Launching a Research Partnership with Liverpool John Moores University

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8 September 2020


By Gabrielle Epstein and Helena Gosling

As part of our Sustainable Recovery Strategy Phoenix Futures is working to facilitate a more symbiotic relationship between research and practice; providing opportunities for practitioners and service users to inform research projects whilst simultaneously integrating emerging evidence and models of best practice into our services. To facilitate this we have formed a research partnership with Dr Helena Gosling from the School of Justice Studies, Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU).  Our intent is to enhance this partnership and work to expand joint working with academic institutions and individuals.

To launch the partnership and celebrate the completion of our first joint project (an evaluation of the Therapeutic Community (TC) at HMP Wymott), we have produced a short blog that summarises an interview that took place between Gabrielle Epstein, Head of Clinical Interventions Review Project who is leading on research partnerships for Phoenix Futures and Dr Gosling in August 2020.

How did you come to link to Phoenix Futures?

My first experience of Phoenix Futures took place more than ten years ago. I was undertaking voluntary work for a local organisation and was asked to mentor gentlemen who, at that time, resided in a Therapeutic Community (TC) operated by Phoenix Futures. Up until this point, I had no idea what a TC was, what it did or what it was able to achieve. My first encounter with a TC felt almost, special; it is hard to verbalise, but if you know, you know! It captivated me and inspired me to find out more about the programme, what it had to offer and what work was needed. I have since spent the last ten years conducting research in TCs based within prison and residential settings. Phoenix Futures have supported this research through the provision of access to their services and where possible funding

How did you go about devising the project?

I was approached by Phoenix Futures approximately 12 months ago, who outlined a desire to conduct a piece of research on the TC at HMP Wymott, due to a looming change in service provider (which took place in March 2020). The remit of the project allowed me to familiarise myself with the programme, its objectives and intentions before making any decisions about how the research would be conducted. The flexibility and trust invested in me and my work by Phoenix Futures allowed me to embed principles of ‘community as method’ into the design and delivery of the project; with members of the Phoenix Futures community (from TC residents to senior managers) offering insight, experience and feedback as the project unfolded. The project initially began as a service-level evaluation (whereby information collected as part of the day-to-day operation of the TC was subject to secondary data analysis) but this rapidly evolved to incorporate research with those who had personal and professional experience of the programme. In doing so, I worked closely with Florence Fowler (who worked at and managed the TC at HMP Wymott for 18 years) to locate men who had completed the programme and were still in touch with Phoenix Futures and/or working for organisations in the local community. For me, this is where the study really came into its own; talking to people who had participated in the programme, listening to their stories and insights and exploring how the TC supported their journey back into the wider community. I was also lucky enough to speak with a variety of professionals who had worked on the programme and would like to thank each and every person for the time and expertise that they invested in the project.

What did you find interesting about the HMP Wymott TC?

Although the TC at HMP Wymott was no utopia, it was an environment that first and foremost provided physical and psychological safety for those who took part in the programme. Findings suggest that this sense of safety was paramount for those on the TC, as it facilitated opportunities for men, who had significant experience of the criminal justice system and addiction services, to ‘test the water’ and try new ways of thinking, dealing with trauma and stress whilst developing genuine relationships with peers as well as staff members. In doing so, the TC provided a sense of hope, humility and humanity amongst staff and residents alike which provided a more compassionate version of custody. Whereby people, regardless of status, worked together to ‘make good’ or ‘do better’ despite the obstacles. There are so many things that I could talk about here, but in sum, the most interesting aspect of the TC was the level of support provided to families of those engaged with the programme. This really made me think about the role of family-orientated work within drug treatment settings, particularly those within custodial environments. So much so that I am currently working with Florence Fowler on a piece of work that explores the role of family orientated work in prison-based TC– so watch this space!  

What challenges were presented in conducting this research?

There are many challenges associated with conducting a piece of research in a TC. The TC at HMP Wymott was an established programme (in operation for roughly 20 years) with a long history of delivering holistic person-centered treatment within a prison context. Thus, for me, the biggest challenge was establishing the remit of the project. This was why I decided to let the experts – those who have personal or professional experience of the programme – dictate the parameters of the project. We were also keen for the research to have ‘real world’ impact; whereby the findings could feed into a series of recommendations that could be utilised by Phoenix Futures to improve practice and insight into the provision of prison-based TCs. This may be considered a challenge but I think Gabrielle, Florence and myself worked hard to establish a strong working relationship so that we could talk about the research, test ideas and think about what the findings mean for those on the frontline of service delivery. Although challenging at times, this was one of the most rewarding parts of the project.


What do you hope to achieve with Phoenix in the future?

As I mentioned earlier, I have conducted research in services operated by Phoenix Futures for a number of years. With this partnership, I hope to further our relationship and explore how research can be more formally embedded into service provision so as to enhance the evidence base of TCs in the UK. This is not only an important endeavour for Phoenix Futures, but for the TC movement worldwide. If you have any questions about the partnership, please do not hesitate to contact Dr Helena Gosling ( or Gabrielle Epstein.  


If you’d like to explore how you could work with Phoenix Futures on research partnerships or projects get in touch with Gabrielle at 

Phoenix Futures is a registered charity in England and Wales (No 284880) and in Scotland (No SCO39008); Company Limited by Guarantee Number 1626869; Registered Provider of Social Housing with Homes England (H3795).