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How prison staff and residents improve their wellbeing – side-by-side

Residents and staff at two women’s prisons in England have experienced positive changes in health and wellbeing after the introduction of the innovative Wellbeing Champions programme, according to new research.

The programme is based on a framework called ‘The Human 5’ (the ‘five’ in question being movement, mind, nutrition, body and world), developed by Dr. Campbell Murdoch. It takes a holistic approach by making small improvements across entire prison environments, systems and routines, which can support individuals working or living within it to achieve personal goals.

The research explored the experiences of residents’ and staff Wellbeing Champions in two women’s prisons over several months to better understand:

  • how programmes which focus on both residents and staff wellbeing relate to how well health and wellbeing are integrated within the culture of the prison
  • how the values of health promotion embedded within the programme can influence healthy behaviour change and outcomes for residents and/or staff in a challenging environment
  • how a participatory approach with a focus on peer support influences whether Wellbeing Champions identify and overcome some of the wider determinants of health.

“It’s to unite the prison around a common theme,” said Vicky Sullivan, a recent MSc student at the University of Bristol, who conducted the research. “It’s an aid to discussion and a tool for setting yourself goals.

“Staff and residents I interviewed said it gave them a better understanding of what their health and wellbeing needs were in the prison environment, helped them identify ways of reducing stress, simple ways of improving their nutrition, their working relationships, and break down barriers and improve understanding between residents and staff.”

This empathy and synergy, forged over two days of workshops conducted by Vicky and Dr. Murdoch, saw residents and staff set up small projects, such as a sponsored walk around the prison for a dementia charity and improving access to the gym.

Residents volunteered as ‘Wellbeing Champions, a role aimed at advocating and supporting their peers in achieving their health and wellbeing goals. “Just the process of taking part was very enabling and empowering – regardless of any activity they did thereafter,” said Vicky. “It really increased their sense of self-worth and inclusivity. Being listened to was a really big deal.

“Staff Wellbeing Champions also had an opportunity to think about their wellbeing needs within the prison environment, set some health goals, and support residents in a more holistic way.

“It’s been a fantastic opportunity to deliver the programme in these two prisons. To understand from the Wellbeing Champions how they experienced taking part underscores its potential as a catalyst for transformational change.”

Dr. Murdoch, inventor of the Human 5 concept, commented: “Human 5 is designed simply as a framework for reflecting on what opportunities and potential there is for anyone, no matter where they are or what their circumstances, to make a 1% improvement and get that positive momentum building.

(Photo by Sergio Pedemonte on Unsplash)

“In the prisons we sat people in circles, not behind tables, and gently introduced the concepts, building trust and giving people time and space for self-reflection. All the ideas, solutions and actions are self-generated, and make best use of the resources available.

“The next step is to analyse what are the common themes appearing. Has everyone got an individual issue or are we finding that 90% of people don’t get time to exercise? Does everyone want to move more but finds there are many barriers in the way? What can we do about that as an organisation? That’s needs-driven, so from there you’ve got to shift the organisation.”

Fortunately, in terms of achieving institutional change, the governors at the two prisons were fully supportive of the ‘whole-prison approach’ to the programme. One of them also holds a wider wellbeing role within HMPPS (and has recently pioneered a new prison PE kit for women), so was especially invested in the Human 5 initiative’s success.

Research author Vicky thinks this approach to health and wellbeing is urgently required across the secure estate, so that promises around women’s needs from HMPPS and Public Health England are fulfilled.

“It shouldn’t be as hard as it currently is to live a healthy and happy life in prison – to eat well, get enough physical activity and have good mental health. It should be much more enabling and supportive,” she said.

“A lot of health programmes focus on changing the individual, but you really need to change the prison conditions and environment to make them more conducive to people’s health and wellbeing. Doing that will bring about positive results for everybody and give residents good skills to use when they’re back in the community.”

Justin Coleman, Co-Founder and COO of the Alliance of Sport, said the Wellbeing Champions: Human 5 research provides a perfect example of how sport and physical activity should be introduced into prison life – and indeed any community setting.

“The findings of the Human 5 research include some great ‘needs and wants’, as well as solutions around sport and activity. More importantly, they show that staff (i.e. ‘the system’) and residents (‘the community’) can collaborate to co-design and co-deliver sustainable change through social action.”

Human 5: next steps

The Human 5 framework has been used in a variety of settings, including GP practices to support people with chronic health conditions.

“The flexibility built into the programme means it is adaptable for different prisons,” said Vicky. “We delivered the programme to Custody Staff at the first prison, and to both staff and residents together at prison two. This reflected the different prison contexts and current needs. The Wellbeing Champions themselves defined their roles and the programme goals – maximising its personal relevance to them.

“Dr. Murdoch and I would welcome the opportunity to deliver the Wellbeing Champions Programme: Human 5 to other prisons and to build on the research so far. It would be useful to incorporate an evaluation of the programme’s impact from the beginning as in this case the research was retrospective – designed and conducted after delivery.”

If you would like a summary of the research findings contact Vicky Sullivan, Health and Wellbeing Specialist/Researcher on or Dr. Campbell Murdoch at

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