Being well, being equal
The Being Well Being Equal report published by Spark Inside today (22 February 2023) focuses on the wellbeing of young men in custody aged 18 to 25 and in particular highlights the experiences of young Black men, who are significantly overrepresented in the prison system. It presents a consolidation of the research, policy and practice concerned with the wellbeing of young men in custody, as well as insight from expert organisations and, most importantly, young men themselves.
The report starts by saying that while promoting wellbeing is known to be fundamental to rehabilitation, Young adults report more negative experiences than older prisoners, across multiple indicators of wellbeing: relationships, physical environments, mental health and safety. They are also more likely to reoffend on release from custody. Far from prison promoting positive wellbeing amongst young men, young adults’ over-representation in incidences of self-harm, segregation and violence suggest prison often has a significant detrimental impact on their wellbeing.
The report is structured into seven key sections.
Trauma, mental health & wellbeing
Young adult mental health must be understood within the context that many young men in custody will have experienced high levels of childhood poverty, deprivation, discrimination and violence and that the prison experience itself can serve to both traumatise and retraumatise young men.
Support and interventions need to recognise and respond to the many challenges that young men face in being able to communicate need or access support. Trauma can affect young men’s ability to interpret or communicate emotions, while stigma can prevent conversations about mental health, and a distrust in statutory services or practitioners and a perceived lack of safety, can restrict willingness to ask for help.
Meeting the needs of young black men
Young adults have the highest level of Black and ethnic minority over-representation in the adult prison estate and prison inspection reports consistently demonstrate that they have worse experiences of prison life and wellbeing than white prisoners. Key to addressing the needs of young Black men is an acknowledgement and understanding of the significant inequalities that they face throughout their lives.
In promoting the wellbeing of young Black men, a focus on identity is essential in challenging predominantly negative views of Black masculinity and Black heritage and enabling individuals to develop a positive sense of self.
A strengths-based approach
There is increased recognition within the criminal justice system about the importance of strengths based, desistance-focused practice that recognises individuals as ‘agents of change’. Young men in custody are at a critical point in their lives, moving into adulthood and developing a sense of ‘who they are’. Supporting them to recognise their potential and self-worth can provide that elusive element of ‘hope’ and challenge the frequently negative narratives about young men.
Effective rehabilitative culture, supported by staff training and supervision, that promotes hope and optimism, is key to enabling strengths-based approaches. While the provision of positive, culturally competent role models for young men in custody (via staff, peers and mentors) and access to coaching are valuable resources in enabling individuals to recognise their potential.
The diagram reproduced from the report below illustrates the distinct challenges that young men face in feeling able to identify their needs and ask for help.
Developmental maturity and wellbeing
There is clear neurological and psychological evidence that brain development continues well into the twenties and can also be significantly impacted by adverse experiences such as trauma, head injuries, deprivation, discrimination and violence.
Approaches and interventions that fail to respond to the developmental maturity of young adults can be to the detriment of their wellbeing and can slow desistance. Young adulthood provides a unique opportunity for change and should be harnessed through approaches that are informed by and responsive to the psychosocial development needs of young men.
The power of positive relationships
Young adults are often amongst the most isolated of individuals in custody and are less likely than older prisoners to maintain relationships with family or significant others. Nearly half of young men in custody have recently been in statutory care and many have had poor and/or discriminatory experiences of statutory services resulting in a distrust in professionals.
Access to pro-social, trusted, consistent, non-judgemental relationships with staff, peers, family and significant others are fundamental to good wellbeing, an essential element of rehabilitative practice and key to reducing reoffending.
Giving young men a voice
Meaningful participation plays an important role in promoting individual wellbeing: increasing self-esteem and confidence, building relationships and trust, developing skills, providing a sense of agency and creating opportunities to develop a pro-social identity.
Empowering young adults, who are at a critical point of maturation, to take responsibility and influence policy and practice that affects them can challenge the perception that their voice is not valued, and provides the opportunity to grow, develop, and contribute more meaningfully to the world around them.
Current prison policy and practice is neglecting the wellbeing of young men, particularly young Black men: not only is it failing to promote young men’s wellbeing, but it is having a significantly negative impact on it.
Although there are examples of innovative and needs-led interventions being delivered by specialist voluntary sector organisations across the estate there continues to be a ‘gap’ in targeted services or interventions that promote young men’s wellbeing.
The report concludes with a series of recommendations, chief among which is the call for the prison service to take a broader, more holistic view of wellbeing which ensures that the needs of young men are specifically catered for and that Black organisations are involved in designing interventions which meet the needs of the over-represented cohort of young Black adults in our prisons.