Matthew Taylor: “Treat prisons like they’re just another public service”

February 12, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
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A quick one-minute video of Matthew Taylor discussing RSA’s The Learning Prison report, released today:

Matthew Taylor on The Learning Prison report from RSA Projects on Vimeo.

Go to The Learning Prison Report

The prisons blog is changing

October 14, 2009 by · 6 Comments
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It has been a few weeks since I last wrote for which I apologise especially to the faithful few who read my blog regularly (hi mum).

As I mentioned back in June, the RSA is once again tackling the issue of drug and alcohol misuse and the public service/s that seek to address these ongoing challenges.  Building on the consummate work of the RSA Commission on Illegal Drugs, Communities and Public Policy, the new project seeks to explore the suitability of a user centred approach to reviewing and designing a service that meets the needs of those individuals using it.

“The User Centred Drug Services Project can form the foundation of action research into personalised services for drug users. Transformation of service users could be dramatic as they move from being passive to active, powerless to powerful, consumers to producers. Co-production is not just about service users being in control of choosing and purchasing services, but about producing their own solutions and generating social capital. Truly user centred services – and this project – have the potential to create holistic approaches which will address the socio-structural causes of problem drug use and tackle the multiple disadvantage experienced by drug users.”

This is an exciting new project that I am so pleased to be involved in and which at its heart is about understanding and building people’s capacities.  This mirrors much of what the Prison Learning Network found.  Finding out about what is working across the system, where the innovation began, continued and was sustained and where the possibilities for replicability lie.  Providing the tools and opportunities for individuals and communities is crucial; building capacity to be able to deal with the variety of pressures in people’s lives is central and as a public service, the CJS should be more considerate of their role as enablers.

On Monday (19th October) this blog will be renamed ‘Public Services’ so that we can widen the conversation to include the User Centred Drug Services Project as well as the Prison Learning Network and any others that might arise in the future.  I hope that you will continue to find it an interesting and useful engagement in the discussions around the issues and I look forward to your engagement in the conversation.

Not in my backyard

May 28, 2009 by · 4 Comments
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Let’s be honest; the idea of a prison holding 1500 individuals who have committed a range of crimes being built in your community is not the most appealing.  So when I switched onto the news last night and learnt that Dagenham was on the verge of protest against a proposed new private prison it didn’t come as a shock.  And when a journo asks a woman on the street randomly “would you be happy with your kids playing in the garden with a prison next door?” you’re hardly astounded by the response “no way. We don’t want it anywhere near us, it’s not safe” (nb: not verbatim!).

My personal view is that the outrage should be about the fact that these huge prisons are still being planned.  We should be reducing the prison population, not providing the space to increase it.

But if they’re going to happen then we need to make the best of it and that means having prisons that not only keep communities safe, but also cater to a range of community needs.  I wonder how residents in Dagenham would feel if they knew more about prisons, how they operated and actually visited one.  Fran and I were always keen on setting up a ‘Visit a Prison’ scheme but felt it was a little beyond the scope of the PLN – perhaps the relevant government departments (Schools? Community? MoJ? Home Office?) should have a go.

We know that when presented with objective factual information the general public are far less punitive and have fewer objections to the incentive schemes or variety of programmes that operate in prisons.  Imagine if more were able to see firsthand how they work rather than rely on the media to provide information which is focussed primarily on the negative and sensational.  The news stories about the Dagenham dispute, for example keeps mentioning the possibility of prisoners escaping.

“No prison is escape-proof”.

I don’t mean to dismiss this, but come on.  Arguably, people in prison are people who just happen to have been caught.  Does that make them anymore dangerous than those on the streets, on the bus or tube, in the café round the corner or living down your road who may have also committed a crime – just one they haven’t been caught for?

Fellows in the field

May 20, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
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The Prison Learning Network has been more than fortunate in the expertise that exists amongst the RSA Fellowship around education, criminal justice and prisons.  Over the last year I have met many incredible Fellows who have willingly given their time and knowledge to me and the project.  The last couple of weeks has been no different and the RSA Fellows continue their work to great ends:

  • Roma Hooper FRSA is founder and Chair of the Prison Radio Association.  I blogged before about how they have been instrumental in the getting the National Prison Radio going.  But now they have even more to celebrate: last Monday (11th May) they attended the Sony Radio Academy Awards. Hosted by Chris Evans at London’s Grosvenor House, the PRA picked up two Bronze Awards (The Interview Award and The Speech Award) and two coveted Sony Gold Awards (The Listener Participation Award and The Community Award). Congratulations!
  • John Brenchley FRSA leads on the OCR Offender Learning and Skills Group and has been a great support throughout the project.  This month John has written an article for the Spring e-Journal about new contracts for prison education.  Take a look here. Thank you John!

I’d probably be here for a week if I wrote about every Fellow who has contributed to our work.  We are extremely grateful.  Check out the PLN final report (to be published in early July) for a full acknowledgement of everyone involved.

The ‘problem’ of governor churn

April 6, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
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In its embryonic stages the Prison Learning Network sought to address a very specific ‘problem’ – Governor churn.  The idea was that the frequent movement of number one governor’s and senior staff prevented good work from becoming embedded in a particular prison. While the movement did mean that poor performance was prevented from taking root, it was the good stuff that needed to dominate the discussion; highlighting the wealth of innovation and great work that exists in a field too often shrouded with negativity.

Although this question remained part of discussions, wider consultation in the early stages broadened the project developer’s views of the issues or ‘problems’ that the project should seek to address. For me though this question remained extremely relevant.  As a result of my work with the PLN a career with the prison service has become increasingly attractive and thanks to the encouragement and support of Roma Hooper I had the opportunity to meet and interrogate a long serving governor about the realities of the role.  One of those realities is, unsurprisingly, the fact that churn at the top happens and in a lot of cases, for good reason.

Prisons and their regimes have changed dramatically in the last decade but no-one would disagree that there is still a long way to go. Today the role of the governor seems to be largely focussed on ensuring the culture within their prison is one conducive to rehabilitation. Undoubtedly this will involve making enemies along the way, those working to a different agenda, stuck in their ways and reluctant to engage with a direction a million miles away from the ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ mentality.  Changing the culture of an organisation can be exhausting so perhaps it’s understandable that governors move on average every three years.

A change is as good as a rest after all.

Celebrating innovation

March 13, 2009 by · 2 Comments
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I am quietly reassured when I read things in the media like this courtesy of Eric Allison. This week, Timpson, the shoe people, announced a new Academy at Liverpool prison to train up prisoners with a view to employ them on release. Yet another example of some of the fantastic initiatives in this sector. Bravo Timpson!

“In the last year, [Timpson] has taken on 40 ex-offenders, with an impressive 80% retention rate.”

In the spirit of celebrating the work and dedication of those working out there at the coalface, I thought I might mention some of my other favourite organisations, initiatives and schemes going on out there in the CJS minefield.

The Ideas Project, Media for Development

The Ideas Project Team work with prison staff to apply for a grant from UnLtd of between £500 and £5000 to set up and run a project that will benefit other prison staff, the prisoners or both.  Projects have included a homework club at HMP Wandsworth which helped to maintain family relationships by allowing fathers in prison to help their children with homework. Fantastic stuff!

The Good Vibrations Gamelan Project  

Good Vibrations develops team-working, communications and other important life skills, through participating in gamelan (Indonesian bronze percussion) workshops.  Gamelan is uniquely suited to this as it is very accessible – you don’t need to have any previous musical experience, you don’t need to be able to read music, and it’s easy to learn the basics.  It’s also a very communal activity – there is no overall conductor or leader, everyone’s contribution is equally important, and the nature of the music means that you have to listen to everyone else to fit your own part in.  In short, participating in a Good Vibrations project has a sustained and positive emotional and psychological impact on participants, leading to positive behavioural change.  Listen to Lucy Ash talk about the project on BBC World Service

The P.I.P.E Programme at HMP Preston

The P.I.P.E programme. is a series of short term intervention courses which have been developed individually by the PE Officers at HMP Preston.  They range from between 3 to 18 hours and tackle topics such as Effects of Alcohol on the Body, Body Image and Self Esteem, Diversity for Prisoners, Bullying, Gambling, Stress and Anxiety, Supplementing your Goals, Diet and Nutrition, Smoking Cessation and Mental Wellbeing, engaging many prisoners in education who might otherwise exclude themselves.

I could go on and have a long list of many others that I promise to build into my future blogging efforts.  If you’re keen to know more then keep checking the Prison Learning Network website where we will be adding information about all the inspiring innovation taking place right now, even as you read this blog!

Do we need a Charter for Rehabilitation?

March 12, 2009 by · 6 Comments
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What would it do, what would it mean?

As I see it, the Charter might determine and set out common principles between the huge number of stakeholders (governors, practitioners, users, voluntary sector organisations, probation etc), informing the future development of rehabilitative practices, initiatives and projects.

Like education, the criminal justice field is flooded with ideas, interventions, opinions, politicisation, and public misunderstanding and so the issue isn’t really a lack of ideas or opinions. Rather it is, on the one hand, a failure to join up the various stakeholders and developers of innovative practice already in operation and, on the other, the difficulty of mobilising the ‘silent majority’ among professionals and the public in favour of a more progressive approach.

Ok, I have borrowed this directly from the Education Charter information itself, but the fit is seamless. The RSA Prison Learning Network is working towards something like this; thinking through how we might bring all these critical partners together to share their knowledge, develop their practices, work collaboratively with each other and in partnership with the prison and probation services, encourage greater understanding amongst the public (and media), build and aggregate useful and meaningful evidence and data and incorportate and embed the ‘user voice’ in every stage of design and delivery.

Mentor Training Day One: Volunteering with offenders

February 17, 2009 by · 2 Comments
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I am going to be a mentor to a prisoner. To say that I’m a little apprehensive would be something of an understatement but I am one day into a three day training course that has already started to dispel at least some of my anxiety.

The training course is run by CLINKS, a national infrastructure organisation supporting the work of voluntary and community organisations that work with offenders and their families. Their Director just happens to sit on the Prison Learning Network Advisory Board so I am fortunate to know their great work and so have every faith they will be able to shape me into the model mentor.

This first day provided an overview of the criminal justice system and the huge pressures that the prison (with over 130,000 people going through the prison system every year) and probation (supervising over 200,000 people on an average day) services are under. It’s easy to see why volunteers are becoming an increasingly important resource across the CJS.

Even after this first introductory day, I feel that I am beginning to understand what a mentor is and does; it’s not about ‘helping’ or ‘enabling’ a person, both of which can be very disempowering, but it’s about supporting a person to enable themselves. It’s about supporting a person to build their own capacity in dealing with the challenges and obstacles that life can throw at them.

Of course, nothing about that is simple especially when the individual you are supporting has most likely been part of a chaotic lifestyle throughout their lives, been caught up in a cycle of offending, and has multiple needs. As a mentor, you might well be the first person who has ever listened to them and offered them objective support enabling them to move away from offending.

Day two tomorrow looks set to be challenging – ‘Handling difficult situations’… Ok, anxiety levels rising again!

Exclude me?!

January 28, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
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I take it as a given that the world and his dog is online, using email, has a mobile phone and knows how to use it.  Well OK, my mum continues to struggle with predictive text and asked me recently ‘darling, what’s this about birds telling people what they’re doing’ – ‘do you mean Twitter, mum’ – but she’s there, she has a presence in this technologically driven world.


The proliferation of these technologies has created such a profound socio-technical change in the way we live our lives (I don’t remember a time without Google or Facebook) – 60% of current and 90% of new jobs require ICT skills and our social and family networks are increasingly maintained online.


The impact of these changes seems to be ubiquitous – a recent research report highlighted the increasing divide that the changes in the way young people communicate are creating between children and their parents – and they see each other everyday.  Imagine then, if you have been imprisoned, without access to any of these communication devices or facilities, unaware of the rapid changes that are occurring in the way we work, learn or socialise.


It’s clear that embedding technology – not necessarily just computers and the internet - is vital in prisons.  In Norway, prisoners have computers in their cells with internet access.  This might be shocking for some, but as the Norwegian prison officer explained to Erwin James, “… they must be able to access the internet, to help in their education and also so that they know they are still connected to the world.” 


Undeniably, there are some great examples of progress taking place in some UK prisons but we seem to be a fair distance away from the Norway ideal.  Movement is however in the right direction and the PLN will be exploring this further in its forthcoming reports.



The risks and the rewards of a blog

January 18, 2009 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

Blogging is new to me. I was trying to figure out how I might go about it and so was browsing some of my colleagues’ fantastic efforts (Design and Society, The Social Brain, Arts and Ecology).  The RSA Education blog  immediately offered me food for thought, especially a recent contribution on the fragile balance between risk and reward in the classroom.  Changing the way in which education is traditionally delivered and thought about will always bring about challenges especially in an Opening Minds context where capabilities take a central role and less tangible results might be considered alongside traditional examinations.

The balance between risk and reward could probably not be more fragile than in the criminal justice arena. Crime statistics, re-offending rates, sentencing and punishment have become staples in the electoral diet, often engendering a culture of risk aversion that acts as a barrier to improving the consistency and quality of learning and skills across the criminal justice system.

In an environment where a large percentage of the population have had a negative experience of learning through traditional classroom methods, where literacy and numeracy levels are alarmingly low and where most have had little to no experience of achieving qualifications or success in learning or work, it is increasingly important that any intervention is given the necessary innovative slant needed to engage this unique group of learners.

The voluntary and community sector (VCS) have traditionally been the drivers of innovation often on the periphery of the system and there are some excellent examples of independent organisations working in and around prisons and in the community tackling the causes and drivers of crime and criminal behaviour. But increasingly they are being invited to and taking up opportunities to work in partnership with the MoJ which is unsurprising given the MoJ’s efficiency drives, not to mention what the VCS have to offer. A key question is whether this comes with compromises and of what nature?

Tez and I attended the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies annual lecture last week which focussed on this question. Some people are obviously sceptical about who will bend most and the potential impact of greater collaboration on quality, content and ethos. It seems to me that, done sensibly, this is a move in the right direction.

If risks are such a determinate factor then surely, at the simplest level, greater voluntary and community involvement will act as a buffer to voters (and media) reproach and open up the possibility for greater innovation, knowledge sharing and development especially across the offender learning and skills departments.>

One of the things that the RSA’s Prison Learning Network is exploring is what part we can play in trying to overcome the problem of providing compelling evidence of the impact of offender learning. I believe that doing so is a critical precursor for a more sensible debate about what goes on in prisons. But because offender learning is provided by such a high number of small NGOs often working in isolation from each other, collating national evidence of impact is a major challenge. Is there a way of finding methods of aggregating evidence of what works and making this accessible to practitioners, government and the public?

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