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Making the best use of time in prison
PRT's Prisoner Policy Network discusses prisoner experiences of life behind the wall and their thoughts on what is needed to make best use of time served.

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Giving prisoners hope for the future

Prisons need to promote personal growth as an end in itself, not just a means to reduced reoffending, according to a new report published by the Prison Reform Trust earlier this week (9 July 2019).

The report says that, beyond the basics of cleanliness, order, well-trained staff, and a consistent regime, prisoners want
education that stretches the mind and delves deep, training that bestows industry recognised qualifications, the opportunity to use the skills they came in to prison with, and work experience that makes them attractive to future employers. 

Prisoners want the breadth of the education, employment and training offer to be increased, and to make better use of technology so that prisoners can access educational materials, maintain family contact, and find information about
outside agencies on which they will rely in future. Connection with wider society, a desire to be reintegrated and not forgotten about came through as a priority.

People in prison need a reason to be optimistic. They want to move from despondency to belief that this time in prison will be their last. They seek reassurance that on the outside there is a potential future awaiting them that doesn’t provoke anxiety and dread, but instead makes them feel positive about their chances. Maintaining their connection with that future requires cheaper phone calls, and visits that are relaxed and mindful of the impact that a bad visit can have on family as well as the prisoner. Families told PRT that they need to be more fully involved in the prison sentence so that they can help, and know what to do to support effectively both during custody and on release.

Above all, this consultation has shown that prisons need to promote personal growth as an end in itself, not just a means to reduced reoffending. Making best use of time in custody is about the here and now as well as what will happen after release – which for an increasing number of prisoners will be years or even decades away. Good citizens value the community in which they live and are conscious of their responsibilities towards it – that is as true inside prison as outside, and prisoners want the opportunity to create a good life for themselves and the people they live amongst.

This all goes to the way the prison thinks and works – the culture that informs and guides the thousands of interactions that make up its daily existence. Much of the existing policy framework for prisons in England and Wales supports that approach, in theory, but it is clear from this consultation that policy is only applied in some places and only for some of the time. Determined national and local leadership remains essential, encouraged we hope by the clear evidence from this report that prisoners are willing to play a much bigger role in creating prisons that use time well.

Prisoners put forward 11 specific and practical recommendations for change:

  1. A stable, safe and consistent regime with a well communicated set of expectations for prisoners and for staff is an essential building block for a prison where time is well used. Prisons should ensure good communication, with prison rules and processes clearly conveyed to new arrivals, and these should be updated and made readily available to existing prisoners.
  2. Prison staff need to be supported to develop ways of working that build inspiration and model different ways of resolving conflict, disputes and tension.
  3. Prison security department assessments should be communicated to prisoners clearly with an outline of how a prisoner can improve his or her risk assessment to permit progress. Prisoners must be told what they can do to restore trust and be given opportunity to earn it.
  4. Prison education should be developmental and go beyond basic skills. Any prisoner should have the opportunity to go beyond their existing level of achievement or learning. For example, long sentence prisoners should be able to access Open University and other degree courses before the current seven years from release, and prisoners with pre-existing workplace skills should have the chance to keep them up to date.
  5. The arts and creativity have a key place in prison to support engagement, tackle isolation and build optimism. Prisons should show that they value that contribution in the way that resources of both time and money are allocated.
  6. Prisons should conduct a skills audit for each prisoner on arrival and utilise these skills to support and enhance life inside prison.
  7. Prisoner-led initiatives are vital to increase agency, a sense of ownership and responsibility for the health of the prison community. Prisons should create space and opportunities for prisoners to demonstrate that they can be trusted, including by involving prisoners in decision making and scrutiny functions.
  8. Prisons should enable greater and better quality access to families and the wider community as part of a strategy of building prisoners’ capacity to change, and to sustain change in resettlement post release. Controlled access to the internet would transform prisoners’ ability to help in delivering this ambition, as well as multiple other objectives relevant to education, health and personal growth.
  9. All prisons should make it easy for community-based organisations to contribute to the health of the prison community.
  10. Prisons should provide more practical help towards resettlement and this should start earlier in the sentence. This should include practical life skills training in cooking, cleaning and budgeting for example, all of which can then be practiced during the sentence, but also more support for finding housing and accessing benefits before release. OMU departments should be more proactive in meeting with prisoners, even if that means going on the wings to meet prisoners in their cell.
  11. Prison wages should be reviewed and brought into line with the rising cost of canteen items and the high cost of prison phone calls. Prisons should not expect families to make up the shortfall in basic provision.

Click here to download a copy of the report.

Picture credit: Erika Flowers

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