Last week saw the publication of the Harris Review, Changing Prisons, Saving Lives. It was prompted by the large number of young adults and children who take their own lives in our prisons – there were 101 such deaths over the seven-year period that the report covers – but its scope extended to also examine such things as the purpose of prison, the nature of rehabilitation and the treatment of all people within the prison estate.

I read it, as I imagine most people with at least a passing acquaintance with our prison system did, with recognition, and with a mixture of anger and frustration. Anger, because, as the report states, our “prisons and young offender institutions are grim environments: bleak and demoralising to the spirit”. Frustrated, because this report could have been published, pretty much word for word, at any point in the past thirty years.


Lord Harris describes a prison system populated by young people with high rates of mental ill-health. They are often disturbed by their experiences of childhood, with many having backgrounds of abuse and/or of living in the care system. Healthcare services in prison are too stretched and inadequate to treat any but the most severely ill and, even when accepted for treatment, appointments are often missed. This is in no small part due to the staff shortages that also mean that many prisoners, especially in local prisons such as Birmingham, spend most of their days locked behind the doors of their cells.

There are some good people working in our prisons, but they are restricted by the system they work in. It’s one that contains a dispiriting work culture with a fatalistic approach towards its failure to create positive change for the people within it. In fact, we think so little of the work that prison staff do that they are provided with just eight weeks of initial training. We seriously undervalue the profession of prison officer and we get the results you might expect from this.

There are also many third sector organisations who work inside prisons and with people on release. Samaritans is one such organisation. It trains and supports prisoner Listener Schemes – where serving prisoners are the equivalent of Samaritans inside. These Listeners?deliver much needed emotional support to their peers in the most difficult of circumstances. They do it in a prison system where distress and mental ill-health are prevalent and where?far too many people are incarcerated, for too long and often with scant attempts at rehabilitation.

To have a child go into prison is an awful experience for any parent. For them to die?while inside causes the sort of heartbreak that most of us can only begin to imagine. The Harris Review tells us, in detail, of the circumstances that lead to many young adults taking their lives in prison. Many of the recommendations it makes?would lead to significant improvements in the lives of people inside our prisons.

There are a lot of recommendations in the Review. If any of them are going to be implemented successfully then the fundamental recommendation in the chapter on the purpose of prison will need to be addressed. It states that:

A prison should provide to those in custody a regime whose primary goal is rehabilitation. The penalty of imprisonment is the removal of liberty; all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with respect for their human rights (including the European Convention on Human Rights) and their individual protected characteristics (as defined by the Equality Act 2010). Restrictions placed on persons deprived of their liberty shall be the minimum necessary and proportionate to the legitimate objective for which those restrictions are imposed. Life in prison should approximate as closely as possible the positive aspects of life in the community.

Once we’ve decided to send somebody to prison we should then do the best we can to help them lead a crime-free life upon release. A prison system that was truly focused on rehabilitation would undoubtedly lose fewer prisoners to suicide.

It’s really worth writing to your MP if you feel strongly about this and ask them how they are going to support the review. It is an issue that seldom gets much publicity and politicians often have to be especially convinced that prison reform is something their constituents want to see them involved in.

I’ve been writing a bit recently about the Open Data Institute’s first Immersion Programme on Crime and Justice. Part of my role as series lead is to advocate for datasets to be released by government on behalf of the participants. This post is calling for requests for the datasets that people want to be made openly available.

Open Data Institute logo

Open Data Institute logo

We’ve had a good response to participation so far. The conversations that we’ve had have included some very specific requests, such as the location of all the police stations in the UK, which isn’t yet available.

The location of stations can be very important when crime mapping and especially when?looking at the prevalence of crime . For a variety of reasons some crimes are geo-located at the local police station. If you can’t allow for this then your mapping can make it look as though there is a mini crime wave around police stations.

Will Perrin has written about a proposed Transparency Charter for open justice. He listed the following data that he is interested in seeing published openly:Continue reading

Last week I wrote about the Open Data Institute’s first Immersion Programme on Crime and Justice. I’m series lead for this and part of the role means that I’ll be both encouraging people to take part and supporting those that do.

Balance justice

As a recap, the challenges that we have set are:

How can open data projects be constructed that achieve one of the following:

  • increase community involvement with the criminal justice system?
  • create further evidence for what are effective interventions for rehabilitation?
  • address the rise in personal crime?

An obvious question to ask is why would somebody want to take part in the series?
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I’ve recently taken on a really interesting role working with the Open Data Institute. Over the next nine months I’ll be the series lead for their first Immersion Programme where we will be working with developers, data owners within and outside government and other interested parties to help establish some substantial and sustainable open data projects. This first programme has the theme of Crime and Justice.

Last Wednesday, 20th March, we kicked off with a day long session at the Open Data Institute where we discussed what three challenges should be set for participants in the programme. The day was arranged and co-hosted by Olivia Burnam from the ODI, who will continue supporting the programme when she returns to the Cabinet Office next month.

Open Data Institute logo

Open Data Institute logo

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This week I went along to help out at a couple of sessions at Birmingham City University. It was a lot of fun. One of the teams of online journalism students are going to be doing a prison related project and I spoke to their editor about online sources. I thought it might be useful if I wrote a post that referenced them too.

There are a number of organisations who campaign for better conditions in prison. The main national ones are the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust. Frances Crook from the Howard League has a very good and informative blog.

Prison ?

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