Blog Post

June 6, 2022

Bringing in voices from the margins

Partnering with the Prison Reform Trust’s ‘Prisoner Policy Network’ to improve pathways to criminal justice transformation

Innovation in prisons and justice

At the height of the pandemic, when access to people in custody was limited by quarantine restrictions, the Prisoner Policy Network (PPN) produced the report ‘It Doesn’t Have To Be Like This’. The PPN was able to produce a rich and highly diverse picture of the experience of prisoners during the pandemic, using first hand accounts of prisoners captured through interviews, visis and written responses. This stood out at the time as no other organisation had access to people serving prison sentences during the pandemic. 

It is this unique access that makes the development of this close relationship so important, for long-lasting transformation in the MOJ and innovation within the wider criminal justice policy to be meaningfully achieved, it is paramount that services are designed with end-users in mind. The most necessary and critical step for transformation across the whole of the system is to bring in voices from the margins and ensure a diverse set of experiences have been considered. 

Promisingly, the MOJ  has committed to making significant changes to this effect, through integrating meaningful data and streamlining the process. However, a significant digital deficit remains, with the majority of the prison estate for example lacking adequate digital systems and processes to support its citizens. 

PUBLIC and the Prison Reform Trust’s ‘Prisoner Policy Network’ (PPN) have built a long standing partnership with the MoJ, HMPPS and wider Justice agencies, working together to drive real impact and empower opportunities for change.

(Source: Ministry of Justice Digital Strategy 2025 Policy Paper)

With an increasingly complex picture of demand and needs amongst the system, it is clear that what the system needs most is full-scale adoption of a more innovative, user-centred approach. Looking back at the PPN’s report, the level of variance in responses amongst prisoners during the pandemic highlighted the value of user centred design, echoing the conclusion of the report that we should avoid trying to identify “what all prisoners think” but instead make prisoners “equal partners'' in the design process, bringing in fresh voices and moving beyond replicating existing knowledge. Government agencies require a marked change in how they access and integrate multiple sources of insights to actually improve lives for everyone in the system. The opportunities afforded by user-centred design, leaning and diving deep into a diversity of voices and partnerships provides an effective way to achieve this. The close working relationship (partnership) between PUBLIC and PPN will enable those we work with within the Government to understand how to create and sustain effective service transformations.

Case Study: The Prison Leavers’ Innovation Challenge

The Prison Leavers’ Innovation Challenge (PLIC) programme kicked off the partnership between PUBLIC and PPN.  We worked closely to bring the lived experiences of ex-prisoners to the forefront of policy design. We leveraged PPN’s deep network of prison leavers, and sensitively conducted vital user research to present back to the MoJ and HMPPS. This ensured projects were shaped by real experiences and needs. 

“together we created a safe space to explore innovation”

PLIC gave us the opportunity to show the value of our close working relationship during both the discovery and delivery phases of the challenge programme. The engagement with prison leavers we had was recognised as meaningful (rather than tokenistic) in a space where marginalised voices are not always valued. Throughout the development of the solutions we ensured that providers had regular engagement with prison leaver panels set up by the PPN so that the user’s voice was integral throughout the shaping of the product and not just as a bolt on at the end of the development process. We were able to look at the full user journey with the insights provided by the PPN, recognising that PUBLIC could not fully  meet our ambitions of a complete end to end service without the PPN. 

Our partnership and values

The partnership between PUBLIC and PRT bolsters our cross-industry expertise and offering to Government. For the PPN, this has meant working further towards putting people with lived experience in the same room as decision makers rather than dictating what good policy looks like. For PUBLIC, it provides the opportunity to contribute towards real user-led innovation in the justice space, making us a credible channel through which people from the margins can meaningfully have their voices heard. 

"no policy is worth the paper it is written on if it doesn't have the voices of the people it is written for in it"

We have a joint commitment to social change, a jointly held belief in the importance of integrating people with lived experience in design and we are looking forward to working together to provide a system that genuinely helps people that need it the most. 

About The Prisoner Policy Network 

The Prisoner Policy Network (PPN) is a national network of nearly 1000 people with lived experience of custodial sentences, community sentences, substance misuse, homelessness and other vulnerabilities. The network is continually being developed and includes people from a wide range of demographics across the country, representing 94 prisons from England and Scotland. Paula and her team reach far and wide to recruit people into this network who are ready and willing to contribute towards real innovation in policy areas that affect them. Recruitment to the network is through peer to peer referrals, prison visits, Paula’s award winning podcast and other methods to ensure that the voices involved truly are representative.


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