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Dr Stephen O’Brien is the Dean for the Faculty of Health and Society at the University of Northampton
The other week I had the opportunity to visit one of our local prisons with academic colleagues from our Criminology team within the Faculty of Health and Society at the University of Northampton. The prison in question is a category C closed facility and it was my very first visit to such an institution. The context for my visit was to follow up and review the work completed by students, prisoners and staff in the joint delivery of an academic module which forms part of our undergraduate Criminology course. The module entitled “Beyond Justice” explores key philosophical, social and political issues associated with the concept of justice and the journeys that individuals travel within the criminal justice system in the UK. This innovative approach to collaborative education involving the delivery of the module to students of the university and prisoners was long in its gestation. The module itself had been delivered over several weeks in the Autumn term of 2017. What was very apparent from the start of this planned visit was how successful the venture had been; ground-breaking in many respects with clear impact for all involved. Indeed, it has been way more successful than anyone could have imagined when the staff embarked on the planning process. The project is an excellent example of the University’s Changemaker agenda with its emphasis upon mobilising University assets to address real life social challenges.
My particular visit was more than a simple review and celebration of good Changemaker work well done. It was to advance the working relationship with the Prison in the signing of a memorandum of understanding which outlined further work that would be developed on the back of this successful project. This will include; future classes for university/prison students, academic advancement of prison staff, the use of prison staff expertise in the university, research and consultancy. My visit was therefore a fruitful one. In the run up to the visit I had to endure all the usual jokes one would expect. Would they let me in? More importantly would they let me out? Clearly there was an absolute need to be on my best behaviour, keep my nose clean and certainly mind my Ps and Qs especially if I was to be “released”. Despite this ribbing I approached the visit with anticipation and an open mind. To be honest I was unsure what to expect. My only previous conceptual experience of this aspect of the criminal justice system was many years ago when I was working as a mental health nurse in a traditional NHS psychiatric hospital. This was in the early 1980s with its throwback to a period of mental health care based on primarily protecting the public from the mad in society. Whilst there had been some shifts in thinking there was still a strong element of the “custodial” in the treatment and care regimen adopted. Public safety was paramount and many patients had been in the hospital for tens of years with an ensuing sense of incarceration and institutionalisation. These concepts are well described in the seminal work of Barton (1976) who described the consequences of long term incarceration as a form of neurosis; a psychiatric disorder in which a person confined for a long period in a hospital, mental hospital, or prison assumes a dependent role, passively accepts the paternalist approach of those in charge, and develops symptoms and signs associated with restricted horizons, such as increasing passivity and lack of motivation. To be fair mental health services had been transitioning slowly since the 1960s with a move from the custodial to the therapeutic. The associated strategy of rehabilitation and the decant of patients from what was an old asylum to a more community based services were well underway. In many respects the speed of this change was proving problematic with community support struggling to catch up and cope with the numbers moving out of the institutions.
My only other personal experience was when I spent a night in the cells of my local police station following an “incident” in the town centre. This was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. (I know everyone says that, but in this case it is a genuine explanation). However, this did give me a sense of what being locked up felt like albeit for a few hours one night. When being shown one of the single occupancy cells at the prison those feelings came flooding back. However, the thought of being there for several months or years would have considerably more impact. The accommodation was in fact worse than I had imagined. I reflected on this afterwards in light of what can sometimes be the prevailing narrative that prison is in some way a cushy number. The roof over your head, access to a TV and a warm bed along with three square meals a day is often dressed up as a comfortable daily life. The reality of incarceration is far from this view. A few days later I watched Trevor MacDonald report from Indiana State Prison in the USA as part of ITV’s crime and punishment season. In comparison to that you could argue the UK version is comfortable but I have no doubt either experience would be, for me, an extreme challenge.
There were further echoes of my mental health experiences as I was shown the rehabilitation facilities with opportunities for prisoners to experience real world work as part of their transition back into society. I was impressed with the community engagement and the foresight of some big high street companies to get involved in retraining and education. This aspect of the visit was much better than I imagined and there is evidence that this is working. It is a strict rehabilitation regime where any poor behaviour or departure from the planned activity results in failure and loss of the opportunity. This did make me reflect on our own project and its contribution to prisoner rehabilitation. In education, success and failure are norms and the process engenders much more tolerance of what we see as mistakes along the way. The great thing about this project is the achievement of all in terms of both the learning process and outcome. Those outcomes will be celebrated later this month when we return to the prison for a special celebration event. That will be the moment not only to celebrate success but to look to the future and the further work the University and the Prison can do together. On that occasion as on this I do expect to be released early for good behaviour.
Barton, R., (1976) Institutional Neurosis: 3rd edition, Butterworth-Heinemann, London.
As I am outside the prison walls on another visit I look at the high walls that keep people inside incarcerated. This is an institution designed to keep people in and it is obvious from the outside. This made me wonder what is a University designed for? Are we equally obvious to the communities in which we live as to what we are there for? These questions have been posed before but as we embark in a new educational environment I begin to wonder.
There are city universities, campuses in towns and the countryside, new universities and of course old, even, medieval universities. All these institutions have an educational purpose in common at a high level but that is more or less it. Traditionally, academia had a specific mandate of what they were meant to be doing but this original focus was coming from a era when computers, the electronic revolution and the knowledge explosion were unheard of. I still amuse my students by my recollections of going through an old library, looking at their card catalogue in order to find the books I wanted for my essay.
Since then, email has become the main tool for communication and blackboard or other virtual learning environments are growing into becoming an alternative learning tool in the arsenal of each academic. In this technologically advanced, modern world it is pertinent to ask if the University is the environment that it once was. The introduction of fees, and the subsequent political debates on whether to raise the fees or get rid of them altogether. This debate has also introduced an consumerist dimension to higher education that previous learners did not encounter. For some colleagues this was a watershed moment in the mandate of higher education and the relationship between tutor and tutee. Recently, a well respected colleague told me how inspired she was to pursue a career in academia when she watched Willy Russell’s theatrical masterpiece Educating Rita. It seems likely that this cultural reference will be lost to current students and academics. A clear sign of things moving on.
So what is a University for in the 21st century? In my mind, the university is an institution of education that is open to its community and accessible to all people, even those who never thought that Higher Education is for them. Physically, there may not be walls around but for many people who never had the opportunity to enjoy a higher education, there may be barriers. It is perhaps the purpose of the new university to engage with the community and invite the people to embrace it as their community space. Our University’s relocation to the heart of the town will make our presence more visible in town and it is a great opportunity for the University to be reintroduced to the local community. As one of the few Changemaker universities in the country, a title that focuses on social change and entrepreneurship, connecting with the community is definitely a fundamental objective. In this way it will offer its space up for meaningful discussions on a variety of issues, academic or not, to the community saying we are a public institution for all. After all, this is part of how we understand criminology’s role. In a recent discussion we have been talking about criminology in the community; a public criminology. One of the many reasons why we work so hard to teach criminology in prisons.
For those of you who follow The Criminology Team on Facebook you might have caught @manosdaskalou and I live from Eastern State Penitentiary [ESP]. In this entry, I plan to reflect on that visit in a little more depth.
We first visited ESP in 2011 when the ASC conference was held in Washington, DC. That visit has never left me for a number of reasons, not least the lengths societies are prepared to go in order to tackle crime. ESP is very much a product of its time and demonstrates extraordinarily radical thinking about crime and punishment. For those who have studied the plans for Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon there is much which is familiar, not least the radial design (see illustration below).
This is an institution designed to resolve a particular social problem; crime and indeed deter others from engaging in similar behaviour through humane and philosophically driven measures. The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons* was philanthropic and guided by religious principles. This is reflected in the term penitentiary; a place for sinners to repent and In turn become truly penitent.
This philosophy was distinct and radical with a focus on reformation of character rather than brutal physical punishment. Of course, scholars such as Ignatieff and Foucault have drawn attention to the inhumanity of such a regime, whether deliberate or unintentional, but that should not detract from its groundbreaking history. What is important, as criminologists, is to recognise ESP’s place in the history of penology. That history is one of coercion, pleading, physical and mental brutality and still permeates all aspects of incarceration in the twenty-first century. ESP have tried extremely hard to demonstrate this continuum of punishment, acknowledging its place among many other institutions both home and abroad.
For me the question remains; can we make an individual change their behaviour through the pains of incarceration? I have argued previously in this blog in relation to Conscientious Objectors, that all the evidence suggests we cannot. ESP, as daunting as it may have been in its heyday, would also seem to offer the same answer. Until society recognises the harm and futility of incarceration it is unlikely that penal reform, let alone abolition, will gain traction.
*For those studying CRI1007 it is worth noting the role of Benjamin Rush in this organisation.
As we are gleefully coming towards the start of yet another academic year, we tend to go through a number of perpetual motions; reflect on the year past, prepare material for the upcoming year and make adjustments on current educational expectations. Academics can be creatures of habit, even if their habit is to change things over. Nonetheless, there are always milestones that we all observe no matter the institution or discipline. The graduation, for example brings to an end the degree aspirations of a cohort, whilst Clearing and Welcome Week offer an opportunity of a new group of applicants to join a cohort and begin the process again. Academia like a pendulum swings constantly, replenishing itself with new generations of learners who carry with them the imprint of their social circumstance.
It was in the hectic days at Clearing that my mind began to wonder about the future of education and more importantly about criminology. A discipline that emerged at an unsettled time when urban life and modernity began to dominate the Western landscape. Young people (both in age and/or in spirit) began to question traditional notions about the establishment and its significance. The boundaries that protect the individual from the whim of the authorities was one of those fundamental concerns on criminological discourses. A 19th century colleague questions the notion of policing as an established institution, thus challenging its authority and necessity. An end of 20th century colleague may be involved in the training of those involved in policing. Changing times, arguably. Quite; but what is the implications for the discipline?
My random example can be challenged on many different fronts; the contested nature of a colleague as a singular entity that sees the world in a singular gaze; or the ability to diversify on the perspectives each discipline observes. It does nonetheless, raises a key question: what expectations can we place on the discipline for the 21st century.
If we and our students are the participants of social change as it happens in our society then our impressions and experiences can help us formulate a projective perspective of the future. Our knowledge of the past is key to supplying an understanding of what we have done before, so that we can comprehend the reality in a way that will allow us to give it the vocabulary it deserves. A colleague recently posted on twitter her agony about “vehicles being the new terrorist weapon,” asking what is the answer. The answer to violence is exactly the same; whether a person gets in a van, or goes home and uses a bread knife to harm their partner. Everyday objects that can be utilised to harm. A projection in the future could assert that this phenomenon is likely to continue. The Romans called it Alea iacta est and it was the moment you decide to act. In my heart this is precisely the debate about the future of criminology; is it crime with or without free will?
Helen is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in years 1 and 3.
Earlier this year, the Prison Service announced that the Core Sex Offender Treatment Programme and the Extended Sex Offender Treatment Programme would be withdrawn with immediate effect. Offenders in the middle of programmes would be able to complete, but no new programmes would start. No explanation was given. A new suite of programmes, focussed on building strengths for the future rather than analysing past offending, had already been developed but a gradual roll-out had been planned rather than a sudden switch. There were many murmurings among Parole Board members. Why the sudden withdrawal? How would sex offenders now be able to demonstrate that they had reduced their risk? Where was the evidence that the new programmes were any better? We suspected that there had been an unfavourable evaluation, but no one had seen the research.
The truth came to light via The Mail on Sunday on 25th June. There had, indeed, been an unfavourable evaluation of the Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP). When compared to matched offenders who had not completed treatment, those who had done so were more likely to re-offend. The Ministry of Justice had withdrawn the programme but had not published the research. They finally did so on 30th June.
The decision to sit on the research was not helpful. The first information we received about it was filtered through the eyes of The Mail on Sunday. They claimed that “Prisoners who take the rehabilitation courses are at least 25% more likely to be convicted of further sex crimes that those who do not.” This is not true. Of the 2,562 treated sex offenders included in the study, 10% went on to commit another sexual offence. The figure for the matched untreated offenders was 8%. 90% of sex offenders, treated or untreated, did not reoffend within the follow-up period (average 8.2 years). But it is true that treatment made people worse. Two percentage points is a small difference, but with such a large sample size it is significant. The research is robust and well-designed. A randomised control trial would have been more robust, but the matched comparisons in this study were done thoroughly and every attempt was made to take account of possible confounding variables. You can read the study for yourself here:
and the Mail‘s interpretation of it here:
So why did treatment make offenders more likely to reoffend? At this stage we really don’t know. The authors of the research make some suggestions but they are only speculating. Perhaps talking about sex offending in a group setting “normalises” offending. Perhaps groupwork provides offenders with opportunities to network. Perhaps these programmes promoted shame in offenders which ultimately reduced self-esteem and self-efficacy and reduced the chances of building a positive and fulfilling future. The new programmes draw more from the desistance literature. They include much less offence analysis and are more focussed on building strengths for a positive future. They may be more likely to succeed but we will not know for several years until we have had the chance to evaluate them.
So where does that leave the offenders and staff who have worked hard on these programmes over the years? Sex offender treatment is expensive, tiring and takes a psychological toll on those delivering it. A prison officer once told me that delivering SOTP was the best and most fulfilling thing he had ever done, but also the most damaging. A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a former colleague who used to run SOTP and we reflected, “Was all of that effort for nothing?” We have to take the research seriously, learn the lessons and move on. There is no denying the findings. But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. SOTP was based on the best research available at the time. It was modified and developed over the years in the light of emerging research. It might have “worked” for some participants, even if it made others worse. We assessed and came to understand a large number of sex offenders. As a result of that work and this evaluation, we now have a better understanding of what might work to reduce reoffending in the future. Of course, there is an argument that all attempts at rehabilitation are futile, that people choose to behave as they wish and we should not try to manipulate them to change. But perhaps that’s a subject for another blog!