Give Prisoners More Power To Improve Prisons

Give Prisoners More Power To Improve Prisons


3RD JULY 2010

Prisoners should be given more power to influence how prisons operate and to improve the UK’s record on rehabilitation, according to a report out today (3 July 2010). It shows that doing so can reduce complaints, segregation and encourage civic participation on release.

The Power Inside is published by User Voice a new charity founded by Mark Johnson and led by ex-offenders. In the wake of the Justice Minister, Kenneth Clarke’s call for new thinking about prisons and rehabilitation, it argues for the expansion of a new model of prison councils as part of the government’s ‘rehabilitation revolution’.

User Voice Prison Councils are established through an electoral process where prisoners form ‘parties’, each representing common challenges. For example, one party will focus on proposals or strengthening and improving the relationships between prisoners and with staff, while another will advocate proposals to improve prisoners’ preparation for employment and resettlement on release.

Ex-offenders employed by User Voice work with prisoners on campaigns and in canvassing the opinions of staff and other prisoners. Each party presents a manifesto and on ‘Election Day’, votes are cast for one of the parties, not for individual candidates.

User Voice has piloted its model in HMPs Albany, Parkhurst and Camp Hill on the Isle of Wight. Here, elected representatives of prisoners meet regularly with prison management to discuss ways of improving the way prisons are run.

  • Evaluation of the pilots show that complaints in one prison had reduced by 37 per cent since the council become active. In another, the number of segregation days – good indicators of tensions in jail – fell from 160 to 47.
  • Other impacts included better relationships with staff and prisoners as well as concrete changes in specific areas such as visiting arrangements.

Governor support

  • Governors ranked prisoner inclusion as being as important to running a good prison as rehabilitation services and assistance on drugs and alcohol, and more important than access to external services, family and friends and effective learning and skills. However, when asked how well they felt the average prison today was providing these things, prisoner inclusion came last.
  • Asked what the main hurdles to successful prisoner inclusion, governors were most likely to identify staff motivation and skills as barriers.

The voting habit

The report includes evidence to show that involvement in a User Voice Prison Council increased prisoners’ intentions to vote in national elections on release.

  • Of 561 prisoners at the three sites, only 35 per cent had voted in national elections before their jail sentence.
  • Since the establishment of the User Voice Prison Councils, 53 per cent of all prisoners and 79 per cent of those directly involved in a council said they intended to vote on release.
  • While some of the prisoners involved in the councils had previously voted outside; over 60 per cent of those involved in councils who had not previously voted say they intended to do so in future general.

Mark Johnson, Founder of User Voice said:

The Justice Minister is right to call for a new approach to prisons and rehabilitation. Ironically, a key element of what is needed is already a ‘bread and butter’ objective for other public services; the engagement of users in delivering better outcomes. This becomes more pressing in the context of spending cuts and should be applied to prisons.

Of course, it is not always easy empowering some of the most chaotic and marginalised groups in society and it doesn’t always work. But when it does the benefits are invaluable. Because if people who are at the sharp end of the system are not equipped to lead successful lives then we will never reduce re-offending. And it’s not so hard to find out what’s needed: you just have to ask them.

In a foreword to the report, Prof Graham Towl, former Chief Psychologist at the Ministry of Justice, said:

This document is not simply about the functioning and achievements of a charity, however laudable and positive that is in itself. It is about human rights and the moral need to overcome a democratic deficit for some of the most economically disadvantaged sections of society. It is about the potential potency of prisoners to contribute to reducing reoffending. It is ultimately about a new and different way of doing business in criminal justice.

The report concludes by recommending that the Ministry of Justice should require all prisons to give a high priority to prisoner engagement.


Notes to Editor:

  • For more information about User Voice visit
  • The Power Inside was presented in draft format for discussion at User Voice’s launch event on 26 May. The final report is informed by feedback from governors and others attending this event.
  • User Voice’s work is led and delivered by ex-offenders. It exists to reduce offending by working with the most marginalised people in and around the criminal justice system to ensure that practitioners and policy-makers hear their voices. User Voice Councils can be developed for use within prisons or in the community for probation, youth offending teams and other related services.

Media Enquiries:

1. Daniel Hutt 020 7968 2740 / 07904 008084 or
2. Mark Johnson 020 7968 2741 / 07759 515057