Bridging the Gap - are Prisons Failing Prisoners?

 

 

 

In June this year representatives from the NGO “Territory for Success” in Kirovograd, Ukraine, met with their counterparts in the NGO “The Churches Regional Commission in North East England to share experiences about working with offenders in prison and penal colonies. The exchange included ‘face to face’ discussions with offenders in prisons in both England and Ukraine The two organisations are now developing an international partnership to share insights and experiences about prison reform issues and concerns in the respective countries. They share the special concern about supporting prisoners during their time in prison and offering guidance and practical assistance in the rehabilitation period when they leave prison. Both organisations take this opportunity to thank the British Council in both London and Kiev for providing the resources to make this exchange possible

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Bridging the Gap – are Prisons Failing Prisoners?was one of the key questions discussed in the consultations and dialogue with offenders in the Ukraine and UK exchange visit.  Prisons in the UK and Ukraine are currently in a critical situation and aspects of the same problems and concerns are evidenced in both countries; an increasing population and overcrowding; improving the support measures for vulnerable groups in places of detention; promoting a human rights culture within prison systems; lack of meaningful and productive work in prisons. As the UK Justice Secretary recently stated, currently many people in prison are not encouraged to take responsibility for themselves and are compelled to live a life of “enforced, bored idleness”.  The UK Ministry of Justice’s proposal paper Breaking the Cycle outlines a way of making prisons places of hard meaningful work and purposeful activity.  The sentiment expressed by prisoners in the Kirovograd Colony was that they would welcome ‘real work opportunities’ – but also a realistic economic reward for this work to allow them to save for their return to normal life and their families. For  the NGO’s involved in this work the ‘voice’ of the offenders makes good ‘common sense’ but not something, as yet, acknowledged by those designing and  constructing Prison Reform implementation policies and innovative measures within social welfare after-care systems.  No one is so credulous as to believe that the passing of any law or legal guidance, however wise, will work a miraculous change in the prison systems in the Ukraine and the United Kingdom.  However, wisdom and grounded experience suggests that the best that any law can do is to afford a method of working out the solution. Even that can only be partial so long as public opinion remains uninformed or misinformed on Prison matters.  In this respect most NGO’s involved in work with offenders in prisons and in the community respect and are well advised by the activities of bodies such as Penal Reform International and the Council of Europe Initiatives in which both Ukraine and UK play a full part. A note of caution, however, is struck, in that whilst Ukraine has ratified the major human rights conventions and is a member of the Council of Europe, research suggests that Ukraine’s efforts to achieve European standards are hampered by failure to consolidate achievements and inconsistent understanding and interpretation of these standards among rule of law professionals, including the prison service.

 

Bridging the Gap – report suggests an innovative way forward

 

Opportunities for prisoners to take responsibility and volunteer to help others improves wellbeing and promotes desistance from crime, is an exciting way forward according to a new report by the Prison Reform Trust. The Prison Reform Trust [PRT] was established in the UK during 1981 to promote debate about prison conditions by encouraging interest in prisons and by advocating constructive reforms in prison rules and policies. An important concern for PRT in the UK was to overcome public prejudice against prison reform – another common aspect shared between the Ukraine and the UK and unhelpfully nurtured by the media in both countries.

 

The report from the Prison Reform Trust,Time Well Spent,by Kimmett Edgar, Jessica Jacobson and Kathy Biggar 2011, describes five types of active citizenship inside UK Prisons: peer support, charity work, restorative justice, prisoner representative duties, and arts and media.

 

The study was based on survey responses from 82 prisons across England and Wales, and interviews with staff and prisoners in 12. The survey found that the large majority of prisons provide at least some opportunities for active citizenship. For example, 95% of prisons surveyed stated that they have race representatives and 89% that they have Samaritan Listeners.

 

However, overall, volunteering opportunities are open to very few people in prison.  For instance, the study found that four roles involved fewer than five prisoners in the majority of prisons surveyed: housing advisers, employment advisers, violence reduction representatives, and suicide prevention representatives. This means that most of the skills and strengths of people in prison are wasted; they are a huge untapped resource.

 

It is strongly emphasised that ‘volunteering’ enables prisoners to gain a greater sense of purpose to their time in prison, an increased capacity for responsibility, new skills, earning the trust of others and opportunities to give something back. By developing empathy, building up confidence and a sense of responsibility and focussing their thoughts on the future, active citizenship can provide the skills to help people lead a law abiding life on release.

 

 

One prisoner interviewed for the report said:

 

     “I’ve always been take, take, take, but I’ve never given anything back ... It will make me feel a hundred times better than I do now ... if I can give something back instead of take”.

 

Another said:  

 

     “Most of my life I have been doing bad things – like selling drugs and doing things like that; getting praise for the wrong things. Volunteering is doing something that helps the community, not hinders it. That does not compensate, but I can make myself more valuable to society in the future”

 

The Director of the Prison Reform Trust offers the succinct and perceptive conclusion to his organisations research report….

 

     “No one goes to prison for good behaviour. But this report shows that prisoners are capable of doing good for others, contributing to society making amends and taking responsibility. Isn’t that what we want from prisons?” 

 

Bridging the Gap? What Prospects for the future?

 

On the basis of the study the Prison Reform Trust recommend the following and the respective organisations “Territory for Success” in Ukraine and the Churches Regional Commission in North East both endorse these recommendations with some small additions as a productive way forward:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The NGO “Territory of Success” works in cooperation with the Office of State Department for Ukraine for Execution of Punishments in the Kirovograd region. The organisation workers and volunteers have regular contact with the local prison and provide both a range of support services and local advocacy addressing key issues and concerns relating to social policy and practice. The strength and consistency of “Territory of Success” as an organisation is that included in its ‘workforce team’ are ex- offenders who have experience of prison systems and regimes but have reconstructed their identity as key workers in the NGO service provision role.

 

 

 

Jim Robertson

Churches Regional Commission in North East England

St James’, Northumberland Road

Newcastle upon Tyne UK NE1 8JF

00 44 [0] 191 232 0296

jimwrobertson@yahoo.com

 

Volodymyr Bocharov-Tuz

NGO “Territory of Success”

Egorova st.  Aprt.19 of 2.

Kirovograd, 25015, Ukraine

00 380 97 282 65 21