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Jan 2, 2018

Measuring wellbeing for people in prisons and young offender institutions

The big takeaway

  • Use existing research and carry out your own to decide what wellbeing questions are the right fit – our guidance on measuring your wellbeing impact can help
  • Even if you intuitively know the importance of wellbeing, defining and interpreting results can be difficult. This makes it harder to integrate with your theory of change, and explain its impact.

What is it?

Spark Inside runs coaching programmes in prisons to encourage rehabilitation and reduce re-offending. Coaching enables self-sufficiency and empowers people to become independent leaders of their own lives. Through coaching, we help make transformational changes in prisons, and unlock the potential of people within them. Since 2012, we have worked with over 600 participants across ten prisons, Young Offender Institutions and secure training centers in London and the South East.

In 2016, we commissioned The Social Investment Consultancy to evaluate the impact of our award-winning intervention, The Hero’s Journey, a structured life coaching programme for 15 to 25 year olds in prison. The life coaching programme builds young people’s motivation to change, by equipping them with the vital life skills (such as resilience, confidence, and decision-making) they need to move beyond crime, to create a more fulfilling future.

Why did we decide to measure wellbeing?

Despite research that shows many factors, including positive wellbeing, are important for the effective resettlement of young people leaving prison, many interventions use reconviction rates as their only impact measure. Our Theory of Change acknowledges that reoffending is a byproduct of other problems – one of which is poor wellbeing.

Coaching has been well-proven to increase wellbeing in the corporate and sport sectors. We wanted to test the effectiveness of coaching on improving wellbeing in prisons, in the current context of record levels of violence, self-harm and suicide, where not a single prison holding young people was deemed safe by the Inspectorate of Prisons in early 2017.

How we did it

Our impact on wellbeing was measured through 84 pre- and 42 post-intervention questionnaires using the validated Short Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale (SWEMWBS) that were completed by The Hero’s Journey participants.

SWEMWBS does not ask specific questions about confidence, so we took two questions from the 14-question Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale (WEMWBS) to get a fuller measure of overall wellbeing. We measured other outcomes that contribute to positive wellbeing – such as confidence, self-conception, social experience, and future outlook – and tested them for statistical significance through paired sample t-tests. We supplemented this data with a qualitative analysis of 17 interviews with a random sample of participants, and 3 interviews with life coaches who facilitate The Hero’s Journey.

“I am really happy. I am getting older, more mature, thinking more about life, not taking life for granted.”
Interview with a The Hero’s Journey participant


SWEMWBS derives from a model of mental wellbeing that is more than the absence of mental illness, and involves feeling good and functioning well. Participants experienced a 2.2-point increase (on a 35-point scale) in their wellbeing scores, which is a statistically significant increase for SWEMWBS. Young people who completed The Hero’s Journey reported an average 8% increase in confidence, including an increased capacity to overcome setbacks: 72% believed they could overcome whatever challenges they may face in the future. The Hero’s Journey participants reported gaining more prosocial and trusting relationships. The average score of feeling supported by others, such as family and friends, and being able to ask for support amongst participants increased by 52%. In general, participants who completed our life coaching programme had more positive attitudes towards the future and improved self-image – all contributing to a positive sense of wellbeing.

These results are based on 24 coaching workshops delivered in three Category B men’s prisons in London, HMPs Wormwood Scrubs, Wandsworth and Pentonville, and two Young Offender Institutions Cookham Wood and Feltham, followed by 227 one-to-one coaching sessions that took place from March 2016 to June 2017.

Challenges and solutions

Choosing the questions to use for those with complex histories:

  • Official government statistics show young people in prison often have complex personal histories, and have faced significant barriers in life that may have had adverse effects on their wellbeing. We were conscious of producing long, intrusive questionnaires that would ask them to divulge sensitive information about their past. As the SWEMWBS scale asks questions about current mind-set, we suggest that researchers avoid asking young people about the circumstances that led them to be in prison in order not to re-traumatise them or impair their wellbeing in the process.
  • From the questionnaires that we received back from the prisons, not all of them had been completed. Common questions that were left blank were “I’ve been feeling optimistic about the future” and “I’ve been feeling useful”.
  • Participants didn’t find any questions challenging, but they did say they didn’t understand why they were filling in the questionnaire again, as the pre- and post-questionnaires are the same.

Making the questions accessible:

  • Research shows our target group of young people in prison can often have lower concentration levels, so we decided to use SWEMWBS so that our questionnaire would be kept as short, and therefore as accessible as possible, for individuals with different literacy and concentration levels.
  • Young people in our The Hero’s Journey workshops were supported by our life coaches, who facilitate the programme, to complete the pre- and post-questionnaires. Our independent evaluators, The Social Investment Consultancy, produced a guide for our coaches to explain the questions in different ways, so that they were more accessible to our participants. 

Remaining challenges

Although Spark Inside recognises the importance of improving the wellbeing of young people in prison, we have struggled as a team to define what wellbeing is – and what a 2.2 point increase on the SWEMWBS scale actually means for our participants and their journey to a crime-free future. This has affected our ability to fully explain the importance of measuring wellbeing, and the impact of The Hero’s Journey with other criminal justice charities – especially those who see measuring reconviction and reoffending rates as the only meaningful measurements.

At a time when violence, self-harm and suicides in our prisons are at record highs and rising, achieving such impactful results has been really encouraging for us. We look forward to seeing the final results of this evaluation, which will include six months re-offending data, in early 2018. This final report will be available publically on our website.

Spark Inside would love to hear from other organisations who have faced similar challenges in measuring wellbeing. If you have had a similar experience that you would like to share, please contact Hannah at hannah@sparkinside.org.

For Spark Inside’s impact summary and the full evaluation report, please visit their website.

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Case study written by Spark Inside

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