Content designers should work in prisons

This guest blog post is written by Nigel Jones. He's a content design consultant with experience of working in public services.

Delivering simple, clear messages to prisoners, especially in the first few hours and days, has to be a priority.

The problem

Part of my work involves going into prisons to talk with people living in the system, because they’re my users.

I never ask, nor know, why they’ve been sent to prison – I’m not there for that – but as a content designer who's passionate about delivering clear messages, there’s a problem I’m seeing time and time again.

People don’t know what’s going on, or what’s happening to them.

That’s confusing, at best. At worst, it’s dangerous.

Hello, there’s lots we want to tell you

Not knowing what’s going on is most apparent during reception and induction – the process of coming into the prison, then being told how this prison works. Because no 2 prisons are the same.

At reception, you’re led off the van and into a holding area.

It’s here the processes begin. Who are you? Are you safe to share a cell? What immediate health issues do we need to know about? There’s lots of paper forms, the staff are busy and it’s all about managing risk and getting you into your first night cell.

Given the prison environments we’ve created, this is essential. But all the information we push at people is focused on what we, ‘the prison’, want to tell you.

We’ve asked lots of people going through reception and induction about their questions and anxieties when they’re ‘in the moment’. So we know what they are, for example:

  • Am I going to be ok?
  • I need to call work.
  • I’m supposed to pick the kids up from school
  • When will I get a visit?

From what I’ve seen during reception and induction, we’ll have done nowhere near enough to make sure we’ve addressed people’s initial anxieties. This means they’ll struggle to process the avalanche of new information that’s about to be dumped on them.

It’s not about what they’ve done. It’s not about why they’re here. It’s about creating an environment that is safe, humane and makes it immediately clear to people that dignity and hope are present.

If you’re new, you’re vulnerable

For newcomers, whether transferred from another prison or new to the system, stress levels can be acute. There’s information and sensory overload.

If you’re brand new to the system, prison is an audible assault, it sounds like nowhere else (check out this excellent National Prison Radio programme, ‘Sounds Inside’. It’ll give you an idea).

I’ve sat on first night wings and watched second-day induction sessions. I’ve spent time in the rooms where people wait to be seen by officers or healthcare.

I’ve seen very important information written on aged A4 paper, 10 point font, in impenetrable block paragraphs, hanging off a notice board at a jaunty angle.

This is information about:

  • getting the help you need when you really need it,
  • avoiding prison debt traps,
  • what’s happening to you,
  • your rights.

Yes, it’s there. No, it’s not doing what it’s supposed to.

What we should do

It’s not content designers, but rather content design skills that can help. I’m not for one minute saying it will fix everything. But it is part of the solution.

Content design: what’s that? At its most basic: giving your users the information that’s important to them in a clear, unambiguous way.

But it’s the approach that’s important too. By understanding your users’ needs, you’re demonstrating you care.

By tackling the issue from the service users’ perspective, we can address the generic anxieties that we know everyone has. And then, we can establish better relationships between prison staff and new prisoners from the outset.

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