Hardeep Matharu meets the charity helping inmates to think about their lives and how to transform them and explores why we can’t wait for the Government to make prisons places of change.

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“I’ve never met anyone I’ve coached in prison who has been a bad person,” Lilian Flynn told me in a small office near London’s Euston Station. “All of them have taken responsibility for what they’ve done, none of them are trying to pass the buck and all of them have dreams and sometimes circumstances got in the way. None of them actually want this life for themselves.”

That certainly seems to ring true. Prisons are perhaps the most damaging they have ever been. Self-harm by prisoners, inmates assaulting each other and attacks on staff are all, the Government itself informs us, at “record highs”. Flooded with the dehumanising psychoactive drug Spice, they are still reeling from the loss of experienced staff to austerity cuts and running regimes in which people are locked in their cells for up to 22 hours a day.

In their current state, it is difficult to see how our prisons can be the places of change the young men Lilian coaches need them to be.

“It makes you analyse your life and helped me to understand where my head needed to be. It also showed me that, in the cycle of life, things get harder before they get better. It gave me hope”


Ministers speak of reform, but with no extra funds and a nuanced debate in society about what the underlying philosophy of prisons should be missing, change from above cannot be counted on.

This is what I met Lilian, a life coach for the criminal justice charity Spark Inside, to discuss.

“Sometimes, when I sit there and listen to these stories I ask myself, ‘would I have done the same thing?’ she said. “‘Would I have been in the same situation if I had been born into their circumstances?’ Everyone is human.”

‘We Don’t Want to be Told What to do’

Spark Inside was ignited in 2012, offering personal life coaching for prisoners aged 18 to 25, and systems coaching for both inmates and prison staff.

Nearly 1,000 people have completed the programmes in jails in London and the south-east including Wormwood Scrubs, Wandsworth, Isis, Belmarsh, Brixton, Pentonville, Wandsworth, and Feltham and Cookham Wood young offenders institutions.

To its critics, Spark Inside’s work might seem like a soft touch. In reality, it is anything but.

Asking inmates to think about their emotions and behaviour and what they need to do to change their lives is challenging work – much more so than sitting in a prison cell hour after hour watching daytime TV. How much do any of us relish the idea of confronting our shadows and delving into the past?

A decade ago, Baillie Aaron was teaching entrepreneurship classes in prisons in the US where she saw firsthand the powerlessness felt by its occupants. After coming to the UK to study, she asked young people in London impacted by prison what they needed to change. “We don’t want to be told what to do” and “We want tailored support”, they said. From this, she came up with the idea for Spark Inside.

The charity emphasises that it helps those in prison find their own solutions and coaches do not ‘fix’ their lives – an approach premised on the belief that people are the experts of their own lives and change can only lie with them.

A life coaching session in HMP ISIS. Photo: Andy Aitchison/Spark Inside

Joseph Campbell’s famous work The Hero With A Thousand Faces, a discussion of archetypal heroes in history who found growth through overcoming challenges, is the basis of the charity’s life coaching. The director George Lucas also credited the book as inspiration for his Star Wars films.

“We help them to be able to think about things differently, but the light bulb moments and the realisations are theirs and the ownership is with them and they take responsibility for the process, we just facilitate,” Lilian explained. “When someone notices a value or something worthwhile in them, some of them have said that’s the first time they’ve ever heard someone saying something positive to them.”

A coach in education and the corporate sector, she said she uses the same tools and techniques with prisoners as she does with students and managers because “people are people”.

“A lot of them feel they’ve been let down by the system,” she added. “At the end of one of the sessions one of them had this light bulb moment and he was like ‘no one is coming to save me, if I want help, I need to get help myself’. I think that’s so powerful for that young guy himself and for society. If we send those prisoners out and they have a sense of ownership about their lives, it’s a completely different situation.”

“One guy joined a gang at nine and I asked the question ‘what advice would you give yourself if you were to go back to then?’,” she continued. “He realised he didn’t feel there was another way. His role models were these older guys that were in gangs and those were the people he looked to. Now, he said he really wants to go out and be a mentor and help young people who are in the same environment that he was.

“That’s what we need. If you have young men who have been through the system, who know why this is happening, we need to try and help rehabilitate them so they can go out there and really be able to help. It’s a voice that people will listen to more.”

‘We are Offering Practical Solutions’

Coaching may not be a silver bullet for our prisons, but Spark Inside believes it can be one of a number of practical solutions.

“Coaching isn’t a panacea for the prisons crisis and we don’t think any single intervention is because we’re talking about a service that has been consistently de-funded over the past few years,” Hannah Pittaway, the charity’s policy manager, told me. “But what we are offering is practical solutions to the challenges that are faced by the people living and working in prisons now, at a time of increased violence.”

More prison governors are becoming interested in the charity’s systems coaching, she said, as “interventions that are based around prisoners and prison officers talking about how they interact with each other on a daily basis and what is in their power to change and collaborate on to improve their living conditions for the better” are pretty unique.

“It’s all about trying to break down stereotypes and step back from this blaming culture… So much more is possible when people are standing in these positive emotions

Duncan Müller

Duncan Müller, a systems coach at the charity, explained that much of his job involves empowering both prisoners and prison officers to be vulnerable and compassionate.

“We help these two groups, where the system has almost trained them to distrust and disrespect each other, to express themselves, what’s been going on for them and voice their concerns in a safe space,” he told me. “There are operational challenges so both groups can feel very disempowered, both groups operate in this rule-based community where both of them don’t have a lot of say actually and so one will blame the other. There’s lots of blame… This is all about improving relationships. In a place like prison, where there is so much hardship and pain, this is crucial.

“Budgets are under threat, it’s a difficult environment. If the relationship between prisoners and prison officers has more safety and trust, if that prisoner can accept an apology from the prison officer, then actually that can help them profoundly.

“It’s all about trying to break down stereotypes and step back from this blaming culture. And that means that, when something happens to them, they can ride the wave. So much more is possible when people are standing in these positive emotions.”

A coaching session in HMP ISIS. Photo: Andy Aitchison/Spark Inside

According to the charity, its life coaching courses have reduced reoffending by one-third in the first six months after release for prisoners who have participated at two jails, while other evaluations have shown an improvement in inmates’ wellbeing, their empathy and emotional intelligence, decision-making and problem-solving skills, confidence and resilience. Often, the value added will not be quantifiable.

For Trevor, a prisoner in Wormwood Scrubs, “no punishment can stop you committing crime if you don​’t want to stop. You need an understanding of what you can gain from not doing it”. Coaching has given him that.

“Now I know what I really want out of life and know that my old life selling drugs will never give me what I want,” the 25-year-old said. “Doing the workshop helped me put my life in perspective and see exactly where I was at. It showed me I kept falling back to what I knew rather than pushing through to what I really wanted.

When someone notices a value or something worthwhile in them, some of them have said that’s the first time they’ve ever heard someone saying something positive to them

Lilian Flynn

“It helped me clarify what I wanted long-term – to help my family – and that doing that gave me a sense of self-worth. But, trying to provide for them by selling drugs has only ended up hurting them, and me, because I​’m not there, and that​’s what they really want.”

Michael, who is serving a life sentence in Wandsworth prison for joint enterprise murder, said the coaching helped him see he was living life “like a headless chicken”.

“It makes you analyse your life and helped me to understand where my head needed to be,” he said. “It also showed me that, in the cycle of life, things get harder before they get better. It gave me hope.”

While the outcomes looked for by civil servants may not always be tangible, enabling prisoners to become their own life coaches seems to make sense on many levels – not just on a human and societal one, but also economically. The prisons running Spark Inside’s programmes are making a small, personal investment in the lives of prisoners with potentially big, long-term gains.

If we can’t wait for the Government to take ownership of our prisons and make them places of change, we should help prisoners to transform and take ownership of their own lives – and keep themselves out of them.


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