Nesta Democracy Pioneers

Democracy Pioneers is an award for innovations that are experimenting with ways to re-energise civic participation and everyday democracy in the UK. This series shares the experience and work of 19 Pioneers and what they hope to see change for their impact to go mainstream.

User Voice was created by and for people who have been in prison and on probation, with the goal of reducing offending and supporting rehabilitation. We work with the most marginalised people in and around the criminal justice system. Through democratic councils, we ensure their voices and needs are heard by those in positions of authority.

User Voice councils are elected groups of people in prison and on probation. They consult their community on issues in the systems they are in. and develop solutions together, so that decision-makers have the informed insight needed to improve services. In 2019, we engaged 29,000 service users (those within prisons and on probation) and represented the views of 40% of people in the criminal justice system. Through User Voice Councils, we enable practitioners and policymakers in the criminal justice system to make representative decisions when developing services.

We were founded in 2009 by Mark Johnson MBE. He’d spent much of his life in prison, in care, homeless and as a drug abuser. After getting clean, he wanted to go back into the system and change it - not in his image but for the needs of the people currently in it. Beyond his own abilities, Mark realised that his lived experience was the defining characteristic that opened doors and enabled people to start talking about their experiences and needs. He also saw that change happens when you create space for people to take ownership over parts of their lives that are otherwise managed by others.

Lived experience is at the heart of what we do. Our work is led and delivered by people who have been in prison or probation themselves; 80% of our team has lived experience, from our CEO to our delivery team and everyone in between. We don’t view this tokenistically - it's a huge benefit that enables us to engage empathetically.

User Voice members speaking to prisoners

COVID-19 as an opportunity to meaningfully engage people in the criminal justice system

At User Voice we know that the criminal justice system needs to be improved. We are optimistic that change is possible and believe that service users (those within prisons and on probation) have the experience and insight to take a leading role.

The community we serve, the people in the criminal justice system, have been marginalised by their negative experiences of statutory services including social services, schools, police, probation and prison. Our consultation after the riots of 2011, found that young people felt no ownership of their community and we believe that a central issue that causes high rates of re-offending is the ‘us vs. them’ culture inherent in public services.

Promoting service users as having a relevant voice in decision making in authoritative systems is certainly a challenge, but our vision is of increased community ownership of services particularly those charged with rehabilitation and protecting the public.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many of the flaws in the criminal justice system. Across the world there have been disastrous outbreaks of the virus in prisons, which HMPS have largely been able to avoid but problems such as poor facilities, restricted movement and little provision for the impact on mental health still exist. Restrictions are starting to ease and there is a plan in place for how prisons and probation will operate while coronavirus remains a threat.

The plan centres on restricted movement and confining people to their cells. This may be necessary at times but has serious consequences when people have been locked up in their cells for 23 hours a day, for the last 4 months, isolated from their community and with limited access to mental health and other support services. How are people feeling? How are they coping? What additional needs do they have? We recently asked these questions of over 2000 people, across 14 prisons and 13 probation regions, the responses to which can be seen in this report. Whilst we don’t analyse, interpret, or suggest how services should react - we do share the ideas and feedback of people inside the system directly with people in power.

There is a huge risk of a surge in issues such as mental health, self-harm, suicide, violence, as well as re-offending, so it is important, crucial even, to continue to speak to people about what is happening and, both the consequences and solutions for their health, safety and wellbeing. These views and solutions should be central to any decisions made in COVID-19 recovery planning.

Ensuring changes to the system are designed with lived experience

The government recently announced plans to reverse the denationalisation of the probation service and revert to a single service. This is scheduled to take place by June 2021 and will be a significant change for those on probation as well as those providing probation services. It has the potential to be an opportunity to understand what people want from probation and what could help to cut re-offending.

We would like to see probation service design having significant input from service users (those within prisons and on probation). That means more than consulting for feedback, but actively seeking ideas and acting on them. Although there is an appetite to hear from service users and an acknowledgment that it’s essential,there’s also an existing deficit in how to do it well and in a way that collects ideas from all with lived experience.

The system suffers from the issue of cherry-picking service users for feedback instead of asking the wider community for ideas. It underestimates the abilities and insights of people simply because they have been to prison. And it understands or misunderstands people based on the worst thing they did, rather than the person they are.

We demand to see the criminal justice system not only hearing from but acting on the voices of all the people in the community. At any one time, the number of people in prison or on probation in England and Wales averages 339,000, so there is a wealth of available feedback, ideas, and solutions. User Voice consult every day on what makes services work, what stops them working and how to make them better. A starting place for the consultation on denationalising the probation service, in a way that gives everyone a voice, is to use our model of independently facilitated and democratic councils.


User Voice

An organisation that gives a voice to the people in the criminal justice system.