The process and experience of recall to prison

By Russel Webster

Prisoners and probation officers had different perceptions of how much prisoners understood recall, how much they communicated with each other, and the impact of recall on their relationship.

Perceptions of unfairness & mistrust

A new (19 July 2018) HMPPS analytical summary presents the findings of research into Understanding the process and experience of recall to prison. The study (authored by Flora Fitzalan Howard, Rosie Travers, Helen Wakeling, Caroline Webster and Ruth Mann) was conducted to develop an evidence-based and systematic approach for the management of determinate sentenced prisoners on standard recall.

The number of recalled prisoners in custody has steadily increased over time, with the largest proportion at any one time being on ‘standard’ recall, and many remaining in custody until the end of their sentences. Thus, the focus was on standard recalled prisoners and the re-release process.

The work had four strands: a Risk, Need and Responsivity profile of recalled prisoners; two qualitative investigations of the experience of recall for men and for women; and a survey of Offender Managers (OMs) and recalled prisoners. The aim was to identify the obstacles and opportunities in the current re-release process, and identify ways for recall to become more rehabilitative.

The key findings are reproduced below:

  • Recalled prisoners had high levels of risk and need, and complex responsivity issues. Many of them would be suitable for, and might benefit from, cognitive skills and violence interventions to enable them to address their needs and progress to re-release.
  • Prisoners and OMs had different perceptions of how much prisoners understood recall, how much they communicated with each other, and the impact of recall on their relationship.
  • In interviews and surveys, recalled prisoners described their recall as unjust, finding it hard to trust the process or those involved. They could feel stranded, confused about what was expected of them, or felt they were not supported, communicated with or included enough in decisions.
  • Interview and survey findings showed that prisoners found recall distressing and associated with loss. They found recall to be solely punitive, not rehabilitative. Prisoners’ meaningful engagement and relationships with OMs could be negatively affected when recalled.
  • Recalled prisoners continued to show motivation to change, determination to have a different future, and some wanted more opportunities to achieve this.
  • For women, the period immediately before and after their initial release emerged as the time of particular vulnerability.
  • OMs appeared to generally have good understanding and confidence in using the recall and re-release processes. They worked to keep in touch with the prisoners they managed.
  • OMs experienced barriers to progressing cases. These included external factors (e.g. a lack of access to interventions and accommodation) and internal barriers (e.g. poor prisoner motivation to engage with their OM following recall). Delays in helping prisoners progress to re-release were reportedly due to difficulties establishing frequent contact, heavy workloads and insufficient time.
  • If recall is to become more rehabilitative, engage prisoners and help them achieve earlier re-release, the findings of this research emphasise the need to refine recall and re-release processes to include better communication and relationships between those involved.
  • Small sample sizes, particularly of OMs surveyed, may reduce the generalisability of the research findings.

Prisoner experiences

Although short (just 13 pages), there is a great deal of information in this analytical summary on a subject which has received very little attention to date. In this post, I want to focus on the experiences of 68 male prisoners who completed a survey and which the authors structure into five themes:

1: Perceptions of unfairness and mistrust
The majority of prisoners (68%) believed that the recall process was unfair, and more than half believed that the reasons for not being re-released were also unfair. When asked what recall was for, free text responses related to unfairness, benefits to Probation (e.g. recall being easier for OMs) or ulterior motives (e.g. to make money). When asked about barriers to re-release, respondents also reported believing staff power was being abused, and that staff were unwilling to complete paperwork.

2: Poor understanding and communication
Most prisoners understood the reasons for their recall, but over half did not understand why they had not been re-released. 62% reported receiving no advice or information about how to achieve re-release.

3: Little contact with, and help from, staff
The majority of prisoners knew who their OM was and how to contact them (over 75%). However, 32% reported having had no contact since returning to custody, and a similar percentage had had no contact with their Offender Supervisor. Although the majority of prisoners did not believe their OM or prison staff were helping them to progress, many really wanted this and were open to engaging.

4: Progression – barriers and positive thinking
Over half of prisoners felt positive or hopeful about the future and being able to progress to re-release. They identified a range of barriers to progression. Most of these were external barriers, such as Parole Board decisions, lack of help from others and lack of community accommodation. Although lack of help was commonly cited as a barrier, approximately half of the prisoners did not view help from others as necessary for them to progress. A small number of prisoners reported that it was their own behaviour that was affecting their rerelease.

5: Effect of recall – positive and negative
A small number of prisoners identified positive effects; the most frequently cited was an improvement in their motivation to progress and understand their risk factor. They reported that recall gave them time to reflect on their lives and look forward to a positive future.
Most prisoners felt that recall had had a negative effect however, particularly on their personal relationships, accommodation and trust in the system. The most commonly reported negative effects were loss of family, anger at the system, perceived injustice and lack of help.
39% reported preferring to stay in prison until their sentence end date, or were unsure whether they wanted re-release. The main reason given for wishing to stay in prison was to avoid working with Probation and such restrictions again.


This content has been republished with permission from the author. See  the original here.

Russel Webster is an expert in Criminal Justice and substance misuse, and the author of the blog  

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