Lessons from abroad for justice reform

15 Jun 2017

Today sees the publication of two briefings, authored by Dr Jessica Jacobson and Helen Fair of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Birkbeck and published by the Prison Reform Trust. The briefings highlight learning from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust (WCMT) Prison Reform Fellowships, which have a particular focus on prison reform across the world.

These two briefings are the last in a series of five, based around the theme of "connections", which highlight some of the learning from these Fellowships. Previous briefings have presented an overview of learning and examined in more detail the importance of maintaining family ties and the potential of problem-solving approaches.

Positive peer relations

The first of today’s briefings examines the importance of positive peer relations for promoting desistance and providing moral and practical support to people in prison and on release. In England and Wales, the growing use and benefits of peer support across the prison estate have been recognised by inspectors. The importance of peer support for those leaving prison and re-entering the community is also widely recognised, and is increasingly viewed by the UK Government as a key means of ensuring continuity of support for former prisoners.

Examples of peer support programmes visited by the Churchill Fellows include a programme run by ex-prisoners in the US which encourages the peer-led and grassroots education of prisoners; the use of drama to promote positive behaviour in prison in South Africa; and a programme in the US which uses life sentence prisoners as ‘social mentors’ to help new prisoners to adapt to prison life. Examples of peer support for those leaving prison were seen in Finland, where former prisoners work with those being released from prison to help them access the services they need to resettle back into the community, and in the US through the Delancey Street Foundation, which is entirely staffed by people who have been through the prison system, and teaches marketable skills to recently released prisoners.

Helen Fair, ICPR Research Fellow and co-author of the reports, said: “The findings of the Churchill Fellows in this report demonstrate the importance of positive peer relations at all stages of the criminal justice system and the wide range of initiatives being undertaken in other jurisdictions to harness such support. We hope that the findings will help to stimulate discussion about the use of such initiatives in the UK.”

Read the report.

A sense of responsibility

The second briefing published today profiles interventions which encourage people to develop a positive sense of self and a sense of responsibility for their own lives and towards others. Restorative justice can be understood as a means by which offenders are helped to acknowledge and take responsibility for their past actions and for the harmful consequences of these actions for others, and indeed for themselves. Among restorative justice work examined by the Churchill Fellows was a prison-based project in South Africa, and interventions drawing on indigenous traditions in Canada and the United States. 

Several Churchill Fellows looked at initiatives which encourage self-sufficiency and personal responsibility among prisoners. In a Norwegian prison, for example, prisoners rear animals for meat, grow fruit and vegetables and chop wood for heating; while a Dutch prison is piloting a wing for life and other long sentenced prisoners in which they live as autonomously as possible, within the constraints of a medium-secure establishment. Among projects with a focus on positive social identities were initiatives in Sweden, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand which sought to improve personal resilience to violence by exploring gender and culture as bases of social identity. The concept of ‘judicial rehabilitation’ in France, explored by one of the Churchill Fellows, is all about encouraging former offenders to redefine themselves and their own futures.

Dr Jessica Jacobson, Director of ICPR and co-author of the reports, said: “The Churchill Fellowships provide an opportunity to learn from other countries’ experiences of devising and implementing innovative practice in criminal justice. Our report on Sense of Self and Sense of Responsibility highlights some of the many ways in which offenders can be supported in developing new ways of thinking about themselves and where they belong within wider society."

Read the report.

International learning

The Fellowships offer a way of learning about how other countries respond to crime and exploring whether similar approaches could be taken in the UK. Fellows include frontline prison officers and governors, civil servants, artists, barristers, police professionals and academics from across the UK. In total, 51 Fellows travelled as far as Australia and Africa to bring back learning which could assist UK policymakers in reducing reoffending and prison numbers. Many Fellows are already applying the learning in a range of local and national settings.