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Having read a colleague’s reflection on the past year, I started to think about my own experiences of the year and what meaning it had for me.
As a criminologist I am critical of what I read, see and experience, consequently I have a fairly cynical view of the world and I have to say, the world rarely disappoints. But amongst all the chaos, violence and political hubris, there must surely be chinks of light, otherwise what is the point. A challenge then, to find the positive rather than view the negative, as hard as that may seem.
My year was difficult on both a professional and personal front and it tested my resilience and patience to the full. I have suffered poor health resulting in spells in hospital and long periods away from work. Difficult to engineer any positive spin on that but I’m sure I can give it a go.
We all have read about and no doubt many of us have experienced the crippling effect of an often reported, failing National Health Service (NHS). It would be easy to state the problems and apportion blame, but in doing so we miss some nuggets of positivity (is that a real word?). I have nothing but praise for the staff working under extreme pressure within the health system. When I was suddenly taken ill at home the paramedics that attended were brilliant, one a student from our home university. When I arrived at the hospital, despite a manic casualty unit, I was well cared for by another student from the university. I single these students out because there is a sense of pride in knowing that I am part of an institution that helps teach and coach health staff that care so well for others. Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention that all of the other staff were kind and caring. Later when I was admitted to hospital after a number of visits, I found my care to be exemplary. I know this is not everyone’s experience and when we read the news or watch it on television it is all about failure. My exemplary care and that of many around me isn’t particularly newsworthy. Whilst in hospital I was visited by volunteers who were distributing books, kind people that give up their time to help others. When my wife visited, she came in with a cup of coffee purchased from a café within the hospital run by volunteers. More people giving up their time. I know of and feel privileged to have taught and still teach students that volunteer in all sorts of organisations around the country. The cynical side of me says that we shouldn’t have to have volunteers doing this but that is not really the point is it? The point is that there are kind and caring people around that do it to make life a little easier for others.
A prolonged absence from work caused some chaos in teaching, mitigated by colleagues that stepped in. Busy colleagues, overloaded colleagues, who had additional burdens placed upon them due to my absence. Even now on returning to work colleagues are having to take up the slack to cover for my current inability to work at full capacity. But despite these burdens, I have experienced nothing but support and kindness not just resultant of my illness but throughout what has been a difficult year. Difficult to be cynical except that to say some of the difficulties faced should never have arisen but the point is that there were kind and caring people around to provide much needed help and support.
If I turn my thoughts to wider issues, the dreadful events at Fishmonger’s Hall served to remind us of the violent world we live in but that very event also serves to remind us of the kind, caring and brave nature of many. The victims Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones were both engaged in a project that was aimed at making society a better place. Those that tackled the terrorist showed the sort of selfless bravery that epitomises the essence of human nature.
If we think about it and it probably doesn’t take too much thinking, we can find countless examples of good things being done by kind and caring people. We can be cynical and suggest that the situations should never have arisen in the first place that necessitated that kindness or those actions, but the incidents and situations are there and are played out in society every day, C’est la vie’. Maybe, just occasionally, rather than thinking about doom and gloom, we should celebrate the capacity of people to simply be human.
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.
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
Dr Stephen O’Brien is the Dean for the Faculty of Health and Society at the University of Northampton
The other week I had the opportunity to visit one of our local prisons with academic colleagues from our Criminology team within the Faculty of Health and Society at the University of Northampton. The prison in question is a category C closed facility and it was my very first visit to such an institution. The context for my visit was to follow up and review the work completed by students, prisoners and staff in the joint delivery of an academic module which forms part of our undergraduate Criminology course. The module entitled “Beyond Justice” explores key philosophical, social and political issues associated with the concept of justice and the journeys that individuals travel within the criminal justice system in the UK. This innovative approach to collaborative education involving the delivery of the module to students of the university and prisoners was long in its gestation. The module itself had been delivered over several weeks in the Autumn term of 2017. What was very apparent from the start of this planned visit was how successful the venture had been; ground-breaking in many respects with clear impact for all involved. Indeed, it has been way more successful than anyone could have imagined when the staff embarked on the planning process. The project is an excellent example of the University’s Changemaker agenda with its emphasis upon mobilising University assets to address real life social challenges.
My particular visit was more than a simple review and celebration of good Changemaker work well done. It was to advance the working relationship with the Prison in the signing of a memorandum of understanding which outlined further work that would be developed on the back of this successful project. This will include; future classes for university/prison students, academic advancement of prison staff, the use of prison staff expertise in the university, research and consultancy. My visit was therefore a fruitful one. In the run up to the visit I had to endure all the usual jokes one would expect. Would they let me in? More importantly would they let me out? Clearly there was an absolute need to be on my best behaviour, keep my nose clean and certainly mind my Ps and Qs especially if I was to be “released”. Despite this ribbing I approached the visit with anticipation and an open mind. To be honest I was unsure what to expect. My only previous conceptual experience of this aspect of the criminal justice system was many years ago when I was working as a mental health nurse in a traditional NHS psychiatric hospital. This was in the early 1980s with its throwback to a period of mental health care based on primarily protecting the public from the mad in society. Whilst there had been some shifts in thinking there was still a strong element of the “custodial” in the treatment and care regimen adopted. Public safety was paramount and many patients had been in the hospital for tens of years with an ensuing sense of incarceration and institutionalisation. These concepts are well described in the seminal work of Barton (1976) who described the consequences of long term incarceration as a form of neurosis; a psychiatric disorder in which a person confined for a long period in a hospital, mental hospital, or prison assumes a dependent role, passively accepts the paternalist approach of those in charge, and develops symptoms and signs associated with restricted horizons, such as increasing passivity and lack of motivation. To be fair mental health services had been transitioning slowly since the 1960s with a move from the custodial to the therapeutic. The associated strategy of rehabilitation and the decant of patients from what was an old asylum to a more community based services were well underway. In many respects the speed of this change was proving problematic with community support struggling to catch up and cope with the numbers moving out of the institutions.
My only other personal experience was when I spent a night in the cells of my local police station following an “incident” in the town centre. This was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. (I know everyone says that, but in this case it is a genuine explanation). However, this did give me a sense of what being locked up felt like albeit for a few hours one night. When being shown one of the single occupancy cells at the prison those feelings came flooding back. However, the thought of being there for several months or years would have considerably more impact. The accommodation was in fact worse than I had imagined. I reflected on this afterwards in light of what can sometimes be the prevailing narrative that prison is in some way a cushy number. The roof over your head, access to a TV and a warm bed along with three square meals a day is often dressed up as a comfortable daily life. The reality of incarceration is far from this view. A few days later I watched Trevor MacDonald report from Indiana State Prison in the USA as part of ITV’s crime and punishment season. In comparison to that you could argue the UK version is comfortable but I have no doubt either experience would be, for me, an extreme challenge.
There were further echoes of my mental health experiences as I was shown the rehabilitation facilities with opportunities for prisoners to experience real world work as part of their transition back into society. I was impressed with the community engagement and the foresight of some big high street companies to get involved in retraining and education. This aspect of the visit was much better than I imagined and there is evidence that this is working. It is a strict rehabilitation regime where any poor behaviour or departure from the planned activity results in failure and loss of the opportunity. This did make me reflect on our own project and its contribution to prisoner rehabilitation. In education, success and failure are norms and the process engenders much more tolerance of what we see as mistakes along the way. The great thing about this project is the achievement of all in terms of both the learning process and outcome. Those outcomes will be celebrated later this month when we return to the prison for a special celebration event. That will be the moment not only to celebrate success but to look to the future and the further work the University and the Prison can do together. On that occasion as on this I do expect to be released early for good behaviour.
Barton, R., (1976) Institutional Neurosis: 3rd edition, Butterworth-Heinemann, London.