Capturing the lived experiences of people in prison

Sean Creaney
Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Prisons are about discipline and control wherein behaviour is closely regulated and compliance monitored.

Prisons are not only costly, violent, ineffective, overcrowded and understaffed but also unsafe, with high levels of self-harm and suicide. And use of restraint, searches and segregation all continue to be controversial. The BBC Panorama investigation uncovered unnecessary use of force and children being abused by staff at Medway Secure Training Centre (STC).

Neil Puffet in CYP Now referred to the recent Ofsted report that raised "fresh safety concerns" at Medway STC. The report stated specifically how child protection matters not being managed effectively, and highlighted increased "growing" levels of violence.

In addition to this there is ongoing concern regarding resettlement and in particular prisoners are experiencing problems in relation to accommodation, education, training and employment opportunities. Added to this, they tend to be marginalised and lack social capital (trust and reciprocity) resources and networks. However, it is heartening to report that the Youth Justice Board has introduced a new tool to gather young people's experiences of custody - this could alleviate some of the problems if what prisoners say is acted upon.

The new custody exit form can be used to collect the views of service users on their experiences of custody at the point of release, after remand or sentence. This could potentially help ensure the complaint and incident process is "fair", "open" and "transparent". Also, improvements in prisoner health and wellbeing may result. Anne-Marie Douglas, founder of social justice charity Peer Power, states that it is vital that young people feel safe and secure in a trusting relationship with their youth justice worker, prior to and during the custodial sentence, to ensure that the young person is able to have their voice heard "meaningfully". 

People in prison tend to have experiences of exclusion and stigma often compounded by being held in a system that controls and disempowers them. However, in terms of more positive, strengths-based developments I met recently with Richard Rowley, business development and relationship manager at Safe Innovations. Richard referred to seedS, a unique and engineered architectural product that creates defined, private space in an otherwise open and busy prison setting.

seedS was designed to address the rising Did Not Attend figures, the lack of space to deliver care and the lack of confidentiality on the wings when prisoners were interacting with staff. The prototype was launched in HMP Leeds, Cat B adult male prison in 2015, and looks set to be introduced into the juvenile secure estate. As Richard said, such a therapeutic space - where lived experiences can be captured - can help make people feel safe and comfortable, enabling them to connect, communicate, and work in a controllable space. This can be especially useful when working with clients who have complex needs and/or who appear hostile or perceived as "difficult to engage".

Sean Creaney is an advisor at social justice charity Peer Power

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