Probation perspectives on prison research by Steve Pitts

Steve Pitts reflects on participation in this year’s International Correctional Research Symposium

The author is a CEP Ambassador and independent consultant on community-based justice. He formerly led international work for the then National Offender Management Service, England and Wales, during which time he oversaw several European research and development projects. Earlier roles included managing the England and Wales “Resettlement Pathfinders”, pilots which involved extensive prison and probation collaboration in design and delivery and which were externally researched.

Hosted by the Prison Service of the Czech Republic and Prague’s magnificent Old Town Hall, presenters and participants from all over the world, gathered in Prague in May 2018. The occasion was the second ICPA and EuroPris International Correctional Research Symposium. The event was widely attended, thought-provoking, inspiring, and undoubtedly a great success.

But why attend a symposium on prison research? Are there lessons, from a probation perspective, to be learned at an international symposium titled “What is Good Prison Research?”  If so, what might they be? An earlier period of work piloting developments in resettlement in England and Wales (projects which involved prison and probation cooperation and independent evaluation), had already shown the value of prison and probation collaboration in research.

The Symposium subject content, which would inevitably touch on matters relevant to probation, was promising: prisoner reintegration is just one obvious area of collaborative work and research involving prisons and probation. Furthermore, three symposium objectives made clear that topics relevant to probation work would be addressed explicitly:

  • What are the challenges and difficulties of prison and post-prison research?
  • Leaving prison and beyond – how do we best integrate “desistance” research and prison research?
  • What questions should prison and post-prison research be addressing?

Equally important was the opportunity to participate in, and learn from, an event which promised a still new process of international collaboration in research.

The symposium

Topics ranged widely, including sessions on “fundamental” research (why is it necessary?), staff focussed research, research with indigenous populations, prisoners and public students learning together, research ethics, healthcare, advances in technology and digital provision, correction programs, and international standards and human rights.

Presented with such a full and diverse programme, reflections are offered inevitably on only a selection of symposium content. These reflections are presented in three thematic groups:

  • Research approaches
  • Current research issues and questions
  • Topics for future research

Research approaches

Two early sessions challenged participants to consider alternatives to applied research. An opening address explored appreciative enquiry. Appreciative enquiry engages and learns from stakeholders, supporting change, which may be self-determined, through increasing understanding of what has worked well. This positive and involving approach is said to encourage innovation and change and can help to create a bridge between interventions and the environment (in this case the prison). Staff behaviours, their relationship with prisoners, the experience of prisoners themselves, and questions of the quality of prison life, trust, values, and moral authority may all be illuminated by appreciative enquiry.

In another early session, participants were encouraged to reflect on the value of fundamental research. Alluding to a formerly unfashionable quote of Donald Rumsfeld, the presenter argued there is value in research which offers insights into “unknown unknowns”. By illuminating matters “we don’t know we don’t know”, fundamental research stands in contrast to applied research which lends itself to matters “we know we don’t know”. Both approaches have value, the fundamental approach, which is mainly academic-led, perhaps having less immediately obvious application to practice, but having the long-term potential to significantly change our policy and practice “paradigms”.

“Life-course Research” featured in some sessions. This approach follows the subjects over a period of time, for example at prison reception, during sentence, and at various points following release. As a result, changes over time and in different settings can be measured and understood.

Lessons for probation? All of these approaches have obvious application. With echoes of some elements of “desistance” research (for example understanding the “user perspective”, the role of staff-client relationships, the importance of the community environment), it is not difficult to see how they may all be utilised in prison and community settings to enrich our understanding of what is really making a difference.

Current research issues and questions

There is nothing quite like personal experience to aid understanding. This symposium delivered it through a group session that was at once spontaneous, interactive and illuminating. Demonstrating an approach which clearly owed something to appreciative enquiry, participants explored their best encounter with research, best day of life as a researcher, best feature of a research/practice relationship, and the question they most wanted researched.

Relevance to probation? It is tempting to say virtually everything. Responses emphasised the value of a close collaborative research and practice relationship, involvement of practitioners in the research process and as sources of information, and ensuring that research findings are fed back to practitioners, managers and policy makers in ways that are timely and meaningful in practice and policy terms.

Topics for future research

The symposium generated an extensive range of potential topics for research. Whilst some were naturally important mainly in the prisons context, most had relevance to prisons and probation.

Topics included research to better understand reintegration after prison, to reduce reoffending and support inclusion, to illuminate interventions and staff behaviours supportive of prisoner (or probationer) change, to explore staff turnover and burnout, and the potential benefits and downsides of new technologies. Other proposed topics addressed issues of sentencing policy and implementation critical to both services.

Photographer: Nasrul Ismail

Discussion also acknowledged the needs of newer services or those in jurisdictions with transition or developing economies, including the role of international standards and the often ill-coordinated efforts of international donor organisations.

Relevance of learning for probation

Many of the research findings presented were directly or indirectly relevant to the probation world. Examples include “through the gate” reintegration (understanding steps in gaining stable employment, obstacles, and timing), and the benefits and risks of newer technology (for example improved individual agency versus less staff-prisoner interaction). There is undoubtedly potential to increase sharing internationally and between fields.

The research approaches described appear clearly relevant to probation. Fundamental research and appreciative enquiry lend themselves to better understanding how probation organisations (staff, organisational and in partnership) can support a “good life” and desistance. And few would argue against learning the unexpected – insights into matters that “we don’t know we don’t know”. Finding ways to integrate the approaches and learning of prison-based fundamental research and appreciative enquiry, and community-based desistance research, look like certain winners for both services.

Experience-informed appreciative approaches may also lend themselves especially well to research and practitioner-informed policy and practice in a wide range of jurisdictions, overcoming some of the risks involved in practice “transfer” from more established services.

Life-course research has obvious application in the study of reintegration, in particular how work in prisons may be sustained and built on during community supervision.

Equally, the many issues raised in symposium discussion resonate in probation, for example practice involvement in defining research enquiry, ensuring research policy and practice value, understanding the roles of communities in our work, and their involvement in research, and debates about short and long-term learning.

There was common ground in topics too, and scope for research that encompasses the interests of both services. Topics include (in addition to critical but perhaps more obvious subjects such as prisoner reintegration), cost-benefit comparison of prison and community disposals, building confidence in community sentences, and addressing urgent issues in many areas of the world regarding sentence culture and the need to reduce both prison overcrowding and “mass supervision”.  

Conclusion

It is recognised that many of the approaches presented and issues discussed already find a place in probation research, not least in work to understand desistance. The symposium however offered something different and additional; the opportunity for research and practice professionals to work, internationally and together, to explore and exchange research learning, understanding of approaches, issues, and topics for future research.

Perhaps the most significant relevance for probation may prove to be the process itself. In other words, to ask whether the time has come for an international research network dedicated to cooperation in finding answers to the questions that matter most in probation work. The opportunities for services, established and new, are surely  considerable.

The article’s emphases, and interpretations of session content, are the author’s alone.

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