One Page: Behaviour in prisons – peer-led change

Ian Merrill
May 2, 2024

Welcome to 'One Page'. In this monthly newsletter, I will talk about the people I have met, and the things I have read or seen relating to Shannon Trust's vision, which is a future where everyone can experience the positive impact of learning. I hope these short pieces will start conversations, generate new ideas, and help our vision become a reality.

Behaviour in prisons – peer-led change

Last month, Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, released a thematic review on improving behaviour in prisons. His team identified some initiatives that are motivating good engagement and supporting prisoners’ progress. I was curious to learn what the inspectorate found from peer-based programmes.


While reading the report, a quote from a prisoner at HMP Oakwood caught my eye. He was mentored by peers through the prison incentive scheme, including starting prison work for the first time. He said, “It shows people they can do things they never thought they could.” I do not think he just meant the work itself. His words include active encouragement both of and from others. He is contributing and taking on a role, playing his part.


People who are supported to be responsible for something also grow and develop by showing someone else the ropes, and trying to inspire them.


For Shannon Trust, positive outcomes from peer-led programmes are not a surprise. I read Charlie Taylor’s report, partly with Shannon Trust in mind but also being thoughtful for the future, given the expected rise in prisoner numbers and continuing pressure on resources. If peer-based initiatives are as beneficial as I believe, then their wider use has potential to make a real difference for everyone, which includes prisoners, prison staff and leaders.


Purposeful activity is vital for time in prison to be an opportunity for change and rehabilitation.


Charlie Taylor’s review mentions exercise, including joining park runs from ‘inside’ and linking with the Parkrun community ‘outside’. Taking part in stimulating education programmes and employment initiatives drive good behaviour too, especially when prisoners can have the satisfaction of earning a real wage.


Gaining employable skills help those approaching release. By enriching daily life, the chance to take part in such opportunities motivates and gives purpose (and therefore hope) however long someone has left of their sentence.


We see at Shannon Trust how our mentors thrive through helping others, managing their role and being part of a team. Certainly, these qualities help on release, but they matter before then. They help with a sense of identity, pride and belonging. And if someone feels good about themselves this way, they do not want to lose the ‘privilege’ of being a Shannon Trust mentor.


Peer-led programmes build a positive culture with mutual respect, and this helps a prison’s leadership team.


Another win-win identified in the report is how peer work can give prisoners a stake in their prison community. A prisoner in HMP Swansea told the inspectors how joining fellow prisoners and staff to improve his wing was “life changing.” It is the joint effort that is key, where people come together, contribute and build relationships. For instance, the inspectorate team found that painted murals and planted gardens are respected when prisoners have a stake in them, through involvement in their design or creation, or by being introduced to them as something developed ‘together’ rather than ‘imposed’.


Peer-led welcome and induction programmes are praised in the report. They help newcomers settle in and absorb shared culture and rules. “It doesn’t matter where you come from,” said a prisoner at HMP Swansea, “everyone’s together … not fighting.” They also boost prisoners with that support role, being seen as someone with experience who is trusted with responsibility. This all helps with practical induction tasks and having visible role models for positive behaviour.


The review says that when peer workers feel recognised and supported by prison staff, they want to do their jobs well. One of Shannon Trust’s former mentors, now a trustee, speaks of sometimes needing to negotiate time and space for his work, insisting that reading is a fundamental skill. This passion comes when an individual cares about someone else, wants to be part of a community and wants to make a difference. That is something invaluable in any organisation, including our prisons.


Being recognised for a positive contribution matters particularly for people who have been noticed in the past because things have gone wrong. The inspectorate team observed different ways this happens, including through newsletters and similar prison communications, plus celebration events. “You feel valued and that you are adding some value … and moving forwards,” said a prisoner at HMP Full Sutton.


Regular readers of One Page will know this is Shannon Trust’s experience too. Celebration events, like the one I wrote about last month, are a great way to mark someone’s achievements and encourage them to carry on. It is even better when family and friends can attend to celebrate with them.


Of course, there are differences between prisons, but I am pleased to see how the various peer-led initiatives mentioned in Charlie Taylor’s review have similar good outcomes to our Shannon Trust literacy and numeracy programmes. I am certain there is a lot more that can we can do using this model, for everyone’s benefit.


Please get in touch if anything I have written resonates with you; whether you agree, disagree or you have a suggestion for how we can improve what we do.

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