Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Penal Reforms 2

My attention has been drawn to the following article on the JusticeGap website and which raises some difficult issues regarding any reforms that might be under consideration by the new justice secretary:-  

Resistance from within to Gove’s prison reforms

There is anticipation surrounding Michael Gove’s forthcoming speech at the Tory Party conference, with the Times giving him a front page splash on Saturday. Ahead of the speech Gove has spoken of his desire to sell off old Victorian prisons, and cited the American policy ‘guru’ Arthur Brooks as an influence. As I have noted previously, Brooks is billed as a compassionate conservative, and is on the record as favouring a reduction in the US prison population. Gove has been making all the right noises about following that path, possibly by abolishing short-term prison sentences, but it remains to be seen whether he is brave enough to ride out the inevitable media onslaught that would follow and, importantly, whether he has backing from Number 10 to do so.

What we do know, however, is that Gove will confirm plans to ‘shake up’ prison rehabilitation. The term ‘shake up’ has been seemingly preferred to ‘revolutionise’, that term having been toxified by Chris Grayling’s disastrous ‘rehabilitation revolution’, which essentially involved selling off parts of the probation service to the private sector. Gove’s shake up has the much more noble aim of prisoners bettering themselves through education. It has even been suggested that engagement with education and training could be linked to a prisoner’s entitlement to early release. Whether or not that transpires, in general terms the policy is likely to attract widespread support, as it will appeal as much to social conservatives as it does to prison reformers.

But can it succeed?

The difficulty facing Gove comes not from public opinion, but from those within the system, and indeed from the system itself. At the heart of this lies an addiction: the addiction of ‘the system’, mostly in the embodiment of probation service and prison psychology departments to offending behaviour programmes (OBPs). Under this system, the mantra is not ‘education, education, education’ but rather ‘courses, courses, courses’.

OBPs are courses that aim at reduce risk by teaching offenders about their risk factors and providing them with ‘tools’ to manage them. Courses are identified and put in the prisoner’s formal sentence plan. If he engages, he can be sure to achieve a higher privileges level, and to progress through the system; perhaps even to an open prison. Most notably, for indeterminate sentence prisoners (or ‘lifers’), OBPs hold the key to the gate, with release often being dependent on compliance with programme assessments.

Perhaps the most familiar course is the sex offender treatment programme (SOTP), which is intended to ‘treat’ offenders by addressing aspects of their lives that may be linked to their offending. The mere fact the SOTP is referred to as a ‘treatment’ programme hints at the underlying problem. ‘Treatment’ is a term that many prisoners take exception to, understandably, as it implies that there is something medically wrong with them.

The term provides greater insight, however, into the minds of those within the system, because it implies that the ‘treatment’ works (many OBPs are formally ‘accredited’ by the Ministry of Justice, which carries the same implication). In fact, the reconviction rates for sex offenders are so low generally that it is difficult to gauge the effectiveness of the SOTP. And the problem is not limited to sex offenders. In many cases programmes are rolled out before there has been any realistic opportunity to carry out any assessment of their efficacy. The best that can be said about many OBPs, perhaps, is that they allow offenders to show willing, and that they cannot do any harm (although I’ve heard some psychologists disagree even with that).

But the key issue is not whether OBPs work, but the fact that they are assumed to do so. This is a belief that is ingrained in the system. Probation officers and prison psychologists rely on risk assessment tools that give great weight to OBPs, but very little to educational achievement. I recall one instance of a client completing a psychology degree to be met with lukewarm praise, but overt suspicion that he was trying to outfox them. In any event, the completion of such a degree will count for nothing when it comes to an appearance before the Parole Board or the Category A Review Team. It comes under the umbrella of ‘good behaviour alone is not enough to demonstrate a reduction in risk’, which translates as: ‘do our courses or you’re going nowhere’.

If education is to be given an increased prominence in prisoner rehabilitation, it is unrealistic to expect that the Probation Service, the Parole Board, and the various other agencies involved can be easily weaned off offending behaviour programmes (OBPs). The danger is that resources will be diverted away from them at a time when there remain thousands in the system who are expected to engage with them as a pre-condition of release. HMP Full Sutton, for example, is currently offering the Healthy Sex Programme (a ‘necessary’ programme for those with offence-related sexual interests) to men whose tariffs expired in 2013. In other words, 2 years after they became eligible for release. This is despite a case late last year in which a judge criticised the lack of provision for the HSP and acknowledged that it made release “effectively impossible”.

If education is to be put at the heart of the rehabilitation programme, it cannot – however commendable – be at the expense of OBPs for as long as they remain a pre-requisite to release. It would be a welcome move if the courses mantra were challenged. But if education is to be recognised as an end rather than a means, it is an idea that will face enormous resistance from a system that will be stubbornly resistant to change.

Matthew Stanbury is a barrister at Garden Court North Chambers. He practices in human rights, public law, prison law and crime.


The article prompted this comment:-

Offender Behaviour programmes a total load of crock. The research that has been done into them overwhelmingly concludes that they don’t work. The only thing that would work to change someone’s behaviour is to get that individual to a place where they are willing to change. The route to that is as individual as the person the system is trying to change. There is no one size fits all solution. It’s the same with risk assessment, the tools used are simply not fit for purpose and simply do not accurately predict someone’s risk of reoffending etc. You’d probably get more accurate results tossing a coin. Anyone who has been through the system and who has even a modicum of self analysis would be able to tell you what would work and what wouldn’t for them. But the last thing the current system does is actually ask the offender their opinion!


I have long had doubts regarding these programmes and have written about the subject on a number of occasions, such as here in 2010:- 

Monday, 20 September 2010

Sex Offenders

To my surprise, some of my most rewarding work has been with sex offenders. They often pose the greatest challenges because as a group they are more likely to be in denial and prone to minimisation in terms of their behaviour. This in turn means they remain a high risk of re-offending and pose a serious threat due to the nature of their offences, which are invariably disturbing and serious. Being responsible for a generic caseload both in and out of prison, I have had my fair share of cases in this category, but for many years felt that the prognosis would always be bleak in terms of trying to make any progress in reducing the risks they posed. I always felt it most unlikely that clients displaying seriously deviant sexual behaviour were going to be amenable to change.

But then some years ago I was offered the chance of joining two other colleagues in running a self-styled Sex Offender Project based on group and individual work. Although we were only allowed about a day a week each, we still managed to set up a 'core' group, a 'maintenance' group and 'adapted' group for the learning disabled, in addition to individual work with very high risk clients. The latter had typically been released from long prison sentences on Parole Licence, specifically in order to take part in the project and resided at probation hostels. Due to the level of risk they posed they had to be escorted for individual sessions. The maintenance group was designed both for those who completed the core group programme and for voluntary attenders when their order had finished. (Yes, just imagine that concept nowadays!) We accepted referrals at all stages, right from PSR and even undertook to write the report for the referring PO. Management just allowed us to get on with it, but paid for a consultant to give advice and support every few months.

The whole project had been running successfully for a number of years, designed in-house by my experienced colleagues, with each aspect tailored to an individuals needs, as was felt appropriate. Imagine that, no manual, no bureaucracy, no monitoring. They were halcyon days indeed and we did amazing work with some of the most scary and damaged people I've ever met. I will always feel priviledged to have had the opportunity of proving beyond doubt that even the most dangerous of offenders can and did respond to some skilfull, patient, understanding counselling. In some cases it took a great deal of time, but there were no time limits, no prescriptive programme and no video or tape recording.

I mention all this because what I am describing is now history and has been replaced with something very different, the authorised and highly prescriptive Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP). This now operates in all probation areas and is available in certain prisons. Run strictly according to a manual, sessions are video-recorded to ensure compliance with the programme and tutors performance is monitored afterwards by so called 'Treatment Managers'. All dreadful nomenclature in my view. Admission to the programme is by no means automatic and for example excludes those in denial or those with learning disabilities.

Now, as I declined to put myself forward for this new initiative, it would not be fair to say too much, beyond perhaps the not-surprising observation that I remain sceptical that the 'one size fits all' approach is right. Clearly it would not have benefited the vast majority of our clientele. So, in a sense, I've come full circle in feeling that once more there is a group of sex offenders for whom the prognosis remains very poor indeed. Progress?


  1. In his response to HMIPrisons report Michael Spurr now acknowledges staff shortages in prisons are (1) real & (2) problematic.

    Any chance he might eventually acknowledge that NOMS is (1) an unnecessary, vastly expensive vanity project for egocentric dunderheads & (2) the true source of the pre-meditated destruction of a world class probation service?

  2. A refreshing perspective from Matthew Stanbury. I agree that the whole treatment approach is underpinned by vested interests and dubious research – and that risk prediction is more art than science. The MoJ has decimated prisoner education over the years. Programmes have not delivered reoffending reductions, but they have produced a mindset that is almost fundamentalist in it's reliance on programmes and Lego risk assessments.

    Nothing will work, though, until the prison population is reduced to manageable proportions. It's inexorable rise is due to daft-headed punitive sentencing that needlessly incarcerates and draws into the system those who twenty years ago would have been dealt with non-custodially. The fault lies with the politicians pandering to emotions rather than evidence.

  3. What would you know 9.07 about NOMs. You've never worked at NOMS and sound jealous because you haven't! Boom. You've been destroyed!

    1. Oops, caught out by 09:51. Gosh you're totally on the ball today. So that's that. I have been "destroyed".

    2. You got power bombed. Boom!

    3. Now that we have established annon 09:51 has managed to bunk a day off school. Shall we get back to business.

  4. Empowering people who have committed crimes has to be good, academic education is not the be all and end all, indeed many probation officers have spent their time doing just that, guess what, it works !!.
    Review of all of the OBP courses is long overdue, arising as these did from the erroneous concept of treatment. Post programme reviews highlight how people are talked at and not listened to, prescriptive and closed questioning as they too commonly are,, so you learnt this from TSP didn't you ? Reports are lengthy and nigh on useless with evidently standardised objectives all too easily and superficially completed ' in cell'.
    Keeping people in prison because they haven't been ' treated ' is shameful, That this concept of 'treatment' ,that sitting through a course, programme etc is 'successful treatment' is now trotted out, even it seems believed by some of the Judiciary as valid, is simply horrifying, the emperors new clothes without question.
    When it comes to people who commit sexual offences being 'treated' it gets even worse.
    But treating people with respect, as people with the possibility to do something different, as people who can allow themselves to have confidence , to overcome the years of being told they are no good, a problem, a person full of deficits, that may work.Requiring schools to ensure that people don't get left behind , to make being at school feel worthwhile and to be sanctioned for every child that leaves school with limited or no ability to read or understand the world around them, that might work too.

  5. Working in a Prison for many years I have attended over a hundred Parole Hearings and the scary thing for me is the weight the Parole Board members put on the programmes. Prisoners have got little chance of making progress if anyone, at any time, has suggested any given programme. At the end of psychology reports and many probation reports further work( more programmes) is invariably suggested. And people working in prisons and probation with a critical perspective know how unsuccessful the programmes are. It really is time to tell the truth about the failure of "Treatment". Its time to take a sociological perspective and put psychological programmes on the back burner. I guess too many people are making too much money for this to happen though.


  6. Just an extract from Gove's conference speech. You could not imagine Grayling uttering such words. An effort here to understand more and condemn less.

    'But we should never define individuals by their worst moments.
    None of us - none of us - would want our identity and our future determined by our worst moments.

    And we should not compel those who have made mistakes to live lives forever defined by those mistakes.

    Committing an offence should not mean that society always sees you as an offender.

    Because that means we deny individuals the chance to improve their lives, provide for their families and give back to their communities.

    And as we reflect on the fate and the future of those individuals who have made terrible mistakes we should acknowledge that many will have grown up in terrible circumstances.

    We know that many of those in prison have grown up in poverty, in broken homes and fatherless families.

    Three quarters of young offenders in custody had an absent father.
    41% of prisoners observed domestic violence as a child.
    47% have no school qualifications at all - not one single GCSE.
    And prisoners are twelve times more likely than the rest of the population to have been taken into care as a child.

    Now, of course, many young people who grow up in tough circumstances go on to lead exemplary lives.

    But their success is all the more admirable because growing up in a home where love is absent or fleeting, violence is the norm and stability a dream is a poor preparation for adult life.

    We know that if children grow up in homes without moral boundaries, strong role models and someone who cares for them enough to teach them the difference between right and wrong they are more likely to make bad choices.

    That is why the best criminal justice policies are good welfare, social work and child protection policies...'

    1. "social work" The Tories cheered when Howard dumped social work from probation & prison work - I presume they cheered Gove as well?

    2. So does Gove intend to change disclosure requirements as well as if he doesn't anyone sentenced to 4 yrs or more no matter what the offence is forever defined by their mistakes

  7. and so probation was invented...people were given a chance...an interview to see if they wanted to try ( became the PSR ) and then a period of probation.. not a punishment that tried to enforce both motivation and ability to change...a period during which with support, encouragement,guidance and education, underpinned by a belief that they could do it.., people were given a chance. If they chose not to take it, it was back to Court to try something else . The more a person who has failed is told they have failed, criticised and told they have deficits, the more damage is done, .somewhat hesitantly and with much caution, go Gove

  8. EXTRACTS FROM The Secretary of State for Justice Michael Gove's Speech to Conservative Party Conference in Manchester: -

    " I am fortunate to have a great ministerial team to support me - Mike Penning, Edward Faulks, Caroline Dinenage, Shailesh Vara, Andrew Selous, Dominic Raab, Natalie Evans, Rob Jenrick and Jackie Doyle-Price.

    I am also privileged to have a superb team of civil servants at the Ministry of Justice, dedicated reformers who embody the best in public service.

    Thanks to their work, to the leadership shown by my predecessors Ken Clarke and Chris Grayling - and to the bravery and idealism of Theresa May - crime is down, our streets are safer and justice is being done.

    It's a record of which they can be proud.

    And thanks to Ken, Chris and Theresa the needs of victims are at the heart of our criminal justice policy.


    There are many good people working to help offenders - idealistic governors, committed prison officers, chaplains and charities, volunteers and visitors. We owe them a lot.

    In particular I'd like to thank the governor and staff of HMP Manchester which I had the privilege to visit yesterday ....... "


    1. Gove did not use the word : -


      In that published version of the Secretary of State for Justice's annual speech to his political party.

  9. Chameleons, charlatans, snake oil salesmen, shape-shifters... They'll say anything to hold on to power. But no good will come from this TR PR. They've managed to slip £hundreds of Millions into the pockets of their various chums - the generous rewards for complicit management, the generous rewards to the consultants, the £80M or so handed to the CRCs for redundancy payments, the £Millions in civil service time & resource to push TR through, the sweeteners to entice the CRC bidders.

    Its rotten to the core & it stinks. And they'll get away with it.

  10. Meanwhile Wales Working Links CRC have been told by LDU head Dave Bebb that exciting changes are about to happen - but didn't say what. Don't you just love power!

    1. Its rumoured that soothsayers are predicting a bright star will appear in the eastern sky in a couple of months - perhaps there's a link?

  11. Whilst it is important to ensure changes are made to create an effective probation system, it is quite disheartening hearing what I believe to be disrespectful remarks about the work many skilled and caring probation staff undertake delivering and monitoring programmes. Having worked in progrrammes for over ten years, without bias, I can say many participants HAVE made significant changes to their attitude and behaviour, which had underpinned their abusive behaviours towards partners. Families have been made happier, relationship healthier and many further instances of further abuse have been prevented. I find it appalling that people can make such crass comments about the work we do. Unless you do the work we do, and see that it is not prescriptive, there is flexibility in delivery to such we can deliver the right treatment needs to each participant, then you are not in a position to judge. Yes education is important, but you do not realise that we do not talk at participants, we engage them in dialogue so they can make the analysis and changes for themselves, and yes it's true not all will make changes, but that is true of anyone, but to disregard the work we do is not only disrespectful it is highly dangerous. I agree we need to help those in prison and on probation to engage with education, employment, appropriate drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and give them the tools to better themselves. However, all that does not change someone if they have behaviour and attitudes that lead to abusive behaviours in relationships. The only way that can be addressed is the thoroughly effective work undertaken by programmes which have been researched and written to give people the skills and belief to change and create healthy relationships. Personally I have seen a few who did not change but against that, many more who have made changes, are in healthy relationships and children have become safer and regained the families anyone would hope to have. Much of the programme work we do now includes individual sessions so far from one size fits all, we are delivering individually targeted work to people. I know people will comment on this but regardless of any responses, I know what changes me and my colleagues have helped people do in programme work, and I passionately believe this HAS to continue. Unless you have experience like many of us have in delivering domestic abuse programmes, then it is not fair to make judgements.