From prison to working at the PPO

“I knew that our work would

benefit from the knowledge

and perspective that people with

lived experience would bring to it.”


One of the first things I did when I became the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman was to set out my plan to bring people who had been in prison or had other first-hand experience of the criminal justice system into our team at the PPO.

There were several reasons for doing this. I knew that our work would benefit from the knowledge and perspective that people with lived experience would bring to it. I also believed that working in the criminal justice system, in our case as an independent Arm’s Length Body, came with a duty to lead by example and give people the opportunities that we all know are much harder to access if you have a criminal record. And lastly, I had seen for myself from many years of working in prisons, how much difference having a job could make to someone’s chances of turning their life around and settling back into the community.

Within the PPO team, there was real support for the plan. Most of my colleagues understood the benefits of having lived experience in the team and knew only too well the barriers that people face when they leave prison and try to rebuild their lives. There was some nervousness too. We had never done this before, and I had to reassure colleagues about the thoroughness of the selection processes and the safeguards in place. However, I also made it very clear why we were doing it; that it was the right thing to do, that there was always some risk to employing anyone we didn’t know and that, if things went wrong, we would deal with any problems in the same way as we dealt with other workplace issues.

And so, we recruited our first two colleagues, Frankie and Andrew who were both coming to the end of their prison sentences. We used the Going Forward into Employment (GFIE) scheme, a scheme jointly led by the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Justice, to help us to manage the process and we worked closely with the Resettlement Teams in both prisons to identify and select the most suitable candidates for roles in our Complaints Assessment Team. Managers from the PPO conducted the interviews just as they would for any other candidates and the successful applicants were then submitted for the pre-employment checks that all new Civil Servants must undergo.

It was more than a year after I had first set out my commitment to bring lived experience into the PPO, and our new colleagues joined the Complaints Assessment Team after being released from prison, initially on a two year contract with the option to convert to a permanent appointment later. Within a short time, Frankie and Andrew had settled into the job, the team and the life of the office. Just like other team members, they had the option to work partly from our offices in Canary Wharf and partly from home and were issued with laptops and mobile phones to support this remote working.

The value that lived experience brought to our work was apparent from an early stage. Frankie and Andrew are part of the team that looks at all the complaints that come into our office and decides which are eligible. Both take their turn on the rota listening to calls on the PPO phoneline and the next step is for them to respond to the emails we receive via the PPO mailbox. They are involved in some of our collaborations with other organisations such as the Traveller Movement and the Prison Radio Association, and they help inform our efforts to communicate effectively with prisoners. In short, they work as full members of the PPO team, with the added knowledge and perspective they bring from having experienced the prison system first hand.

It’s now almost a year and a half since our new colleagues joined the team. We recently converted their employment status to ‘permanent’, which the GFIE scheme allows us to do, subject to satisfactory performance. Like all of us, both are working from home during the current COVID restrictions, so it’s been a while since I saw either of them in person. But we all join the regular staff meetings and other virtual events via Microsoft Teams video calls and we’re looking forward to getting back to the office as lockdown eases.

Having seen the benefits of having lived experience at the PPO, we have no plans to stop now, and any future recruitment will see us reaching out to make sure we get the very best people on our team, which is sure to include more people from underrepresented groups, including those with first-hand experience of prison and other, community based sentences. We have started, but we are certainly not finished.

Author: Sue McAllister            

This article previously featured in Inside Time’s June edition, written by the PPO for prisoners.