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.