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What incentives work in prison?
First report from Prison Reform Trust's Prisoner Policy Network investigates incentives in prison.

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Making prisoners' experiences count


Last week (30 January 2019) the Prisoner Policy Network published its first report on the subject of What incentives work in prison? based on an extensive consultation exercise with over 1,250 people with experience of prison.

It presents the findings from an emerging network of current serving prisoners, ex-prisoners and connected organisations who want to share their expertise and experience with policy makers. The Prisoner Policy Network (PPN) aims to provide solutions to the big challenges currently facing our prisons, and a greater voice for prisoners in influencing the policies that affect them.

What is the Prisoner Policy Network?

The PPN was launched in July 2018 as part of the Prison Reform Trust’s strategic objective to give prisoners a stronger influence in how policy on prisons is made. It is an emerging network of current serving prisoners, ex-prisoners and connected organisations who are interested to share their experiences and ideas with policy makers. The PPN aims to share the views of people with experience of living in prison with those involved in prison policy development nationally through research, consultation and reports.


Ensuring basic standards of decency in prison conditions; restoring trust in the incentives scheme; developing supportive prisoner and staff relationships; providing meaningful incentives; and giving prisoners the opportunities to rebuild trust, were all identified as key solutions by people responding to the consultation.

The MoJ’s quarterly Safety in Custody Bulletins chart rapid decline in safety and conditions in our prisons during the last six years. People in prison are less safe than they have been at any other point since records began —making the task of finding solutions which could turn the tide more vital than ever.

The report shows that many people in prison agree with the prisons minister, Rory Stewart, that there is an urgent need to deliver the basics in our prisons. Contributors said that the prison system was failing to deliver a foundation of reasonable basic expectations of decent, respectful treatment, and that talking about incentives made little sense when your quality of life was actually dominated by the struggle to get clean clothes or access to fresh air.

One respondent, quoted in the report said:

“How can we talk about incentives when we can’t get the basics right, like safety, toilet roll and clean socks.” 

The current mechanism for incentivising good and punishing bad behaviour in prison, the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme, was viewed as primarily a means of punishment delivered through threats—with little distinction whether a person was on the Basic, Standard or Enhanced level.

Inconsistency both within, and between prisons, in how the scheme was perceived to be operating is further undermining confidence and compliance with the IEP scheme. Insufficient transparency in how decisions are made, a lack of scrutiny in individual decisions, a bias towards negative entries on prisoners’ records, and no right of appeal instil a sense of injustice and mistrust of the scheme amongst people in prison. Ensuring that prisons are able to foster supportive and mutually respectful relationships between staff and prisoners was identified as the vital foundation in any successful incentives scheme.

Incentives and Earned Privileges

A revised IEP scheme could present a golden opportunity to encourage people to make the right choices and to contribute positively to their community in prison. The report shows that many people want to the opportunity to be trusted again, and to demonstrate that they can change.

However, such a shift requires incentives which prisoners value. Many respondents felt that positive behaviour went unrecognised, whilst the current poor conditions in prison meant that there was very little to lose.

One respondent, quoted in the report said:

“Incentives only have value when there is a reliable and consistent [prison] regime because in an erratic and arbitrary regime everyone is too concerned trying to reduce basic problems to be worried about IEP incentives.”

Practical suggestions to move the IEP from a punitive to a positive scheme included the provision of higher quality visits to reduce the impact of imprisonment on families; more realistic wages that would give prisoners freedom to spend on the things that mattered most to them; and greater use of release on temporary licence to help them to prepare for successful release.

Another respondent, quoted in the report said:

“Using skills prisoners already have to assist in the smooth running of prisons; improving and repairing the facilities available to all. This will lead to prisoners taking ownership of prison facilities resulting in better care and less damage as well as leading to practical experience of skilled labour. This will also save money for the prison estate as less money will be spent on outside contractors” 

Commenting, Paula Harriot, Head of Prisoner Engagement at the Prison Reform Trust said:

“This report is a testament to untapped potential—learning from those who have some of the best experience and insight into how to fix our broken prison system. What’s so encouraging about this first report from our fledgling network of experts by experience, is that it shows that many people in our prisons want to do the right thing. They want to use their skills to help others; they want to show staff that they can be trusted, but the current incentives scheme isn’t supporting them to do this. 

“The government has a real opportunity to show people in prison that actions have consequences. By encouraging personal responsibility with meaningful incentives, we can finally begin to restore stability to our prisons.”

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