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Prisoner involvement key to rehabilitative Future Prisons
Final post on the RSA Future Prison project explores the importance of prisoner involvement and participation in developing prisons focused on rehabilitation.

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This is the seventh and final post in a short series on the RSA’s Future Prison project which sets out a blueprint for the modernisation of our prison system.

Service users and participation

The RSA introduces this section of the Future Prison report like this:

Prisons are communities. They provide healthcare, education, accommodation, food and a range of other services on a 24/7 basis. Like all communities, they stand or fall on the nature of the relationships within these, the levels of trust between human beings and the extent to which people – staff, those in custody and visitors – feel safe and secure. They benefit from having leaders that know and understand the  concerns of the people who reside there and – within constraints – seek to empower the population they seek to serve.

They argue strongly that effectively engaging prisoners and their families is not a “nice to have” element of prison culture but can play a critical role in improving staff-inmate relationships and managing risk and rehabilitation.

Peers in prison

The RSA notes that there has been a substantial increase in peer schemes within custodial settings over the last decade and lists some of the most common ones:

  • Peer education – Communication, education and skills development with the aim of increasing knowledge, awareness and/or supporting behaviour change.
  • Peer support – Support provided and received by people in custody. Prison peer support workers provide either social or emotional support or practical assistance to others on a one-to-one basis or through informal social networks.
  • Listeners – A suicide prevention scheme, where those in custody provide confidential emotional support to others who are experiencing distress. Listeners are selected, trained and supported by the Samaritans and the scheme operates across most prisons in England and Wales.
  • Insiders – Volunteer peer support workers who provide reassurance, information and practical assistance to new arrivals to prison.
  • Peer mentoring – Prison peer mentoring involves those in custody or how have experienced prison working one-to-one with others to develop supportive relationships and act as role models.
  • Health trainers – Prison health trainers work with others in custody around healthy lifestyles and mental health issues.
  • Peer advisors – Peer advisors provide housing and/or welfare benefits advice to others, particularly new arrivals and those planning for resettlement.

In addition many prisons include a prisoner council or forum (see this toolkit from Revolving Doors on successful approaches to prisoner involvement).


Evidence base

The RSA reports that the evidence base on these kinds of interventions is growing but there remains a need for more hard headed and independent research that matches that done by those who advocate its use. This needs to be able to distinguish specifically what works to support rehabilitation, as well as what benefits prisons and makes life in custody better, easier and safer for all. The research that has been done frequently comes to similar conclusions; that peer schemes – while not without risks – can bring institutional and individual benefits including:

  • Increased confidence and feelings of responsibility and empowerment;
  • Signalling that those people in custody are valued within prison culture;
  • The visibility of ambassadors and role models;
  • Additional capacity; and
  • A way of identifying issues that staff and management may miss.


The Future Prison project intends to focus on four key themes relating to peer involvement and participation:

  • The role of co-production – What are the benefits and challenges in involving service users and staff in designing and delivering strategy? The process of co-production should be both rehabilitative and bring progression as it implies a great deal of responsibility, decision making, listening and compromising, as well as skills  development.
  • Skills and progression – How can schemes build on the skills, capacities and roles that service users have and how do these link to progression?
  • Resources and partners – The resources required to support a service user strategy and the peer engagement beneath it.
  • Evaluation and impact – How can the design and delivery of peer schemes provide the data needed to assess their impact alongside qualitative work?


The guarded optimism about the prison reform programme has been dented somewhat by the fall-out from Brexit; specifically the departure of the two men, David Cameron and Michael Gove, who championed the project.

The new Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, has indicated she  intends to continue with the reforms. Given her lack of knowledge of the sector and of experience in running a major government department, the Prison Future project could become a key source of advice to her and her new ministerial team.


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