Discussion circle with people with life sentences in a prison following COVID-19

Discussion circle with people with life sentences in a prison following COVID-19

Restorative practices in prisons


Since the national unwinding of COVID-19 restrictions, prisons slowly returned to a normal routine. At the time of this case, things were pretty much back to normal in the community, but we were not quite back to pre-COVID life behind the walls of our prisons, as the unwinding was being carefully managed by the IPS National Infection Control Team. Things like visits and services were slowly returning.

A group of people with life sentences in one of our prisons was frustrated with the process and wished to talk to the Governor as a group about their concerns. As a Chief Officer in charge of this particular prison who had recently received restorative practices training, I thought this was an opportunity to hold a discussion circle to meet and hear from this group. I invited the Assistant Governor and the Chaplin. I began by explaining the process to the men. It was a great opportunity for me to meet the over 20 men and find out how far into their sentences each of them were.

I began the circle (it was a quite-large-rectangle, really) by explaining that we were all there to listen to each other. They had saved three seats next to each other for myself, the Chaplain and Assistant Governor, but I asked if the Chaplain and I could swap places with a couple of them to mix us up. The aim was to put everyone on an equal platform, not give the impression that this was about “lifers vs. the IPS”.

As some COVID-19 restrictions were still in place, I used a small football with the crest of my favourite team as the talking piece, which sparked a bit of conversation. Due to the large group, we started with some very basic questions. In the first round, I asked: “Who are you and how far along in your sentence are you?” I used this question to introduce myself and share my IPS career to-date. In the second round, I asked: “As a life-sentenced man, what is the most important issue for you right now?” 

As people took turns, they raised similar concerns. They raised issues around neutral venue family escorts, activities and services available in the prison, and the need for communication between the prison and prisoners about the short- and medium-term plans for those serving life. This round was difficult to manage, as the group was so large. Each thing raised was a concern to everyone, so everyone wanted an input after a new point was raised. We simply didn’t have time allocated for that volume of conversation. Next time, I would reduce the numbers brought together and do two separate groups to allow more time for discussion and input in each.

Neutral venue family escorts are important to people with life sentences as they assist with reintegration and in the building or rebuilding of family bonds during a long period in custody. The Parole Board can recommend that people in custody participate in these during their sentences. The circle gave the people with life sentences an opportunity to air their perceptions and concerns about their access to neutral venue family escorts, and for the Governor to provide their views on the situation. The group agreed a plan in relation to these visits in 2022, including that they would revisit the plan in 2023. The group understood that the unwinding of COVID-19 protocols was affecting the availability of these, while having a chance to express their frustrations at the slower unwinding of COVID rules in prisons compared to the community. This also gave the Governor and I the opportunity to outline the reasons behind that process, including that individual prisons did not have control over national guidelines or delays in recruitment due to COVID-19. Still, there was room to explore in-house daily operations. For example, as a group, we were able to come up with a proposal to allocate staffing to improve access to services.

“Prisoner Support” is a pillar of the IPS Strategic Plan. What we did adhered to this pillar by giving everyone an equal opportunity to express their needs. As the operational manager, I had the chance to explain my needs and constraints with regard to the smooth running of the prison. Then we could all see where we were coming from as a group. The Governor helped everyone understand institutional policies and positions, and we explored how best to help the group reconnect with their families post-COVID. We agreed to meet again in 2023 to explore the group’s needs further. I felt that the circle helped the group better understand the IPS unwinding process, the connection between their experiences and the resources available to us in prisons, and the need to distribute resources for people with life sentences across all prisons. Likewise, the Governor and I gained a better understanding of what was most important to this group to help them progress their individual sentence plans.

We have since received positive feedback for this piece of work. For example, one person later commented that “The Governor sat down and listened to us”, and another said to me: “Fair play Chief, you hung your hat up for an hour and got stuck in. One thing I took away that I would do differently next time is to invite the Security Officer who was present to join the circle, rather than remaining on duty in the background.

Technology in our prisons has been overhauled in recent years, including in relation to video calls with family members. This will remain a part of what we do to provide an additional support to keep people in custody connected to families. However, this particular group placed considerable importance on visiting families outside of the prison to support their reintegration. This was not about committing to anything the prison could not achieve. The conversation we had helped me as a manager understand these issues better and the effect it has when services are closed. Planning such visits can be tough and anxiety inducing for those who will undertake them, and uncertainty about whether they will go ahead or be changed can contribute to that. We agreed to communicate more and to use the circle format to discuss this and other issues going forward.