1 February 2001
for innocent prisoners
Prisoners' chances of parole often depend on their taking part in 'offending behaviour' courses. To enrol, inmates must acknowledge their guilt. But, asks David Wilson, what about those who are innocent?
Seven years ago, while training staff to work at the soon-to-be-opened HMP Woodhill in Milton Keynes, I attended a course run by an eminent Canadian psychologist. He had been flown over to run the two-week event, based on his theory that prisoners had some form of "faulty reasoning", lacked "thinking skills" and had become caught "in a cycle of thinking errors", and that here lay the clue to their rehabilitation.
In short, after decades of believing that "nothing worked" in penal regimes, psychologists and others working for the correctional service of Canada were suggesting that they had stumbled across the solution to offending - offenders "thought" differently to me and you and as long as we corrected these "cognitive distortions" then they could be released with less risk of them reoffending.
The psychologist truly seemed to understand how offenders thought, and although I remained unconvinced that offenders were in any way "different" to you or me, the money invested in flying him over seemed well spent. Unfortunately, the next time I heard anything about him he was about to be arrested back in Canada for various sexual offences.
Despite this, "cognitive skills", "thinking skills", "reasoning and rehabilitation" and various other such "offending behaviour" courses have come to dominate regimes within our prisons, especially at the expense of education. They are all almost universally based on many of the premises of the original Canadian research: not only do offenders think differently from you and me, but they also need to learn not to put "the fault for their actions on to other people".
This was, of course, music to the ears of politicians who wanted to blame offenders for the rises in the reported crime rate and absolve themselves from any responsibility, despite the fact that during this period political choices ensured that the gap between richer and poorer got much wider.
Prisoners had to learn to "acknowledge their guilt" before any therapeutic work could begin, and if prisoners denied their guilt then they could not enrol on the course. These courses are now part of the prison service's business plan and a key performance target for the year has been set to ensure that there are at least 3,600 course completions by prisoners, and that 700 of these should be completions of the sex offender treatment programme (SOTP).
A sense of what all of this means in practice can be seen in some detail by looking more closely at the SOTP, which was introduced into the prison service in the early 1990s and has a "core" and "extended" programme. Eddie Guy, the civil servant in charge of introducing SOTP, told the Prison Reform Trust at the time that the core programme "would tackle offenders' distorted beliefs ... and seek to get prisoners to take responsibility for, and face up to, the consequences of their own offending behaviour".
This was no small matter, for, as Guy went on to explain, sex offenders are "particularly prone to cognitive distortions", which allows them to "rationalise" their offending, so "the extent to which their offending behaviour has been addressed in prison is likely to be an important factor in reaching [a] parole decision".
All of this might seem fair enough, and I have certainly worked with several sex offenders who did indeed struggle to understand that while they may have been victims of sexual abuse themselves in the past, that did not permit them to create further victims or absolve them from the reality of their crimes. And, of course, other offenders, such as armed robbers, fraudsters, murderers and rapists, were equally adept when they wanted to create the impression that somehow they had been offended against.
However, there is a problem here: what about those prisoners who cannot "acknowledge their guilt" for the simple reason that they are innocent? The criminal cases review commission, which can only investigate a prisoner's claim that there has been a miscarriage of justice when he or she has exhausted the appeals procedure, receives new cases at the rate of five a day and has a backlog of more than 1,000 such cases.
How are these prisoners expected to get parole when the basis for being released is their attendance on an offending behaviour course that requires them to"acknowledge" an offence that they have in fact not committed?
All of this comes very close to what political philosophers describe as a "throffer" - the combination of an offer or promise of a reward if a course of action is pursued, with a threat or penalty if this course of action is refused. The prisoner is offered incentives to follow a course of action desired by the prison - go on the offender behaviour course to ensure that our key performance target is met - while making that choice appear rational, especially as it will be the basis for ensuring parole. If he does not go on the course, the threat of continued incarceration hangs over the head of the prisoner, who will be deemed to be too much of a "risk" for release.
Glimpses of "throffers" rarely surface, as the voices of prisoners are only occasionally heard. Yet on a weekly basis I get letters from prisoners in the position that I have just described. One who is serving a sentence for "alleged rape" wrote to say that not only was the question of parole an issue, but also his transfer to open conditions. "I am advised," he writes, "that ... the prison system will not consider me for Category D status without addressing my alleged 'offending behaviour' ... obviously I am of the opinion that this constitutes a rather vulgar form of blackmail, in that refusing to lie, by taking part in the 'core programme' and pretending that I did commit the offence, even though I didn't - which they would like me to do - gives them the right to say that I have no chance of getting parole."
His letter reminded me of another incident from my past as a prison governor. Around 1988 a concerned principal officer on the acute psychiatric unit at HMP Grendon asked me if I could "have a quiet word" with a prisoner he was anxious about.
A few minutes later my office door opened and a large, shuffling, broken man edged into the room. He had been convicted of the rape and murder of a schoolgirl 12 years earlier, and now sat before me seemingly quite mad and, in soft sentences, denying any part of the offence. It was clear from his file that this was something he had told other governors in other prisons. The man was Stefan Kiszko, who was later cleared of all charges against him, having spent 16 years inside. Recently I wrote about Kiszko, who has since sadly died, and Campbell Malone, his solicitor, told me that he had been seen by a prison psychologist about his habit of denying his offending. This, I am informed, was put down to his "delusions of innocence".
So what do we know? We know that prison rarely rehabilitates - it stigmatises and further exacerbates the social exclusion of an already socially excluded group. We know that prisoners are very much like you and me and that successive attempts to isolate some difference between an offender and a non-offender have failed time after time throughout criminological history. Finally, we know that power in prison is in the hands of the staff, and that as a consequence they have the ability to make the lives of prisoners either miserable or just about tolerable. Given all of this, do staff really also need the power over how prisoners think?
David Wilson is a professor of criminal justice at UCE in Birmingham. A former prison governor, he has worked at HMPs Wormwood Scrubs, Grendon and Woodhill, among others.