RSA Transitions: The 21st century prison
The RSA is proposing a new model of prison that aims to ease ex-offenders’ transition into society, radically improving their rehabilitation prospects
The public debate about prisons can be unedifying and tends to become rapidly polarised around arguments about ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ approaches, numbers and conditions. This puts governments on the defensive and the reform lobby on the attack, leaving practitioners and service users without a voice. This dysfunctional public conversation, brokered by a media that too often combines righteous indignation with lack of interest in the evidence or detail, stifles courage and innovation.
Seeking to bring a different perspective to this discussion, the RSA set up the Prison Learning Network in 2008. This practitioner-led project aimed to highlight the innovation that was taking place within the prison system despite the odds: projects such as the Clink at HMP High Down in Surrey, a successful restaurant and rehabilitation programme run as a social enterprise without state funding. Prisoners work towards a qualification in the restaurant’s kitchen, grow vegetables in High Down’s garden, and design and make the furniture.
A small group of Fellows has just completed the scoping phase of an initiative that builds on this work, and responds to the government’s emphasis on working prisons and its desire to open up provision of criminal justice services. RSA Transitions is a new model of prison and through-the-gate provision, which would be funded through a combination of social finance and share capital and run as a social enterprise. Just as the RSA Academy in Tipton was developed around the first principles of the Opening Minds curriculum, which focused on the core capabilities that young people need in the 21st century, RSA Transitions would be designed, built and managed in a culture of rehabilitation, learning and social enterprise.
Like the academy, RSA Transitions would be embedded in the community in which it operates. The evidence shows that local, smaller and modern prisons tend to reduce reoffending more effectively. For this reason, the site would provide capacity for 200 prisoners from the surrounding area, while an on-site ‘transition park’ (the first of its kind) would provide for a further 500 offenders and ex-prisoners.
Prisoners would be expected to take on paid work while in custody, alongside more traditional behavioural and education interventions structured around a normal working day. They would be able to complete programmes and continue paid work in the transition park, which would include a range of social enterprises and resettlement services such as temporary housing, probation and employment services. While geography is not everything, the proximity of different agencies and enterprises – operating under a shared model on a payment-by-results basis – would reduce the likelihood of ex-offenders falling between services on release and returning to their old ways, old networks and no work. It would also enable sustained interventions that aim to support people who serve sentences of less than a year. This group, which is not subject to probation supervision, accounts for a high level of reoffending and includes many people who have serious drug and alcohol habits and live chaotic lives.
RSA Transitions would work with local businesses, employers and statutory services, including the probation, police and drugs services, and would draw on the best examples of social enterprise that exist within the system and beyond. The next stage of development will identify potential partners – many of whom have already expressed an interest – but the social enterprises involved are likely to range from more traditional forms of prison work, such as laundry, catering and horticulture, to newer peer-to-peer initiatives and green industries.
Critically, work programmes would seek to close the learning and skills gap that many prisoners face – including basic literacy, IT skills and communication – while meeting the needs of the local market. The aim would be for prisoners to move from work in custody to the transition park and, eventually, the community via the different social enterprises. So, for example, someone working in the prison kitchen could continue to work in the transition park, perhaps making ‘meals on wheels’ or working in its canteen. Each operation would be based on social enterprise principles, enabling prisoners to start as trainees and, with training support, to develop into full-time employees and take on increased responsibility.
Salaries will make a contribution towards reparation to victims, individual savings towards resettlement and, potentially, running costs. An additional proposal is for prisoners to be allocated a ‘share’ in the prison, which would provide them with a small asset should they not reoffend over a specified period. The enterprises would need to be capable of meeting these salary obligations and making a trading surplus. The project would have a strong asset at its heart against which it can borrow. Additional finance will be required to complement the mortgage and any philanthropic donations.
From idea to reality
This is an ambitious vision and there is much work to be done if it is to become a reality. It speaks to the RSA’s history of enterprise and education. It also sits well with the RSA’s contemporary focus on understanding and developing new ways to change people’s behaviour and increase their capacity to live productive lives. While prisoners may not be the most sympathetic choice of recipient, crime and the current high levels of reoffending are major concerns for the public.
A new government and substantial cuts to public spending, combined with the sense that the prison system is outdated and ineffective when it comes to rehabilitation, has opened up a debate about the future of prisons. The government has tried to raise deeper questions about what kind of prisons we need, and it has become more important than ever to increase prisons’ overall efficiency in addressing reoffending. The prison would also enable courts to use a different model of sentencing.
RSA Transitions provides a vision for the future: a social company working with business and statutory services within a framework underpinned by a potentially transformational set of values that is shared by staff, prisoners and the local community, and that is subject to rigorous evaluation. Although the model will be dependent on per capita funding from the government, neither the core business nor the social enterprises will be capital-funded by the state.
For its part, the RSA aims to develop this vision into a concrete proposal, in partnership with Fellows, funders and others. The test will be whether the government is able not just to change the nature of the conversation, but also to enable lasting innovation in the prison system.
Rachel O’Brien undertook the scoping phase for RSA Transitions and is the author of The Learning Prison, published by the RSA in 2010
For more information about RSA Transitions and/or to read a copy of the full scoping paper, please email Rachel O’Brien.
Photography: Mansell/Time & Life Pictures/Getty