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Reducing the numbers of women in prison has been a particular focus in policy in the United Kingdom in recent years. Research has identified that there is a problematic rise in the incarceration rates of women in the UK, with most women incarcerated for non-violent crimes. Transforming Lives (TL), the Prison Reform Trust’s (PRT) programme to reduce women’s imprisonment, has included the voices of women with lived experience of the criminal justice system (CJS) in its work to help shed light on these issues and spearhead changes in policy.

NatCen was commissioned by the PRT to carry out a qualitative study exploring the perceived impact of the voices of women with lived experience of the CJS on the goals of the Transforming Lives programme (read the full report here).

The benefits of involving service users in advocacy work to achieve change are well known, and our findings reflected these, as well as the benefits that may be experienced by service users through their involvement. We also drew out important lessons for organisations to consider in how they go about involving women with lived experience, in order to maximise the value of their engagement and minimise any potential negative impacts.

‘It is important to involve service users, because a lot of the policymakers that are involved in policymaking have never had the experience. They've never been to prison.’ (Woman with lived experience)

Benefits of service user involvement

User involvement activities should benefit the individual concerned as well as the programme, and this requires careful consideration from the outset.

‘It should be a two-way learning for the organisation and for the service user. What can the service user take from this? Are [the organisation] going to upskill them? Are they going to heal in some way? Instead of using [the service user].’

(Woman with lived experience)

One benefit for some women taking part in TL was learning and understanding more about ongoing work around women’s imprisonment. Through the various opportunities to share their voices, they could form connections with other women and programme intermediaries, an important consideration for some in their decision to be involved.

TL could benefit women who were directly involved in the programme in other ways. For example, inviting women to speak at events was described by some as empowering. Some women also felt that their inclusion could be inspiring for other service users in the audience, because it showed an appreciation of voices like their own.

‘It's motivating. I think it inspires [women with lived experience] to feel that their voices can be heard. I think it helps them to think about different opportunities, and doors that might be open to them.’ (Programme intermediary)

When we spoke to attendees at events convened or attended by TL, it was clear women’s first-hand accounts of their experiences had had an impact. Some told us women’s contributions reinforced their previous thinking, or that contributions were powerful enough to prompt them to consider their own work differently. In one example, a participant reported examining their existing practice following specific points raised in women’s discussions of their own experiences in custody.

Maximising the value of women’s involvement

When planning women’s involvement, organisations must show an appreciation of what it will involve for the women and treat them with care and respect. It is important to understand and appreciate what disclosing their lived experience can mean for the individual. Participants highlighted the emotional toll of disclosing information about lived experiences, which were often bound up in trauma and shame.

‘Reliving these experiences and talking about them are quite personal and quite emotive, I think. […] you are giving a presentation or a talk to a large group of people, […] a lot of police officers – who are the ones you might have had issues with in the past.’ (Programme intermediary)

Potential power imbalances between service users and the professional audiences that they were engaging with was another important factor to consider in order to reduce any emotional strain on women.

‘It can make you feel a little bit inferior when people are there in suits and stuff like that.’ (Woman with lived experience)

In some cases, women who were involved at events might reveal more of their story than they intended, which was similarly seen as a concern when protecting women and a potential risk to their privacy. We also found it was crucial that women were supported to understand potential consequences of identifying themselves publicly as somebody with a criminal record.

Conclusion

For organisations planning the involvement of service users in their work, it’s vital to show an appreciation of what it will entail for service users, and to factor support provision into planned approaches. Sharing experiences can place both emotional and practical burdens on service users, and attending to this is key to ensuring effective, meaningful, and sustainable contributions from service users that can benefit everyone involved.

Arjun Liddar