves, bringing about change from within the system and shedding light on the human cost of long-term imprisonment. The report unpacks two key issues for people serving long sentences: risk and progression.
The term ‘risk’ is crucial to the policies and practice frameworks governing long-sentenced prisoners’ progression. Talk of risk pervades prison life and affects many aspects of prisoners’ experiences. The word ‘risk’ is used in many different ways and requires careful definition and qualification: risk of what, from what, to whom, in what circumstances? Prisoners consulted for this study were often confused about what ‘risk’ means and how they are meant to reduce it.
The two kinds of risk most relevant to a long-term prisoner’s progression are the likelihood of reoffending, and the risk of serious harm. Both are regularly assessed in relation to each individual long-term prisoner. They are important for people serving long sentences because they are the ultimate determinants of release for so many: the Parole Board’s release test assesses precisely whether the risk a prisoner might cause harm to others in future requires their continued imprisonment, or whether it can be acceptably managed in the community.
The report contains a detailed and very helpful dissection of the different forms of risk assessment, explaining the subjectivity and divergence of different risk assessments carried out by different professionals on the same individual. It also describes the process by which once information (often of a subjective and uncorroborated nature) is officially recorded, it can continue to obstruct an individual’s resettlement journey for years.
Prisoners tended to understand ‘progression’ to mean something more broad than ‘risk reduction’ and a gradual reclassification into lower-security conditions as they neared the date of their release. The report questions whether ‘risk reduction’ alone can provide a coherent basis for thinking about ‘progression’, given that many sentences are now decades long, meaning that offence-related rehabilitative work may be completed many years before risk can be adequately tested in the community.
The infographic reproduced below usefully shows the main stages in the official sentence progression process.
The report highlights that many long-term prisoners feel confused and uncertain about how they are meant to progress or to make positive, productive use of their time. Many believe that compliance and the completion of offending behaviour programmes (OBPs) are the only expectations coming to them from the prison. Prisoners views of OBPs were mixed, but there was a consensus that only in rare cases was participation in them enough to secure a progressive move, leading to the perception that the sentence plan left many ‘stagnant’ years in the sentence.
Prisoners also described problems where information used in risk assessment could appear inaccurate, irrelevant or out-of-date. The report concludes that there is a mismatch between what prisons appear to expect from them (broadly, compliance), and what will secure their own development.
The report makes a number of recommendations including that:
- HMPPS should publish a policy framework for long-term prisoners, covering both the delivery of the sentence and the design of the estate.
- HMPPS and the Parole Board should publish information for long term prisoners on what good engagement with the risk reduction process looks like. This should:
- Distinguish between different kinds of risk
- Be designed in consultation with long term prisoners
- Include guidance on what prisoners can do to demonstrate reduce risk
- Be written in plain language and be accessible for prisoners and families
- HMPPS should provide better mechanisms for long-sentenced prisoners to focus on the renewal and development of community links as preparation for eventual release. This should include:
- a. Opportunity for longer periods of the sentence to be served in open conditions
- b. The increased use of electronic monitoring
- c. Opportunities for prisoners to work remotely for employers outside the prison while in custody
- d. Expansion of the use of ROTL, including in medium-security closed establishments.
- HMPPS should make the progression of long-term prisoners a measure of its performance.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.