In conversation: improving outcomes for care experienced people in prison

blog | 01 Aug 2022

What can we learn about improving the prison system when we listen to people with professional and personal experience of care and custody?

Care experienced young adults aged 18 to 25 years old are over represented in the prison system. Approximately 25% of all adult prisoners have had experience of care, compared to 1% of the general population.

We know from our research that frontline practitioners from prison, probation and leaving care services sometimes do not have a clear strategy on how to collaborate to support these young people. Communication between services can be patchy and there are duplications and gaps in provision – which makes it difficult for the young adults to know what support they can expect to receive and from whom.

We also know through our pilot programme, Always Hope, that when practitioners and young people with lived experience come together this increases mutual understanding, leading to the development of new solutions to old challenges.

That’s why we brought together Alison Clarke – Prison Group Director for the North Midlands and the Care Leaver Champion for HMPS – Ian Thomas – independent social worker with lived experience of both care and prison – and IU’s own Jessie Ben-Ami – Senior Innovation Consultant and Project Lead on the Always Hope Project – for a conversation on improving outcomes for care experienced people in prison.

The panellists, who met at Insights22 festival organised by HMPPS, shared their insights and took questions on the ever-growing understanding of care and prison experience, exploring how things could be done differently. Here’s what we learned.

Institutionalisation, Criminalisation and the “Conveyor Belt” of the Criminal Justice System

The conversation started with an exploration of the key challenges facing people who are both care experienced and have been imprisoned.

As our panellists noted, being in care has an impact unique to each person’s specific life experience. There is an increased likelihood of a lack of positive support networks and a possible mistrust of authority, for example, there is evidence that the justice system over criminalises young people with experience of care.

Involvement in the criminal justice system was described by Ian as like being on a conveyor belt – moving through the procedures and protocols without any say on what happens and without personalised support. Often, there is no one in the person’s life who cares about what happens to them and, without this connection, reoffending can be more likely. As Ian said:

“They don’t have someone in their life that they don’t want to let down.”

At the moment, there’s not enough training for HMPPS staff on how trauma associated with care experience can affect someone, especially in prison, Alison acknowledged. From some young people, the only time they are asked whether they are care experienced is during their first conversations in the induction process – they may not be asked this question again, which reduces their opportunity to receive specialist support throughout their time in prison. Whilst there is some really great practice happening in some prisons, it is not consistently delivered everywhere

After outlining these problems in the system, the conversation moved to explore what can be done to support this cohort.

Optimising Every Interaction

While it’s easy to get despondent when looking at the statistics, or hearing the stories of people who’ve been caught up in the system, there is room for hope, as Jessie reflected. We have an opportunity to break the cycles of reoffending that some care experienced people are caught up in, and present them with the support they need to thrive.

As Ian said: “When people are in custody – it’s a prime opportunity to get alongside them and do some work.”

There was whole-hearted agreement amongst the panellists that the offer of support must go beyond the person’s first days in custody. Practitioners should instead be working with young people throughout their sentence, giving them opportunities to share their care experienced status and ask for support. This includes access to peer-support services in the prison as well as support from prison staff.

Prison key workers – officers who work regularly with a small caseload of people in custody to help them throughout their sentence – can play a huge part in this continued support. As Alison explained, there is hope that each prison will identify a cohort of staff who volunteer to be key workers with specific responsibility for care experienced people in their prison. With specific training on the needs, aspirations and strengths of the cohort, they can build consistent and trustworthy relationships, and make every conversation count.

A cultural, holistic shift in prison attitudes can have a huge effect. The last wing Ian lived on was focused on rehabilitation – the prison officers took a pro-social approach and other practitioners were on the wing regularly, including ones with lived experience of care and custody. Everyone was respected as a person, with individual interests, goals and vulnerabilities.

In summary, in order to support people in prison, there needs to be an environment that is focused on mutual aid and peer support – including for the staff as well as for those serving prison sentences! In other words, as Ian suggested: “Being on a wing with a purpose.”

We have an opportunity!

Throughout the scoping, developing and now piloting, the Always Hope project has brought together a cohort of stakeholders who understand all parts of the system, this includes people with lived experience of care and custody, practitioners, and system leaders.

In the space convened by the project, all that expertise has been shared to first diagnose the problem, and then create solutions, as Jessie explained.

New Integrated Planning and Assessment protocols have been devised to create a team of practitioners around the young adult – planning and working together to prepare for each person’s time in custody and release. In addition, specialist staff are working with the young men to support them to develop a sustainable and coordinated support network using the Lifelong Links approach developed by Family Rights Group with young adults from Birmingham and Coventry; and working with the Family Group Conference Service in Wolverhampton.

The change is happening but, at the moment, only in small pockets. We need to spread the practice from bottom up – by engaging practitioners, more prisons and local authorities – but we also need a top down approach to embed the practice in policy frameworks and protocols.

As our panellists agreed, we need to look at system changes and make this practice “business as usual.”