Many jurisdictions permit prison councils involving both prisoners and staff to have input into the way that prisons are run.
In this penultimate blog in our year-long series, Kimmett Edgar, Head of Research at the UK charity, the Prison Reform Trust, says that self-advocacy roles for prisoners have a wide range of benefits. Service provision can be better informed and targeted to actual need; conflicts can be headed off at the outset; and giving prisoners responsibility for the wider prison community can help prepare them to undertake responsibilities on release.
Here is an open invitation to prison authorities: please consider asking prisoners for advice about how to run your prison.
In many prisons, in different jurisdictions, prison councils inform the provision of services and the development of strategies and policies. Prisoners provide input on policy and regimes via a wide range of self advocacy methods and roles.
Self advocacy roles encompass prison councils, diversity and equality representatives, suicide prevention committees, violence reduction representatives, among others. Topics that prison authorities discuss with self advocates include: activities, regimes, work, safety, education, rehabilitation, visits, diet, religious observance, race equality, drug treatment, discipline, and others.
Self advocacy gives prisoners opportunities to voice their concerns, to feel that they are listened to, and to link their input into changes when they occur. It’s a two-way process, which also gives the prison authorities a channel to explain decisions that are all too often opaque to prisoners. A vital benefit is that prison managers become aware of problems that had been ‘below the radar’. In some prisons, prisoners can submit agenda items through a ‘prisoner contribution form’, which is freely available to any prisoner on the wing.
Many prison councils work on the basis of monthly meetings, where prisoner representatives meet senior managers and uniformed staff. The self advocates canvass their wing to determine which subjects to raise at council meetings. They will have resolved matters on the wing level where possible; and met in advance to decide on issues of concern to the whole prison, which will determine the agenda.
A council’s decisions lead to action points, for which named officers or governors take responsibility. It is crucial to the credibility of the council that prisoner input is shown to have influence. Thus, many prisons place the minutes on notice boards on the wing. A useful rubric is ‘You said / We did’: a poster that lists the recent concerns raised by prisoners and states the actions the prison has taken in response.
A different model of self advocacy involves one-day forums for governors, officers and prisoners. First, prisoners are invited to raise problems and asked to suggest how that situation could be improved. Then the prisoners rate the proposals in order of priority. Afterwards, officers rate each proposal according to feasibility. In this way, prisoners receive direct explanations of why some needs were neglected; and governors gained an immediate sense of changes important to prisoners; and how easy each improvement would be to implement.
Self advocacy schemes depend on leadership by the prison administration. Norman Bishop, Head of the Division of Crime Problems at the Council of Europe, stated in a 2006 essay:
“The widespread use of prisoner consultative procedures will not occur in the absence of circular instructions or other policy documents that require, or at least strongly encourage, their adoption and give authoritative guidance on how they should be run.”
According to Bishop, prison councils are established by national legislation in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden. Other countries in which councils are embedded include Australia, Canada, and India.
A 2011 study by Clinks, the umbrella organisation for voluntary sector involvement in the criminal justice in the United Kingdom, found that in prisons in England and Wales:
- 84% of prisons have prison-wide consultations
- 20% have an elected prison council
- 86% run focus groups around particular functions or specific needs
- 96% have prisoner diversity representatives, most of whom contribute directly to staff meetings.
Self advocacy provides an important tool to manage conflicts. By giving voice to prisoners’ concerns, councils highlight the areas where policies pursued by management obstruct legitimate needs of prisoners. Once governors, officers and prisoners discuss a clash of interests, the tensions become explicit. The council can clarify the needs of each group. This can establish that there is much common ground in the needs of staff and prisoners, and that their shared interests can be built upon. Finally, the problem, having been recognised and clarified, can often be resolved in the council by a process of dialogue and negotiation.
A prison governor said, “It prevents problems festering, prevents prisoners from thinking they must take other actions. It’s a channel to protest. If prisoners disrupt a prison, it is often because they feel there is no other option.”
A UK charity, User Voice, organised the elections of the prison council on the Isle of Wight. After the council was set up on their model, the prison saw a 37 per cent decrease in the number of complaints made by prisoners and the average time spent in the segregation unit declined from 160 days to 47.
Self advocacy schemes result in a range of positive outcomes:
- management objectives: smooth running; efficiency (targeting provision); better evidence (prisoners’ perspectives)
- engagement of prisoners: less frustration, encourage commitment to the community, collaboration across the divide
- reduces conflicts: eases changes of regime; improves grasp of prisoners’ problems; provides neutral space for negotiation
- dialogue/communication: build common ground; understand opposite perspectives; demonstrate pro-social modelling.
And what is the connection to the duty of prisons to release people less likely to re-offend?
Cécile Brunet-Ludet, a magistrate in France, argued that enabling prisoners to take some responsibility for the prison communities in which they live is ‘contagious’ in that it prepares them to undertake responsibilities on release.
A prison administrator in the United Kingdom stated:
“Prisons should not be about turning offenders into good prisoners, but about turning prisoners into good citizens.”
As Mary Tuck (cited in Norman Bishop’s paper), who worked at the Home Office in the United Kingdom, explained:
“Any society that wishes to prevent crime must encourage those natural communal institutions by which men relate to each other. And if offenders are to be dissuaded from offending, they must somehow become involved in the joint practices of a working community.”
Time Well Spent: A practical guide to active citizenship and volunteering in prison (Prison Reform Trust. UK)
A review of service user involvement in prisons and probation trusts (Clinks)
Debating for a Change: Improving prison life through prisoner/staff working groups (UK Ministry of Justice / NOMS)
Norman Bishop, Prisoner Participation in Prison Management, 2006
Having Their Say: The work of prisoner councils (Prison Reform Trust, UK)
Invisible input: What Service Users think about ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ (User Voice)
Cécile Brunet-Ludet, Le droit d’expression collective des personnes détenues, 2010
Bethany E. Schmidt, User Voice and the Prison Council Model: A Summary of Key Findings from an Ethnographic Exploration of Participatory Governance in Three English Prisons
About the author
Kimmett Edgar is head of research at the Prison Reform Trust, a UK charity pursuing the twin aims of reducing unnecessary imprisonment and improving treatment and conditions. His research subjects include: prison violence, race equality, mental health, and segregation. He is lead representative of Friends World Committee for Consultation (Quakers) to the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice. He is co-author of Prison Violence, published by Routledge; and Restorative Justice in Prison, published by Waterside, UK.
About this blog series
To mark our 25th Anniversary and prepare for the Crime Congress in Qatar in April 2015, PRI is running a series of monthly expert guest blogs, addressing interesting current trends and pressing criminal justice challenges in criminal justice and penal reform.
Blogs are available here on our website and as podcasts on the 25th of each month from May 2014 to April 2015. All blogs in the series so far can be found here.