In this guest blog, Revolving Doors Agency’s Paula Harriott talks about the power of service user involvement, and a suite of practical toolkits incorporating the latest thinking and good practice on how to involve service users in prisons and in probation.
“…what I remember most was the recognition that I was something more than MM4865, the Sun’s ‘drug lag’ - that I was someone of value.”
There’s a bit of a buzz recently about service user involvement within criminal justice settings, but involving users of services in design, delivery and evaluation isn’t new. We have had tenant participation strategies in social housing for years, the National Health Service invests heavily in its public and patient involvement work, and mainstream businesses know without a doubt that customer insight drives good product development and customer service; if it doesn’t work for customers, it’s not fit for purpose. Within mental health and substance misuse services, user involvement – and peer support – has been the norm for some years. Quite strange then, isn’t it, that the commitment to develop service user involvement in criminal justice settings has lagged behind for so long?
However, despite austerity and despite massive changes in the Criminal Justice System brought about by Transforming Rehabilitation and more impending changes recently announced as part of the reform programme for prisons, it’s as if the penny has dropped - that if we involve service users, we might end up delivering services that work; services that reduce reoffending and reduce the horrific number of people passing through the system. These people aren’t faceless statistics, they are experts by experience and that expertise needs to be harnessed so that the system flexes and changes in a responsive fashion to the needs of its users, being ever mindful of its purpose; to protect the public and to reduce reoffending. If something works, don’t fix it. But when we have a Criminal Justice System which has spectacularly failed for many years to meet both these goals, then let’s embrace a new approach.
And there’s more again to service user involvement. It’s about how people change, how they identify and create a different ethical framework by which to live. Changing the direction of your life requires acceptance of responsibility and the space to develop an understanding of how to live in an ethical and responsible fashion. Organisations which practice service user involvement create and model social responsibility; shifting individuals from learned helplessness, despair and nihilism through creating safe and supportive spaces to develop new skills and a new awareness of their community and their responsibilities towards it. It can lead to an acknowledgement that, despite problematic, often shocking behaviours, there’s potential for change, for inclusion, for development, and most importantly, it instils a belief that there’s hope for a different life. My own journey started as a peer supporter in Drake Hall prison in 2005; an article in the Sun shamed me as a ‘drug lag’, but the Governor, John Huntingdon, trusted me to lead a peer support initiative in education which saw 67 women prisoners take distance learning courses in one year.
That felt like an achievement and a contribution - but what I remember most was the recognition that I was something more than MM4865, the Sun’s ‘drug lag’ - that I was someone of value.
Revolving Doors Agency has published three new reports for staff working with offenders in the community and in prisons to improve their service user involvement and to run peer research projects. Download the toolkits here