Desistance and the prison: three things we’ve learnt from our evaluation of a prison-based diversion programme

By | 2019-03-28T11:12:51+00:00 August 20th, 2018|0 Comments

It’s a joy to keep in touch with all of our Learning Together students and hear about what everyone is up to. Charlotte, one of our students from the 2015 ‘Introduction to Criminology’ course at Grendon, wrote to us recently with news of research in which she has been involved, evaluating the impact of a programme called ‘KeepOut’. Charlotte and her colleagues at the University of Surrey are hosting an event to share their research findings and she wanted to extend a warm welcome to all members of the Learning Together community. Read on, to learn more…

Picture credit: WIRE’s Authors (2017) ‘Mimicry in butterflies: The muse and the artist‘. Available at: [Accessed: 17 August 2018].

For the last three years,  researchers at the University of Surrey have been exploring the impact of a prison-based crime diversion programme, ‘KeepOut’. Founded twenty years ago, KeepOut aimed to divert young people away from crime and support prisoners in their rehabilitation and journeys towards desistance.  KeepOut trained serving prisoners to deliver educational interventions to young people, aged 13-17, and identified as at risk of committing crime. The interventions comprised of a series of workshops incorporating drama, roleplay and games, and drew upon peer education, mentoring and cognitive-behavioural techniques. The aim was to engender victim awareness amongst the young people, to help them see the potential consequences of their actions, and to facilitate taking responsibility for them. We have come to the end of a three-year evaluation of KeepOut which has incorporated qualitative interviews with prisoners, practitioners and users groups who brought young people into the prison. It also included an outcome evaluation of reoffending rates of prisoners post-release, which was conducted by the Ministry of Justice Data Lab. The research has produced a great deal of rich data about desistance, facilitating the rehabilitation of prisoners, the delivery of interventions in the prison, and working with young people. Here are just three things we’ve learnt about supporting the desistance process of prisoners:

  1. Some prisoners are committed to desistance and wish to make amends. Despite the unpromising conditions within the prison, and the often-held belief that prisons can undermines rather that support reform, we found strong commitment to change and a desire to make amends amongst the cohort of prisoners who participated in the programme. This desire was usually situated within factors inherent to the individual, notably within the processes of maturation, in the context that many of those that had participated on KeepOut were serving long sentences.
  2. Commitment to reform was supported and facilitated through participation in KeepOut. Prisoners had very positive experiences of working on KeepOut. They got involved for multiple and various reasons, but the most dominant motivations were a desire to give something back to the community, personal commitment to reform, and to gain skills and experience to prepare them for release. Participants reported that participating was rewarding and empowering. Telling their personal testimonies allowed prisoners to reflect on their past behaviour, come to identify their past mistakes, and think about how to behave differently in the future. Providing prisoners with a chance to give something back and to help them make amends, enabled them to see themselves differently and to believe that a more positive life was possible. Strong and positive interpersonal and professional relationships with programme staff meant prisoners felt cared for, supported and believed in. This was motivating and it increased their self-understanding and sense of control, increased their self-esteem, and gave prisoners higher hopes for the future. In all, participation helped them feel that a crime free future was achievable post release.
  3. The longevity of these benefits is questionable. Certainly, our analysis reveals the need to be realistic regarding the long-term benefits of participation in programmes. Prisoners face daunting challenges on release, and KeepOut, or programmes like it, are only one part of a prisoner’s rehabilitation. No matter how committed to change they purport to be, nor how positive their experience of programmes has been, it is essential that prisoners are fully supported in preparing for release and in their transition back to the community. Any programme committed to rehabilitating prisoners needs to include components to prepare prisoners for release and ensure they are supported through-the-gate.


To hear the full story of this three-year evaluation we warmly invite you to attend our FREE upcoming conference, on 19 September. Drawing on our findings, the conference considers the promise for the promotion of desistance in the prison and the challenges that will be faced in realising that promise. The conference will focus on (1) the circumstances through which identity change occurs within prisoners and how identity change might be promoted and assisted in the prison; (2) the conditions which support or undermine the delivery of rehabilitative practices in the prison; (3) prisoner perceptions of rehabilitative practice within the prison; (4) the prospects for peer to peer education in prison; (5) prisoners motivations to participate in prison based rehabilitation and how this can be facilitated and undermined.

Tickets are available here: All welcome!

Karen Bullock, Charlotte Dodds and Annie Bunce, University of Surrey

Karen Bullock is Professor of Criminology, Charlotte Dodds and Annie Bunce are Postgraduate Researchers, Department of Sociology, University of Surrey.

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