Thematic review of prison-based social work

“Fundamental reform” is needed in prison social work, inspectors have warned.  

It comes in a review which considered the direction of Scotland’s prison-based social work services within the context of the changing prison population, resource constraints, and competing demands.   

The report, published today, recognised the important contribution of social workers across the prison estate and found that prison-based social work teams are comprised of skilled and experienced staff. 

A survey of staff highlighted their strong value base, and clear commitment to public protection and to supporting desistance from offending.  

Prison-based social workers hold important responsibilities for the assessment and communication of risk and need within prisons, and preparing people to return to the community.  However, the role of prison-based social work is not as visible or as well-understood as it could be amongst local and national partners.  

Where prison-based social workers are able to develop meaningful and constructive relationships, this has a positive impact on the welfare, motivation, and involvement of men and women in key processes during their time in custody. However, many people in prison viewed contact levels with prison-based social workers as insufficient.   

Pressured resources for prison-based social work negatively impacted on their capacity to deliver services in a timely and effective way.  This also affected prison-based social work’s capacity to build relationships or contribute to offence-focused work, which aims to make the person in prison understand the impact of their behaviour and take responsibility for it.   

At a strategic level, there was no clear national vision for, nor a consensus on, the aims of prison-based social work.  Operationally, there was a lack of consistently robust performance management or quality assurance measures.  Without these, there was limited evidence to drive improvement.

 While the review welcomed action being taken by the Scottish Government to update the guidance currently informing practice, it concluded that the Scottish Government should take a more direct leadership role in the co-ordination and oversight of improvement and change for prison-based social work services.    

Local authorities also have an important responsibility to ensure prison-based social work services are delivered efficiently and effectively and are of sufficient quality.   

Jackie Irvine, Chief Executive of the Care Inspectorate, said: “Having reviewed the strategic context in which prison-based social work services are operating, the next phase of our review will focus on the efficiency and effectiveness of prison-based social work practice.  

“To this end, we will seek to establish a multi-partner steering group to inform our approach to the future scrutiny and assurance of prison-based social work. As well as representation from national and local stakeholders, the involvement of people with living experience of custody and throughcare will be essential to both the design and delivery of any future methodology, and in listening to their experiences. 

“Cultural change will be necessary if partners are to achieve their ambitions. This will require goodwill, flexibility, and an openness to doing things differently to the ultimate benefit of people in the justice system, their families, and people and communities affected by crime.”