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Justice does not stop at the prison gates

Prison gate HMP Aylesbury
The Howard League launches a new programme encouraging people to think differently about what happens behind bars with a briefing on procedural justice.

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Procedural injustice

Last month, the Howard League for Penal Reform launched a new programme encouraging people to think differently about what happens behind bars.

The charity argues that. as the most absolute expression of the criminal justice system, prisons should meet the very highest standards of justice. This is the central message in Justice does not stop at the prison gate, the first briefing to be published as part of the Howard League’s programme on justice and fairness in prisons.

The briefing explores how a fundamental shift in prisons would facilitate a sense of agency and responsibility among prisoners, making prisons safer and improving outcomes for everyone. Being sent to prison is the punishment ordered by a court; what then follows should be about justice and fairness.

The briefing explains why new approaches are needed. Currently, an everyday and structural unfairness is built into prison regimes and compounded by overuse, overcrowding and rising levels of violence. Unfair or unjust treatment generates resentment and anger, feeding a cycle of conflict and harm.

prisoner studying
© Andy Aitchison

Procedural injustice

Procedural justice (or procedural fairness) is when processes are carried out and decisions are made in a fair and just way by people in positions of authority, and when those who are affected by those processes and decisions perceive that they are being treated in a fair and just way. When people in prisons have more positive perceptions of procedural justice in prisons, this predicts less rule breaking (which means less violence), fewer mental health problems and lower reconviction rates. Improving procedural justice in prisons is in the best interest not only of those who live and work in prisons but of the wider community. Research has found that prisoners often feel that they are treated unjustly, which generates
anger, resentment and violence.

The Howard League programme

The Howard League’s programme on justice and fairness in prisons seeks to create a blueprint to establish what a just prison would look like, eliminate everyday unfairness in prisons, and implement fair and restorative approaches.

The programme will investigate how a nonpunitive, holistic approach can reduce violence and conflict in prisons, improve safety and well-being and consequently support rehabilitation and release planning.
It will evaluate alternatives to the current punishment-based system of adjudications, including diversionary measures, restorative interventions, staff training and mental health support. The triggers that frequently lead to conflict in prison environments, such as time spent locked up or a lack of purposeful activity, will also be considered. The programme will look at examples of good practice around procedural justice and restorative approaches in prisons, and how these can contribute to a more just system overall.

What can be done

The Howard League argues that urgent action needs to be taken to address everyday injustice in prisons in order to reduce levels of violence, conflict and disorder. It sets out a number of steps which could be taken, including

  • Taking a systemic approach to address everyday unfairness in prisons
  • Minimising the daily injustices of prison life through improvements to the prison estate and more efficient and transparent processes.
  • Embedding the four conditions of procedural justice into everyday prison processes and prison culture
  • through training and support for staff.
  • Adopting a more robust rights-based approach.
  • Rebalancing the power dynamic in prisons by adopting restorative approaches.
  • Replacing (rather than layering) disciplinary processes with restorative approaches.
  • Shifting emphasis from the compliance to the empowerment of people in prison.

The programme

As part of its programme on justice and fairness in prisons, the Howard League is currently looking in detail at the issue of adjudications and additional days as one example of everyday prison policy and practice that fails to meet high standards of justice and fairness. This will form the subject of the next briefing in the series.


Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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