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THESE are challenging times to live and work in prisons, says the Chief Inspector of Prisons in a new report.

With rising drugs, violence and self-harm, and overcrowded squalid conditions in many jails, reoffending rates remain stubbornly high, at almost 37 per cent. The proportion of prisoners recalled to prison is 13 per cent higher than it was a year ago. Amidst these pressures, most prisons are struggling to provide any kind of activity to reduce the likelihood that people will end up back inside.

Yet a small number of prisons are safe and calm and have created more positive cultures that encourage prisoners to take part in employment and education that should help them to secure employment on their release. The new report, Improving behaviour in prisons, has explored what these prisons have in common, and what learning there may be for other prisons.

Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector, said : “We know how difficult it is for staff to do their job when they are spending too much time managing disruptive behaviour or worrying about being assaulted in the line of duty. The prisons we visited for this report are by no means perfect, but they were calm and settled and offering the kind of full regimes that we very rarely see at the moment.”

The report, which drew on fieldwork in eight prisons, found a number of common features underpinning more positive cultures. These included setting very clear rules and boundaries for prisoners, with a shift in the focus of behaviour management strategies to reward rather than punishment. For example, prisoners were motivated by, and would work hard to earn, extended family visits or the possibility of moving to a better wing with more privileges.

Work and education opportunities with clear links to life after release from prison also encouraged them to take part, with the Halfords workshop at Drake Hall prison extremely popular with women as it offered good chances of well-paid employment on release. Taking up peer worker roles gave prisoners responsibility, helped them to develop confidence and leadership skills, and created a sense of community that in turn encouraged more positive behaviour.

A prisoner at Oakwood prison told inspectors: “The barbering, I can do that when I’m released, I’m really enjoying that. I was in a bad mindset [before] coz I didn’t have anything to lose. But now, I have been given all these opportunities, I’m not going to sacrifice that… I’m doing better than I have ever done in jail before.”

Another prisoner explained the value that well-thought out and managed peer worker roles brought, saying: “They are learning leadership, responsibility, how to behave, and now they don’t want to lose stuff that they’ve worked hard for. I never worked a day in my life outside… I never wanted to go for a job interview, but now, I’m confident that I could go there… This type of thing helps me do that… it shows people they can do things they never thought they could do.”

Other common factors included clear communication, and some governors made a point of being visible on the wings and knowing prisoners by name to help model the kind of respectful relationships they wanted to encourage in their jails.

Mr Taylor continued: “We hope that our report inspires prison leaders to look for what is achievable within their own establishment. But there is no magic wand that can remove the pressure of rising populations, failing infrastructure and a dearth of experienced staff, and we have been calling for some time now for a serious conversation about who we send to prison, for how long and what we want to happen during their time in custody to reduce [the number of ] future victims of crime.”

Commenting on the report, Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “At a time when the picture in prisons is especially bleak, it is good to remember that some truly impressive work is done in the most difficult of circumstances.

“Across the prison estate, there are hardworking staff and governors using the resources available to make their prisons safer and more purposeful. This report shows how putting hope at the heart of the system, as well as building trust between prisoners and staff, is key to securing positive change.

“It is important that we celebrate good practice where we find it, but, with prison population projections on an untenable course, it is also critical to highlight that unless we urgently change direction as a country, even these pockets of positive work will be under threat.”

* Read: Improving behaviour in prisons: A thematic review here.

* Sources: HM Inspectorate of Prisons  and Howard League for Penal Reform