A six-year research programme driven by Dr Victoria Lavis has shaped a new national equalities policy framework and new policies and guidance for the care and management of transgender offenders.
- Dr Victoria Lavis and Professor Malcolm Cowburn's research has shaped the Single Equalities national policy framework in several areas, including:
- Revised mechanisms for prisoner reporting and investigation of discrimination and inequality
- Local and national policy guiding the care of transgender prisoners
- Development of reference guides to help staff respect diversity when searching prisoners and visitors
- Improved training for prisoners who act as Equalities Representatives
- Dr Lavis's research has also led to development of equalities literature for prisoners and staff, mediation to address inequality and wider use of the research methodology Appreciative Inquiry to engage prisoners and staff in designing effective responses.
"I am convinced that the research has had significant impact on the development of national policy and that when that policy is disseminated, and as the projects are advanced, it will have made a practical difference in prisons across England and Wales." (Chris Barnett-Page, Head of Women and Equalities Group, National Offender Management Service)
About this research
"Once offenders are placed inside the prison walls, society doesn't really want to think too much about them," says Dr Victoria Lavis of the University of Bradford. "But our treatment of prisoners can have an impact on their lives once they have completed their sentence. If we treat offenders with fairness, respect and decency, then we are modelling the behaviour we would like to see in them when they are released."
In 2009 Dr Victoria Lavis and Professor Malcolm Cowburn began exploring the fairness and respect afforded to prisoners in HMP Wakefield, focusing specifically on equality and diversity. Using the innovative research approach Appreciative Inquiry, which is based on observation, surveys, workshops and identifying good practice, the researchers examined how prisoners with minority identities such as faith, disability or ethnicity experienced prison.
The findings highlighted some of the challenges involved in respecting prisoners' rights within an environment where secure custody is key. "Sniffer dogs are used to search prison cells for drugs, yet in the Islamic faith dogs are unclean animals," Dr Lavis explains. "To enable Muslim prisoners to pray in a clean environment five times a day, it's essential that there's time to thoroughly clean their cell after a dog search. Understanding these sensitivities has allowed us to create best practice guidelines that protect offenders' legal right to practice their faith as well as enabling prison officers to feel they are acting appropriately."
The work has also influenced new guidelines for the care and management of transgender prisoners. "During the process of transition, transgender prisoners' anatomy may change. To treat these prisoners decently, we worked with the prison to develop new guidelines which, for example, provides for both male and female prison officers to undertake searches of different parts of the offender's body," Dr Lavis explains.
Continuing this ongoing work with a new research team, Dr Lavis is currently studying prisoners' experiences in different types and security categories of prison to ensure further development of policy as well as extending the reach of the project to an international level.