How can we create safer prisons?

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Jon Collins
5 October 2016

On Sunday, the always well informed James Forsyth reported that there is ‘mounting concern at the top of government about how close to meltdown the prison system is’. This is hardly a surprise. Report after report in the last few months has highlighted the perilous state of the prison system, while recent prison statistics make grim reading.

Part, if not all, of the reason for the deterioration in prison safety in recent years has been falling staff numbers (and low staff retention rates) at a time when prisoner numbers have continued to grow, albeit relatively slowly. This has seen staff stretched too thinly, particularly given the emergence of so called ‘legal highs’ as a major problem in the prison estate.

In response to this, in her speech to the Conservative Party Conference yesterday, Justice Secretary Liz Truss announced that 400 new prison officers will be recruited to try and create a safer environment in 10 of the most challenging prisons, which will in turn enable them to better focus on rehabilitation. This is a sensible, if limited, sticking plaster in the short term, though it’s not a solution to the more fundamental issues facing the prison system.

More staff is not, in itself, enough. What matters is what staff do and how they go about ensuring that prisons are, first and foremost, safe for both prisoners and staff. And that’s where restorative practice comes in. Conflicts in prisons are inevitable - both conflicts between prisoners and conflicts between prisoners and staff. They need to be prevented where possible, of course. But where they occur they also need to be dealt with effectively.

Using a restorative approach can help to do this. Properly integrated into the adjudication process it can form part of the response to more serious incidents. And used informally on prison landings it can help to de-escalate conflict and prevent incidents from getting out of hand. It can also be used in response to particular challenges – for example HMP Forest Bank is using restorative practice specifically in response to the use of new psychoactive substances, as discussed in a recent edition of our members’ magazine Resolution.

We’ve been travelling around the country in the last few weeks talking to prison governors and senior staff about restorative practice in prisons. There is a growing interest in its use, in part in response to the current issues around safety and violence. Two prisons are working with Restorative Solutions to formally pilot a restorative approach, while others are adopting it on a more ad hoc basis. Some YOIs are also exploring the use of restorative approaches, with the support of NOMS.

This interest is welcome. We know from those prisons with a tradition of using restorative practice – as well as from other institutions like secure children’s homes that have benefited from its use – that embedding a restorative approach into a prison can have significant benefits, helping to create a safer and more stable environment. It can also complement making restorative justice more widely available.

This is not without challenges. Prisons that have started to use restorative practice routinely have told us that it is by no means an easy option nor a quick fix. Restorative practice encourages people to get to the root of the problem, not just deal with its symptoms. This may bring to the surface problems that the prison would otherwise have been unaware of which then need to be dealt with. This is better in the long run but can create short term problems for the prison.

But, as in every other setting, we know that when restorative practice is used safely and well the benefits can be huge. In prisons, it can help to create a safer, more stable environment for prisoners and prison staff. Liz Truss was clear in her speech yesterday that she believes that prisons can be a place of reform. If that is ever going to be possible then prisoners need to be, and feel, safe. Embedding restorative practice into the running of a prison can be central to achieving this goal.