'Rehabilitation must be meaningful not imagined’, conference finds

14 Jan 2015

At the end of last year, PET’s Morwenna Bennallick, a PhD student who is carrying out research on prison education, joined a panel discussion at an event organised by the Westminster Legal Policy Forum, Prisons in England and Wales - modernisation, rehabilitation and offender management.

Here, she reports back on the day:

“The event brought together politicians, academics, charity leaders and civil servants to discuss the issues currently facing prisons. Participants highlighted stark situations affecting the prison estate and drew attention to some uncomfortable positions that the future may hold but also brought into focus the good practice that has blossomed and continued in light of many pressures.

Dr Alison Liebling, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Cambridge and Director, Prisons Research Centre, focused on the importance of relationships. This was a key theme which cropped up throughout the day. She praised the ‘unsung heroes’ of the staff around the prison and congratulated the great work of education, PE and gardening staff.

Steve Gillam, General Secretary, POA, said that such meaningful, hard work by prison officers can too easily be undone through a lack of cohesion with services available on release. Jason Warr, Lecturer in Criminology, University of Lincoln, (pictured right) reminded us of the need for individualised responses to prisoners’ needs yet argued that the struggles to deliver an effective regime through the pressures on the system can heavily limit the relational work required.

Without acknowledging the real needs of individuals, the only thing made available to them is ‘imagined rehabilitation’, Jason said.

I pointed out that meaningful education can provide a cost-effective opportunity for this as evidenced by the Ministry of Justice’s Data Lab report on PET’s work which showed a reduction of over a quarter in reoffending rates from those who received a grant from PET. Throughout the day, many speakers agreed that it is imperative to work with prisoners and not against them. Education opens up opportunities for individual prisoners whilst inside and ongoing PET research using the concept of Learner Voice to develop prison-wide rehabilitative cultures is working with prisoners to further empower and involve people who are not engaged in learning.

But the pressures on a system with more prisoners and less money are wide reaching across the estate, for prisoners, staff and policy-makers. Aileen Murphie, Director, Department for Communities and Local Government, highlighted the huge reductions that have already taken place in funding for prisons. Nick Hardwick, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, gave projections that saw overcrowding set to get worse and called for a more informed public debate around the cost and efficiency of prisons, whilst Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns, The Howard League, expressed fear that the Transforming Rehabilitation agenda may add to this through up-tariffing and increased recalls to custody.

However, Rob Allen, Co-Director, Justice and Prisons, noted that some international models have been able to offer ‘smaller not cheaper’ instead of the UK approach of ‘cheaper not smaller’. Looking to the Californian model of justice reinvestment could inspire a different approach to the ‘golden opportunity’ that a financial incentive can provide. Vicky Pryce, Chief Economic Adviser, Centre for Economics and Business Research and Author, Prisonomics, was particularly saddened that open prisons are being closed as they can offer great cost-effective spaces to empower and build autonomy. She raised a powerful argument of the value of community and benefits of entrepreneurial competition that can happen in a space where positive attitudes are more able to flourish.

Finishing with Ian Mulholland, Deputy Director, Public Sector Prisons, National Offender Management Service, we heard that 24% of efficiency savings have been made three quarters of the way through the benchmarking process. Whilst last year saw a stark increase in incidents of self harm and suicides, Ian argued that this cannot be simply equated with the reduction in the numbers of prison officers being recruited. With a new violence programme being introduced and more resources to target psychoactive substances, he argued that now is the time that we can start to ‘move away from technical change and onto transformational change’.

Overall, the day demonstrated that in order to promote transformational change of individual prisoners and institutions, safety, decency and respect has to stay the top priority throughout all policy resource allocation.”