Mark Johnson

Ashoka Fellow
United Kingdom,
Fellow Since 2010


This profile was prepared when Mark Johnson was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2010.
The New Idea
Mark is designing practical strategies for incorporating the voice of prisoners and imprisoned addicts in tackling the failures of the prison and rehabilitation systems. Two parallel and complementary processes are key to his innovation. First, he proposes that as in all other sectors, the views of service users be integral to developing the best solutions. The knowledge from service users about which services are most valuable and impactful need to be integrated into planning and commissioning. Applying this approach to criminal justice is controversial and challenging, however, with User Voice, Mark shows how ultimately service users know best about what will be successful.

The second process at play is a more significant and internal one. In order to be full citizens and members of society, all people need to be in a position to take responsibility for themselves and the world around them. In prison, prisoners are systematically denied these opportunities in a meaningful way. However, when offenders are released into society, they are expected to take on this role outside of the prison gates. Mark is overcoming this “democratic deficit” by empowering prisoners to give their opinions, and to take responsibility for co-designing systems while still in prison; thereby, putting in place the first building blocks for ex-offenders to become full citizens in the outside world.

The flagship program for giving prison users voice is Prison Councils. Mark works with prison authorities to develop a Prison Council where prisoners are asked to form and run particular parties, each representing common challenges faced by prisoners and the prison system. The success of a Prison Council is measured not by individual attendance or individual attitude change, but community indicators: At one prison site complaints from prisoners dropped by 37 percent, as problems were dealt with closer to the source; at another, the number of segregations days (e.g. prisoners are kept in isolation—often resulting from protest actions) dropped from 160 to 47. The rates of prisoner participation in the councils now surpass 50 percent. These examples of improved engagement with the community and with social processes indicate a personal level of responsibility-taking—the first step to real social rehabilitation.

Mark’s aim is to change the industry of offender support services. He wants to see it shaped by the voices of those who are most affected by it, and driven by the positive influence of successful ex-offenders who become role models for others. Mark wants to see a system which enables ex-offenders to succeed and then go on to help other people do the same. This multiplier effect of ex-offenders helping other ex-offenders, and society-at-large in tackling the problems they know best, is key to individual rehabilitation and to finding society-wide solutions to crime. Mark is supporting his frontline work with widespread advocacy through a newspaper column, high profile events, and lobbying policymakers. In this way, he works at all levels toward a mindshift in society, which sees offenders as part of the solution.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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