By asking what really matters, the Prisons Research Centre has developed a reliable tool for measuring prison quality which can be used in strategies to reduce suicides.

The Measuring Quality of Prison Life survey works statistically because it is so well grounded in prisoners’ views of what matters to them, and it measures things like respect, humanity and trust which are fundamental dimensions of prison life

Professor Alison Liebling

Finding out what really happens in prisons, and why some are better at keeping their prisoners and staff safe, or have lower rates of reoffending, is no easy task. But Professor Alison Liebling of the Prisons Research Centre and her colleagues have now developed a tool that can do just that.

The Measuring Quality of Prison Life (MQPL) questionnaire was created using ‘appreciative inquiry’, a questioning technique which focusses on finding out how people, and institutions, function at their best, rather than just looking for what isn’t working.

Liebling and her colleagues spent time in prisons, asking both prisoners and staff in detail about  what really mattered to them. The resulting MQPL survey accurately reflects prison experience and is now used across the UK and internationally as a way to measure prison performance.

When the then Chief Executive of Prisons, Martin Nary, introduced a ‘decency agenda’ to prisons in 2000, the MQPL survey was the perfect fit – providing a powerful tool to measure the moral climate of prisons.

And it also played an important role in Liebling’s investigation into prison suicides between 2001 and 2004. The MQPL survey helped identify which factors reduce prisoner distress, and therefore reduce the likelihood of attempted suicide. These findings fed directly into strategies put into place by the Safer Custody Group, which resulted in a drop in suicide rates up to 2012.


Listening in prisons

A prison needs to be a secure place where rules are followed, but also one in which prisoners are treated respectfully, and where they are able to develop personally and rebuild their lives so that they are less likely to reoffend once they are back in society. Performing well in all these roles requires elements that are difficult to quantify.

Often, less attention is paid to well-run prisons than those where suicides and violence are rife. Prison officers who do their job well, keeping order, keeping prisoners safe and enabling opportunities for meaningful rehabilitation, tend to be overlooked. And prisoners’ voices are seldom heard in policy development.


Looking for the light

Liebling was first introduced to appreciative inquiry by Charles Elliot, a developmental economist, who compared it to the ‘heliotropic effect’ in which a plant grows towards the sun. In a similar way, ‘if an organisation is put in touch with what gives it life and energy, it automatically moves in that direction’.

Liebling was struck by how well this approach could apply to her work in prisons. She and her team used appreciative inquiry in five prisons to ask questions such as “when have you felt most respected”, or “what are you most proud of in your life or work”. The answers flagged up key dimensions of prison life and the team then worked closely with prisoners to develop the MQPL questionnaire based on those dimensions, using terminology that prisoners could relate to.

Respect, trust, humanity, the quality of staff-prisoner relationships and a sense of decency are all difficult to measure, but by framing statements and asking respondents to rank them on a scale between ‘strongly agree’ and ‘strongly disagree’ the survey is able to give a statistically reliable picture of the moral quality of life in prison.

The MQPL survey is now used worldwide in prisons, from Spain, Norway and Sweden to Australia and New Zealand.