A Compelling Narrative for Change

This blog illustrates the views and experiences of a group of individuals with lived of the criminal justice system, who live in Greater Manchester, as they establish themselves as part of the PPN (Prisoner’s Policy Network).

The Case for change

Knowledge based on first-hand experience has often been devalued within a policy context, too often dismissed as subjective and unreliable. ‘Expert’ knowledge produced by academics and senior managers has been privileged in comparison.

Within a prison context, perceived ‘expert’ knowledge alone has not brought about the changes and reforms which are needed. Practical solutions, and powerful narratives which strengthen the case for change, exist within prisoners and former prisoners. Yet these assets have long been undervalued and under-utilised. Lack of reward and/or recognition for prisoners’ strengths and knowledge has reinforced the power dynamics which led to many people becoming marginalised and excluded and turning to crime in the first place. A lack of power to decide what happens in your own life is an anxiety inducing process as illustrated by the following quote from one of our lived experience advocates:

Anytime I seem to be making progress and getting my life together again someone with power ends up taking it all away from me

The lack of power prisoners have over decisions made about their own lives raises the question of how can we talk about ‘rehabilitative cultures’ when people’s basic human rights are being denied? How can we talk about rehabilitation in a context where people are punished not only for their own actions but those of others? Curtis (2002) argues that cultures are only rehabilitative if values guide provision and how individuals are treated. If standard practices shape the values that professionals have and how they interact with prisoners then we merely have institutions claiming to be rehabilitative. How many prisons can legitimately claim to interact with all prisoners based on a set of values rather than standard practices being all important?

There is a strong case to suggest more prisoners will go on to live a fulfilling life away from crime and harmful behaviours if a values driven, strengths-based system is created. There is also a strong case to suggest we can only establish trust if we adopt a trauma informed approach of seeking to understand what has happened to someone rather than asking what is wrong with them.

Many of the serving prisoners who contributed to the PPNs first report simply wanted their individuality to be respected. They found it difficult to emotionally invest in to a relationship with a professional who couldn’t make the time to find out simple things about their personality and interests. One commented “I just want them to know about what my job was before I came here, what football team I support”.


If practice is empowering it is driven by the values of choice, independence, and self-determination (Szymanski, 1994). As individuals with lived experience of the CJS we will only become empowered if we are able to shape the way professionals respond to us. The evidence base for prison reform will strengthen as we learn more about practice that empowers and strengthens people’s non-criminal identity. Through the PPN I hope that once and for all we can give up on the idea that people can be “scared” or “punished” straight.

There is learning to be drawn from developments over the past 20 years in the field of mental health, where the narratives of those with lived experience have helped redefine what forms of evidence are valued. In 2005 Rufus May, clinical psychologist and former patient, claimed:

Psychiatry and psychology have to ask themselves why, despite millions of pounds spent on researching psychosis, we have neglected to look at those who manage to rebuild their lives and live with their difficulties, who have positive outcomes

May, along with others with lived experience of mental health conditions such as Julie Repper and Rachel Perkins, used lived experience alongside academic research to create a compelling narrative for change. They used their own pathways in to recovery to inform and influence mental health professionals’ understanding of what worked and what was possible when hope was instilled. Rachel Perkins made the case for change in the 2001 article “the you’ll nevers”:

The hopelessness of mental health workers ensures that the services we provide are full of people who have “given up” on themselves and their futures: a tragic waste of human lives and potential.

Prison is an environment in which people have often been dehumanised, reduced to a prisoner number, forced to engage with interventions where they are treated as a problem which needs to be fixed and made to work for derisory wages. Like the mental health institutions of the 20th century, prisons are also responsible for a tragic waste of human potential. As with mental health those who have (or are learning how to) rebuild their lives can create a compelling narrative for reform. The Prisoners Policy Network provides the platform for us to achieve this and mobilise a community of people with lived experience to instil hope and empower themselves and others. Many of our lived experience advocates just don’t buy the idea that professionals know more about their lives than they do. The below quotes reinforce this

I know what works best for me and my life, why should I accept someone trying to brainwash me?

They are telling me this process works and to trust it, discouraging me from having my own take on what I need to do, but the process is clearly not working. I’m seeing the same faces coming through on short sentences. Its that same old cycle of release, stress, frustration, relapse then recall or arrest.

Through the PPN we have the opportunity to become what Tomczak & Buck (2019) describe as ‘thought changers’, organising, uniting and campaigning to raise consciousness and change perceptions and ‘distribution changers’ who create a fairer sharing of resources.

Lived Experience Role Models

Crucial to the success of the PPN is the ongoing development of, and support for, leaders with lived experience of the criminal justice system. I was privileged to sit on a panel with three such leaders in Paula Harriot of the Prison Reform Trust, Peter Yarwood of Red Rose Recovery and Rod Earle of the Open University. Our contributions we extremely well received by both serving prisoners and individuals working within strategic roles within the CJS. It was also satisfying to know there were other leaders with lived experience participating in the event. Including those who don’t normally engage with policy and strategy but whose trust and faith in Paula bought their much needed perspectives in to the discussion.

Its crucial to provide the living proof that people can go on to live a good and fulfilling life after prison. Its vital that people believe any hard work they put in to their own rehabilitation will eventually pay off. The long nights of questioning myself, my value and whether any of my actions would lead to anything positive may have occurred 10 years ago but they still feel like yesterday.

It took another two years before these actions would lead to paid work and a rewarding career. During some of this time the volunteering I did fell under the governance of the Probation Trust and I was at times accused of being “a grass” “patronising” “Judas” and “a mug that did probation officers jobs for them for free”. I’m proud to say that the individuals who called me “patronising” “Judas” and “a grass” went on to retract their comments when they understood more about what work I was doing and why. That doesn’t change the fact that these comments raised all kinds of self-doubt in me and made my identity shift vulnerable. I questioned whether it really was ‘us vs them’ and whether I was either going to be a pawn in ‘their’ game. Lived experience role models are vital for help people stay motivated through these times of self-doubt.

Lived experience leaders can also change the perceptions and expectations of people in ‘decision-maker’ roles (i.e. people who make decisions about how public services operate, how they are commissioned, designed, delivered and held accountable). One of my proudest moments was when the then head of Tameside’s CSP (Community Safety Partnership) said at a personalisation event “It was Matt who made me realise we are not aspiring after enough for our service users. We have to tell ourselves the sky is the limit”.

Bringing about lasting change and reform.

Many prisoners feel they have been made a lot of empty promises in the past. There is often a suspicion that being consulted will not lead to meaningful change. Whilst at times being heard in itself be a cathartic experience it can also lead to ‘consultation fatigue’. People hate the idea that their views are only being sought as a box-ticking exercise.

The lived experience leaders involvement in the PPN helps to build trust and faith that contributions will mean more than a simple box-ticking exercise. If someone has trust in your motives when you are gathering their views it is a good starting point. The Prison Reform Trust is generally more trusted than those organisations and and institutions directly associated with authority. But even with these assets we still need people in decision maker roles to continue to work alongside us and to make themselves accountable to the network. As Gaventa (2002) affirms

consultation without attention to power and politics will lead to voice without influence……participation can only become effective as it engages with issues of institutional change

Whilst being heard and participating can improve people’s wellbeing, it is only when meaningful and lasting changes are made to the way prisons are governed that people’s faith in the CJS will begin to be restored. Many prisoners and former prisoners still feel that prisons are places which are designed to break and dehumanise you rather than rehabilitate you and prepare you for release. Many of the answers about how to change this lie within those with lived experience of the CJS, but we need the right people to listen, take notice and act to achieve meaningful reform.




I work alongside communities on their own terms and try to help them bring about systemic change. I'm both inspired and frustrated on a daily basis.str

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Matthew Kidd

Matthew Kidd

I work alongside communities on their own terms and try to help them bring about systemic change. I'm both inspired and frustrated on a daily basis.str

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