A Short History of Prison Dialogue

Prison Dialogue is a not-for-profit charity which has its roots in a high and maximum-security prison, HMP Whitemoor, in Cambridgeshire, England.  In the early 1990s Peter Garrett had been undertaking research with Dr David Bohm, the renowned theoretical physicist, about the critical role that dialogue can play in overcoming the fragmentation of thought and hence improving how people think together about things that matter. They co-authored a paper entitled ‘Dialogue – A Proposal’ which has been inspirational in many fields including business and social development. The paper was used by Dave Parsons, a prison-based Probation Officer, to support his proposal to start a Dialogue Group in Whitemoor prison which was in a highly fragmented state at that time. The interest was to use the Dialogue Group as a means of improving the fractured and dangerous state of relations between prisoners and staff. Peter saw this as an opportunity to learn how to extend the principles of Dialogue in practical application in order to reduce conflict,and  he welcomed the invitation to join the initiative. Peter participated from the first session and documented proceedings to issue regular reports for circulation throughout the prison.  He then convened and facilitated the ongoing group once Dave moved back to work in the community 18 months later, in early 1995.  The Whitemoor Dialogues ran for some seven years with the weekly sessions, which were open to everyone living or working in the prison, and consistently drew between 15 and 30 part. In addition to prisoners, Prison Officers and Prison Dialogue facilitators, attendees also included Probation Officers, Chaplains, Members of the Board of Visitors, Psychologists, Prison Management (including Governors), officials from HM Prison Service, and external researchers.  With encouragement from the prison's senior management, dialogue groups were also run in the evenings for several years on one of the prison's residential wings.

The success of these dialogues pointed to a wider application of the approach, and hence Prison Dialogue was established as a vehicle to promote this.  Under the Prison Dialogue banner, a similar programme was extended to HMP Long Lartin, a dispersal prison in Worcestershire, and the innovative 'Community Dialogues' in the city of Cambridge.  The community work was conceived of by Dave Parsons who led the Probation end of the partnership venture with Cambridgeshire Probation Service and co-facilitated sessions with Prison Dialogue.  They involved ex-offenders released on license reporting for supervision by meeting weekly with members of their local community, with the objective of supporting their re-incorporation into normal society after leaving prison, which is clearly a period of considerable challenge and vulnerability.  This approach was later developed into a fully systemic approach with the launch of the 'Threshold Dialogue' activity, which commenced in Dorset in 2004, and sought to establish a collective dialogue among a wide range of different parties involved in the end to end process of offender resettlement - including serving prisoners and those who had been released, prison staff, police, probation, housing, drug and alcohol rehabilitation groups etc.  The aim was to reducing the fragmentation among the different participants and organisations, and therefore aiding the journey of released offenders across the prison 'threshold', and successive thresholds, back into civil society.  Elements of this initiative are still running in Dorset today.

Another theme that became apparent from some of the earlier work undertaken was that as well as the obvious fragmentation between prisoners and staff in prisons, as with many organisations there were other axes of fragmentation as well, for example between managers and staff, and between different managers and departments within the prison, which was often a source of internal tension and as a result ineffectiveness.  Over the course of its existence, Prison Dialogue has undertaken work at a number of different establishments which has sought to improve teamworking and relationships amongst staff (eg HMP Dorchester, HMP Rye Hill).  Linked to this Prison Dialogue has also helped teams find more effective ways to manage change by approaching it 'dialogically', which entails in particular the active involvement in the change of all the different parties who will be affected by the change.  Prison Dialogue is currently working at HMP Birmingham in support of the cultural transformation of the prison arising from its transition from public sector to private sector operation.

One of the biggest challenges that Prison Dialogue has encountered over the years has been in embedding the dialogues as a core feature of prison activity, rather than their being treated as something of a discretionary add-on.  As a result, despite the demonstrable evidence of the value of the approach, if and when the initial advocates of the use of dialogue move on to other prisons, their successors have often regarded it as a luxury which can be dispensed with - especially in an environment with a heavy focus on cost savings.  Hence it has often proved quite hard to sustain some of the initiatives.  To this end Prison Dialogue is currently pursuing two new projects which present the opportunity to embed dialogue as a core part of prison activity and routine.  The first of these involves the newly-built HMP Oakwood near Wolverhampton, which is being operated by G4S, where all prisoners are being required to participate in fortnightly 'Learning Circles', which are linked to the mandatory Personal Officer work, and are formally scheduled into the prison's 'Core Day'.  Each of the sessions involves one prison officer and six offenders.  Prison Dialogue are providing advice, training and ongoing support to the Learning Circles, so that these are conducted as genuine dialogues.

The second current piece of work involves participation in an initiative to promote whole system change in a US state correction department.  This is seeking to engage all parties in the system, including offenders, prison staff and management, probation, and Department of Corrections leadership and officials in a dialogue-based end-to-end initiative to improve the effectiveness and humanity of the overall operation, ultimately leading to a reduction in offending and re-offending and an increase in public safety.