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Home » Criminal Justice System » A Conversation with: Dr Sarah Lewis, Director of Penal Reform Solutions

A Conversation with: Dr Sarah Lewis, Director of Penal Reform Solutions

In her Twitter bio it states: A passionate prison reformer. Interests: collaborative research, personal growth, creative action research, relationships, Nordic prisons, prison reform.

Just reading this I knew we would have a connection and a great conversation together.

What does it mean to you to be a prison reformer?

What I do has meaning, consumes me, its a purpose that is constantly in my blood and mind.

Collaboration matters to me, so does inclusion and having an unconditional regard for people. My inspiration comes from Elizabeth Fry, however, there are many with her passion. We need to work together to make a collective impact, not rely on one individual to drive change in prisons. I also believe that reform is not only situated in prisons, but in the community at large.

I don’t want to consistently bash the Criminal Justice System, but we need to be realistic about the problems whilst instilling hope. We need to meet people where they are at.

Prison reform needs to be a social movement in order to create a climate outside of raising awareness and drawing people together for a common purpose.

Prisons can be a transformative place.

Do we need any more research on prisons, are there gaps or do we just need to push for changes based on existing knowledge?

Yes to both.

We know enough to know what works. The difficulty is how we apply that knowledge. Academia needs to move out of its ivory tower and on to the shop floor. There’s plenty of research, you need to create a growth environment (climate) and capture this impact with understanding. Research takes so long, from ethics approval to peer review to publication. More creativity is needed with research, capture stories, motivate staff.

Academic research needs creativity, inclusion, and we must learn from our mistakes.

Do you see yourself as an academic?

Yes, but I’m a bit of an odd ball in academia, being an academic is part of my identity, but it doesn’t define me.

You mention personal growth, can you elaborate on this?

Growth for me is inclusion, growth in the community and families. People can reform, but you need to create hope and invest in unconditional relationships.

Growth, which includes love, acceptance and trust is also about unconditional support, nurturing and building relationships.

How important is it to establish relationships with prisoners/prison staff?

It’s everything

From determing the level of trust, to how people talk about their feeings, their fears and trauma. It’s the key to prison reform, desistance, cleanliness, safe environment, trust and many more…

What are some of the elements from the Nordic prisons that can be easily incorporated into prisons in England and Wales?

To never enter a prison and think people are broken with no hope.

Would you describe yourself as resilient?

I’m strong through stubbornness, but I am focused on what I want to achieve. Resilience means you bounce back, I’m susceptible to tiredness and pain due to health conditions, but this won’t stop me. I refuse to give in, so by overcoming obstacles I adapt to my environment.

Where does your strength come from?

My husband is my rock, my team, friends and importantly my sense of direction.

In an article in the InsideTime newspaper, June 2020, Sarah stated:

“My lifelong mission is to create a more humane system, which provides conditions where people can find meaning, have hope in the future and be happy”

In relation to this statement where do you see the prisons in England and Wales?

We are far away from that, further than we think. We have the ability to change, yet we underestimate the collaborative abilty of staff and prisoners alike. Culture and climate are important. A more humane system will not happen on its own, we need investment and training.

I have 100% hope in the future, that’s my logic.

We want people to live and not just survive.

With your work in schools, do you believe it is possible to instil meaning, hope and happiness into children’s lives?

Absolutely

From my experience it is easier to teach children than adults. The idea of the “Growth Project” at Guys Marsh was one of nurture, principle of growing and a purpose and peace in children. Divert them from prison by focusing on these building blocks around relationships, in order to protect them in later life.

You mentioned the “Growth Project”, how did this come about and how do you see it progressing?

The Norway Project took place in 3 Norwegian prisons and started as a photographic exhibition about how I captured collaboration. I spent 3 years researching Norwegian prisons and during the fieldwork I created a research team to understand their exceptional prison practices and priciples of growth. Out of this the Growth Project was born in England and Wales. We now have a collection of passionate people forming a steering group with prisoners and their families involved. We discuss issues such as diversity and inclusion in both prisons and society alike.

The aim of the “Connection Campaign” is to bring the inside and outside together, how are you managing to break down the walls to achieve this?

We are looking at where there is disconnection and the needs of young people. We magnify a voice that is quiet from various criminal justice areas. But we are not about blaming or shaming prisons. We wanted senior management to have conversations with prisoners families. Our strategy is to meet people where they are at and how to be a bit more compassionate, a critical friend.

Is rehabilitation possible within the current prison set up?

They need to be habilitated in the first place. Rehabilitation is a managerialistic term which often sets people up to fail. Like a game of trying to catch people out which is not conducive to change and no growth can happen. It can be harmful as no one wins.

Do we need radical reforms, if so what are the possibilities, if not, why not?

We need an authentic meaningful longterm investment in those principles that are encouraged in the Nordic model, applying the principles of growth in a meaningful way within our own context.

Irrespective of ideology, we want to strive for a just and humane system. This needs to happen, we need to change the narrative around prisons, prisoners and prison staff. But it must be sensitively executed. It’s not just about success stories.

Working within the prison estate can be rewarding but also can be disappointing, exhausting and demoralising. How do you deal personally with the complexities you face?

I see and hear a lot of stuff. However, I have such a strong mission.

Yes it is. Absolutely.

We have lost 2 growth members, 1 person through suicide after prison and 1 whilst he was in prison. It was a painful experience, I knew their families and the ripple effect was hard because their lives matter.

The question I really wanted to ask Sarah was: Is your underlying message of hope?

I believe in people.

I dont quite believe in the system yet.

I have hope in individuals.

I believe in them.

We need to be actively hopeful in people. Let them know “I believe in you”

I have hope in people.


3 Comments

  1. […] second “A Conversation with Dr Sarah Lewis, Director of Penal Reform Solutions” was equally inspiring. I felt that her overall message was one of […]

  2. Danny Barrs says:

    Good work, Faith. Hope to see you soon when this current crisis abates!

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