A visit to: The Prison Reform Trust

A visit to: the Prison Reform Trust

The Prison Reform Trust (PRT) works with and for prisoners to create a just, humane and effective penal system.  Whilst the PRT has carefully built relationships with decision-makers at all levels, from prison governors to Secretaries of State, the organisation’s power lies in its relationships with those who live in prison, their trust and belief in PRT and its staff, and PRT’s efforts and willingness to learn from those it seeks to represent.

Listening to men, women and young people who live in prison is therefore one of the Prison Reform Trust’s core principles.  Their application to The Listening Fund focused on deepening and improving the organisation’s existing listening practice and supporting the inclusion of young people in the PRT’s developing Prisoner Policy Network.  This initiative aims to give those who live in prison a platform for contributing to discussions about how the system needs to change and improve.

We recently met with staff at the PRT to find out how their listening work has developed over the past 18 months and during a wide-ranging conversation, Paula, Zahid and Sean shared some lessons which have emerged from their work:

1) The three staff members who have undertaken the majority of PRT’s listening work all have lived experience of prison.  As a result, those who currently live in prison identified them as ‘authentic’; as individuals who would understand them, their references, their hopes and their frustrations.  This shared experience has helped establish a rapport which the PRT have built upon by respecting those who have offered their experience and expertise. For example, every contributor to the Prisoner Policy Network receives a written response to their submission, as well as a copy of the final report and recommendations.  This creates a sense of collaboration which many of those who live in prison feel is missing from academic studies. Such studies can often feel extractive, with contributors’ expertise and experience used to inform papers which are not shared with them, and which are often written in a style and using language which is exclusive rather than inclusive. 

2) Whilst the lived experience within the PRT staff team has been enormously beneficial in building strong relationships with those who live in prison, the PRT have also used the Listening Fund grant to secure external expertise where required.  For example, submissions to the Prisoner Policy Network are qualitative and the team at the PRT recognised that they needed help in accurately identifying and representing common themes in the written and oral responses they received. The PRT have therefore secured the support of Dr Lucy Wainwright who has helped the team to analyse what they have heard, to identify trends in the submissions, and to produce reports which accurately reflect the broad range of contributors’ opinions, expertise and experience.  This has allowed the PRT to ask very open questions of their network, confident that they will be able pull together common threads.

3) The success of the Prisoner Policy Network has been underpinned by determined efforts at the PRT to examine and improve the organisation’s listening culture.  Trustees and the Senior Management Team have embraced the importance and value of lived experience and all new members of staff are now trained on user involvement and the power dynamics which exist between those who live in prison, the justice system and external organisations including the PRT.  As a result, the organisation is benefiting from a wealth of experience and expertise, and those who live in prison are taking advantage of platforms which have previously been denied to them – such as meetings, conferences and publications – to share their insights and opinions with those who make decisions.

The PRT’s listening work with those who live in prison is still in its infancy, and there are challenges ahead in terms of making sure that the various systems and organisations which comprise the justice system value what has been said.  Listening, therefore, has offered no quick fixes, no silver bullets for complex problems in a complicated system.  However, the PRT’s dedication to listening is not only providing some much-needed support and opportunities for those who live in prison, it is also ensuring that more expertise is available to those making decisions.