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England: Prison Councils to enable prisoners to participate

18th September 2009

A pilot project in three English prisons will see prisoners elect their own representatives onto Prison Councils. The project aims to give voice to prisoners, and to facilitate their involvment in the design of rehabilitation programmes.

This democratic participation offers the greatest chance for successful engagement and, ultimately, re-integration, writes Mark Johnson in the Guardian:

We believe that only offenders – that is, users of the criminal justice system – can reduce reoffending. And we believe it's time for society to take stock of our burgeoning prison system. It does a great job of containing people, but fails almost totally to enable the change that many inside are ready to embrace, given the chance.

If we want effective rehabilitation programmes inside our jails, they must be devised with the input of the people who'll be benefiting from them. We need a structure that enables prisoners to participate, that uses their skills to add value to the criminal justice system and ultimately to cut crime. So our main project at the moment is prison councils, which we're piloting in three jails and hope to roll out across the country. Next week, hundreds of prisoners will be invited to fill in ballot papers and elect their own representatives. For most offenders, it will be the first election in which they have ever cast a vote. Since offenders generally live on society's margins, they have rarely been engaged to participate as citizens before. Now they are being handed some personal responsibility – an important new experience for those trapped inside a system that perpetuates their powerlessness.

The prison councils will work at many levels. Most basically, prisoners will bring problems to their council-elected representatives, instead of letting them fester on the wings, where the sense of utter hopelessness will be familiar to all offenders. It's often what led them to crime in the first place.

Prison councils will carry ideas and information around the sprawling prisoner networks. They will provide an opportunity for the heart to talk to the head. Staff and prisoners will unite to express their views. They will offer a channel for the hidden people at society's extremities to articulate how they can help, and be helped, to change. Most of all, run peer-to-peer, they are a model of engagement.

This democratised model is sorely needed. Whole industries have been created to reduce re-offending, but few employ ex-offenders in any numbers – and those who are employed are sure to be at the bottom of the pay scale.

Real power-sharing is not on the agenda because it's too big a pill to swallow for people who have studied and worked hard to become the ruling class. Our education system is psychologically underpinned by a sense of entitlement that is shared by all who are lucky enough to have the opportunities and emotional receptiveness to participate. It's not surprising that they don't want to share their rewards with a chaotic underclass they can never begin to understand.

If we want a fairer, safer, less crime-ridden society, then power must be shared and user engagement fully funded. When offenders have a real possibility of rehabilitation, and afterwards being accepted into society as equals with equal opportunities and equal pay, only then will our crime and incarceration rate begin to fall.

Mark Johnson, a rehabilitated offender and former drug user, is an author and founder of the charity Uservoice.

Source: Guardian