A window with a grate over it, looking out onto some trees

Our long-term vision for the voluntary sector in criminal justice

28 June 2018

It has been just over a year since we published Beyond Bars on the role of the voluntary sector in the criminal justice system. The justice system isn’t in a much better state that it was then. The Chief Inspector of Prisons has already issued two unprecedented urgent notifications this year, requiring the Ministry of Justice to explain how conditions will improve at HMP Nottingham and HMP Exeter. In April, barristers went on strike in protest to legal aid cuts, a cry for help to let the state know that the justice system is at absolute breaking point.

Behind all of this systemic turbulence, people’s lives are affected.

In the 12 months up till March 2018, 69 people took their lives in prison, down from a horrific record high of 119 the previous year. Conversely, rates of both self-harm and serious assaults have reached record new highs.

When we sentence men and women to a custodial sentence, we are punishing them for a transgression but also taking away many of the support structures which could prevent a future transgression such as a job, a home or a family.

In the words of one charity sector leader who I heard speak at a policy conference recently,

At the end of the day we are working with lost, confused and frightened people.

The charity sector plays a crucial role in a) campaigning for systemic change to the justice system and b) supporting the people who are involved in the system today with their rehabilitation and improving their opportunities to move away from crime.

We wanted to find out more about the ways the voluntary sector is changing and adapting to meet their needs, so over the next year we will be running three new strands of work: 

1. Charities access to service users in prison: shining a light on good practice

Currently, there is a ‘double access’ problem for charities trying to reach service users in prison. Even charities with the best track record struggle to get a foot in the door. Once in, charities often cannot deliver their programme because the prisons are too understaffed to safely work with prisoners.

But we know that some prisons are doing incredible work to ensure their residents have opportunities for purposeful activity provided by charities. We want to inspire prison governors to reimagine their relationship with the charity sector by demonstrating what their peers are achieving. We will shine a spotlight on good practice where prisons and charities are working well together, building on work like Clinks’ recent publication, The Good Prison.

The project will work to understand how features of a good working relationship are related to the specific characteristics of the prison’s place and population, because no two prisons are the same.

Our long-term vision is a system in which charities and prisons can work more collaboratively, in the best interest of those currently serving time in prison.

2. The collective voice of the sector

In ‘Beyond Bars’ we found that the campaigning voice of the sector was shrinking due to tightening resources. We will be working with criminal justice campaigning charities to understand the shape and scale of the sector, to map where they are operating and who they are trying to influence.

We will be interviewing policy and decision makers to understand what they hear from the charity sector versus what charities think they are saying, to try and understand any disconnect. And we will be exploring what the challenges are for organisations doing both service delivery and campaigning work.

Our long-term vision is a criminal justice sector with a much stronger collective voice, better equipped to speak truth to power.

3. Funder motivations and frustrations

We know funders are frustrated by the justice sector and are withdrawing their funding. I recently interviewed a handful to dig deeper into the question of ‘funder drift.’ One told me:

We hardly do anything in prison anymore. It’s too hard to get in, prison staff don’t have the time, it’s too hard to make a difference, and we can use our resources more productively elsewhere.

Another commented that:

In 2016 there was a sense there would be a mass exodus [due to Transforming Rehabilitation]. There are absolutely fewer funders but I’m not sure the spend has reduced.

So the funder drift is more nuanced than a total shift away. We need to understand what is happening and why.
Our long-term vision is that funders confidently direct their resources into the criminal justice system and have impact. Many of those involved in the criminal justice system are at the sharp end of social failures, and they need support from the voluntary sector now more than ever.

In 2019 we will start to bring together our findings across these three strands, convening the sector in learning events and roundtables, giving the sector breathing space to think about the big picture. We will be working with the sector, sharing our finding’s iteratively and partnering with our peers, including Clinks and the Ministry of Justice, as our thinking evolves and changes.

The project identifies a significant issue in the criminal justice sector that doesn’t seem to have been picked up by anyone else. It has the potential to seriously impact upon the lives of people in prison, their families and their communities. That’s why we are endorsing the project and offering our involvement.

Ian Bickers, Deputy Director – Tools, Techniques and Collaboration, Ministry of Justice

If you are interested in hearing more, if you have any thoughts, or if you would like to be involved please get in touch at grace.wyld@thinknpc.org.