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User Voice's Council Model: Only offenders can stop re-offending

Change Management

The following figures highlight problems within the criminal justice system and the need for reform:

  • The average annual prison population increased by 26.5 percent between 1998 and 2008 (and is set to increase further). This has increased pressures put on the system – and resulted in higher levels of inappropriate transfer of prisoners, overcrowding, and fewer available resources. This strains the balance between security and rehabilitation within the prison system.
  • Nearly 1 in 5 crimes is perpetrated by past offenders. This indicates that the policy of restoring prisoners back into ‘regular’ society is failing.
  • Alongside its incalculable human costs, the associated costs of crime are great – and this is particularly salient at a time of fiscal austerity. Each prisoner costs £41,000 annually. The Prison Service’s operating costs were £1.9 billion in 2006-2007. It has been estimated for a number of years that the cost of reoffending through lost output, court and other charges is in excess of £12 billion a year.

User Voice also surveyed 49 Prison Governors to explore the difference between what they rated as important attributes of a successful prison and how they rated the current provision of those attributes. After skilled and competent staff, the second largest need gap concerned prisoner inclusion. Whilst it was ranked joint third in terms of the most important factor in running a prison successfully, it came last out of eight when ranked according to current levels of delivery.

User Voice is a charity founded by Mark Johnson. Its goal is to reduce offending and reoffending by presenting the voice of offenders to decision-makers. The work of User Voice is led and delivered by ex-offenders. Their first-hand experience gives them a unique advantage in gaining and providing insights from those currently involved with the criminal justice system. Furthermore, this helps forge links with groups who are often hard to reach or to motivate.

In the Prison Council pilot, User Voice had support from KPMG and the market research company So What?. KPMG assisted in researching existing models of prison councils and developing User Voice’s own unique model. So What? conducted research and an evaluation of the project and provided training for ex-offenders.

The term ‘prison council’ refers to a range of fora, committees and meetings where prisoners are able to air their concerns. The exact number of prisoner councils in the UK prison system is unknown and their roles are under-researched. The Prison Reform Trust reviewed 26 prison councils in 2004. The review highlighted challenges faced in pre-existing prison councils. This included:

  • Councils being used to air inappropriate complaints and to pursue individual agendas.
  • Resentment amongst prison staff who felt under-consulted by the councils.

However, these problems can be found to some extent in all democratic processes, and the survey found that a prison council’s positives outweighed its negatives.

Since 2009 User Voice has piloted their Prison Council Model and Toolkit in HMP Isle of Wight, which consists of three sites:

  1. Camp Hill –a category C prison with 595 male prisoners on shorter sentences.
  2. Parkhurst – a category B with 536 male prisoners on longer sentences. Half the prisoners are Category B and half are considered vulnerable.
  3. Albany – category B prison with 567 male sex offenders.

These prisons were very different from each other, which provided User Voice with multiple contexts and more chances about learn about specific challenges that may arise in relation to each site.

The Council Model was informed by the following principles:

  • Remain flexible throughout so that specific issues can be dealt with and the long-term success of the project can be ensured.
  • Work within regulations - the model is democratic, but is operating in a prison, which is not a full ‘democracy’.
  • Be representative. The council follows the representative democracy model, with elections. Prisoners are elected to represent particular parties tasked with representing common challenges, rather than individual interests, meaning that the model is issue-based, not personal. Examples of parties include - one concerned with preparation to return to the community; another focuses on strengthening prisoner and staff relationships. Candidates and supporters are equipped with skills to help with campaigning through workshops run by ex-offenders.
  • Provide an incentive for involvement. Alongside developing prisoners’ skills and relationships with peers the model had to be enjoyable and inspirational. This is to maintain engagement and momentum whilst positively affecting prisoner ambitions.
  • Ensure transparency and accountability through a framework of rules, copies of minutes and  agreements, and provision of feedback. This sought to protect the long-term success and sustainability of the project.
  • Work through partnership. All actors need to be able to see tangible benefits of the project and be included in all stages of the project to ensure the council is as inclusive and efficient as possible. User Voice sought to engage governors, staff and prisoners constructively and honestly. User Voice ensured no group’s agenda dominated the project and that engagement is mutually beneficial.  

On election day, votes are cast (by both prisoners and staff) for one of the parties, not for individual candidates. The number of council seats allocated to each party is proportionate to the amount of votes won.

User Voice Prison Councils are made up of the Chair, elected prisoners and staff. The Council Chair (a senior prison staff member) acts as an organising figurehead seeking to ensure the success of the council and its meetings. Meetings are regular – ranging from once a week to once a month – depending on what is appropriate. Council members have to attend all meetings and engage with the prison community to ensure the council’s priorities remain relevant. To maintain continuous improvement of the User Voice project, councils regularly review and evaluate their own performance.

For example, at HMP Maidstone elections took place in Feb 2011 and the council has since been meeting on a monthly basis. Many discussions have centred on communication between staff and prisoners and the potential for misunderstandings or conflicts that can arise through lack of effective communication. Improvements achieved have included:

  • suggestion boxes on every wing;
  • new & more detailed notice boards on all wings;
  • new job for a prisoner to be Communication representative, responsible for ensuring information is distributed;
  • more transparent rules regarding ordering medication;
  • clearer published guidelines regarding decisions on Release on Temporary Licence.
About this case study
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Jeff Ogden

Engagement Officer

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Frankie Hine-Hughes, project manager of Governance International, compiled this case study on 9 August 2011.

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