How charities are influencing change in prisons

We want the prison system to be humane and effective at rehabilitation. But the reality is self-harm, prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, and assaults on staff are at an all-time high.  In the face of massive budget cuts, turnover in political leadership, and a rising prison population, is there anything charities can do to improve the situation?

This context has made the work charities do in prisons hard. In particular, charities are struggling to gain access to the people they want to work with in prisons. And that in turn has affected the confidence of independent funders.

The prison part of a person’s journey is the “black hole” bit that’s not transparent. There is this perception that what goes on there is not transparent, and that puts a lot of funders off.

Criminal justice funder

Yet for people in prison, their interactions with charities can be pivotal in helping them feel capable and motivated to make changes in their lives

It gave me an incentive to motivate myself and change myself and sort of help other people

It helps move forward… If you’re doing well on the inside, you’re going to want to do well on the outside

Person with lived experience of prison*

For the past nine months we’ve been trying to understand how charities achieve change in prisons—both through influencing how the system works and through delivering services. We’ve been talking to charities, policymakers, prison governors and staff, independent funders, and people with lived experience of prison.

We’ve found that while the challenges of access to prison is real and substantial, charities have been tenacious in finding a way to meet and support those who value their input. And some prisons have found innovative ways to foster this activity.

We’ve also found that charities can have a loud voice advocating in Westminster, but that this channel should not be pursued to the exclusion of all others. Charities can be most effective when drawing on a range of tactics and working in coalitions to influence change.

And while we started our research with the assumption that service delivery and changing the system are quite different enterprises, we have found of course that the two are inextricably linked.

We’ve just launched our first discussion paper from this work: How are charities influencing change in the prison system?

And in a few weeks we’ll be sharing our work on charities’ access to people in prisons.

We hope that both papers will shine a light on the fantastic work being done by charities in the sector. We think they offer encouragement to independent funders, to prison governors, and to policymakers to keep supporting and working alongside charities in and around prisons.

In the paper, we’ve also outlined our thinking about how change happens, and when it works, why it works. The analysis has been fascinating, and we’re excited to share it and test it and find out if we’ve got it right. So we’re publishing these discussion papers in the spirit of ‘thinking aloud’ and we really hope you’ll tell us what you think.

We’ll reflect on that feedback through spring, consulting our peers and those with expertise in the sector. Then, we’ll share our vision for maximising the role charities can play in the prison system, and what independent funders can do to make that happen.

Get in touch if you have thoughts on this research, whether big or small, at or @NPCthinks. Keep up to date on our latest research in criminal justice, or sign up to our newsletter.


* We worked in partnership with criminal justice charity, Revolving Doors Agency to ensure the views and insights of people with lived experience shaped this project and its findings. Findings from a lived experience focus group will be published later in 2019.