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Britain’s prisons and the role of charities

Britain has a prison crisis

Turn on the news and you’ll likely see the word ‘prison’ accompanied by other words: ‘crisis,’ ‘violence’ and ‘chaos’, perhaps.

Specially trained ‘Tornado Squads’ were recently sent into both the G4S run HMP Birmingham (16 December), and HMP Swaleside (23 December), just two of the prisons that have seen prisoners riot in recent months. Not long ago I spoke to a charity leader working in prisons who said that without the voluntary sector, ‘prisons would have to be heavily militarised.’ I laughed when I first heard the term, but there’s really nothing funny about a ‘Tornado Squad’.

The reality of life behind bars in the UK makes for sobering reading: on average in 2016 a prisoner committed suicide every three days. Charities are working in prisons across the country in various capacities as we speak—often volunteers and ex-offenders themselves. The largest suicide prevention schemes are provided by charity listener schemes such as the Samaritans. But most criminal justice charities are tiny (4.8% actually have no income), and the majority are very local.

Charities have a crucial role to play in making prisons safer and more productive places in which to rehabilitate criminals.

At NPC we are in the middle of a project researching the role of the voluntary sector in reducing reoffending and improving outcomes for those involved in the criminal justice system. We will be publishing a report in March based on interviews with people across the sector, including charities of different sizes, trusts and foundations, the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service, and service users.

Charities are working on rehabilitation and desistance 

In November, as part of this research, I went to HMP Pentonville with the charity User Voice, which was facilitating annual prison council elections. The idea behind this is that inmates form issue-based parties and campaign on the basis of changes they want seen both inside the prison and on their release. The governor then involves the elected council in important decision-making in the prison.

It had been a difficult few weeks for the residents and staff of Pentonville, with a murder, two escapes, and a prison officer strike which had taken place just the previous day. None the less, engagement was high. 960 votes were cast by both residents and staff—a turn out rate of almost 70%. The entire thing was organised by ex-offenders.

Rehabilitation is not measured solely in hard outcomes like accommodation and employment (though both are obviously important.) Subjective factors, like a sense of changed identity as a non-offender, connection to one’s community, to family and friends, and a sense of purpose are all well established as important to a person’s rehabilitation. Academics have called this desistance theory, and it looks strikingly similar to what charities have been working with offenders on for decades. Pentonville’s residents were taking responsibility for their community and for each other, and engaging in a democratic process. It was clear that many were feeling inspired and motivated about their future.

The work of charities isn’t a silver bullet, but it has an important role to play

Solving today’s prison crisis is no small task—one former director general of the prison service says it will take years—and the charity sector is no silver bullet. But charities certainly have a crucial role to play in making prisons safer and more productive places in which to rehabilitate criminals.

In our upcoming report we will explore what it is that charities add to the criminal justice system, whether they are really achieving their mission, and what the sector—charities, funders and philanthropists included—should do in 2017 to adapt to changing circumstances.

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