How Can Prisons be Improved? The Power of Growth and Rehabilitation

Evelyn Woodland
Oct 18, 2023

Dr Sarah Lewis, Project Manager, HMP Guys Marsh shares her thoughts on the important role that prison growth can play in leading prison improvement, rehabilitation and transforming prison culture.


The Challenge of Growth in Prisons

I view individual growth in a similar way to prison growth; we work to a blueprint or set of principles/values, solve problems the way we have been taught and are influenced by the context around us.  Also, we make mistakes that invariably bring shame and suffering, but can also lead to learning and insight.  Similarly, our prisons hold identities and values, as well as beliefs that underpin daily practice.  The way of working is known and comfortable and yet, it can bring with it suffering, heartache and harm. Creating a positive identity in prison that is healthy and safe is incredibly challenging, as we as individuals take comfort in “the ways things have always been”. Change and growth is therefore tough and the misconception that rehabilitation is easy and soft is largely unfounded.

As prisons have developed, sometimes, due to various factors, prisons lose their sense of identity, as they strive to create a safe environment amongst a culture that is challenging, punitive, uncertain and complex.  As prisons work hard in considering what a rehabilitative culture looks like within their walls, several obstacles present themselves and both hope and resilience is required, during these difficult times. Sometimes the reactive nature of prison gets in the way of stopping and mindfully considering what practices have emerged, which are harmful and maybe even dangerous.  This is an overwhelming and exhausting place to find oneself and the collateral damage is immeasurable.

These pains of prison affect all those that enter. They affect the staff, visitors, families and even the effectiveness of those programmes and projects, which strive to make life a little better.  But ultimately, it affects those that live in prison. The loss of one’s liberty in itself is pain; a symbol of rejection and isolation and a disconnection from those positive social bonds, which support desistance and a movement away from crime. Creating a sense of belonging and growth, in a historically harsh and punitive environment requires the commitment of the majority.


Taking a Whole Prison Approach

The Prison Growth Project focuses on humanity, meaning, hope and inclusivity.  It adopts a whole prison approach and asks those who live, work and visit prisons to consider and implement solutions to historic problems that they are facing, as a prison community. It does this through listening, experiencing and learning about the culture that has emerged, and the costs and benefits of this culture.  Like the rehabilitation of an individual, this is not imposed onto a prison but works at a pace that is bespoke, meaningful and personal. This project was founded on the principles of growth; a set of principles that were derived from a research project that took place in Norwegian prisons, to capture the quality practices of rehabilitation in the everyday. But placing that all to one side, it ultimately focuses on the power of relationships to transform culture, together.

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