Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Change is Possible

Anything that could be called a 'rehabilitation revolution’ has to make a significant impact deep into the structure of prison life. It can be done, it has been done.

Michael Howard hoves into my mind's eye. Under his stewardship, the prison experience was profoundly changed, demonstrating that given the political will it is possible. Unfortunately, the effects of what I shall call - rather unfairly - the Howard Agenda were uniformly negative in terms of rehabilitation.

Notoriously, the largest cultural shift under Howard was a rebalancing of the elements involved in running a safe, stable prison in favour of 'security'. It's effects have been pervasive and often conflict with any rehabilitative policy.

The first and largest policy shift that we noticed was the anti-drugs policy. Up to the mid-1990's, prisons were riddled with cannabis. A broad staff view was that, 'a stoned prisoner is a happy prisoner’. And happy prisoners are not causing problems. The dope in itself caused very few difficulties. Nevertheless, the idea that prisoners could be enjoying an spliff with their supper bun wasn't one that sat well with Howard. Mandatory Drug Testing (MDT) was introduced and security was massively increased on Visits arrangements.

The intended policy outcome may have been unobjectionable - to cut drug use (even unproblematic drug use). The actual consequences, however, were a disaster and ramped re-offending through the roof for a generation.

There was, historically, little call for heroin in prisons. It was regarded as being a 'dirty' drug, in the main not being not socially acceptable. The mid 1990's saw a shift, not just in prisons but in the wider society. As heroin use outside increased, then the number of heroin users that came to prison also rose. And these people were faced with drug testing.

In this schema it is an unfortunate fact that cannabis can be detected by drug tests for up to 30 days after use. Heroin is out of the system in 3 days. If you take drugs then with heroin you have a far, far better chance of not being detected via a random drug test.

The combination of these factors led to a collapse in the amount of cannabis in prisons and a surge in heroin use that continues to this day. Dope smokers tend not to rob and steal in a desperate rush for the next fix, heroin users do. And these people returned to the streets to rob you.

Alongside this, the oppressive security measures placed upon our domestic visits also influenced heroin use. A small bag of heroin is far easier to smuggle than a lump of cannabis. The unthinking will, at this point, be asking why even greater security isn't imposed, such as American style visits, through glass. The counter-intuitive answer is that this raises re-offending rates. As security increased from the mid 1990's, and the prison population has doubled, then the number of visitors has halved. Our friends and families object to being prodded and poked just to share our company.

Relationships collapse and families fragment. Such a pity that one of the most important influences on re-offending is a stable home life for the prisoner to return to.

The anti-drug effort unleashed under Howard did manage to influence the prison culture. In doing so, its outcomes were to nurture a generation of heroin addicts and increase the re offending rates. This highlights the dangers of piecemeal policy-making and the failure to appreciate the power of the 'law of unintended consequences'.

There were two other 'rehabilitative' efforts that were born from the last Tory government, targeted education and psychological treatments. Education provision became a victim of managerialism coupled with simplistic thinking. Rather than being eclectic and transformational - education in its best sense - it became fixated upon 'basic skills', i.e. literacy and numeracy.

The central driver in this was the claim that prisoners are so ill educated that they are unqualified for 90% of jobs. This may well be true. The solution imposed was to ensure that we were functionally literate and numerate. All funding and managerialist targeting focused upon this, to the exclusion of all else. I seemed to be one of the few who appreciated that whilst being literate and numerate is necessary for employment, it is not sufficient.

In focusing all efforts on this policy, prisons abandoned most of the Vocational Training Courses (VTC). Painting and decorating, landscaping, horticulture, industrial cleaning, TV repair... all the skills that could make a person either employable or able to start off on their own were destroyed.

And this remains the situation, despite the fact that there is no demonstrable link between educational achievement and re-offending. It may seem obviously true that there is but, as with much criminological, the obvious need not be in any way

The final illustration of the rehabilitative efforts began under Howard is Offending Behaviour Programmes. I cannot over-emphasise how much prisoners despise these. Give any con a gun and one bullet, line up a screw, a governor, a probation officer and a psychologist - and the psychologist is the one who should be worried. OBP were introduced from North America and are based on the idea that we commit crimes because we have 'cognitive deficits'. We think differently, apparently. And so we are forced to undertake endless psychological treatments aimed at curing this mental deviation. Of course, these things are all voluntary; we just don't get released unless we do them.

These courses have led to prisons being jammed, we are detained longer merely to undergo these treatments, which can last for years. The direct cost has been over £200 millions. The indirect cost - keeping people in prison longer at £43K a year to have these treatments - has never been calculated. It never will.

The idea that criminality can be 'cured' is an ancient one and deeply attractive to policy makers. This is why, 15 years after their introduction, OBP surge onwards. The evidence for their effectiveness is, at best, slim and the wider psychological community - that does not rely on prison employment - regards them with justifiable scepticism. They suck resources from genuine schemes that could lead to reduced re-offending.

These policy details are mere illustrations intended to evidence two points. Firstly, to highlight the dangers in forcing such change as Ken Clarke seems to intend. There must be a continual awareness of unintended consequences. Prisons - and prisoners -comprise a whole, and to interfere with one aspect of functioning may harm others, to the detriment of the whole. Getting prisoners off cannabis led to heroin, divorces and increased re offending. Never, never, forget to consider the wider effects of a single policy change.

Secondly, the changes wrought by Michael Howard demonstrated that change is possible. The seeming monolith that is 'prison' is actually a fractured entity, seething with competing and vested interests. Nevertheless, with the right strength of political will, change is possible.

Ken Clarke's 'rehabilitation revolution' is not as impossible as it sounds. If he has the will, he can alter the culture of prisons so that they offer their charges genuine opportunities to reshape their lives. But this must be done with great care and consideration. Any idiot can churn out new policies - and they do - but few of our political masters have managed to do so for the general good.


  1. An interesting idea:

    Don't send 'em to jail, make 'em read a book.

  2. I've just put in a Freedom of Information Request for the increased costs caused by offender behavioural programmes.

    I don't expect a useful answer, mind.

  3. I know of so many tragic tales concerning heroin, one in particular springs to mind.

    Someone I was in infant and junior school with, his name was David Jones. He was a bit of a wild child and both of his parents were deaf. As a teenager, he and his brother were the local cat burglers and then he went on a spate of muggings, one day he even robbed and mugged my Mum.

    He was sent down for petty crimes many times and when he was in his early thirties, during one of these prison spells he was forced to go cold turkey which he did.

    He then carried on his heroin addiction in prison at a lower dose than he would have normally done on the outside.

    Come his release, he scored from some local dealer, injected himself and died on some wasteland in the towns because the dose was way above what his body had been used to in prison.

    We were all very upset about this and the waste of his life, the needless abuse he suffered in prison that lead to his death.

    My Mum was particularly upset despite the earlier violation where he took her bag, in fact,that incident made her follow his story and whereabouts even closer.

    Although he took her bag, he never hurt her and she knew both his parents well and the struggle they both had in trying to control their boys with the disability they had to endure.

    This latest post got me thinking about David again, it is nice to have a place here ( Ben's Prison Blog ) where his story can be told and he remembered for a short while with some surrounding understanding.

    Great post Ben.

  4. As a prison drug worker I would just like to inform you that MASSIVE amount of social and criminogenic problems are caused at least in part by cannabis use. No one should be fooled into thinking that it's only Class A drug misuse that causes problems - and costs us money in terms of prison, behaviour offending programmes etc.

  5. Oh and I should also add that no one's prison sentence has EVER been extended in order to accommodate an offending behaviour programme, whether that's for drugs misuse, domestic violence, sexually motivated offending or whatever. That's why there are different sorts of courses, to fit different sentences. Also, information about the costs of these programmes is quite readily available. Start with the MOJ website and then the Reducing Reoffending Policy Group (although I think it's just in the process of being renamed -plus ca change!)

  6. I had the misfortune to click onto 'The Daily Politics' on BBC2 this lunchtime while Mr Howard was on. He makes me want to run amok with a frozen trout.

  7. anonymous, what prison system are you in??? The thousands of IPP prisoners are not getting their release precisely because of the demand they do these courses! Of course, feel free to call the court of appeal liars...and do stop believing to the self justifying crap put about by the prison psychologist!

  8. Anonymous,

    You raise a good point about cannabis; it may be less harmful than heroin but it is not harmless.

    None-the-less, I agree with Madalbert's comment when it comes to OBPs... what prison service are you in?!

  9. Anonymous, Show us the evidence re cannabis - of course nothing is harmless everything has some positive and some negative impacts but despite millions spent trying to show negative effects of cannabis the evidence is that it is remarkably benign. In this context I must admit if given a choice of doing a six month sentence with or without cannabis I would chose to be stoned. It would be one of the least harmful aspects of my imprisonment.

    Others have commented on the stupidity of your other comment.

    On a separate point I was working with ex-prisoners during the time when MDT was introduced. Prior to this as far as junkies were concerned no surprises - the only people who came out as junkies had gone in as junkies. However after this it became common to find people with no history of H coming out clucking. It was a direct result of testing.

    I remember one guy who we were working with who was really sorting out his life, got a job, was due to get a flat, really getting sorted and an old offence came to light. He stuck his hand up, I went along and pleaded with the Magistrate not to fuck things up, he got sent up to Crown court, again I pleaded with the judge, got his boss along, and then was given a lecture about the importance of sending out messages before he was sent down for 18 months. Such is life, we offered to work with him again and awaited his release, but he was changed by MDT - he had always liked his blow but after a couple of failed tests (which both lengthen his sentence) he did the obvious thing and changed drug. The good news is he did get his act together but the first few months out were really difficult and I suspect if he did not have in place people to support him, forgive him his fuck ups, and get him somewhere to live I fear he might have ended up with a lot less happy ending.

  10. Anonymous, can you explain this:

    I spent 18 months in prison, and completed the SOTP core programme. On release, probation wanted me to repeat this programme in the community, which, because I had moved on from my offending, I essentially told them to shove elsewhere. This led to my recall to prison (May 2009).

    (Ironically, maybe I should have gone for heroin use, as you seemingly don't get recalled for that anymore...)

    Due to various delays and time-wasting, I finally got an oral hearing in December 2009, who decided that because I didn't feel I needed the SOTP again, I "Didn't know my own risk" and should do the programme again, despite not having enough time left to do so.

    This meant I stayed in prison until my end of sentence date (April 2010). A total of 11 months and a cost of approx. 40k to the taxpayer.

    Care to explain how this isn't extending a period in custody to complete an OBP?


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