During a year in which prisons again made negative headlines, the Butler Trust’s Director, Simon Shepherd, has been quietly exploring the opposite: what’s positive about our prisons? In an ambitious undertaking, he’s visiting every closed prison in England and Wales to ask individual groups of prisoners, officers, and managers, an unusual question: “What’s good about this prison?”
Simon has, so far, travelled over 9,000 miles and held 186 forums, involving over 1000 people, across 62 prisons. Results from each visit are posted online, along with a running total of prisons visited, days spent on the road, miles travelled, and forums held, at GoodBookofPrisons.com. In due course there will be a more detailed narrative report to accompany the full set of results and the Butler Trust will publish a book.
Reforming British prisons is a long tradition, and includes remarkable contributions from, among others, Winston Churchill and ‘Rab’ Butler (after whom the Trust is named).
Today, there continue to be numerous organisations dedicated to exploring the problems and challenges of prisons. This is as it should be. There are real, significant, and important issues in our prisons which should get attention.
But as Simon Shepherd points out, “The good stuff matters, too. It matters, because the unremittingly negative narrative makes things more difficult than they are already, sapping the morale and confidence of staff and their managers, making it harder to attract good people to the Service, and increasing staff sickness and attrition.”
“It matters, too, because if we are serious about getting our prisons back on the upward path they had been on for two decades, before the impact of staff cuts and Spice, we need not only to cut out the bad stuff, but also to build on the good.”
But what is the good? Apart from a few observations in Inspectorate and similar reports, it’s generally a subject that gets very little consideration. Yet, inspirational work can be found throughout the prison system. The Butler Trust is well placed to know about some of this work through its prestigious Annual Awards. Each year, these attract hundreds of nominations – a large number of which come, remarkably, from prisoners themselves. They clearly detail the good things which are being done, day in and day out, by people who work with offenders.
Looking more closely at this comparatively underexplored area is at the heart of ‘The Good Book of Prisons’ project. As Simon Shepherd explains, there’s still some way to go, but the results so far are encouraging. “While I don’t want to prejudge the outcome, my visits have served to confirm that there really are lots of good things happening, all over the country – and staff, managers and prisoners have all described positives in every single jail I’ve visited. This project will, I hope, help to shine a light on this, the other side of prison; it’s rarely heard about, but the good stuff is real, and it really does matter.”