The Prison Reform Trust: Leading penal reform

This is the third in our occasional series on key independent organisations operating within the criminal justice sector.

The Prison Reform Trust (PRT) was founded in 1981 in London by a small group of prison reform campaigners who were unhappy with the direction in which the Howard League for Penal Reform was heading, concentrating more on community punishments than on traditional prison reform issues. Founding members included Sir Monty Finniston and Veronica Linklater.

PRT offers advice and information to thousands of people every year: prisoners, their families, prison and probation staff, the legal profession, students, academics and interested members of the public. PRT organise lectures, and a range of conferences and seminars which attract high-profile speakers and large audiences. It also runs an annual writing competition.

The Prison Reform Trust carries out research on all aspects of prison. Recent studies include: prisoners' views on prison education, the mental health needs of women prisoners, older prisoners, prisoner councils, foreign national prisoners, prisoner votes, and a report into how sentencers make the decision to imprison offenders.

The Prison Reform Trust, like its counterpart the Howard League for Penal Reform, values continuity. Stephen Shaw was the first Director of PRT and held the post from 1981 to 1999, when he became the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales. He was succeeded as Director by Juliet Lyon who also served for many years (until 2016), when Peter Dawson, the current Director took over.

One of the things that the Prison Reform Trust is best known for is its prison factfile better known as the “Bromley Briefings”, they are produced in memory of Keith Bromley, a penal reformer closely involved with PRT. The briefing is published twice a year (winter and summer versions) and contains a detailed and invaluable compendium of all the latest data relating to our penal system. The factfile is the first point of reference for almost everyone in the field looking to find out or check a fact about prison life. In addition to being rigorously checked with all sources of information fully referenced, over recent years the Briefings have become increasingly user-friendly with a number of very shareable infographics. Recent editions have also included guest contributions from senior academics investigating key areas of concern. In the current edition, published in January this year, Ben Crewe and colleagues from Cambridge University provided an in-depth look at the increasing number of people serving life sentences in this country.

PRT maintains a prominent role in supporting Parliamentarians, developing their knowledge and understanding of the justice system through different channels, including:

  • Providing the secretariat to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Penal Affairs (APPGPA);
  • Holding one off meetings and briefing sessions for MPs and Peers;
  • Publishing briefing papers for Parliamentary debates;
  • Drafting amendments to legislation;
  • Providing oral and written evidence to select committees;
  • Drafting Parliamentary Questions.

Two years ago, in the summer of 2018, PRT launched an exciting new initiative known as the Prisoner Policy Network which is a free-to-join network of prisoners, ex-prisoners, relatives and supporting organisations whose mission is to ensure that prisoners’ experiences become integral to prison policy development nationally. PRT facilitates consultation on key issues such as reducing violence in prison, making the best use of time in custody and what sort of incentives work in prison before coproducing reports which have already been shown to be influential at a national level.

Although the Prison Reform Trust sprang out of a difference of opinion with The Howard League for Penal Reform, the two organisations frequently cooperate and are currently jointly spearheading an alliance of bodies committed to penal reform who are pressuring the government to reduce the prison population as quickly as possible in order to mitigate the impact of coronavirus.

You can get involved in the work of the Prison Reform Trust here.