Home » Desistance
Category Archives: Desistance
A positive new story for HMPPS – a step in the right direction
There are not many good news stories about our prison and probation system so of course, when one does crop up, it catches our attention. Recently, ‘failing Grayling’ has dominated discussion, with the reforms to the National Probation Service described as disastrous, ill-thought out and costing the tax payer millions of pounds. The academic criminology community and practitioners on the front line all saw it coming, but there is little comfort to be taken from being vindicated. Instead, for me there remains the question of ‘when will they learn?’ This is a subject I have written about before, my frustration at the lack of political will to meaningfully reform the CJS despite all the evidence demonstrating the need for this and the viable alternatives which could be adopted. However, it is still the case that a tough stance on law and order continues to gain political traction, just see some of the quotes coming from our new Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who seems determined to re-introduce the death penalty and has already outlined plans for increased surveillance.
So, back to the good news. A restaurant, open and managed by CLINKS has been shown to have a significant impact on re-offending rates – according to research conducted by the Ministry of Justice (Coughlan, 2019). CLINKS are an organisation which supports voluntary work in the CJS (see https://www.clinks.org). I first came across them when doing research into the experiences of BAME ex-offenders. It was clear this was a group who particularly benefitted from the work of volunteers, due to state services not meeting their cultural and spiritual needs, or even acknowledging their existence. In addition, CLINKS advised the Ministry of Justice on tackling the over-representation of BAME groups in the prison system. The research I did with colleagues at Birmingham City University also showed that having the status of an ‘ex-offender’ further compounded participants sense of hopelessness and resignation about the discrimination they faced (Sharp et al, 2006).
The ‘Clink’ restaurant is an initiative run in various prisons throughout the UK, and it has been cited as successful in providing prisoners with valuable work experience while serving their sentence – a project which Clink chief Christopher Moore said “works on both sides of the walls”. The Ministry of Justice clearly liked the link to employment and education, and the outcome of driving down re-offending rates – the figures do make for interesting reading, at a time when there is not much else to celebrate. For those trained in the restaurant at HMP Brixton, the re-offending rate was 11%, compared to those with similar offending history, who had a re-offending rate of 32%. But beyond the statistics, what really struck me was what some of those prisoners who were involved with the restaurant said. They expressed emotions of positivity, hope, and feeling valued.
There are clear links here to literature on desistance, which requires behavioural change and structural change to offer those willing to desist from crime, realistic and sustainable opportunities for them to do so (King, 2012). The Clink restaurant project also helps prisoners gain City and Guilds vocational qualifications, to be able to work in the wider hospitality industry. There is recognition of the need to help prisoners overcome the stigma they faced when trying to get jobs, homes and even make connections for social support. Another interesting quote came from a City and Guilds manager working with CLINKS, who said that “educating prisoners is not a reward for committing a crime – it’s about preventing further crime from being committed.” This shows the shift in thinking which is needed throughout government, the CJS and the wider public – that rehabilitation is necessary to prevent crime, and should be prioritised over those approaches which only promise to deter others.
This research and the reactions by prisoners themselves demonstrates how important is to understand what works in terms of outcomes, but also why. In this case there is a clear emotional need being met in training prisoners to work in teams, rely on each other, be valued and be able to respond positively to a training opportunity. The ethos of the Clink restaurant and those providing training show a clear sense of inclusivity and being non-judgemental for a group of people who experience stigma and discrimination, before, during and after their sentence. This ethos is at the heart of the voluntary sector who work with prisoners and ex-offenders more widely.
But what must be clear by now, is the best will in the world cannot overcome basic needs which must be met, resources which are needed to implement and sustain projects, and for the same opportunities and ethos to be replicated in the community. These are bigger issues to address, they reflect how limited the effect of an initiative such as Clinks restaurant can be for ex-prisoners needing to get jobs, homes and support outside the prison gates. However, perhaps this broader change can come with small, but significant steps, to change the narrative of the purpose of punishment and the approach of law and order in England and Wales. If that is the case, our current cabinet may find themselves on the wrong side of history, reflecting views which need to be consigned to an uncivil past. There is much to be done, it will probably get worse before it gets better, but those who know what works, why it works and how it works need to be the vanguard of reform in the CJS, and need to keep pushing for this.
Couglan, S. (2019) Prison restaurant serves up cut in reoffending, BBC News, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-49150997.
King, S. (2012) Transformative agency and desistance from crime. Criminology and Criminal Justice. 13 (3), 366-383.
Sharp, D, Atherton, S & Williams, K (2006) Everyone’s Business: Investigating The Resettlement Needs Of Black And Minority Ethnic Ex-Offenders In The West Midlands Government Office For The West Midlands.
Animal therapy in prisons – a loyal friend where it is needed most
This week I could have written about Brexit, the Tory Leadership contest, Trump’s visit or climate change, but I decided all of it was too depressing and anxiety inducing, so this week – Dogs in Prisons! There is a serious message behind this, as it is clear there needs to be a rethink about the use of prison and more attention paid to conditions if we are ever going to meaningfully address high re-offending rates. This is where I would normally link this to austerity and a need for wholescale reform in the delivery of justice. While this is important, I decided this week, it would be nice to focus on the positives of initiatives which aim to help the most marginalised in our society.
Animal Assisted Therapies (using animals to create a therapeutic environment) have been adopted in health settings, to enhance social care and mental health treatment, and findings from research show positive results (Durcan, 2018). The pilot for this innovation to be used in prisons was introduced by Rethink Mental Illness in the North East, and involved the use of therapy dogs working with men, women and young men. It was the result of a partnership between Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), Rethink and the National Health Service (NHS). The evaluation showed a ‘considerable, measurable, and statistically significant benefit to the scheme’s participants’ (p.4) during its inception, as represented by clinical ratings such as the reduction of self-harm.
The observations from the study noted the calming effects of therapy dogs – anyone who has a pet will know all about this – and, they also helped with coping skills, supporting engagement and provided prisoners with a space in which to express emotion and not feel judged. Of course, with findings like this they make a case for recommending roll out of the scheme, but also that the prison service needs to tackle the stigma which was reported by staff, about taking part in such innovations, cited as part of the ‘rehabilitative culture’ (Durcan, 2018). The title of the report itself is ‘restoring something lost’ and this struck a chord as I reflected that the loss is perhaps the rehabilitative function of prison. Instead we have a penal system which is dominated by security concerns and tough on crime rhetoric, meaning our prisons have become ‘abject places of despair built on the infliction of punishment and pain’ where prisoners feel ‘bereft, disorientated and terrorised’ (Simms, 2015 – see https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/resources/beyond-govism). Therefore, anything which changes this state of existence in prisons should be adopted, especially if it improves engagement between staff and prisoners and gives them a sense of normality in a place so far removed from life outside. Along with improving coping skills, better engagement could also mean prisoners are more invested in their rehabilitation and open to interventions which may change their behaviour in a way which leads to desistance.
This was certainly found to be the case with arts and music therapy in prisons as shown by an evaluation of the ‘Good Vibrations’ project, a music-based therapy programme used in HMP Grendon (Wilson et al, 2009). A key finding was that participation led to better engagement with other forms of education and skills training, building a sense of confidence among prisoners that they were capable of learning something new. As with the animal assisted therapy scheme, the findings also reported that prisoners felt a sense of calm and had better relationships with staff. Desistance theorists highlight the importance of understanding the interaction between individual motivation to change and external conditions required to support this (Maruna, 2001; King 2012). That said, it is also widely accepted that even with both in place, desistance is likely to be a process of dealing with obstacles, un-intended consequences and unforeseen risks. I would argue no amount of pet therapy can help anyone overcome the challenges of being labelled an ex-offender, seeking jobs, training, housing and support to resettle into a community which may or may not support them. However, if the support is in place, alongside more meaningful and widespread reforms, animal therapy and arts and music-based programmes could trigger a change of direction for those prisoners who feel a loss of hope and sense of despair.
David Gauke, the (current) Secretary of State for Justice has promised to abolish prison sentences under six months this summer – at a time when the make up of the Cabinet could be changing in late July, this may be another bold promise which will not be delivered. But much more needs to be done. Perhaps this reflects acknowledgement of the need for more radical change, and that innovations such as animal assisted therapies, problem solving approaches and restorative practice should be considered as part of the reforms of the justice system. My more cynical view is a change of cabinet roles will once again mean an announcement which may take us in the right direction becomes consigned to the past, and ‘normal’ service resumes. It makes the efforts of organisations such as Rethink, Good Vibrations and the hundreds of other charities which support marginalised groups more vital. Of course, they should be better supported and incorporated into mainstream policies, rather than left tinkering at the edges, on a constant scrabble for funding and subject to the whims of ministerial judgements on what is important. However, to end on a more hopeful note, the fact that there are people and organisations who still seek to find ways to improve the lives of those in prison, whether as part of rehabilitation or just in some small way to make prison bearable is something to be cherished. In the face of all the challenges, they carry on with their work and refuse to give up, much like our loyal pets who bring so much joy, wherever they are.
DURCAN, G. (2018) Restoring something lost: The mental health impact of therapy dogs in prisons, Centre for Mental Health, London.
KING, S. (2012) Transformative agency and desistance from crime. Criminology and Criminal Justice. 13 (3), 366-383.
MARUNA, S. (2001) Making Good: How ex-convicts reform and rebuild their lives. Washington DC: American Psychological Association Books.
SIMMS, J. (2015) Beyond Govism, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/resources/beyond-govism.
WILSON, D., CAULFIELD, L. AND ATHERTON, S. (2009) Good Vibrations: The long-term impact of a prison based music project. Prison Service Journal, 182, pp. 27-32
Corrosive substances – A knee-jerk reaction or a sensible solution?
Following the apparent growth in acid attacks the suggestion from Amber Rudd on a potential means of tackling the problem has all the markings of another knee-jerk policy that lacks careful planning and application. The proposal is to restrict the sales of corrosive substances and introduce new, specific legislation for possession and use of such substances against another person. The justification for these suggestions is based on the doubling of attacks between 2012 and 2016-17. Furthermore a 6 month review by National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) report 400 acid or corrosive substance attacks between October 2016 and April 2017. The impact of such attacks is long lasting and without question, a horrific life changing experience, however is this reaction the right one for all concerned?
The plan to ban the sale of corrosive substances to under 18s in itself may be a sensible idea, if there is careful consultation on what substances are to be included in this blanket approach. A similar approach already exists with the sale of knives, tobacco and alcohol yet the extent to which these policies are a success is a moot point. Policing such an approach will also be considerably challenging because there is currently no clear outline of what the government intends to class as a corrosive substance. If the suggestions that bleach will be on the list then this may prove very difficult, if not impossible to police. Many of the corrosive substances being used today are household names readily available in most local shops and supermarkets, not to mention the internet. When purchasing items subject to restriction on the internet, the only check of age is you clicking a button to confirm it and maybe adding a date of birth, neither of which are particularly secure.
Taking this a step further the other suggestion is the creation of a new offence; possession of a corrosive substance in a public place. Such legislation is modelled on legislation already used to tackle knife offences and offensive weapons whereby a prison sentence of upto 4 years can be issues for possession, with intent to carry out an attack. However, why is such an approach necessary when perpetrators of acid attacks can already receive a life sentence under existing legislation. Is it because of the tremendous success of the approach taken to knife crime? Unlikely, if you consider the resistance by the judiciary to use such an approach which would inevitably lead to much higher prison numbers than we already have. In short, the ‘do it again…threat’ is highly unlikely to act as a deterrence when deterrence as a reason for punishment has long been questionable.
Is this another knee-jerk reaction to media hype? Evidence of another poorly considered policy response driven by political self-interest and the desire to be ‘seen to be doing something’. Many of these attacks have been linked to societies folk devils; youth or personal vendetta’s therefore rather than creating new policy, why not focus on existing measures using them to their full force and improving the services offered to the victims of these heinous crimes. Under existing legislations those convicted of an acid attack can receive a life sentences so why new legislation. Survivors also get a life sentence so surely the more appropriate response is to focus on victim’s needs (physical and psychological) rather than the creation of unnecessary legislation
Speeding towards disaster: the absence of a capable guardian
Vehicles are lethal weapons, we all recognise that, particularly after the reminders given to us by the terrorist attacks across Europe. Every year in this country, there are more people killed on the roads than there are as a result of murder and yet people still drive on the roads like complete morons. It seems that driving cars, vans, and lorries brings out aggressive behaviour that to most would seem quite out of character. A good few years ago, the media castigated ‘White Van Man’, the drivers of white vans that displayed all the worst of driving behaviours, in particular positioning their vehicles aggressively so close to another vehicles’s rear bumper that they might as well have been sitting in the boot.
The shame of it is that White Van Man is now replaced by the general driving public. Gender and age seem to have no bearing on the manner of driving. Minor mistakes and indiscretions by other drivers are punished with blaring horns, flashing headlights and hand gestures more at home on the football terraces, although if you watched the recent England game, you might suggest on the pitch as well. Drivers barge their way past parked cars despite oncoming traffic and drive at speeds exceeding the speed limit. The dual carriageway that reverts to a single carriageway sees drivers racing to get ahead of each other determined not to let anyone into the now single file of traffic.
And yet, introduce a capable guardian, I borrowed the term from Felson’s 1998 Routine Activity Theory, and behaviour seems to change almost instantaneously; let me explain. The village I live in is fairly large and sits on the outskirts of a county town. The village is expanding rapidly and consequently through traffic can be quite considerable, particularly during school runs. This accompanied by pedestrians on narrow pathways and the gaggle of school children massing around the bus stop waiting for the bus to another village increases risk considerably. The road which meanders in and out of both semi-rural and urbanised space has a thirty mile an hour speed limit and the odd flashing sign that warns motorists to slow down. Not unreasonable given the volume of traffic and pedestrians and yet it has little meaning to drivers, including those carrying children in the car, who regularly exceed the speed limit. Dare to drive at thirty miles an hour and you will rapidly find cars sitting on your rear bumper itching to get by or aggressively getting closer and closer in an attempt to bully you into going faster. A slight glimpse of empty road sees overtaking manoeuvres more suitable to the Silverstone racetrack but accomplished by drivers who probably lack anything like the skill required. Demonic aggression and recklessness is the name of the game and yet the very same drivers will change their driving behaviour just a few minutes later.
About a mile from my village is a small hamlet dissected by a fairly busy road. The speed limit leading up to the hamlet is 40 miles an hour and the speed limit through the hamlet is 30 miles an hour. Watch vehicles traverse this stretch of road and you will see politeness, adherence to the speed limit and gaps between vehicles that would make the author of the highway code proud. Why such change in behaviour, you probably already know? Two somewhat insignificant, inconspicuous, despite the bright yellow paint, average speed cameras. Nobody knows if they function but they certainly work. It seems that altering driver behaviour is simply down to the presence of a capable guardian but it does beg the question why so many people have little regard for the law or their fellow human beings when they get into that driving seat.
Sex Offender Treatment: A Waste of Time and Effort?
Helen is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in years 1 and 3.
Earlier this year, the Prison Service announced that the Core Sex Offender Treatment Programme and the Extended Sex Offender Treatment Programme would be withdrawn with immediate effect. Offenders in the middle of programmes would be able to complete, but no new programmes would start. No explanation was given. A new suite of programmes, focussed on building strengths for the future rather than analysing past offending, had already been developed but a gradual roll-out had been planned rather than a sudden switch. There were many murmurings among Parole Board members. Why the sudden withdrawal? How would sex offenders now be able to demonstrate that they had reduced their risk? Where was the evidence that the new programmes were any better? We suspected that there had been an unfavourable evaluation, but no one had seen the research.
The truth came to light via The Mail on Sunday on 25th June. There had, indeed, been an unfavourable evaluation of the Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP). When compared to matched offenders who had not completed treatment, those who had done so were more likely to re-offend. The Ministry of Justice had withdrawn the programme but had not published the research. They finally did so on 30th June.
The decision to sit on the research was not helpful. The first information we received about it was filtered through the eyes of The Mail on Sunday. They claimed that “Prisoners who take the rehabilitation courses are at least 25% more likely to be convicted of further sex crimes that those who do not.” This is not true. Of the 2,562 treated sex offenders included in the study, 10% went on to commit another sexual offence. The figure for the matched untreated offenders was 8%. 90% of sex offenders, treated or untreated, did not reoffend within the follow-up period (average 8.2 years). But it is true that treatment made people worse. Two percentage points is a small difference, but with such a large sample size it is significant. The research is robust and well-designed. A randomised control trial would have been more robust, but the matched comparisons in this study were done thoroughly and every attempt was made to take account of possible confounding variables. You can read the study for yourself here:
and the Mail‘s interpretation of it here:
So why did treatment make offenders more likely to reoffend? At this stage we really don’t know. The authors of the research make some suggestions but they are only speculating. Perhaps talking about sex offending in a group setting “normalises” offending. Perhaps groupwork provides offenders with opportunities to network. Perhaps these programmes promoted shame in offenders which ultimately reduced self-esteem and self-efficacy and reduced the chances of building a positive and fulfilling future. The new programmes draw more from the desistance literature. They include much less offence analysis and are more focussed on building strengths for a positive future. They may be more likely to succeed but we will not know for several years until we have had the chance to evaluate them.
So where does that leave the offenders and staff who have worked hard on these programmes over the years? Sex offender treatment is expensive, tiring and takes a psychological toll on those delivering it. A prison officer once told me that delivering SOTP was the best and most fulfilling thing he had ever done, but also the most damaging. A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a former colleague who used to run SOTP and we reflected, “Was all of that effort for nothing?” We have to take the research seriously, learn the lessons and move on. There is no denying the findings. But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. SOTP was based on the best research available at the time. It was modified and developed over the years in the light of emerging research. It might have “worked” for some participants, even if it made others worse. We assessed and came to understand a large number of sex offenders. As a result of that work and this evaluation, we now have a better understanding of what might work to reduce reoffending in the future. Of course, there is an argument that all attempts at rehabilitation are futile, that people choose to behave as they wish and we should not try to manipulate them to change. But perhaps that’s a subject for another blog!