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Better management of diversity in prisons

Better management of diversity in prisons

Research conducted at Her Majesty’s Prison Wakefield into prisoner quality of life has led to insights into issues around prisoner diversity. They used a method called Appreciative Inquiry (AI), less focused on identifying problems and more on forming consensus around a shared vision of a desired future state. This approach appeared to encourage more constructive feedback from prisoners and prison staff alike. The research, funded by two Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) grants, has already impacted on National Offender Management Service (NOMS) prison related policies, and changed practices in the prison where the research was undertaken. It has also led to a longer-term study.

The research

The University’s Professor Malcolm Cowburn worked collaboratively with Dr Victoria Lavis, University of Bradford, on two research projects at Her Majesty’s Prison Wakefield. Their first study in 2009 was developed as a result of Professor Cowburn’s work as a member of the Independent Monitoring Board at the prison. In that capacity, he became aware of staff discontent with official ways of ‘measuring the quality of prison life’ because they were considered to lack depth and ignored good work within the prison. The researchers conducted a pilot study primarily exploring positive and negative aspects of prisoners’ life in one wing of the prison, using AI. The study used documentary analysis, AI interviews with a sample of prisoners, an AI informed survey of all prisoners and two AI informed focus groups with prison staff.

Research insights from this project were theoretical, finding AI to be a successful method for exploring the experiences of prisoners from minority diversity groups. AI reduced the suspicions of prison staff and enabled both prisoners and prison staff to talk more freely about their experiences. Moreover, the project highlighted the importance of understanding prison identities (inmate and staff) as intersectional, multi-layered and contingent on both place and time. Research insights also identified a range of positive and negative practices of prison staff and highlighted policy implications for improving life in prison.

The second knowledge exchange project addressed these issues through four interactive workshops with staff and prisoners addressing things uncovered by the pilot. For staff, it raised issues such as the importance of sensitive searching of diversity-minority prisoners and how to better manage sexualities and (trans)gendered prisoners. For prisoners this led to discussions about the nature of identity and the importance of intersectional identities in being a prisoner representative.

Seeing that the researchers were able to take the Wakefield prisoners through the discovery, dreaming, designing and destiny phases to generate some positive feedback about the prison… has provided helpful impetus to us to find other ways of doing prisoner consultation.
The Head of NOMS Equalities Unit

The impact

The social impacts of the research were primarily related to how the research prompted positive change within Wakefield prison and more widely within the Prison Estate of England and Wales. The first report pointed to areas where prison practices were in need of improvement and the prison management was keen to address these issues and work with the research team. They collaborated with the research team to apply for further ESRC knowledge exchange funding to address the issues raised through a series of interactive workshops with staff and prisoners. The local impacts of these grants derive from highlighting the inadequacy of categorising and responding to prisoners on the basis of only one strand of identity (eg ethnicity or faith; age or sexuality). For example, prior to the research the prison only officially recorded ‘racial incidents’. Following research recommendations the reporting form was redesigned to reflect all aspects of diversity.

At a national level, impacts have occurred with regard to policies, procedures and practices. The Head of NOMS Equalities Unit (HoEqu), a member of the initial project's advisory committee, states that the ongoing work associated with research has influenced the Equalities Unit in shaping the new national ‘Equalities Framework’. Research findings have also underpinned NOMS’ decision to commission good practice guidance for prisoner equalities' representatives and to develop a national training package in relation to diversity related issues. The diversity incident reporting form (DIRF) developed at Wakefield was introduced into all prisons in England and Wales.

The Lead National Trainer in relation to transgender issues at HoEqu has acknowledged the impact of the workshops and how the research helped him re-think support for individual prisons in relation to diversity related issues. For example, research found prisoners distrust official means of resolving problems (e.g. the complaints system) and prefer to work with their ‘reps’ to resolve issues informally. Prison staff also pointed to the very positive role that prisoner ‘reps’ had in informally resolving issues.

In 2011 Professor Cowburn and his colleague Dr Lavis were shortlisted for the Howard League Research Medal, which celebrates the work of academics and researchers whose work offers genuine new insights into the penal system. The ESRC, taking into account the impacts of the projects, has now funded a larger three years study in three prisons, it is anticipated that this work will build on the impacts of these two projects.


Short-listed for the Howard League Research Medal 2011

Links for further information

Professor Malcolm Cowburn

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