On the inside: Insider perspectives on prison reform

Sacha Darke argues that prisoners, former prisoners and their families are key to radical penal activism.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s announcement in November that the coalition Government would turn to the voluntary sector to provide peer mentors for short-term released prisoners raises a number of concerns for radical penal activism. While grass roots anti-prison organisations may have taken more of a backstage in the prison reform movement in the past twenty or thirty years (see David Scott’s previous contribution to this site here), grass roots prisoner support organsations have proliferated in the shadow of the growth of the prison population. No doubt Grayling made his announcement in the knowledge that many of these groups already run peer mentoring schemes, mostly in prison but some, e.g. UNLOCK (the National Association of Reformed Offenders) and the St Giles Trust, on the outside. Unsurprisingly, the Government’s apparent decision to utilize this knowledge and capacity has been tentatively welcomed by prisoner support groups. No doubt there will be disagreement over the question whether UNLOCK and others should/will be able to bid for the proposed contracts without being compromised by the Government’s broader, punitive penal policies. What is less questionable is the growth in prisoner/ former prisoner peer mentoring itself. Recent evaluation indicates that it is invariably a positive, empowering experience for both mentees and mentors (Clinks and MBF, 2012; Edgar et al., 2012; TSIP, 2012).

More generally, Chris Grayling’s announcement serves as a timely reminder of the importance of insider perspectives to the revival of radical penal activism, voices that, despite the recent use of peer researchers by, for instance, the Prison Reform Trust and Howard League, remain peripheral to the wider prison reform agenda. An important step to rectifying this omission is to ensure that the Downsizing Criminal Justice coalition is steered by former prisoners and the families of serving prisoners as well as academics and other career professionals. This will hopefully be facilitated through contact that the coalition has with support groups such as Women in Prison and INQUEST. A good model is provided by the Group of Friends and Families of People in Deprivation of Liberty, Minas Gerais, Brazil (http://antiprisional.blogspot.com.br), a coalition of prisoners’ families, lawyers, academics and ex-prisoners that has among other things filmed documentaries inside local prisons, published prisoner and prisoner family accounts, and organised public demonstrations.

A second, related measure is to develop insider perspectives on prison in critical criminology. To this aim, in January 2012 two academic colleagues and I founded British Convict Criminology (http://www.convictcriminology.org/bcc.htm). From teaching at University of Westminster and the Open University, and our involvement with the Prisoners Education Trust, we were aware that there are an increasing number of prisoners and former prisoners in higher education. The expansion of both university criminology courses and prisons over the last twenty years appears to have generated an otherwise unlikely convergence of experience that is potentially productive but in the case of prisoners (as opposed to prison officers) largely overlooked. Based broadly on the experience of Convict Criminology in North America, our main objectives are to provide academic mentoring for prisoners and ex-prisoners studying degrees in criminology and cognate disciplines, and to provide a meeting point for collaborative research and activism. We now have close to 100 members, evenly split between prisoners, former prisoners and other ‘non-convict’ established prison researchers. We have a number of projects planned for the New Year. Importantly, our research and activism will be shaped by and through people with first-hand experience of prison.

Sacha Darke, University of Westminster


Clinks and the Mentoring and Befriending Foundation (2012) Supporting Prisoners through Mentoring and Befriending, http://www.mandbf.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Clinks-and-MBF-survey-report-findings-final-version-Sept-2012.pdf

Edgar, K., Aresti, A. and Cornish, N. (2012) Out for Good: Taking Responsibility for Resettlement, London: Prison Reform Trust

The Social Innovation Project and St Giles Trust (2012) The Wire, http://www.stgilestrust.org.uk/media/22/6593/1sgt-report-final.pdf

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