Thursday, November 19, 2009

Writing Reports

Life sentences generate vast quantities of paper. Reports, risk assessments, sentence planning, parole dossiers, history sheets, daily logs, transfer reports... It is a blizzard that we must navigate in order to progress towards release.

The most important set of paperwork are the staff reports which comprise the dossier considered by the Parole Board. These reports are supposed to be written by all the staff who know us -workplace, education, healthcare, psychology, wing staff, middle management, internal and external probation, chaplaincy, Uncle Tom Cobbley...

The idea itself is a good one. Each of these staff see us in different settings, for different purposes, and each brings their own particular expertise. We all have different aspects to our personality and we each present ourselves differently according to social context. A man who seems to be benefiting from exploring his offending history with psychologists, for instance, may be obnoxious and aggressive on the wing. He may be a lousy worker, but give of himself in educationally mentoring his peers.
If the reporting process works well, then the Parole Board should receive a rounded picture of each individual. The more complete this picture, then the better the assessment they can make as to what risk he may pose if released.
As an objective framework for assessment, this should be a pretty good one. How this translates into practice is crucial and it is at this point that the system collapses. This leads to people being released who then commit horrible crimes, or those who are perfectly safe being kept in detention. No system is perfect but the present one operates particularly badly.
Psychologists rule the prison roost, and have done for over a decade. When staff write parole reports, they tend to avoid making their own judgements based on their experience. Rather, they substitute that judgement for whatever psychology are recommending. All staff have fallen into this habit.
Whilst it could be argued that psychologists are the specialists and are more likely to be correct, this is not the point (and also not true). Psychologists only see a small part of us and it is for other staff to bring their particular experiences of us to the table. To merely defer,to psychologists is to render the reporting process skewed, incomplete, and far more likely to lead to bad decisions about release.
I take quite a strong line on this. If professionals are being paid for their opinions, it is weak and fraudulent for them to merely follow the views of others. Worse, this method of report writing leads to injustice. If psychologists see a prisoner in a particular light and others merely parrot them, then what may be an incomplete or incorrect assessment becomes the dominant and unchallenged paradigm.
This leaves the Parole Board in a very difficult position. They are presented with a fixed view, one collective opinion, about the prisoner in front of them. Do they accept it? Or reject it? In the absence of a range of views which explore the full range of a prisoner’s social, intellectual, psychological, emotional and spiritual outlook, then how can they make the right decision?
This is, for prisoners, a common complaint about the iniquities of the reporting process. For society, though, it is an equally important issue. People who are dangerous may be released and people who are not may remain locked up. This is about fundamental justice, and it sits in the hands of minor functionaries who have lost any sense of the importance of their job or the standards they should strive for.


  1. I have a written copy of several psychologists reports. For example, the circular reasoning of one "Mr Hirst is institutionalised, therefore he should be institutionalised further so he can be deinstitutionalised".

    Barrister Flo Krause and I were so fed up with the standard of the official dossier that we prepared an alternative one for the Parole Board to see a different perspective.

  2. With the child care and support systems failing. Education system cracking under stress from all sides. A Law and Justice system that has really no idea, except with it's own security and not with ours. Even the Armed Services are being run down by this Government.
    Then we come to the Prison System
    that seems to have little, or no regard for the people it is suppose to care for. Yes, if you lock someone up in a cage, you are really responsible for their well being all of the time. If you want the inmates to become logical Humans, you are going to have to feed them some of that logic.
    Logic is quite rare on the floors of our prisons, on both sides of the fence. It would help if all Prison Officers were to have a better understanding of where they are at. There is no room for bigots, with a jackboot mentality, no matter how much you pay them.
    As you have had nearly thirty years of existence within the Prison system. I would say that I would put a bit more trust in what you say Ben, than any psychologist. These are the same kind of people that are getting all of the answers wrong for the greater outside world. So where does that leave your kind Ben?
    I feel for you and your situation Ben. Others around you, are trying their best to do the right thing. Just keep on pushing Ben, you will get what you need in good time.

  3. There are several problems here, I would suggest ? Those who have been through the system several times know what to say to the right people at the right time and achieve the goal, whatever that may be. However the government decided some time ago that they had to reduce prison numbers, so to do this put more offenders on Probation. What they overlooked was an already overstretched and generally unqualified group of individuals cannot do is deal with situations they know nothing of, therefore if I agree with him, her, whoever the blame is not mine as they agreed with what I suggested ?
    The whole justice system needs an overhaul, but none are brave enough to do it as it will highlight all the wrongs and cost to much money ! Forget the human cost, bang up the wrongen's, get a few votes !


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