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Into the blinding light

By Paula Harriott, Head of Involvement at Revolving Doors Agency

When I speak about user involvement it’s not only as Head of Involvement at Revolving Doors and previously at User Voice, but also as a former prisoner. I do so to illustrate how important service user involvement can be in bringing the hidden lived experience of criminal justice from the murky margins of stigma and shame into the blinding light.

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We already have evidence from other sectors. The private sector drives product development through untold marketing and research with its customer base. The health sector has a statutory duty to consult with patients through a Patient and Public Involvement Framework. Housing services have grasped tenant participation to improve their delivery.

Yet contrasted with this the reality for criminal justice services is that they’ve been slow to understand what might be gained from investing seriously in listening, understanding and responding to the expressed needs and experiences of the very people they seek to support.

We now have firm evidence that service user involvement offers space to try out new identities and that being listened to equates to being valued. These are critical components for service users in the journey to self-value and self-respect. We should learn from community development approaches that identification of people’s strengths, viewing them as assets not deficits, is a proven way of creating long term and meaningful change in communities.

Investing in service user involvement, seeking ways meaningfully to engage people in design and owning the services they use and utilising their strengths contributes massively to a sense of agency and inclusion. This is something that many prisoners have failed to experience at any point in their lives. It’s harder to destroy something you’ve worked to create, than an institution or process about which you’ve never been consulted, let alone invited to make decisions about.

Finally, I challenge the ‘helping sector’ to think about its own role in supporting the criminal justice system in creating compliant service users. Too often there’s insufficient challenge about the inequalities responsible for the creation of the unfair outcomes and opportunities that affect many of those caught up in the system in the first place.

The whole sector should consider how their mission and methods might be altered if they really took time out to listen to the experiences and needs of their users – their ‘customers’ – and if they were able to relinquish the comfort of ‘helping’ to the true sharing of control.