Can co-operatives help in prison rehabilitation?

One thing former prime minister David Cameron and former justice secretary Michael Gove agree on is the need for prisons to become places of rehabilitation. “Prisons are not playing...

One thing former prime minister David Cameron and former justice secretary Michael Gove agree on is the need for prisons to become places of rehabilitation.

“Prisons are not playing their part in rehabilitating offenders as they should,” Mr Gove has said.

A few years ago Hexham Tory MP Guy Opperman suggested a way forward when he asked: “Why can’t you have a charity running a prison or a church/community coming together to take charge and turn around low grade prisoners?

“If hospitals can be transformed by Foundation status, then why not a prison? If educational charities like Absolute Return for Kids (ARK) or the Harris Foundation can run state comprehensive schools open to all, then why could they not run a prison?”

Mr Cameron echoed Mr Opperman by calling for “bids for new prisons from those charities and others who wish to work with specific types of offender” and announcing that “We are going to bring the academies model that has revolutionised our schools to the prisons system.”

But it’s important for such reforms to be based on the membership model – because prison staff, the prisoners themselves, their families and local communities all have an active role to play in successful and sustained rehabilitation.

This is not simply about individual offenders stopping offending. It’s much more about building and re-building the positive pro-social relationships that will nurture and sustain a law-abiding lifestyle – relationships with prison staff, prisoners’ family and friends, employers, and the communities to which they will return when they are released.

In rehabilitation we really are ‘all in it together’. So what services would enable prisons “to play their part in rehabilitating offenders as they should”?

Rehabilitation relies on relationships with prison staff, family, friends and the communities they will return to.
Rehabilitation relies on relationships with prison staff, family, friends and the communities they will return to.

Individual services

Ensuring the quality of relationships between all prison staff and prisoners. The motivation for prisoners to change emerges in, and from, collaborative relationships with staff – people they can get on with and respect; who treat them as individuals; are genuinely caring; who place them at the centre of the change process, identifying jointly what is needed to change and how, rather than just seeking responses to staff-defined problems.

This is of particular importance in the initial assessments of prisoners and sentence planning. There is no single method or means of intervention that suits the needs of everyone. It also requires a recognition that family circumstances – whether providing the informal support, stability and security that facilitate rehabilitation, or contributing to the chaos, stress and trauma often underpinning offending in the first place – need to be addressed.

Long read: The criminological case for co-operatives 

For prisons to “play their part in rehabilitating offenders as they should” they will need to find ways of working on prisoners’ relationships outside prison, particularly with their families. This is potentially a radical change in the role of staff – working outside as well as inside the prison to rehabilitate those in their custody.

The same applies to Circles of Support and Accountability – a ready-made supportive community of volunteers and professional staff for those sex offenders who have no pro-social relationships in the community to come back to. Crucially, Circles also provides supervision and could be used more widely with offenders whose social isolation could lead to reoffending after release.

Group services

Bringing prisoners together to shape and deliver prison rehabilitation services. Current approaches focus on cognitive behaviour therapy, addressing individual ‘criminogenic needs’. However, to be effective, rehabilitation requires the development of new supportive social networks as well.

Mutual aid groups are of particular importance, not least in the addictions recovery movement and recovery in a mental health context. Given the prevalence of mental ill-health and addiction in the system, prisons should actively support the co-design and co-implementation of such mutual aid-based services.

Collective services

Practices and strategies that involve and produce outcomes that benefit whole communities, rather than just individuals or groups of prisoners. Examples include prisons playing their part in ensuring that prisoners and the communities to which they will return have access to sustainable and good quality employment and accommodation – two of the key drivers of sustained rehabilitation.

Increasing numbers of prisons are looking at developing their own social enterprises which provide both rehabilitative training and employment in custody. Crucially, on release, these enterprises contribute to the economic development and regeneration of the run-down communities to which the majority of prisoners will return.

Editorial: The time is right for co-operatives to become mainstream

The same could apply to accommodation. Why can’t prisons set up their own construction and property companies to renovate empty properties and build good quality affordable housing for their prisoners on release as well as for inadequately housed communities to which they will return? In the process, they will provide rehabilitative training and employment – two of the key processes which reduce recidivism.

But who will pay for all this? There is no new public money likely to be available for the foreseeable future so prisons will have to find additional income streams.

As we’ve seen, prison-owned or co-owned social enterprises can provide rehabilitative training and employment. If these enterprises were developed at sufficient scale they could also provide the additional income streams needed to pay for new prison rehabilitation services.

Manchester Airport is owned by local authorities – why can't the same be true for prisons?
Manchester Airport is owned by local authorities – why can’t the same be true for prisons?

Prison governors may have a number of other ideas about how to use their physical and human resources to generate income, and reduce dependency on taxpayer funding. What’s more, there’s nothing new in this – if local authorities can gain additional income by owning commercial businesses (eg Manchester Airport is owned by the 10 Greater Manchester authorities) then why can’t prisons?

Prisoner rehabilitation is not a service that can be delivered to prisoners as passive recipients. It needs the active participation of prisoners themselves, prison staff and the relational networks of individuals and organisations with whom they are involved. To use public service jargon, rehabilitation is ‘co-produced’.

Our argument is that such collaborative relationships are best structured in membership organisations if they are to be effective in co-producing successful and sustainable rehabilitation and the proposed reforms provide precisely this opportunity for prisons.

We want to conclude with a proven example of membership-based social enterprises which provide employment and training and funding their own rehabilitation services.

Research shows how the co-operative culture is as important as the provision of paid work in contributing to prisoner rehabilitation

Membership-based, co-produced social enterprises which support social integration and prisoner rehabilitation have gained popularity in Europe and North America, but have yet to be properly explored in the UK.

They provide a useful source of learning for this country in an economic and political climate of reduced public spending, insufficient work programmes in prison, and a lack of employment on release.

Not only do they provide employment for prisoners in custody and in the community when they are released, their membership base itself provides the structure for exactly the sort of relational networks that support rehabilitation.

Research shows how the co-operative culture and relational environment of these ‘social co-operatives’ is as important as the provision of paid work in contributing to prisoner rehabilitation.

Dr Beth Weaver of the University of Strathclyde – a senior lecturer in the Department of Social Work and Social Policy, specialising in criminology and criminal justice social work, says there are a number of advantages.

In Italy prisons are largely just responsible for the security and custodial elements of running a prison

They provide holistic and individualised resettlement support for both prisoners and ex-prisoners and their families, a range of support with financial assistance, family mediation, access to legal support, education and training and a wide range of other resettlement services, she found.

All this is made possible by the prisoners, ex-prisoners, their families and professional support workers all being members of the social co-operative and the co-operative’s commercial activities funding the additional support.

In Italy, where social co-operatives have developed to the greatest extent, prisons are largely just responsible for the security and custodial elements of running a prison.

But they “play their part in rehabilitating offenders as they should” by contracting out employment, training, education and other rehabilitation and resettlement services to these social co-operatives.

Our argument is that this could happen in the UK as well through member-based Foundation status, but also by prisons taking the lead in setting up social co-operatives and playing their part as members in rehabilitating offenders in their own social co-operatives, co-owned and led by prisons.

  • In a forthcoming article, Cliff Mills will explain how foundation status for prisons based on membership could work, with staff, service users and local communities taking charge and turning prisoners around.
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