Quick questions with… User Voice founder Mark Johnson

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Grayling – Look at my works ye mighty and despair

Quick questions with… User Voice founder Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson, ex-service user, author and social commentator speaks to NM about how and why User Voice plays an important role in criminal justice service delivery.


How and why did User Voice come about?

I founded User Voice 10 years ago because as a former service user turned social entrepreneur I could see how ineffective not only the criminal justice system was but all the services designed to help the most vulnerable and chaotic people. There were few employment or leadership opportunities for people with convictions.

I could see that the lack of trust and absence of clear communication between service user and provider created a schism that led to inefficient, misguided and unjust services. Decision makers only heard the voices of service users through the agenda of service providers.  I put together a business plan with my own money and some funding from two foundations and piloted our first Prison Council model in the Isle of Wight, aiming to establish User Voice as a truly user-led organisation.


Explain the kind of work you do

Our model harnesses the lived experience of service users and our staff to achieve three things: we help transform institutions and organisations (prisons and probation services) with our Prison and Community Council models; we help transform individuals with user-led change; and we do research and consultations (for example, around spice use in prison)  to provide insight and transform debate and policy around criminal justice and rehabilitation.

Our council models follow a democratic model for prisons, probation and other services, giving decision-makers a tried and tested route to engagement, feedback and ideas for improvement from their service users.


What kind of impact has your organisation had on a) service users and b) the justice sector?

We have worked with thousands of people over the years and have a staff of 60, 90% of who have lived experience. We work in 30 prisons currently and with CRCs covering two-thirds of the country, facilitating the improvement of services giving users hope and reasons to engage. We have completed 65 research projects with partners such as NHS England and the Ministry of Justice involving nearly 8000 people. We continue to challenge everyone involved to push for a better system and change the conversation around rehabilitation.


What are the most fundamental differences you and the people you work with have seen since the introduction of Transforming Rehabilitation?

These are very challenging times and Transforming Rehabilitation has not helped. Huge budget reductions have stretched everyone much thinner, but the real opportunity this offers is to put the service user at the heart of allocating these limited resources and that’s what we are doing in two-thirds of the CRCs in the UK.


How can people get involved and support User Voice?

Probation officers can refer their service users to us, to be council members, volunteers of employees, if we are working in their area. We are always looking for people who work in the criminal justice system to talk to us about what we can achieve together; and we are always looking for former service users who want to use their experience to change the system for the better for all concerned.


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