Points of View 19th February 2019

User Voice’s Prison Council model

by Guest

This case study was written by User Voice as part of the Open Government Pioneers Project. Check out the other case studies here.

Back in 2008, when User Voice was founded, the idea of a charity led by ex-offenders working within 30 prisons and with probation in two-thirds of the country would have been dismissed as fantasy.

We had seen how the system dismissed the views of ex-offenders, instead imposing on them services designed by people with no understanding of the reality of crime, addiction, homelessness, mental health, poverty and all the other related issues.

User Voice was set up to counter this approach.

We worked hard to design, test and tweak a model for using the feedback, views and ideas of ex-offenders to shape the services delivered to them. With these people at the centre, these rehabilitation programmes could be made fairer, more effective and more efficient, pleasing budget-holders, policy makers and people in prison and on probation in one broad sweep.

The Prison Council model

User Voice first adopted the Prison Council model, a democratic system with parties, electioneering, voting and a resulting Council that works with prison authorities to improve prison services.

Elected Council members speak to their fellow prisoners about what works, what doesn’t and how things can be improved. They use this insight to develop proposals that they put forward to the Governor at monthly Council meetings that are voted on with the most popular taken forward and implemented.

We facilitate these elections and the running of the Councils using ex-offenders to manage the process. This ex-offender led transformation – not just of individuals and institutions, but also, hopefully, of the discussion at a policy and political level – is the heart and soul of what we do, and what makes it unique. Currently over 90% of User Voice’s staff have this lived experience – they provide their own insight, and are also best-placed to generate the sort of trust that can get insight from people currently in the criminal justice system.

Prisons working with User Voice regularly report decreases in adjudications (average annual reduction of 102, saving £53,611) and assaults on staff (average annual reduction of 48, saving £64,512); a recent prison election at HMP Maidstone saw a 77% voter turn-out of staff, who are allowed to vote as well – a sure sign that the prison authorities welcome User Voice’s efforts. The Governor at Maidstone, David Atkinson, described User Voice’s activities as “invaluable”.

A recent external evaluation, led by leading criminologist Professor Shadd Maruna, concluded that:

“User Voice prisons have much more positive performance than comparator prisons in relation to levels of prisoner complaints for example, and in relation to changes in levels of adjudications, the analysis suggests that User Voice activity is associated with benefits of £535,999 across the five User Voice prisons where the team was able to undertake before and after rate comparisons.”

Extending the Prison Council approach

But User Voice’s ambitions has not stopped at the prison gate, developing a Community Council model working with people on probation to influence the way they are supported.

Councils for probation operate a similar approach with Council members consulting with other people on probation, developing this feedback into proposals and putting these to the head of the probation service.

As a result, probation services with a Service User Council, have on average a 5% lower re-offending rate than the those which do not have Councils. And 87% of Council members have developed skills including communication, teamwork and leadership

User Voice’s ability to create trusted environments in which to communicate with people in prison or on probation means it is also used by bodies to run consultations. Recently User Voice’s peer researchers consulted with nearly 700 prisoners in 9 prisons for NHS England on the use of novel psychoactive substances (formerly known as legal highs such as Spice) and is credited with having a huge impact. NHS England radically altered the focus of drug treatment services in prisons and the community, through its Substance Misuse Treatment Service Specification which recommended “strengthening the voice and involvement of those with lived experience” and “engaging people with lived experience in the delivery of services and mutual aid networks”.

Our current system in the UK fails to address the needs of the most vulnerable people or even to recognise the problems and issues they face. User Voice can be seen as an attempt to right these wrongs, trying to create system change within a criminal justice framework under severe pressure from an increasing rate of incarceration, outdated models, shrinking budgets, a sometimes hysterical media, a misinformed public and, arguably, a lack of political vision.

There is no one better placed to identify what works, what doesn’t, and to be part of identifying the solution than people with current and recent experience of the justice system.  More significantly, there has never been a time when it has been more important and timely that these people are given the platform to be heard, and to be part of transforming rehabilitation services, as ultimately everyone in society benefits.