Prison Reforms: We need to make prisoners more aware of third sector services
Experience shows that third sector organisations can play a key role in helping former prisoners become part of the mainstream society.
The Third Sector Research Centre has been conducting ongoing research into the involvement of third sector organisations in criminal justice. While there is often controversy surrounding this role, our previous research has highlighted the many benefits that third sector organisations can bring, especially in the area of resettlement.
TSOs are often able to build positive relationships and help prisoners to access vital services, such as housing or education and training, which are vital in helping them to settle back into the community.
We estimate that nearly 20,000 third sector organisations work with offenders in England and Wales, yet our research inside prisons has highlighted how few prisoners are aware of these. Certainly, some services will operate by referral or be targeted at specific groups, but the low level of awareness overall means that organisations are not reaching many of the people who need them.
Our research, which is based on a prisoner survey across 8 prisons nationally, asked prisoners whether there were any services that they needed that were not available at this time. 10 percent specifically highlighted accommodation, and 25 percent said that they needed more organisations to provide employment, training and work placements for prisoners in the community. This was despite the fact that all prisons had a number of organisations already providing housing advice and support. While in some prisons – such as juvenile and open prisons – the number of TSOs providing training was lower, many prisoners were similarly not aware of existing organisations.
This research has highlighted the importance of not just having available services, but ensuring they reach their intended beneficiaries. Only 5 percent of respondents to our survey had actually engaged with any third sector organisations operating in their establishment. But what can be done to engage more prisoners? When asked why they had not engaged with organisations they had heard of, the majority either said that they knew nothing about them or didn’t think they could help.
It seems that TSO’s and prison staff have a job to do in making prisoners aware not only that services exist, but how they might be able to help. It is possible that prison staff themselves need to be more aware of these services in order to refer prisoners. Equally, it must be noted that there is a high level of need inside prisons for the services being offered by TSO’s. TSOs are likely to have only limited resources to meet such demand, and thus the proportion of prisoners that they are able to reach will remain low; a situation which is likely to be exacerbated by expected budget cuts.
Certainly, findings showed that some groups of prisoners were even less likely to engage with certain services than others. Women respondents and those from non-British Black, Asian and mixed ethnic backgrounds reported significantly less engagement with housing TSOs despite equal levels of awareness. Young adult and juvenile respondents reported less awareness and involvement with accommodation TSOs. This is backed up by previous TSRC research, which illustrated underrepresentation of housing organisations offering services to women offenders, young offenders and offenders from BAME backgrounds.
Organisations which house specialist populations might help to cover some of the current gaps in provision. Prisons could also dedicate more resources to the promotion of education, training and employment opportunities within their prisons, which was the area most often identified as needing more resources.
In the paper, we also suggest that Third sector, or VCS, Coordinators may have an important role to play. Their role in improving communication between TSO’s, prisoners and staff was stipulated by Prison Service Order 4190 (HM Prison Service, 2002), yet many prisons still lack a third sector co-ordinator or have one which fulfils other duties. Reviewing the implementation of this role on a national level could be an important stepping stone in ensuring greater awareness of and access to TSOs for prisoners.
The survey was non-representative, and it is possible that non-respondents had either a greater or lesser overall awareness of third sector organisations. Certainly, there are problems with conducting surveys within prisons, including lack of literacy, which makes response rates generally low (the response rate for this survey was 12%, which can be considered typical of self-completed prisoner surveys). Despite this, the survey has helped us to gain a better picture of prisoners’ involvement with TSOs. TSRC researchers are going on to analyse the results of one to one interviews with prisoners. This will help us to build a more detailed picture of why many prisoners do not engage with TSOs and what can be done to ensure more benefit from vital help in their journey toward resettlement.
See the full research report ‘Offender engagement with third sector organisations: a national prison-based survey’, by Dr Dina Gojkovic, Dr Rosie Meek and Dr Alice Mills