Where Dialogue Helps

Peter Garrett and Jane Ball

Where Dialogue Helps

Despite the best of intentions on the part of many dedicated and hard working people, some prisons can typically be described as inefficient, difficult to change and in some places inhumane.  Staff can feel unfulfilled, under-appreciated and over-stressed, and only continue in the job because it is relatively well-paid and stable.  Prisoners are often bored and under-utilised, either suffering the system or looking to beat it.  Recidivism rates are often disappointing highlighting the ineffectiveness of the system.  The public don’t seem to know or care about what happens in prison, and politicians seem more concerned about statistics and public approval than addressing the dominant situation.  The question is what to do about this and this is where dialogue is so important.  

Yet prisons are also places of great opportunity.  Offenders are contained in prison, and it is possible to engage with them while they are so easily accessible in a way that can change their lives and thereby the lives of their families and their communities.  But first there is an opportunity to establish clear purpose and direction amongst the management, enthusiasm rather than lethargy from basic grade staff, and people working together with initiative and right intention.  

A little dialogue in the right place can go a long way.  Teams, departments and housing units can be turned around, and whole prisons can be transformed in terms of their performance and contribution to resettlement and public safety.

The various agencies who takeover responsibility in relation to offenders on release suffer a different kind of malaise.  There is often little evidence of a joined-up service to enable a successful journey back into society.  Fine work in one area can be undone by gaps in other necessary areas of support.  Fragmented resourcing, performance targets and habits lead agencies to work in isolation from one another which is inefficient and ineffectual.  Bringing together different agencies, supervised offenders and members of the public in dialogue, separately and at times together, can start to address the ingrained habits of separatism.  

Stepping back and looking at the needs of the criminal justice system it is clear that dialogue has an essential contribution to make. The Case Study summaries on this website describe some of the situations where that has been done. In situations where there are power imbalances, cultural differences or multiple stakeholders with competing interests, dialogue is not only necessary but essential.