Why prisoners hold the key to better prison outcomes

12 August 2015

“Prison is a place where people are sent as a punishment, not for further punishments. And if we ensure that prisons are calm, orderly, purposeful places where offenders can learn the self-discipline, the skills and the habits which will prepare them for outside life then we can all benefit.”

  • The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Justice

Earlier this week on a visit to HMP Oakwood I was lucky enough to see this sentiment in action. Newly built in 2012, the privately run Category C prison holds over 1600 men and is one of the largest establishments in the prison estate.

Aside from the size and modern facilities, what was immediately apparent was a culture in which prisoners and staff work together to improve the quality of life for all at the prison. With the support of a dedicated leadership team prisoners are empowered to take responsibility for their own welfare and development, with the belief that in doing so they can become better prepared for release.

The transfer of responsibility to prisoners was evident throughout the prison regime, but was particularly encouraged through:

  1. Peer-led interventions and programmes
  2. Peer mentoring
  3. The provision of programmes and workshops.

Firstly, the vast majority of the programmes we witnessed had been designed and created by prisoners. Rather than viewing inmates as a risk factor, at Oakwood prisoners are considered a valuable resource who have much to offer the prison community. Prisoner groups are given meetings with the Director to pitch their ideas for new programmes and provide feedback from across the residential wings. This enables staff to not only deal with prisoner frustrations and reduce violent incidents, but also for prisoners to develop more confidence and self-esteem through feeling valued within their community. The inmates I met proudly discussed the successes they have achieved whilst serving their sentences. For many Oakwood had been as much about being given an opportunity to reform as a punishment for their crimes.

Secondly, initiatives such as B.I.G (the Basic Intervention Group) give experienced inmates the opportunity to mentor and support their peers. Alongside providing induction programmes and developing learning plans, inmate volunteers are trained to support relapses and provide ongoing encouragement. Both inmates and staff believe peers are better placed to help prisoners experiencing difficulties through drawing on shared experiences.

Finally, work and training are central to life at Oakwood. At the time of my visit just nine inmates were not enrolled in any type of education, training or work. On entry to the prison a questionnaire helps identify the skills of a prisoner so that they can be matched with appropriate industry work and training. Employment is not seen as a choice but a fundamental part of a prisoner’s sentence and vital for success on release.

Importantly, staff work with inmates to design programmes around both pre-existing skills and gaps in the local labour market – maximising employment chances on release. For one particular programme, “Chrysalis” 3 prisoners have already been employed by Virgin Trains with a further 12 expected in 2016.

Last month the new Secretary of State for Justice argued: “change the way we treat offenders and offenders then change their lives for the better”. Practices at HMP Oakwood evidence this sentiment. The Government must now ensure that this best practice is spread effectively across the prison estate.

Elizabeth Crowhurst, Researcher, Reform

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