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Meet the Member: Prison Reform Trust

In this #MeetTheMember blog, we speak to the influential Paula Harriott, Head of Prisoner Engagement at the Prison Reform Trust (PRT). Paula discusses how PRT utilises the wisdom of people with lived experience in its work, and tells us more about a programme she has helped develop which will increase the number of people with lived experience in leadership roles.

What is your background?

I am a passionate activist and advocate for social change. My main focus is to ensure organisations across the criminal justice sector are committed to the involvement of people with lived experience, including in leadership roles.

I have previously held roles as Head of Involvement at the Revolving Doors Agency and Head of Programmes at User Voice. I am also a trustee at the Community Chaplaincy Association and the Prison Advice and Care Trust (Pact).

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What drew you to working in the criminal justice/voluntary sector?

My lived experience of imprisonment, and how I was reduced to a number within the prison system and stripped of my rights as a citizen, directly drove me into this work. It was a deep education into inequality, power and privilege. My lived experience sits at the heart of my work.

What does your role involve?

My primary role is to ensure that the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) continues to fully involve serving and former prisoners in its strategic direction and the work it undertakes. At the core of this is the Prisoner Policy Network (PPN), a network of around 1000 active members and 24 supporting organisations which I lead and coordinate.

The PPN undertakes consultations and produces reports, as well as a plethora of other activities, which utilise the wisdom of people with lived experience. We involve our members in our work as co-authors and co-researchers, with the aim of increasing the number of people with lived experience in leadership roles. We recently launched our CAPPTIVE series, which is charting the experiences of prisoners during the pandemic. We also involve people with lived experience in media work, such as our nationally recognised podcast The Secret Life of Prisons.

Can you describe your organisation in a few sentences?

PRT is a think tank which performs research and advocacy as part of the prison reform movement, dedicated to reducing the unnecessary use of imprisonment.

What do you love most about working at your organisation?

PRT is an inclusive and diverse workplace that is committed to serious involvement of serving and former prisoners both in its work and within its workforce. It demonstrates this commitment with the allocation of sufficient financial resources to drive the work forward, as well as excellent support for the entire team.

The people who work at PRT are here because they want to disrupt, challenge and innovate; this is not just a job, they want to make a real difference. As a former prisoner, I recognise and value this commitment from the team every day.

What are you currently working on? What are your organisation’s biggest focuses right now?

Right now, I am working to ensure that the plight of prisoners during the pandemic, who are locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day, does not go unnoticed or ignored.

I have been continually adapting our work throughout the pandemic, with the situation changing so rapidly. We haven’t been able to go into prisons to run discussion groups or meet face-to-face with our members; instead, we have been using Email a Prisoner, letters, the National Prison Radio and advertisements in Inside Time and Converse to support and involve our members during the double lockdown within prisons.

In addition, I have been working as part of the CJA’s Lived Experience Expert Group to help develop a year-long lived experience leadership programme, following the publication of the Change from Within report last year. This will help those with direct experience of the criminal justice system (CJS) gain access to leadership roles within the sector.

I also recently helped set up a three-month lived experience leadership programme with Clore Social Leadership. The Clore Social Fellowship programme, Double Lockdown: Rebooting leadership in the criminal justice system and beyond, is suitable for everyone from entry level (volunteers or early career support workers) to senior level (people leading a service or a workstream). Its online, will run in lunch breaks, and there are no assessments. The deadline for applications is early November – please apply!

What has been your proudest moment/achievement at your organisation?

There have been so many proud moments and achievements at PRT. From being appointed in the first place, to the launch of the Prisoner Policy Network, to the increased visibility of people with lived experience in our work and across the sector. Not to mention that our Secret Life of Prisons podcast was shortlisted in the top five independent podcasts in the Radio Academy Awards last year.

But most importantly, I’m proud of the consistently high quality of work that continues to be produced by the entire PRT team.

Do you have any routines/habits that help you succeed?

My work is driven by an acknowledgement that we are always learning and reflecting, so we need to keep growing and developing. Keeping alert to stagnation is important.

Do you have any hobbies?

I play tennis and love walking in the countryside and lying on beaches with a gin and tonic.

Favourite book?

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho.

Favourite song?

Beautiful by Dapz on the Map and Pheleba.

Favourite film?

The Shawshank Redemption.

Favourite podcast?

Our own The Secret Life of Prisons, without a doubt!

What advice would you give to someone else in your role?

Be kind and be persistent.