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Prison Staff Uses Active Bystander Approach to Achieve a Gender Equal Work Environment

At the Tillberga prison staff opposes jargon and musty jokes by using the bystander approach for gender equality. This method is included in the institution's training program and considered as important as self-protection, fire exercise and cardiovascular rescue.

Petra Söderbäck organises the bystander approach work. The training takes place at institution’s staff days and is followed up on workplace meetings. Promoting gender equality and preventing discrimination becomes a concern for all employees.

“If you work with these issues you need the support of managers. And that’s what we got here. The management team signals that they think the issue is important – and that this is something we all should work with,” says Petra Söderbäck.


The Omkrim magazine (staff journal of the Swedish probation service) meets Petra Söderbäck and correctional officer Rick at the class 3 institution Tillberga outside Västerås, to find out how the work is progressing.

“It works great! We have received a lot of feedback. Norm-critical thinking is on the agenda and many begin to reflect on how you make jokes. People have also started to see things people’s ways of expressing themselves that are not always so nice,” says Petra Söderbäck.

She explains that the bystander approach is a concrete method that works as an eye-opener. The idea is that the participants will be better at seeing, paying attention to and acting on discrimination, harassment or unscrupulous behaviour.

“We want to encourage people to dare to do something about what you witness, and provide tools for them to do so. This can imply simple everyday jokes, glances or comments. The danger of unreflected jargon is that the boundaries of what is allowed are stretched.”

Correctional officer Rick thinks that the bystander approach is educational and personally rewarding. Among his colleagues, he meets different thoughts and opinions, but in general he experiences great  understanding and respect. He ultimately regards the work as a safety issue:

“Safety is not just locked doors, cameras and checklists, but it is also how to deal with people. At a class 3 institution you go around and meet people all the time. The fact that the staff has a good reception is just as important as being equipped with an alarm. A correct approach to people can even make the alarm unnecessary.”

Discussion of where to draw the line

Initially discussions have taken place in mixed groups to get into the right mindset. What is a bystander approach? What should our work focus on and why? The second part is about what you actually do: What to do if someone in the staff room drops a joke or a bad comment about a colleague’s sex life? There are no obvious answers to these questions. It is not always effective to say: ‘If this situation arises this is what you do’.

Petra Söderbäck believes that a more effective way is to jointly discuss and put words on what is okay and not.

Unreflected jargon exists wherever people meet, in workplaces and in the kitchen. Rick believes there is an increased risk of jargon or locker room talk in single sex groups.

“This does not mean that you always have to actively say something. Just a glance in understanding between of two people can totally cut a third person out,” says Rick.

During the second part of the bystander approach, realistic situations are created. Something that can happen in any room. Petra Söderbäck plans a workshop to work out useful scenarios.

“Everyone is eager to contribute and create scenarios. People in general have good and fair values ​​ which show during the discussions. The group comes up with many good suggestions and then we try to find a common ground.”

Useful knowledge

Rick explains what happened to him shortly after the first bystander approach meeting. He and his girlfriend entertained themselves at a Saturday night out. A guy walked around with a plastic sword which he pulled between the legs of other guests on the dance floor.

“I confronted him. Not with an attitude saying: ‘Are you completely stupid’. More like ‘Do you understand what you are doing?’ I explained to him that his behaviour was criminal: ‘Have you thought about what consequences you might suffer if you continue to cross the borders?’

Rick felt that the bystander approach gave him tools to talk to a person in a more constructive way than he had done before. A lesson he learned was that he did not have to prove that someone else was wrong. Thinking ‘I am more right than you and I shall explain it to you’ is a dead end.

“I tried to understand how the person reasoned, but also to make him reflect. He ended up being remorseful and apologised. Although he tried to joke about it I noticed that he was ashamed.

Petra Söderbäck is pleased to hear how Rick handled the situation:

“That’s great! If you think one step further, you often end up with the feeling ‘how would it be for me?’ Rick wanted to help this guy reflect on what it means for the girls on the dance floor when he approaches them in that clumsy way.”

“It’s not hard to see what’s wrong, but how do you bring it up?”

Rick asks the question and answers himself: Someone must confront him, but most important is the results.

Petra Söderbäck sums up:

“This is the whole idea with the bystander approach – that you act when you observe something. We want to shift focus from victims and perpetrators and instead look at all of us – what can we do?”

The bystander approach in brief

• A first step is to show that the bystander plays a role. The goal is to become better at paying attention and take action in a situation that is problematic, where someone is at risk.

• The participants learn about what is an act of violence. How to define physical and sexual violence and understand other forms of violence, that are looks, jokes and comments. And to make the group find out what is not okay.

• People need to work actively with jargon and everyday jokes to prevent that bad behaviour moves up in the violence pyramid.

• The method has been inspired by Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), a method to prevent violence before it happens.

Omkrim, staff journal of the Swedish probation service
Edited: 11 Apr 2019
Published: 10 Apr 2019
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