The TheyWorkForYou alerts system will send you an email every time your chosen keyword is mentioned in Parliament. A recent survey revealed that this system is being used by a broad range of different organisations and individuals. We’ve been speaking to a few of them to find out more.
First of these is Ben Leapman, Editor of Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners and detainees, circulated to all of the UK’s 141 prisons.
A unique publication
As Ben explains, “Each issue includes news, features, advice, puzzles – and eight pages of readers’ letters, which provide a fascinating insight into what’s on the minds of men and women behind bars.
“We’re a not-for-profit publication and a wholly-owned subsidiary of the New Bridge Foundation charity, which was founded in 1956 to create links between the offender and the community. We’re funded by advertising revenue. As far as we’re aware, no other country has a national prison newspaper. We’re unique!”
As Editor, Ben commissions articles, decides which stories go on which pages, fact-checks, and plenty more. But he also writes news stories. We were, of course, interested to hear how TheyWorkForYou alerts can help with this.
Parliamentary mentions of prisons
“I use the alerts service to monitor for the keywords “prison” – it’s as simple as that,” says Ben.
“Prisons are a crucial public service, but sadly they don’t get as much attention from politicians or voters as schools and hospitals – it’s a case of “out of sight, out of mind”. So the volume of daily mentions is manageable, and I’m able to look at them all.”
These simple alerts have resulted in Inside Time stories such as this one, about an innovative scheme to reduce violence, being trialled at 18 prisons.
“I don’t think there has been any public announcement or press release about it,” says Ben: “I hadn’t heard of it until I saw the parliamentary question.”
And here’s another recent story, this time prompted by a House of Lords debate in which Lord Farmer, who wrote two Government reports on the importance of family visits to the rehabilitation of prisoners, says that Covid restrictions in prison visits halls are doing harm.
Stories can arise from all types of parliamentary activity: “I’ve found news stories in Commons and Lords debates, Select Committee hearings, written answers to Parliamentary questions in the Commons and Lords, Scottish Parliament proceedings, even the proceedings of Bill committees.”
Communication is key
Finally, we asked Ben what he thinks the impact of such stories is.
“I’m a news journalist – I think it’s always important that people are well-informed. For the general public in a democracy, exposure to news is essential so that people can cast their vote in a well-informed way.
“In England, prisoners are denied the vote – but there are other ways that reading news can be a direct benefit. Say we report on a new course or initiative that’s happening at a particular prison. If one of our readers reads that story and likes the sound of it, they could apply to transfer to that prison – or they could ask staff why it’s not happening at their prison.
“Prisons are rather secretive places, they’re not great at communication – so it’s often the case that both prisoners and prison staff are unaware of things going on around their prison or in other prisons, both the good and the bad.”
Thanks very much to Ben for giving us these insights into how he uses TheyWorkForYou alerts in his work.
It’s certainly one area that we’d never have imagined before he filled in our survey — but we are very glad to know that our services are helping with the admirable aims of Inside Time.
Australia: land of sand, surf and koalas. Renowned for its laid-back attitude and a friendly welcome for all… or so those up here in the northern hemisphere might believe, spoon-fed our preconceptions via the squeaky-clean medium of Aussie soaps.
What’s not so well-known is Australia’s decades-long resistance to people seeking asylum. Since the early 1990s, Australian Prime Ministers have implemented, upheld and strengthened laws to hold refugees in mandatory, indefinite detention, and to forcibly turn boats away from their shores. Australia has been repeatedly condemned by the UN for inhumane treatment of people in its immigration detention system, and people held inside have maintained continuous protest for years.
Once you learn all this, it seems perhaps unsurprising that immigration detention is, as website Detention Logs puts it, one of the most “hotly debated, contested and emotional topics in Australia”.
Getting it out in the open
Detention Logs is among the most purposeful and systematic uses of Freedom of Information we’ve seen yet.
It’s not a mySociety-affiliated project (although one of its founders is also a member of Open Australia, who use our Alaveteli software to run the RightToKnow site), but it is one that’s very much in our sphere of interest. We wanted to write about it because it’s a great example of putting FOI to work in order to get truth out into the open, and make societal change.
At the time the project was set up, Australia’s detention centres were run by the British companies Serco and G4S; access is, as you might expect, limited. However, contractors to the government must report to them, and the report documents fall under the citizens’ Right To Know via Australia’s Freedom of Information Act.
Reports are made whenever an ‘incident’ of note occurs in one of the nation’s detention centres; that covers assault, accidents, escapes, riots, the discovery of weapons and several other categories — including births and deaths.
Detention Logs have, at the time of writing, obtained 7,632 incident reports which cover the period between 3 Oct 2009 and 26 May 2011. These may be explored on their site via a data browser, allowing readers to filter by date, incident type and detention centre.
Finding the stories
Like many official documents, these reports were composed for internal eyes only. They can be difficult to decipher, or heavily redacted. Often, they suggest more questions than they answer.
Users are encouraged to ‘adopt’ a report, then submit a further FOI request for more information: a ‘reporting recipe’ guides beginners in how to do this, and how to pull out stories both for the ‘far view’ (looking at all the data in aggregate) and the ‘near view’ (investigating individuals’ stories).
For researchers and the technically-minded, there’s also the option to download the data in bulk.
The result is that the public are gaining an unprecedented understanding of what life is like for detainees — and staff — inside Australia’s detention centres.
Open data brings change
The resulting stories are published on their Investigations page, but the data has also been used by national press and beyond.
Luke Bacon, one of Detention Logs’ founders, told us of a few outcomes:
- The Detention Logs project was a precursor to the Guardian’s publication of the Nauru Files — more than 2,000 leaked incident reports from a detention camp on the Pacific island of Nauru. These have been presented in an online exploratory browser tool: the project was led by reporter Paul Farrell who is also a Detention Logs founder.
- In turn, this has prompted a parliamentary inquiry into the treatment of people in the immigration detention system.
- The data from Detention Logs has been used in research to show that the detention system is causing people to self-harm and attempt suicide.
- The immigration department started releasing better information about how many people were in detention.
So — while the issue of detention continues to be an inflammatory topic for the people of Australia, the project has been at least something of a success for transparency.
It all goes to show what can be achieved when information is shared – and when the work of trawling through it is shared too.
If you found this project interesting, you might also like to read about Muckrock’s FOI work on private prisons in the USA.
Should you be able to request information from private companies who perform the public function of running prisons? How about independent schools which receive public funding?
Such questions were at the heart of a consultation from the Scottish Government last year, which asked whether the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act of 2002 should be extended to cover more bodies. These were:
- Contractors who run privately-managed prisons
- Providers of secure accommodation for children
- Grant-aided schools
- Independent special schools
The WhatDoTheyKnow team responded to the consultation with arguments in favour of the extension of the Act to cover all such bodies: you can read the team’s full response here (including an explanation of why bodies which are not subject to the FOI Act have sometimes been added to the site).
We’re glad to say that the consultation committee were seemingly in accord with those views, and all the bodies consulted on will become subject to the Scottish FOI Act from 1 September 2016 (subject to Scottish parliamentary process). In their response, which can be viewed on the consultation page, WhatDoTheyKnow were mentioned in relation to private prison contractors:
We also note the response from WhatDoTheyKnow (…) who strongly supported extension to private prison contractors given their view that the detention of individuals in custody under order or sentence of the courts was undoubtedly a public function.
Meanwhile, we await developments on the UK Freedom of Information consultation, which we also submitted to. Apparently they are analysing feedback and will be hearing oral evidence from some parties next week, with an intention ‘to report as soon as possible after these sessions’. So, not long now.