Transparency Can Work


Courts and Prisons
Author Lee Hodge

Special Adviser on Men and Prisons, Lee Hodge, takes a look at how transparency can help make the jail experience a more positive time for all concerned. While transparency doesn't provide all the answers, as Lee's own experiences attest, it can be a big help.

Since my first article, I've received some helpful feedback about my use of terminology. Rest assured, your comments have been taken on board and will influence the colour and tone of future pieces.

One of the things that I mentioned in the article was the value of transparency. By that, I mean that whatever happens – or transpires – between workers and clients in detention is fully explained, easily understood and free of hidden agenda. This is important in limiting the power abuse that can occur in such relationships.

Recently, a young man burst into tears in my office and said, "I forget how to live when I'm locked in here."

After talking it through a bit, it became clear that, among other things, he was confused about why he was in detention, why the things that had happened had happened and what was to happen to him in the future.

Out on the street, it was a different story. These anxieties just didn't exist. On the street, he and his friends followed a code of sorts with its own rules, roles and boundaries. The meaning of street existence was very clear to him and his behaviour reflected the understanding – both internal and external – of what was expected of him and what he expected of others.

I took this issue to a group of young men in detention and met with a similar reaction. Although these young men were clear about the particular offences they had committed and the subsequent penalties, they were angry, sad and unclear about what was "done to" rather than "done with" them.

Several young men told stories of trying to make sense of what was happening in their lives only to be met by bureaucratic responses or abusive put-downs. What they said they wanted was for someone to explain in simple and clear terms, and with some compassion, the reasons for what had been done to them. They also wanted to share in the process and have some say in their day-to-day operations. And they wanted to be listened to and understood if they responded with anger or confusion. Seemed pretty clear to me!

I followed this up with the young man and let him know that many of his peers thought and felt the same and that maybe we could think about ways to improve the situation. For example, what could we, as workers and managers, do to make the detention process safer, less abusive and more transparent?

I asked him to make a list of the ways that would make sense to him and help him to feel like living as fully as possible within the detention structure. I asked him to get as much help as he needed in filling out the list. I promised to read the list with him and work, as openly as possible, toward achieving his goals. I also enlisted the support of other staff in the process.

What resulted was a brochure outlining detainees' rights and responsibilities including a simple, clear grievance procedure, weekly meetings organised by the young men and a representative from the young men to attend staff meetings.

Gradually, a clearer understanding emerged of what it meant to these young men to be deprived of their liberty. Staff assumptions began to change and the incidents of violence between staff and detainees lessened.

When asked about the changes, the young men commented on their increased sense of respect, both to and from staff, and a decreased sense of frustrated hopelessness.

Although transparency is not the answer, as a practice it can reduce the power imbalance inherent in the detention setting and help to make detention a more positive experience for all concerned. If nothing else, it can render more conscious the commitment to justice.

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