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Five year ago, Dame Sally Coates released an independent report on prison education. Recently the Chief Inspector for Ofsted, Amanda Spielman and The HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, made a joint statement reflecting on that report. Their reflections are critical on the lack of implementation of the original report, but also of the difficulties of managing education in prison especially at a time of a global pandemic. The lack of developing meaningful educational provision and delivering remote teaching led to many prisoners without sufficient opportunity to engage with learning.
In a situation of crisis such as the global pandemic one must wonder if this is an issue that can be left to one side for now, to be reviewed at a later stage. At the University of Northampton, as an educational institution we are passionate about learning opportunities for all including those incarcerated. We have already developed an educational partnership with a local prison, and we are committed to offer Higher Education to prisoners. Apart from the educational, I would add that there is a profound criminological approach to this issue. Firstly, I would like to separate what Dame Coates refers to as education, which is focused on the basic skills and training as opposed to a university’s mandate for education designed to explore more advanced ideas.
The main point to both however is the necessity for education for those incarcerated and why it should be offered or not. In everyday conversations, people accept that “bad” people go to prison. They have done something so horrible that it has crossed the custody threshold and therefore, society sends them to jail. This is not a simple game of Monopoly, but an entire criminal justice process that explores evidence and decides to take away their freedom. This is the highest punishment our society can bestow on a person found guilty of serious crimes. For many people this is appropriate and the punishment a fitting end to criminality. In criminology however we recognise that criminality is socially constructed and those who end up in prisons may be only but a specific section of those deemed “deviant” in our society. The combination of wrongdoing and socioeconomic situations dictate if a person is more or less likely to go to prison. This indicates that prison is not a punishment for all bad people, but some. Dame Coates for example recognises the overrepresentation of particular ethnic minorities in the prison system.
This raises the first criminological issue regarding education, and it relates to fairness and access to education. We sometimes tend to forget that education is not a privilege but a fundamental human right. Sometimes people forget that we live in a society that requires a level of educational sophistication that people with below basic levels of literacy and numeracy will struggle. From online applications to job hunting or even banking, the internet has become an environment that has no place for the illiterate. Consider those who have been in prison since the late 1990s and were released in the late 2010s. People who entered the prison before the advancement of e-commerce and smart phones suddenly released to a world that feels like it is out of a sci-fi movie.
The second criminological issue is to give all people, regardless of their crimes, the opportunity to change. The opportunity of people to change, is always incumbent on their ability to change which in turn is dependent on their circumstances. Education, among other things, requires the commitment of the learner to engage with the learning process. For those in prison, education can offer an opportunity to gain some insight that their environment or personal circumstances have denied them.
The final criminological issue is the prison itself. What do we want people to do in them? If prison is to become a human storage facility, then it will do nothing more than to pause a person’s life until they are to be released. When they come out the process of decarceration is long and difficult. People struggle to cope and the return to prison becomes a process known as “revolving doors”. This prison system helps no one and does nothing to resolve criminality. A prison that attempts to help the prisoners by offering them the tools to learn, helps with the process of deinstitutionalisation. The prisoner is informed and aware of the society they are to re-join and prepares accordingly. This is something that should work in theory, but we are nowhere there yet. If anything, it is far from it, as read in Spielman and Taylor’s recent commentary. Their observations identify poor quality education that is delivered in unacceptable conditions. This is the crux of the matter, the institution is not really delivering what it claims that is does. The side-effect of such as approach is the missed opportunity to use the institution as a place of reform and change.
Of course, in criminological discourse the focus is on an abolitionist agenda that sees beyond the institution to a society less punitive that offers opportunities to all its citizens without discrimination or prejudice. This is perhaps a different topic of conversation. At this stage, one thing is for sure; education may not rehabilitate but it can allow people to self-improve and that is a process that needs to be embraced.
Coates, S. (2016), Unlocking Potential: A review of education in prisons, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/unlocking-potential-a-review-of-education-in-prison
Spielman, A. and Taylor, C. (2021), Launching our Prison Education Review, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/launching-our-prison-education-review
Originally published here
One thing we criminologists know is that it is impossible to prevent crime. Many a great criminologist has tried to theorise why crime occurs (my shelves are full of their books) and whilst almost all have made valuable contributions to our understanding of crime, it is an unfortunate fact that crime continues. But then crime itself is difficult to define and has its basis in time, power, opportunity and social discourses. What is criminal today will not be criminal tomorrow and what is important today will lose its importance tomorrow, in favour of some new or maybe, old, manifestation of that elusive concept we call crime. Perhaps we should we grateful, for in the industry of crime lies mass employment. From criminologists to those that attempt to stem the tide of crime, those that deal with its aftermath and those that report on it or write about it (real or fictional), there is money to be made. If we stopped crime, we would all be out of a job.
Most, if not all of us have at some stage in our lives committed some sort of crime. Most crimes will fortunately be almost inconsequential, maybe a flouting of a law such as driving a car over the speed limit. Other crimes will be more serious and whilst some criminals will be brought to book most are not. The inconsequential crime of driving over the speed limit, albeit perhaps due to a lapse of concentration, can have dire consequences. There is clear evidence that the survival rates of pedestrians struck by cars has a direct correlation with speed. So the inconsequential becomes the consequential, the ephemerality of crime, the reality.
When we think of crime, we often have little concept of its reality. We apply labels and our own rules to that we know and find acceptable. Speeding is not criminal, well not generally, unless it’s a boy racer. Drink driving is a no-no, but we might take it to the alcohol limit when having a drink. Drugs (the criminalised type) are ok, well some are and some aren’t, it all depends on your viewpoint. Drugs (the prescription type) are ok, even if they impair our ability to drive. Alcohol, well that’s absolutely ok, even if the abuse of it leads to more deaths than drugs and the consequences of that misuse has a really significant impact on the NHS. Tax evasion, illegal if you get caught, ok if you don’t. A bit like fraud really, ok if you can get away with it but then maybe not, if the victim is a little old lady or me. Assault, well it depends on the seriousness and the situation and probably the victim. Robbery, not good to go into an off licence with a gun and threaten the shopkeeper, bullying if you take lunch money off the lad outside the school gates.
Criminals don’t walk around with a label that says ‘criminal’ and even if they did, there would have to be a method of bestowing the label in an instance. Nonsense of course, only a fool would suggest such a thing. What about the people that committed a crime but have changed their ways I hear my colleagues ask? What about those that haven’t, or have and then relapse, I reply.
Nothing is black and white; the concept of crime is elusive, as are criminals (both by concept and nature). And yet we happily castigate those that attempt to uphold the law on our behalf and in doing so view crime and criminals as clear concepts. Each has a clear label, each is clearly identifiable, so how can they get it so wrong so many times. Whilst criticising those that attempt, and let’s be quite honest, fail most of the time to stem this tide of crime, perhaps we might also think about the impossibility of the job in hand. That’s not to say that a lot of the criticisms are not justified, nor that things should not change, but if we only examine all that is wrong, we lose sight of reality and only an intransigent fool would continue an argument that sees the problems and solutions as simply black and white.
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