close-up of a person wearing grey and green planting a plant

The start point for our Barred Citizens programme is that people are sent to prison to be deprived of their liberty, not their identity or their citizenship. Prisoners must have scope to take responsibility for their own lives, help others and prepare for successful community resettlement. Barred Citizens grew from work over the last several years on prisoner volunteering, representation, voting rights and Human Rights Act monitoring. 

Prison Councils: a key to effective prison management

Prisons should not be about turning offenders into good prisoners, but about turning prisoners into good citizens.
(NOMS senior manager)
a section of a quilt made for fine cell work by prisoners at Wandsworth   Most prisons facilitate some form of prisoner consultation. Councils and wing committees inform the development of policies and hone the provision of services to prisoners’ needs. Peer representatives speak up for particular groups (including disabled people) or undertake a specific remit (such as violence reduction reps).

Prison council reps are normally elected. In the model pioneered by User Voice, parties are established to represent themes, such as resettlement, families or equality. Council reps canvass their constituents to agree on subjects to raise with the senior managers. This encourages discussions on the wings about the life of the community, which can lead prisoners to contribute ideas and hear different viewpoints. Representing others requires specialised skills, particularly in a prison environment where the people with the most profound needs may not be able to speak up for themselves.

Consulting prisoners produces consistent results:
  • Prisoners’ needs are brought to the attention of managers, so that decisions about expenditure are applied in the most efficient way
  • Sources of conflict are made explicit so that they can be worked on and resolved
  • Consultation builds the prisoners’ confidence in managing problems through dialogue, and increases their self-confidence, contributing to a reduced risk of reoffending on release.
The Prison Reform Trust has emphasised that prison councils help to reduce conflicts throughout a prison. A more peaceful prison is one that can focus on rehabilitation and reintegration. Thus, safety inside prison spills out to create a safer community outside. So, how do councils help people in prison to manage conflict in safer, more peaceful ways?

Firstly, conflicts are identified and brought to light. Prison councils, giving voice to prisoners’ concerns, highlight the areas in which policies pursued by management might conflict with the expectations of prisoners. Once the-e conflict has been brought into focus, it is possible to clarify the underlying interests and needs of managers, staff and prisoners. This can establish that there is much common ground, and that their shared interests can be built upon. Finally, the conflict, having been recognised and clarified, can often be worked through in the council by a process of dialogue and negotiation.

A prison governor described the effects of having a prison council as:
A forum where you can discuss tensions that surface, a meeting that enables us to explain things directly and in detail. It aids communication. As a result, it prevents problems festering.
Roles that involve genuine responsibility for others help to prepare people for positive roles in the community. This benefit of representative role was captured in an election speech of a prison council chair. Speaking to the prisoners and staff who had elected his party, he expressed his vision for the prison.
No matter what crime you commit;
no matter where you come from;
no matter what race you’re from . . .
We are all in this together, to make this a better prison for us.

So we can work together. So we can be proud of our prison. So one day, when we are out there, and we see the prison, we can say, “Yes, I was there and we had a good relationship.”

It is about building our life and our trust. We got children, we got families outside, that depend on us; that are suffering because we are in prison. It is not only us who are feeling it. People outside are feeling it more than us. So far that reason we should use this prison, a place to get our lives back together, so that we can go out there and be better in our society.