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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.

Evolution of Peer Power

 

It was a privilege to be a delegate at the No Offence! Evolution of Peer Power ‘The new revolution in breaking the cycle of offending’ conference in London on 18th September.

NoOffence! CIC

 

It was designed to celebrate peer mentoring as good practice and to give prominence to the achievements of both peer mentors and their clients.

There has in recent years been a lot of talk about breaking the cycle of offending. We all waited with bated breath for the governments’ launch of the green paper in December 2010 ‘Breaking the Cycle Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and Sentencing of Offenders’. This Green Paper set out plans for fundamental changes to the criminal justice system in order to break the destructive cycle of crime, meaning that more criminals make amends to victims and communities for the harm they have caused. In so doing create a rehabilitation revolution that will change those communities whose lives are made a misery by crime. However, the criminal justice system is relied upon to deliver the response of: punishing offenders, protecting the public and reducing re-offending. This Green Paper addressed all three of these priorities, setting out how an intelligent sentencing framework, coupled with more effective rehabilitation, will enable the cycle of crime and prison to be broken.

So where does mentoring fit in? Well it is mentioned twice,

139. We have already launched the Social Impact Bond in Peterborough prison focused on those offenders serving less than 12 months in custody. Social investors are paying up front for intensive services and mentoring delivered by the voluntary and community sector. We will pay solely on the results they deliver.

266. In line with our broader reforms on transparency we also believe that local communities should know how their local youth justice services are performing, and have an opportunity to be involved. Both Youth Offending Teams and secure estate providers significantly involves volunteers to support the work that they do; there are approximately 10,000 volunteers already working within the youth justice system. This includes participation as youth offender panel members and mentors. We want to build on this, including encouraging voluntary and community sector providers, where appropriate, to deliver services. We also intend to publish more data at local level so that communities can see the effectiveness of their local Youth Offending Team for themselves, and use this information to inform and shape local priorities.

Let’s move forward 4 years……..
Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014
An Act to make provision about the release, and supervision after release, of offenders; to make provision about the extension period for extended sentence prisoners; to make provision about community orders and suspended sentence orders; and for connected purposes. [13th March 2014].
So yet again we consider where mentoring fits in the overall scheme of rehabilitation and breaking the cycle of offending. According to Rob Owen Chief Executive, St Giles Trust, highly motivated, uniquely credible, well-trained and well-managed, ex offender Peer Advisors deliver a professional, high calibre, impactful service to help other ex offenders through peer-led support. With each £1investment in peer mentoring the tax payer saves £10, sounds like good value for money.
Former Cabinet Minister, Author and prison reform campaigner Jonathan Aitken, stated that:

“Rehabilitation is falling off the agenda within prisons” and “mentoring needs to start in prison and not at the gate”.

However, with the Transforming Rehabilitation programme, it is hoped that this is not the case as mentoring is now on the agenda.

Ministry of Justice (2010) Breaking the cycle: Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and Sentencing of Offenders. London: TSO. (Cm. 7972).