Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Grand Plan

At the same time that Michael Howard was proclaiming that “prison works” and that our lives should be “decent but austere”, his minions were busy putting together a huge plan to reduce the rate of reoffending. This reveals the schizophrenia that comes from prisons being expected to do both punishment and rehabilitation, but there you go.
This Grand Plan was to reach back nearly a century and dust off the idea that criminals are somehow inherently different. This comes within a whisker of the old concept that criminality is a mental disease but with a modern spin.
The broad idea is that we suffer from 'cognitive deficits'. We think differently from free people. On the back of this dodgy reasoning, a range of psychological treatments were imported from North America. Collectively they are known as Offending Behaviour Programmes (OBPs) and their purpose is to help us to think in a different way.
Thus we are afflicted with courses entitled Enhanced Thinking Skills; Sex Offender Treatment Programme - Core, Extended, Modified, and Booster versions; Controlling Anger and Learning to Manage It (CALM); Cognitive Self Change Programme...and so it goes on. Each one has a future refresher or booster version and it is common for one to lead to the other.
There are several problems with this Grand Plan. The most obvious being that, after being in operation for over a decade, the research evidence that any of this stuff actually does work is extremely thin. None is peer reviewed. The level of desperation on the part of prison HQ to squeeze some hint of hope out of this was revealed by the latest research on the Enhanced Thinking Skills (ETS) course. Rather than follow the standard criminological research format - follow up cohorts of those who have, and haven't, done the course and compare the reoffending rates - the latest research confines itself to asking whether those who have done ETS feel that they may reoffend less in future. With one eye on their parole reports, to a man the prisoners swore blind they were cured of their criminal afflictions. Doh! Even if the course did work, the elephant in the room would be this - would reoffending rates be lower because the course altered criminals’ behaviour? Or could it be that the course trained us to think so much better that we plan our crimes more efficiently and just don't get caught? Just a thought...
If these courses worked, I might possibly stomach them. As they don't, they lead to wicked injustices. Lifers can't get released without addressing their 'cognitive deficits'. This leads to us spending many, many years undertaking course after course, a psychological conveyor belt of gibberish. The course are, of course!, voluntary. We just won't be released if we don't do them. So we sign up under massive pressure and go through the motions. Even if the courses could work, they would be ineffective as nobody changes on demand and under threat.
So, lifers are kept in for ever-longer periods, to complete an ever lengthening list of courses, none of which can be shown to work. After 15 years and 200 million quid, the reoffending rate is unchanged. We feel screwed over and hard done by, put upon by psychologists who know nothing and don't care to learn. To say we despise them is to be polite. They are a plague.
But it is when this Grand Plan is coupled with a kneejerk change in sentencing that the real wickedness becomes evident. The introduction of Indefinite sentences for Public Protection (IPP) has seen the lifer population approach 10,000. The average tariff (punishment period) for these IPPs is 18 months. At the end of that time, they can be released if they can show they pose little risk of future offending. This is done by completing the psychology courses. But as the number of places on courses is limited, you may have to wait years to complete them.
Policy makers failed to join the dots here, committing one of the cardinal sins that psychology claims for prisoners; a lack of consequential thinking. Thousands of men are kept in prison on open ended sentences solely because the Ministry failed to lay on sufficient courses for them to complete in a timely manner. It is deeply unjust to sentence a man with a 2 year tariff, knowing damn well it could be 6 years before he can do the necessary courses. It is inept and dishonest, at best, and downright wicked at worst. I predict that during the next wave of riots, alongside the word 'food on the banners of complaint will be the words 'courses' and 'psychology'.
That is the Grand Plan. It continues on, with all concerned pretending that it does work. That the people in charge of our lives can be so self deluding is frightening. And me? I was assessed years ago and whatever my faults may be, it is accepted that 'cognitive deficits' are not included. As more than one governor has pointed out, there is no course to address being awkward.


  1. OK, so the system does not work (in your opinion) and is not properly assessed or regulated. What would you suggest as an alternative? Hanging perhaps?!

  2. This isn't just Ben's view, it is one repeatedly held by the courts, eg the Walker judgement. Honest, professional and evidence based risk assessments are a simple remedy. There's really no need to hang people... And as only 1 percent of murderers kill again, maybe we could abandon risk assessments and just let them go at the end of their tariff? Problem solved!

  3. Ben has repeatedly raised circles of support and accountability as a solution. It isn't perfect but, unlike the governments plan, it has at least been shown to work.

    Maybe this is Ben's first concern troll? If so, it's a good sign for the popularity of the blog :)

  4. Well if i were a lifer/long termer, regardless of what i thought about these course, i'd just do it, if there was a course meaning i had to stand in the courner on one leg, if it was a way to get out i'd just do it. You wait till your out Ben, PROBATION, the most patronizing bunch of people i've EVER met. But of course you just tell them what they want to hear. it's a no brainer if you want to be out.

  5. There was some research reported today that pointed out that it is young, often preschool kids with behavioural disorders that go on to commit the majority of crimes and that for every 1$ spent on helping them and their families $11 is saved in the cost of crimes not commited.

    So it seems provably true that those in prison do think differently. However it is a stretch to go from there to concluding that they are 'curable' with a talking therapy. It is likely too late.

    A similar situation pertains wrt school meals. As they have got healthier the older kids at secondary are voting with their feet and going down the high street for something hot stodgy and fatty. So the govts (the matter is devolved) have essentially written off the older generationg, they will still be targeted with the message but no efforts to get them to actually change. Secondary school canteens will have to hang on while the kids who started primary on healthy food come through the system and see it as normality.

    Of course this raises the issue of what then do you do to reduce reoffending (apart from the obvious of course, like addressing drug addiction). Perhaps doing more than kicking men out the door with 20quid and the clothes they stand up in would be a start.

  6. Is it something about being seen to be trying to do something? I think it is appalling that any offender is set targets to achieve release and those setting the targets do not have the resources to comply. Unfair and an affront to human dignity.

    I have watched various TV programmes on various therapy groups and indeed read extensively on the subject. Louis Thereux recently made a documentary about a sex offender establishment in the US where "patients" were detained under the equivalent of our public protection sentence. It was shocking the abuse of power and exercise of control in the name of therapy. Further, those put forward for interview who had apparently been successfully treated remained a very high risk. The whole programme was a mockery as are the ones you indicated which are carried out in prison no doubt using the same criteria for all prisoners regardless of individual needs.

    I really have to laugh at all these people using what appears as simple tools to assess complex individuals. I recently read the report about the murder of two French students in London by someone who was on parole from a prison sentence. It seemed that by using an assessment tool, agencies such as the Probation Service set themselves up as specialists in protecting us from dangerous behaviour. They justify their existence in protecting us and then feel very hurt when they are criticised for failing to do so. Criminal justice agencies are not getting very good press at the present!

    I do not know what is to be done. A lot of people's jobs are on the line if we say that no therapy should take place in prison. Maybe we should focus our prison resources on education and employment training. Having both would be more benficial in reducing offending?