A visit to: Spark Inside
Spark Inside believe in change and they believe in it wholeheartedly: that it is necessary, that is desirable, that it is achievable. They run two coaching programmes in prisons across London and the South East of England which encourage rehabilitation and reduce reoffending, and they also advocate for more social justice rather than criminal justice. They want to support change not just within individuals, but within the system too.
Their Listening Fund work is focused on creating spaces for those who live and work in prisons to encourage others to engage in opportunities for change. During the first year of funding, Spark Inside have undertaken a feasibility study, consulting with those who live in prison and the prison authorities on how their listening work should develop. Based on what they heard, Spark Inside are now ready to launch a pilot programme to develop in-prison advisory councils with wing representatives.
We recently met some of the team to learn more about how their work is developing and three key themes emerged:
1 – people in prison want to contribute more to policies and programmes that affect them. Once Spark Inside had secured permission from the prison authorities to begin the feasibility study, they thought carefully about how they could capture a range of voices, opinions and ideas. They ran wing-based pop-ups providing opportunities for quick exchanges of information as well as group sessions with greater detail and depth. As a result of these efforts, 300 people in prison engaged with the feasibility study, keen to share their thoughts and experiences on a wide-range of issues.
2 – ‘good’ listening has multiple parts and processes. The pop-ups and focus groups provided opportunities for face-to-face engagement which, from previous experience, Spark Inside knew was important to people in prison and which would generate better engagement than a paper-based survey. However, to secure further engagement, Spark Inside recognise that they need to continue to be clear about the purpose of the exercise, to explain what will happen with the information they gather, and to be honest and transparent about who will listen to what is said. Finally, they are conscious that to maintain prisoners’ interest in the work, it is essential that people in prison feel as though their voices have power – that change occurs as a result of their engagement.
3 – establishing a meaningful way of listening takes time. This is perhaps especially true in prisons where processes are bureaucratic and slow, and where even the most established projects can be blown off course by changes to commissioning systems, ministers and governors. Spark Inside’s feasibility study took c.2 months, and they are now entering a pilot phase, testing out what has emerged from the pop-ups and focus groups and ironing out complex ethical issues such as potential payment of people living in prison. If the pilot phase is a success, they will then, with permission and buy-in from the prison authorities, roll the model out more widely.
Spark Inside are ambitious about how those who live and work in prison can be involved in creating change. The success of their Listening Fund work to date demonstrates how willing people in prison are to engage with genuine opportunities to share their ideas and expertise, and the importance of providing a variety of different ways in which individuals can do that. As with all listening work, the caveat to their engagement is that they feel heard and that their voices have power so we are excited to learn how the pilot phase of Spark Inside’s listening project is received.