"I am under no illusion that prison staff are my friends"
The Current Psychological Approach to Offender Rehabilitation
The current vogue in prisoner rehabilitation, the 'treatment approach,' otherwise the pro-social and cognitive skills training model bases its assumptions that there is a general criminal personality that typifies offender's regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or class. Moreover, that this personality type has been 'identified' through psychological research embracing the scientific method. The results were so called findings that offender's personalities are characterised by cognitive inadequacies or thinking deficits and that these deficits are criminogenic, that is that they are statistically associated with crime.
Social structures and systemic issues, for example, unemployment, sexism. racism, poverty, class and gender for the purpose of assessment are therefore ignored.
Understanding the literature is further complicated in mat many of its claims are highly contestable.
For example, it is frequently claimed that the system is 'objective'. The first point one should make here is that the prison system per sets in no way 'objective'.
Those who end up in prison do so as a result of a long series of decision-making by individuals where subjectivity comes into play at every step of the way - including by members of the public (e.g. by victims about whether to report or not), and by the police (about whether to charge or not) as well as by prosecutors (whether to accept pleas of lesser charges) and by judges, lawyers and juries.
Therefore, what is being studied by penal researchers is not an objective picture of offender, but rather a relatively small sub-group of offenders, predominantly from vulnerable groups in any given society who have been successfully focused on and processed by other components of the criminal justice system.
The claim that these newer assessment 'tools' are also objective is further questionable in that they continue to rely on the mainstay of traditional clinical approaches, namely professional judgement. The actuarial approach which focuses on groups of offenders and statistical calculations, has been deemed to be superior to the individual clinical approach.
Following such a vision, the argument is that computerised forms (mostly of a self-reporting nature by offenders) with relevant items checked off by a technocrat is far superior than, for example, having a socially scientific trained intake officer sitting down with an offender to discuss how they might best proceed through the morass of prison institutions and programmes.
Within HM Prison Service we have just that with the varying ranks of psychologists at the Offending Behaviour Programmes Unit, Prison Service Headquarters checking off forms and assessments and through the use of computers plotting an offender's risk and progress through the prison system.
What is clear is that even with the use of such technologies. Prison Service personnel and psychologists frequently use overrides to adjust risk and assessments to increase or decrease classifications and expectations of the prisoner.
What do these evaluations tell us?
The 1995 Cognitive Skills Evaluation carried out by the Correctional Services of Canada - 'The Impact of Cognitive Skills Training on Post-Release Recidivism Among Canadian Federal Offenders* ( Canada is where the ideas of social and cognitive skills training originated) proclaim the programmes a success, but the actual data make the claim a difficult one to sustain.
What this research reported was that such programmes were ineffective for the under 25 year age group.
What took the researchers by surprise was that the same was also true of the over 40 age group.
Another set of research by The Correctional Service of Canada followed up a total of 2,125 men for one year after their release. Of these subjects, 1,444 had completed the cognitive skills programme, 302 had dropped out of the programme, and 379 were part of the control group of eligible subjects who had not been admitted to the programme. Two key data points gave the researchers problems from the start given their expectations and the theory from which they started. First, there was only a small difference between the recidivism rates (defined as a re-admission for technical violation of parole) of programme completers and the control group, 44.5 per cent of the former returning to prison compared with 50 per cent of the control subjects. This is, as the report states, an 11.2 per cent decrease and therefore important to note, but obviously not the success that had been hoped for. Second, and perhaps more serious, the cognitive skills programme was shown to have had no effect on improving the post-release performance of subjects deemed by the Correctional Services of Canada Statistical Index on Recidivism tool to be at high risk to re-offend. Thus, 57.4 per cent of the high risk subjects in the control group and 56.9 per cent of the participants re-offended within the first year of release. Only those in the low risk category participants re-offended at a lower rate which was not unexpected. No great claims could be made here.
There were indications in the data however that the high risk career criminal types did better when they completed their cognitive skills programme in the community as opposed to a prison setting, leading researchers to suggest 'post-treatment booster sessions - again falling into that consistent medicalised language (jargon) in which offenders are literally 'inoculated' against.
This would imply it seems, that any cognitive skills training has but a short shelf life, if it ever had any shelf life at all.
One must conclude that all things considered, that the research on the cognitive skills programme is 'not a pretty sight* and unlike earlier, more speculative predictions, these data have remained buried in a Government of Canada report, and not touted in the learned journals of academia let alone the popular media.
My concerns as a life sentence prisoner and one who has undergone a cognitive skills programme is that such approaches focuses on people's personalities whilst dismissing structural factors. It individualises crime and pathologises prisoners.
One could ask what is the correct way to mink and who decides? What is pro-social thinking? What is knowledge and does your knowledge count for more than mine?
Those who develop such programmes are likely to be white middle-class men. (Gendreau, Andrews, Bonta, Ross, Porporino, et al). Is it likely therefore that cognitive behavioural research and programmes reflect their norms?
In 2000, Matthews and Pitt argued that the cognitive skills programmes were a genuine, if unfortunate misinterpretation of the research data and a tendency to erroneously equate .."logical thinking" with being law abiding and 'straight thinking' with going straight." and that it was the triumph of slick marketing by criminological entrepreneurs over the messy reality and ambiguity of everyday prison and probation practice.
Given the dishonourable history of experiments around behaviour modification within prisons, we should be particular wary of programmes which attempt to alter people's thinking.
Such programmes sit uncomfortably close to 'brainwashing'.
For example, a whole series of experiments have been carried out in penal institutions involving LSD, ECT and sensory deprivation. The aim was to change the prisoner's thinking patterns and therefore their behaviour.
Cognitive behavioural programme are designed to address criminogenic factors (is not prison a criminogenic factor ?).
These are characteristics which are said to be associated with crime.
Is there not a population at large who have the same deficits but do not offend?
When addressed through programming, the offender is supposed to be less likely to re-offend. 'Criminogenic' factors include the features of deficit thinking, lack of decision making abilities, impulsiveness and the inability to learn from past mistakes.
Often, these 'crimmogenic' factors are referred to as 'needs' or 'risk's because it is maintained that they put the offender at risk of re-offending and are areas in which offenders need programming. Assessments aimed at identifying needs and or/risks are rife with moral and value judgements - family problems, has no hobbies, currently single, has been unemployed, takes unnecessary risks and so forth. Additionally, the focus on recidivism as a measure of programme success and criminogenic need is questionable. Is recidivism determined by actual offences, arrests or convictions.
Is it likely that those who are released from prison do go on to re-offend and do not get caught?
Given the under-reporting of crime figures and that me actual incidence of all crime may well be as much as ten times as that which comes to the attention of the authorities, who is able to say with certainty that those released from custody and in spite of offender programmes may well be re-offending. Is this counted as a success? Additionally, someone may offend less frequently or less seriously. Would this counts as a success were the offender to be fined or be given a community based sentence?
What actually does count given the short lived Home Office follow up research reports and findings of programme effectiveness? For how long should the offender remain conviction free before he or she can be deemed to be a success?
Would such programmes that have the capacity to change one's thinking, to be less impulsive, to 'think out* the consequences of ones actions also have the capability of causing the offender to think out future criminal behaviour in a more organised, calculated, less impulsive and a more fashioned manner?
Is there indeed a casual relationship between the lack of social skills and offending because the co-existence of the two factors does not necessarily demonstrate a casual link, both may be the product of a third factor, for example socio-economic features which in themselves are more clearly identifiable and are most certainly significant throughout prisons and penal institutions?
A direct casual link between moral functioning and criminal behaviour also needs to be established.
Studies of thinking prior to offending show that the criminal is not concerned with moral issues but rather the likelihood of being successful. (Carroll and Weaver 1986).
Further, the assumption of a relationship between moral reasoning, moral values, and behaviour must also be queried. Several well known experiments have shown that people will behave in ways which they believe or know to be wrong. (Asch 1952; Milgram 1963 and of late the televised prisoner-guard experiment).
The fact that someone is not offending, tells us little about their circumstances.
Despite there being no further arrests or convictions, many ex-prisoners continue to live marginally, in conditions of poverty and violence. Thus recidivism tells us nothing about the quality of life of life they lead. Certainly with a re-offending rate for released prisoners being in the region of 60% within two years of release from prison, the figure for young offenders being considerable higher and the fact that the government is committed to a prison's building programme which is geared to the opening of several more establishments, might it not conceivably be argued that if the psychological approach actually impacted on reducing offending behaviour that the government would not be investing in more prisons but actually closing them or are they destined to become the archetypal Clockwork Orange 'brainwashing centres'?
The work in the cognitive skills treatment approach has in the past been accused of being rife with patronising, condescending, arrogant and dehumanising assumptions and comments and seems to me to operate on a basis where the work has rarely been questioned in the understandable rush to try out new ideas.
The cognitive skills approach also ignores social and economic constraints in offender's lives, the poverty and disruption in their families and communities and the discrimination and racism which they might have experienced.
To give priority to such programmes over job-skill training and other approaches implies that the attitudes and thinking patterns of individuals are the root of their re-offending.
The literature on cognitive skills training is very denigrating, identifying people with poor thinking patterns and as inadequate individuals and discounts everything else.
There also remains an assumption that everyone regardless of race, gender or age can be fitted in to the dominant cognitive skills approach with strict adherence to the principles of (treatment) delivery, rigorous testing and evaluation and accreditation to ensure that the master patterns are maintained. In other words the 'one size cap fits all'.
The history of prisons, indeed the criminal justice system is full of brave, indeed arrogant claims and promising programmes and the past is littered with a history of good intentions which ultimately fell by the wayside. With the largest crime and offending rates in Europe, the under-reporting of crime and the highest prison population in Europe and the fact that in attempting to address me crime issues, the present Government has introduced no less than 12 criminal justice Bills in the past five years, surely adds up to an admission of failure to reduce offending. The proposals of becoming 'tough on crime' and 'tough on the causes of crime' appears to have been sacrificed for arguable 'treatment' approaches' when many crimes actually stem from social issues. It is these areas that are being neglected both with the current obsession for cognitive skills and the lack of vision.
For sure, most offenders will return to the same communities from whence they came before their imprisonment and most will re-join the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder and inevitably rejoin the spiral of further offending and anti-social behaviour.
For others, there will be no escape from their exposure to the criminal subculture which imprisonment may well have only reinforced. Given any positive effect of cognitive skills training, it seems reasonable to argue that if everything else remains unchanged in the prisoner's life, it is also likely that his or her offending behaviour will remain unchanged. In spite of cognitive skills training, it is arguable whether me punitive effects of imprisonment and the treatment approach are consistent and can work adequately in unison given mat treatment and punishment have two different aims.
The distinction must always be drawn between institutional and prisoner needs.
The former refers to security, staff training and development, management systems and financial resources. These features places the prisoners interests as a secondary consideration to the administrative functions.
The latter, to medical, psychological and social needs which presumes that the various agencies involved with me individual prisoner will provide the necessary and various needs.
Personal experiences indicate to me that there is a deep seated ignorance by the various prison departments as to the general working practices of each other. It is known that uniformed prison staff have a role which is clearly understood and that psychologists and probation staff have a role in prisoner rehabilitation. The dynamics of each group however are hardly consistent and are more likely to be misunderstood.
It seems to me that all institutional programmes are fundamentally shaped by security considerations, rather than rehabilitative concerns which puts so called 'treatment* methods at odds with punishment. Moreover whilst the judicial system including the police have a function in detecting crime and punishing the perpetrators, prison psychologists would argue that their role is to 'treat* the offender.
The ridiculous inconsistency between the two approaches is no better demonstrated than in a scenario where an offender kills his parents. The police's role is to arrest him and put him before the courts where a judge and jury will decide his fate.
The offender according to the psychological approach could very well ask the court to be lenient with him on me grounds that he is now an orphan. One of the features of cognitive skills training is of course 'problem solving' skills which would draw on anger management techniques that may have the effect of serving to adjust the inmate to oppressive penal practices whilst at the time depoliticising and individualising their circumstances.
Bernard (1990) argued that people occupying severely disadvantaged positions are likely to become aggressively angry as an adaptive response to their situation. This is because anger is a symptom that something is wrong.
A significant number of prisoners do see anger as serving a positive self-affirming function, however problematic it might ultimately become.
Bernard further maintains that this angry aggression is intensified within prisons because they encourage such a response
One would conclude from this that for effective change to occur, the prison environment and broader social structure elements must be altered rather than simply by arguable psychological and individual changes.
Graham Towl one time Home Office researcher and now head of psychological services stated that "anger control programmes are largely designed to meet the needs of prison management and are unlikely to have any effect on re-offending." (1994).
There is of course a 'Catch-22' situation, for any inmate who having undergone a cognitive skills programme and exercises any of the techniques taught to him, such as self-assertion may well find him or herself in conflict with the authorities. The dissonance such a paradox creates may outweigh any programme benefits.
In helping prisoners to tolerate anger and oppression, might not the outcome instead be that one is being taught to internalise it?
'Treatment' programmes provide for me participants in taking control over their own lives, space to just be themselves and the opportunity to be of both value to and be valued by others. Yet again these same elements are ones that prison deny by its very nature.
Certainly, psychologists and probation staff have not been greatly involved in the design of custodial regimes and the one feature that appears to stand out is the very clinical, robotic and rigid approach in me delivery of programmes, no doubt because of what are known in the Prison Service as Key Performance Indicators, me measurement of meeting specific targets. Success therefore appears to be based on the number of programmes delivered, the quality of delivery and the number of inmates to whom those programmes are delivered to.
My lasting concern is that instead of having the issues of the offending behaviour and the events that led up to it addressed, one is labelled as having 'deficit thinking' and 'social and problem solving skills' which applies to all prisoners and therefore the 'one size cap fits all' equation. Will this for some provide an explanation for future offending whereby the offender can claim that he or she is the victim and cannot make rational and moral judgements and is therefore in some way diminished in his or her abilities, capabilities or responsibility? That they think differently than non-offenders?
There have been many failures in psychological interventions and perhaps the most notable in which mere was a 30 year follow up was the American Cambridge-SomerviIle Delinquency Project which commenced in 1939.
The outcome after 30 years, was that those who underwent counselling, programmes, therapy, academic teaching and social work which lasted for between 3 and 8 years revealed an unexpected surprise.
At the end of 30 years it was found that the treated group were offending at a greater rate than the control group.
Following the 10 year follow up of Grendon Therapeutic Prison by Professor John Gunn and Graham Robertson in 1987, their findings were that there were no differences found regarding the frequency or severity of post-discharge convictions between a matched control group and prisoners who had underwent the Grendon programme. It was also discovered that there was no significant differences between the offending rates of Grendon prisoners and the prisoner population in the rest of the prison estate.
The 'treatment' approach largely fails I believe from the misconception that incongruities in role expectations. On the one hand, prisoners gain respect among one another by doing time with dignity, by acting without deference to staff, by never placing each other in jeopardy and by never whinging.
On the other hand, staff punish lack of deference and encourage prisoners to inform them of improprieties by other inmates.
Thus, inmates must paradoxically adhere to both the formal rules enacted by staff and what is expected of them by their fellow prisoners.
Those inmates who are targeted as 'requiring' specific courses are told that they are "voluntary" which of course is nonsense, for they are no such thing because a refusal to enrol and at the least be assessed for such programmes carries with it consequences mat may well prolong one's sentence and at the least affect one's entitlement to specific privileges under the structured 'sentence planning' rules.
This is an interesting if tacit admission that so called 'treatment' is actually being rendered upon a prisoner through coercion and at the worst threats and blackmail.
I know of no medical practitioner who would compel and least of all coerce his patient to undergo 'treatment' except a psychiatrist acting under the terms of the Mental Health Act, but of course psychologists are not medical practitioners and have no medical training which strikes me as rather odd that some refer to themselves as 'Treatment Managers'.
vIf I am to undergo treatment and being of sound mind and not falling within the criteria of mental illness, should I not be at liberty to refuse 'treatment' as I would if I were considering a surgical procedure.
After all, for the purposes of the Data Protection Act, the Prison Service identifies psychology as being within medical data.
It says something for the psychological approach and the value of programmes that offenders have to be coerced into them, there is hardly a rush to enrol or a keenness by prisoners to participate.
Across the whole prison estate, prisoners are increasingly instructing solicitors to complain and challenge their being targeted for courses.
This has caused considerable unease about what is referred to as 'junk science' at work, the so called science fiction being peddled by the Prison Service and those who have a vested interest in perpetuating so called 'soft science' psychological behaviour modification through 'cognitive skills training'
As long as prisoners make themselves available themselves for 'brainwashing' techniques, there will of course remain a market for those all too ready to exploit it which ought to beg the question which seems today lost on prisoners.
Should we make ourselves knowingly vulnerable to such practises?
Are prisons not run by the consent and co-operation of those detained in them?
There have been many suggestions by prisoners in respect of such programmes which might be seen to undermine them from always demanding data collected by psychologists and invoking the Data Protection Act. Instructing solicitors to seek second opinions as one might do for any other 'treatment.' Explaining in writing that there is no objection to participating in such programmes if they are able to state in writing that independent evidence can be shown that such interventions work and that there are no side-effects. When tied down, prison psychologists are astute when making the bold claims which they so freely resort to verbally.
There have been many other suggestions by prisoners for combating these programmes and it may yet in time be that a more formal device will be relied on to challenge prison psychologists.
On a more positive note, I believe that the programmes can serve as a 'wake up call" to those who will be given the opportunity to reflect and to examine unsocial behaviour through inter-relating with others and therefore avoid further tensions and conflicts with the criminal justice system. In the final analysis and more importantly, that the world audience comprises of more than the self.
My own personal experiences of the cognitive and social skills programme was that I was able to identify the current thinking of the other participants responses whose lives had no less been shaped by past experiences and how they dealt with them.
That for me provided a valuable lesson in itself.
Whether the cognitive skills programmes will ultimately prove to be the criminal justice system's panacea for the reduction in further offending is highly debatable and open to criticism as long as other factors remain unchanged and neglected.
I know of no peer reviewed published article that has appeared in any reputable scientific journal that stands up to scientific scrutiny to prove beyond all doubt that cognitive skills training reduces offending behaviour. What I have found are many articles by those with a vested interest in promoting the approach mat have at their base a dubious methodology.
What remains is a simplistic approach, whereby at least the involvement of probation staff in these programmes has caused a change in their direction to offender rehabilitation causing an abandonment of their traditional role in assisting offenders, with the main focus instead on being risk management and public protection that has the capacity of being seen as closer to that of a prosecutorial function than that of a "befriender' and one whose more difficult role in the past was that of assisting the offender to address the various social, personal and economic issues that had the capacity of providing for a 'stake in the community' which of course me current 'cognitive skills^ approach disregards.
Charles Hanson, 10 December 2002