Empowering prisons to engage online

Open government is a driver for the way we deliver a lot of our work at Helpful. The challenge with open government is that it’s often difficult to see the impact of changes to laws and processes, on the citizen. Prison reform is a case in point, which is why we chose to work with Involve on a project with Tees and Wear Prisons.

Simon Burrall wrote an overview of the project last year, which summed up the importance of prison reform:

While prisons may not feature often in the thoughts of the majority of the public, they loom large (both metaphorically and physically) in the minds of the families of prisoners, the communities in which their crimes were committed, the victims of their crimes and the communities that play host to the prison itself.

The role of social media

The Tees and Wear project set out 6 aims. Our belief is that social media has a role to play in at least 3 of those:

  • developing more open and accountable forms of decision making
  • supporting prison staff to be more confident in listening actively
  • engaging the local business community to identify opportunities

Researching conversations about Tees and Wear online revealed very little about their work, and less still that was critical. Perhaps that should be expected. However, we quickly became familiar with a large community of bloggers writing about the justice system, life in prison and reform. Most of these bloggers are ex-offenders, others were anonymous prison staff. Posts and conversations are generally constructive and insightful, lending weight to the need for more open engagement.

In addition, it was clear from posts on Facebook that the public services offered by one prison, such as a car wash and cafe, were appreciated by local residents and tourists.

Overcoming prison challenges

Working on digital projects in prisons presents challenges, such as training in an environment where an internet connection is not always available.

While staff working at the prison were enthusiastic and accommodating, there were some reservations about the impact of social media on their work. We quickly realised this project was as much about building confidence, and clarifying risks and opportunities.

A senior trailblazer is often key to success in projects such as these. We were pleased that Ian Blakeman, Director of Tees & Wear Reform Prisons, took up the baton and joined twitter. This feels like the right channel to encourage conversation with as broad an audience as possible. Twitter isn’t the natural home of local conversations (although we struggled to find better examples of community discussion on Facebook or elsewhere) but it does mean that the barrier to talking with Ian is low, unlike say, a Facebook group or forum where people would need to register and be approved. We also considered blogging, but felt this wouldn’t encourage as much discussion, without having a twitter account as well.

Ian and his colleagues have been great at recognising the importance of authenticity on social media – it really is Ian behind this account – and the importance of listening. Actively searching, following and talking to relevant people, rather than just showcasing the work of the prison.

As well as starting the first in hopefully a series of prison staff on social media, we also developed a digital blueprint for Tees and Wear. We avoid writing strategies because they sound intimidating to the rest of the organisation and in our experience are rarely implemented in full. A blueprint is more succinct. A short, sharp vision of the opportunity, SWOT analysis and a roadmap of practical activities and evaluation designed to build momentum.

We’re excited to see reform prisons starting a journey towards greater understanding and accountability through social media, and proud to be playing a small part in a very important institution.