Further lessons from abroad for justice reform

Published: 15 Jun 2017

Author: Helen Aherne
Further lessons from abroad for justice reform

Today sees the publication of two new briefings which present learning from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Prison Reform Fellowships.

From 2010–2015, the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust funded Travelling Fellowships with a particular focus on prison reform across the world. The Fellowships are the result of an innovative partnership between WCMT and the Prison Reform Trust.

These two briefings, authored by Jessica Jacobson and Helen Fair of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Birkbeck, University of London, are the last in a series of five, based around the theme of "connections", which highlight some of the learning from these Fellowships. Previous briefings have presented an overview of learning and examined in more detail the importance of maintaining family ties and the potential of problem-solving approaches.

The fourth briefing examines the importance of positive peer relations for promoting desistance and providing moral and practical support to people in prison and on release.

In England and Wales, the growing use and benefits of peer support across the prison estate have been recognised by inspectors. The importance of peer support for those leaving prison and re-entering the community is also widely recognised, and is increasingly viewed by the UK Government as a key means of ensuring continuity of support for former prisoners.

Examples of peer support programmes visited by Fellows include a programme run by ex-prisoners in the US which encourages the peer-led and grassroots education of prisoners; the use of drama to promote positive behaviour in prison in South Africa; and a programme in the US which uses life sentence prisoners as ‘social mentors’ to help new prisoners to adapt to prison life. Examples of peer support for those leaving prison were seen in Finland, where former prisoners work with those being released from prison to help them access the services they need to resettle back into the community, and in the US through the Delancey Street Foundation, which is entirely staffed by people who have been through the prison system, and teaches marketable skills to recently released prisoners.

The fifth briefing profiles interventions which encourage people to develop a positive sense of self and a sense of responsibility for their own lives and towards others. Restorative justice can be understood as a means by which offenders are helped to acknowledge and take responsibility for their past actions and for the harmful consequences of these actions for others, and indeed for themselves. Among restorative justice work examined by the Churchill Fellows was a prison-based project in South Africa, and interventions drawing on indigenous traditions in Canada and the United States. 

Several Fellows looked at initiatives which encourage self-sufficiency and personal responsibility among prisoners. In a Norwegian prison, for example, prisoners rear animals for meat, grow fruit and vegetables and chop wood for heating; while a Dutch prison is piloting a wing for life and other long sentenced prisoners in which they live as autonomously as possible, within the constraints of a medium-secure establishment. Among projects with a focus on positive social identities were initiatives in Sweden, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand which sought to improve personal resilience to violence by exploring gender and culture as bases of social identity. The concept of ‘judicial rehabilitation’ in France, explored by one of the Churchill Fellows, is all about encouraging former offenders to redefine themselves and their own futures.

The Fellowships offer a way of learning about how other countries respond to crime and exploring whether similar approaches could be taken here. Fellows include frontline prison officers and governors, civil servants, artists, barristers, police professionals and academics from across the UK. In total, 51 Fellows travelled as far as Australia and Africa to bring back learning which could assist UK policymakers in reducing reoffending and prison numbers. Many Fellows are already applying the learning in a range of local and national settings.

Commenting, Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

"Enabling good peer relations and encouraging a positive sense of self and responsibility can help people to turn their back on crime and embrace a more hopeful future. These briefings show the potential for international best practice to inform the development of policy in the UK in these important areas for justice reform".

Julia Weston, Chief Executive of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, said:

“Our Churchill Fellows work across many areas of the justice sector. They have travelled internationally to bring back global learning and new ideas that can be adapted to the UK context. We hope that the recommendations they make in this body of work will contribute to the debate and help provide some new approaches and practical solutions to the complex challenges facing this sector."

Download the full set of briefings: 

Sense of self and responsibility: a review of learning from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Prison Reform Fellowships (Part V)

Peer relations: Review of learning from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Prison Reform Fellowships (Part IV)

Problem solving approaches - a review of learning from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Prison Reform Fellowships (Part III)

Family Connections - a review of learning from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Prison Reform Fellowships (Part II)

Connections - A review of learning from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Prison Reform Fellowships (Part 1)


For further information: Mark Day - Head of Policy and Communications, Prison Reform Trust 020 7689 7746


The Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR) is based in the Law School of Birkbeck, University of London. ICPR conducts policy-oriented, academically-grounded research on all aspects of the criminal justice system. ICPR's work on this briefing was undertaken as part of the ICPR World Prison Research Programme, a new programme of international comparative research on prisons and the use of imprisonment. Further details of ICPR's research are available at www.icpr.org.uk and www.prisonstudies.org. ICPR's new book, Imprisonment Worldwide: The current situation and an alternative future (Coyle, Fair, Jacobson and Walmsley) is available from Policy Press.

The Prison Reform Trust works to create a just, humane and effective penal system. We do this by inquiring into the workings of the system; informing prisoners, staff and the wider public; and by influencing Parliament, government, and officials towards reform.