User Voice has established councils in more than 25 prisons to try to create space for solution-focused dialogue between residents and staff
Mark Johnson calls himself “hard as nails”, but the ex-offender and former drug abuser was nearly reduced to tears on stepping inside the women’s prison HMP Bronzefield in August.
The organisation Johnson founded in 2009, User Voice, gives residents and staff a way to work together to improve things: prison councils. Prisoners are elected by inmates and prison staff to represent their community. The usual elements of an election apply: manifestos, speeches, and cheers when results are announced.
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“Prisoners know what is working and what’s not and have suggestions for how to improve things,” says Daniel Hutt, chief operating officer at User Voice. “But governors and senior managers don’t have an easy route to speaking to prisoners in a very honest and open way.”
Since 2009, User Voice has established councils in more than 25 men’s prisons to try to create space for solution-focused dialogue between residents and staff. HMP Bronzefield is the first women’s facility to have invited the charity inside.
For people who have been discarded and marginalised, actually being listened to makes a huge difference to their sense of self-worth
Carley O’Hara volunteered to help with the ballot on the day. As an ex-offender, she found returning to where she was once detained daunting and emotional. But it was a positive experience too because, she says, residents were so enthusiastic. Issues such as food, receiving prescription medicines on time, and new opportunities for ‘lifers’ inspired almost everyone to take up their vote. “It was just a massive buzz,” O’Hara says. “It felt like something new was happening there and then.”
Some prison council members go on to volunteer with User Voice upon release. O’Hara, who battled substance misuse when she was younger, struggled to get paid work when leaving prison in 2011.
“I never really had the confidence to feel I could progress or move forward from voluntary work. But getting involved with User Voice gave me the confidence I needed to go ‘I’m not just an addict’. I’ve actually just landed a full-time job, working for a homeless hostel,” she adds with a smile.
User Voice is 85 per cent led and delivered by ex-offenders. Hutt says this is key to their work: former service users are uniquely placed to gain access to, the trust of, and insight from, people within the criminal justice system.
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Prisoners can benefit too simply from seeing ex-offenders working side by side with staff. “Just seeing somebody who has walked in your shoes who’s now doing something else, gives hope,” says Johnson.
He says charities run by people who have no direct experience of the criminal justice system can be ill- equipped to bring about real change. User Voice promotes ‘rehabilitation through collaboration’ rather than an ‘us v them’ mentality.
Just seeing somebody who has walked in your shoes who’s now doing something else, gives hope
Its peer-led approach seems to be paying off. In 2016, 83 per cent of User Voice prison council members reported feeling like they had progressed in some way. The vast majority of service providers said User Voice had helped bring about genuine change for residents and staff.
“For people who have been discarded and marginalised, actually being listened to and what they say being acted upon makes a huge difference to their sense of self-worth,” says Johnson.
“Having a voice? That in itself is an intervention.”
All images by User Voice