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Listening as a tool for reducing violence

Abigail Darton
Friday 28th September 2018

In a room in Wolverhampton, a small group of people gather together to discuss their community: What’s going well? What are our challenges? What can we change? What can we learn from one another? They share their experiences and grievances, discuss their differing opinions and suggest ways in which they can make their community a better place to be.

But this isn’t a local council meeting or school group, this is a community circle within a prison, made up of prisoners and staff alike.

The circle is part of a pilot of The Peaceful Prisons Project, an innovative action-research project developed by Leap. We were supported by the Charles Dunstone Charitable Trust to draw on our expertise from working with youth conflict and within prisons to develop a response to the high rise in violence seen across the secure estate over the past few years.

After 18 months of desk-based research and carrying out interviews with prisoners, prison staff and organisations delivering violence reduction programmes, Leap highlighted 5 key drivers of national prison violence:

  • Gangs
  • Bullying
  • Debt
  • Shame
  • Poor Staff/ Prisoner relationships

In response to these drivers, a model for violence reduction was designed which includes bringing people together to discuss issues on their wing in what are named ‘community circles’. The exact format of those circles wasn’t initially clear, but they were always going to include one key aspect – listening.

Listening isn’t always easy. At times, it can be a painful experience – both for those doing the listening and those being listened to. However, it can also be a healing and productive force for change, a way in which understanding is increased and relationships are built. And although it is still early days, that is exactly what we’re seeing in the Peaceful Prisons Community Circles.

Following a series of focus groups across the prison, it was decided that these circles would be run by, and for, both staff and prisoners. After being trained in basic conflict management skills separately, approximately 20 prisoners and staff were brought together to be trained as Conflict Coaches. This equipped them with an understanding of Leap’s conflict management models; communication skills to hold conversations with those who are experiencing conflicts; and facilitation skills to run games, exercises and discussions within the community circles. The aim was that by prisoners and staff working together to facilitate these circles, those attending would benefit not only from the content of the circles, but by witnessing a positive relationship in which a prisoner and staff member are working alongside each other with mutual respect. 

As the project develops, the structure and focus of the community circles is constantly shifting to incorporate learnings from each experience and respond to situations arising in the room. Across the different discussions that have occurred, listening has been used as an effective tool for violence reduction in two distinct ways: listening to implement structural change and listening to humanize the other.

Listening to implement structural change

At the start of the project, many of the causes of violence discussed focused on the prison’s restrictive regime and other environmental factors such as the cleanliness of cells, and at times a seemingly unrealistic rewards system. Prisoners and staff alike felt that being alone in a cell for 23 hours a day caused frustration and anger to become pent up, and then at times released in violent actions either towards the self or others. At times this has been exacerbated by a rewards system which leaves the majority of prisoners with a sense of having ‘nothing to lose’, as privileges were so hard to obtain within the average sentence length. 

By providing a space for these issues to be aired and seriously listened to by those with the power to create change, the community circles contributed to structural changes across the wing to address these causes of violence. This included residents being able to eat dinner in groups on the landings instead of alone in their rooms, and coming on to the wing with enhanced privileges so that they have something to lose from engaging in negative behaviours.

Listening to humanize the other

As the project has gone on, the causes of violence being discussed have taken on a more personal focus. This involves both prisoners and staff being honest about the feelings and frustrations which lie behind their behaviour and interactions with one another, which at times lead to violent situations. Officers have heard how sometimes just waking up in prison is enough to put you in a bad mood as you’re missing your family and friends and feel trapped, with no choice or power over the next period of your life. Similarly, prisoners have heard of the stresses experienced by staff in the prison, of the logistical processes they must go through to get things done for prisoners and of the number of people they have depending on them for a multitude of things.

Understanding these experiences enables both prisoners and staff to reflect on why someone may be behaving in a certain way towards them. It allows them to consider that the reasons for someone’s aggressive behaviour may have nothing to do with them, even if they are on the receiving end of it. And equally encourages reflection on how their own reactions and responses may exacerbate frustrations and therefore lead to more violent situations.

Both of these forms of listening can have profound impacts on both the person doing the listening and the person being listened to. As one prisoner who has attended the circles put it ‘I used to have fists, I loved my fists. Now I have a voice. I can talk about things’.

We too have learnt a lot from these community circles - both in terms of the contents of the discussions and the importance of listening as a method for violence reduction, and programme development as a whole. We look forward to seeing how the community circles develop, as well as continuing to listen to the experiences of all those we work with, in the secure estate and beyond, to ensure our work has the biggest possible impact.

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