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How fair are our prisons?

New HMPPS research on prisoner and staff perceptions of procedural justice in prison.

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Prisoner & Staff perceptions of procedural justice

HMPPS published new research last week (17 January 2019) on Prisoner and staff perceptions of procedural justice in English and Welsh prisons. The authors, Flora Fitzalan Howard & Helen Wakeling, set out to test our understanding of procedural justice and expand HMPPS’ understanding of how fair prisoners and staff think our prisons are.

What is procedural justice?

Procedural Justice (PJ) – sometimes known as Procedural Fairness – theory argues that experiencing fair and just procedures leads people to view the law and authority figures as legitimate, and to greater compliance with, and commitment to obey, the law. PJ involves four components: 

  1. Voice: People need to have the chance to tell their side of the story and to feel that authority figures will sincerely consider this before making a decision. 
  2. Neutrality: People need to see authority figures as neutral and principled decision-makers. 
  3. Respect: People need to feel respected and treated courteously by authority figures. 
  4. Trust: Finally, people need to see authority figures as people with trustworthy motives, who are sincere and authentic.

Most PJ research has been conducted in court and police settings, and has provided empirical support for the relationship between PJ perceptions and compliance and co-operation with the law or authority. PJ in prisons has received less empirical attention so far, but existing work suggests PJ is important for staff and prisoner outcomes.

The research

Howard & Wakeling undertook a secondary analysis of previous surveys of 21,353 prisoners and 15,515 prison staff, choosing respondents’ views on 28 different issues considered relevant to the four key components of PJ. They set out to answer eight key questions:

  1. Do perceptions vary by prisoner or staff characteristics?
  2. Do staff and prisoners’ perceptions vary by prison type and across time?
  3. Will prisoner perceptions be negatively related to how much time they have served?
  4. Will prisoner perceptions be negatively related to incidents: self-reported self-harm and attempted suicide, and officially recorded incidents of assault, self-harm, disorder and self-inflicted death?
  5. Will staff perceptions be positively related to their involvement and motivation, and commitment to the organisation, and negatively related to their stress levels and sickness absence?
  6. Can prisoners’ and staff members’ PJ perceptions predict outcomes?
  7. Are staff and prisoner PJ perceptions related? Are PJ perceptions related to staff views/orientation towards rehabilitation, support and punishment?
  8. What factors predict staff and prisoner PJ perceptions?


The research findings make for interesting reading:

  • Staff and prisoner PJ perceptions varied significantly according to individual characteristics. For prisoners, more positive perceptions were held by female prisoners, white prisoners, older prisoners and sentenced prisoners. For staff, more positive perceptions were held by female staff, Asian staff, senior management staff and staff who had been in post for shorter periods of time.
  • Prison type exerted a larger effect on both staff and prisoner PJ perceptions than year of survey or the ratio of staff to prisoners in individual prisons. The poorest perceptions were held by staff in local, training and young people’s prisons, and by prisoners in dispersal and young people’s prisons.
  • Poorer prisoner PJ perceptions were associated with more exposure to custody, self-reported self-harm and attempted suicide, and higher rates of prison-level assaults and disorder (in some prisons). One interesting exception was that once people had served more than 10 years of their current sentences, their perceptions of how fairly the prison operated rose significantly.
  • More positive staff PJ perceptions were associated with, and predictive of, greater involvement, motivation and commitment to the organisation, greater rehabilitative orientation and less of a punitive orientation towards prisoners, less stress and lower sickness absence rates.
  • Prisoner and staff views were related to each other. Staff members’ positive PJ perceptions were associated with prisoners having more positive PJ perceptions. Staff being less punitive, more trusting, communicative and supportive of prisoners was associated with more positive prisoner PJ perceptions.
  • Further work is needed to determine what factors predict staff and prisoner PJ perceptions. Provisional analysis suggests that one or more important variables have yet to be accounted for, although staff levels of trust, compassion and commitment towards prisoners appear significantly predictive of better prisoner PJ perceptions.
  • The findings suggest that efforts to improve PJ perceptions might be best targeted at certain subgroups of prisoners and staff, and at certain types of prisons. Although causal relationships cannot yet be determined, the findings tentatively suggest that improving PJ perceptions may be linked with improved outcomes for staff and prisoners, and that improving staff perceptions could potentially be an avenue to improving those of prisoners.


It’s heartening to find that some of the key associations many of us would hope for do seem to be borne out by the data: Prisoners, like most people, do tend to respond positively to being treated fairly and with respect.

At a micro level, this is vitally important. If a prisoner thinks an officer is going to listen to her/his concerns and resolve an issue fairly, they are less likely to be stressed about it and more likely to present their request in a reasonable way, promoting a co-operative rather than antagonistic relationship.

It will be interesting to see how these findings are applied on the ground. Readers with good memories will already be aware of the Prison Reform Trust’s Active Citizenship scheme which involves working with groups of prisoners to study a specific problem and propose solutions for the governor to consider. The success of the scheme relies on governors signing up to a commitment to respond positively to prisoners’ recommendations wherever possible.

Promoting Procedural Justice could be an important way forward to healing our broken prison system.


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