Following on from our recent blog post on desistance theory, we thought it would be interesting to share some of the findings of the recent Review of the Northern Ireland Prison Service. Though many of its findings and recommendations are specific to that particular region, the report draws heavily upon desistance theory and recent criminological research, and grapples with the broader question of what role a reformed prison service could play in making desistance from crime a reality. In doing so, it highlights the particular importance of Voluntary and Community Sector organisations and effective partnership working in providing holistic and effective interventions, both inside and outside the prison walls. We are always interested in your responses to this blog, so please do share any thoughts or answers to the questions in the comments section at the end of this post.
As outlined in the earlier post on this blog, desistance from crime is a process which has two elements – the individual and the social. Plans and interventions need to place the individual at the centre since, ultimately, only offenders themselves can choose to desist from crime. Furthermore, an individual’s chances of successfully desisting from crime are closely tied to their ‘social capital’ and resources outside the prison walls, including familial and social relationships, employment prospects and economic circumstances. Thus, desistance theory suggests that there is no straightforward relationship between process and outcomes in the criminal justice system, and that desistance from crime is contingent upon individual and community-based factors rather than imprisonment and interventions in custody. This poses a fundamental challenge to a system which has historically acted upon rather than with offenders. Can prison be in any way conducive to reducing reoffending? What could a holistic and desistance-focused prison service look like in practice?
The Northern Ireland report suggests that the crucial starting point is to focus on the quality of provision and interventions across all aspects of the prison service, as opposed to its inputs or outputs. An effective prison system must be built upon certain key, ethical values and foster a common sense of purpose among its staff. Respect for the human rights of prisoners should not be viewed as a ‘soft’ approach, but one which entails the provision of real opportunities for growth and a genuine commitment to rehabilitation as a core function of prison.
‘A prison that offers no possibility or expectation of change and no opportunities to develop, which demonstrates that power over others can be used arbitrarily or allows no space or demand for individual responsibility, will simply reinforce a criminal identity and make individuals and communities less safe.’
This will come as no surprise to VCS organisations in the criminal justice system, and indeed was a fundamental tenet of Breaking the Cycle. Prison certainly can nurture the individual element of the desistance process, through education and preparation for employment, and by building ‘softer’ skills such as teamwork, parenting and self-esteem. This could perhaps be achieved through involvement in arts programmes, sports or peer mentoring. Such interventions can be critical in challenging criminal identities and setting an offender on the pathway to successful resettlement.
The critical point, and one which is in danger of being overlooked in an era of austerity funding, is that desistance is a social as well as an individual issue. This is an area where the VCS has been at the forefront in providing valuable and innovative services.
‘Interventions based only on human capital (or developing prisoners’ capacities and skills) are important but will not be enough; there is also a need to identify and strengthen social capital: the relationships, communities and economic circumstances in which people find themselves.’
‘The use of arts projects, sports and teamwork activities, and other aspects of personal development, such as parenting and life skills courses, can create opportunities for prisoners to develop new skills and relationships...In many cases, this is best done by voluntary and community sector partners, who bring both expertise and the essential post-release links.’
Prisons cannot provide sufficient support on their own. It stands to reason that the ex-offender who is homeless, unemployed and alienated from society will be more than likely to reoffend. In order for desistance to become a reality, there must be permeability of provision between the prison and the community, with individually-tailored custody and sentence plans acting as a ‘golden thread’ between the two. The itinerant nature of the prison population in England and Wales makes this a real challenge. In Northern Ireland, however, there are numerous examples of innovative practice and partnerships between the VCS and statutory sector, due to the historic political conflict, and the exceptionally close links between prison and the communities to which offenders return. As the report notes, there is a great deal to be learnt from the resettlement of prisoners in the province regarding the importance of ‘social capital’ and the unique ability of grassroots community groups to offer flexible and individually tailored support.
This is particularly crucial for vulnerable prisoners and those with specific needs, notably women and young people. The Northern Ireland review highlights the Inspire Women’s Project as a particularly impressive example of effective partnership working between the statutory sector and VCS which should be rolled out as the default model for these two groups within the province. Led by the Probation Board for Northern Ireland, along with NIACRO and the Women’s Support Network, the Inspire project adopts a ‘communities-in’ rather than a ‘prisons-out’ approach. NIACRO links individual women under probation supervision or soon to leave prison with appropriate mainstream services in the community. Its most recent evaluation has shown significant improvements in reported rates of reoffending, self-esteem and substance abuse among service users.
‘It is vitally important that [provision for female offenders] retains its community and voluntary sector base, does not become a criminal justice silo, and retains the principle that services should cohere around a woman, rather than women having to access multiple, and sometimes conflicting, services.
The report stresses that, in order to make this a reality, there must be a commitment to real and effective partnership working between different sectors. The Inspire project demonstrates the importance of partnerships in desistance. This aspect of the Review is particularly timely given the imminent challenges of new models of commissioning, including Payment by Results, in which partnerships between different sectors are vital. Crucially, the report highlights the fact that true partnership working involves joint planning and the involvement of all parties from the earliest possible stage. This has not always been the case in early PbR pilots, as the recent process evaluation of the Heron Unit at Feltham YOI attests. The VCS is generally treated purely as a delivery agent, sub-contracted by the statutory sector and dependent on funding which is fragile and time-limited in nature.
The development of effective partnerships is therefore closely linked to the need for a ‘fresh look at and transparent logic for the planning and commissioning of services in prisons in Northern Ireland’. This surely also applies to England and Wales, where the exact form of new models of commissioning, and the consequences for VCS providers, remain unclear. The recent RR3 paper on this issue (which may be viewed here) has already recommended that certain steps be taken to safeguard the position of smaller VCS organisations who may otherwise be ‘frozen out’ by complex and expensive tender processes. If prison is to facilitate desistance from crime, then this is a critical first step in ensuring that valuable services and experienced providers are not excluded from partnership working with the statutory and private sector.
- Do you think that prison can ever be an environment which is conducive to supporting an individual’s ‘desistance journey’? Does this differ for certain groups of offenders?
- What are the VCS’s particular strengths and weaknesses in this area, and what are the most pressing barriers to continued VCS involvement?
- How can links be sustained between prison and the community into which an individual is to be released, given that many offenders are imprisoned far away from home?
- What can Clinks, as a membership organisation, do to ensure that the VCS is represented from the earliest possible stage of commissioning and partnership working?
Update on funding for the criminal justice voluntary sector
Letter from Amy Rees Chief Executive HMPPS dated 28 March 2023
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