Charities in prisons: Relationships, incentives, and access

By Theo Clay 7 November 2018

We want to inspire men and women to recover, but they are surrounded by violence, drugs and the regime isn’t investing in them.

There is no shortage of bad news about our prisons. If it’s not the government takeover of HMP Birmingham, overcrowding or the spice epidemic, then it’s the chaotic politics—we have had seven Justice Secretaries since 2010.

When bombarded by negative headlines, it’s easy to overlook the organisations who, despite it all, are still doing fantastic work with individuals in prison. They provide purposeful activities, address the mental health and substance misuse needs of prisoners, and ultimately rehabilitate and reduce reoffending. We all benefit from the work they do.

In strand one of our Criminal Justice Project we have been speaking to around 30 charities to hear about their challenges, but also to shine a light on examples of prisons and charities working well together. We wanted to share some early findings from these conversations here:

The ‘double-access’ problem

Your access may look great on paper, but if you have a 23 hour lock down nothing is going to happen. Safety and security concerns mean that some of the other stuff which might mitigate the violence is put to the side.

Charities face a ‘double-access’ problem when trying to work with people in prison. The first is getting inside the gates in the first place. The second is getting people out of their cells long enough to carry out activities. Understandably, prison staff’s number one duty is the safety of the prison. If there is an unexpected incident or a shortage of staff, a lockdown may be the only solution. But setbacks mean wasted time, resources and disappointment for charities, prisons and the prisoners.

It’s all about relationships

We knew that personal relationships were important, but we were surprised how charities’ impact is dependent upon them. A relationship with the governor can overcome the first access problem, relationships with officers can overcome the second.

At the moment our work is based entirely on relationships which is problematic. We had good relationships in the past, but these have gone downhill due to austerity and staff turnover.

However, relationships alone are an unstable basis for a charity to achieve their mission. It only takes one key person leaving their job to be back at square one. How can these partnerships be entrenched so they endure past the personalities?

Finding shared incentives—ticking everyone’s boxes

Charities and prison staff may seem to have different focuses. Prison staff want to see safety, violence and reoffending reductions. Charities may share these aims, but also want to increase wellbeing, improve opportunities and bring about systemic change. Charities’ outcomes may also be far harder to quantify and harder to sell to governors and time-pressed prison staff.

When I first went in, I thought it was awful how little was going on—I now realise how stretched the staff are. You have to recognise what boxes they need ticking, it’s not just your boxes that need ticking.

But, at their core, everyone’s goals actually reinforce each other. A safer prison means people inside are happier and have more opportunities. These people are also less likely to reoffend. Recognising this, one charity we have spoken to had explicitly created two sets of outcomes for their work, one for the prison and one for themselves, which they had to try and achieve concurrently. Other charities have fought for opportunities to explain the relevance of their services to new staff during their training.

We try to provide information to staff, especially new staff on the work we do. We try to emphasise why it is helpful for them, the staff, to allow us to do it.

There is more work that both charities and prison staff can do to put themselves in the shoes of the other and create a vision of success which both sides find compelling. This is ultimately in the interest of the people in prison.

We know that there is great work which is not getting the recognition it deserves. Our work is still ongoing, and we welcome your thoughts and input.  Get in touch to share your experiences, and where we should be looking to shine a light on transformative work in the prison estate.

To find out more about NPC’s criminal justice work, see the related items below or contact Theo.




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