Monday, 2 March 2015

Rehabilitation: What Does it Really Mean?

It’s a funny word, rehabilitation. Not least because it’s one of those odd terms that is regularly used in the criminal justice system, but very rarely defined. And therein lies the problem. Without a clear definition of any word, it can mean something – or nothing.

But what does it really mean?
It’s also complicated because the term is often used in a medical context, whether the condition being treated is physical or mental. As ‘rehab’ it refers to support to recover from an addiction. Then again, in the old Soviet Union, it meant the quashing of a conviction – often posthumously – of those who had been wrongly convicted for political offences during the Stalinist era.

So what does rehabilitation mean for ex-prisoners? I have deliberately avoided using the officially preferred term ‘offender’ here, because I think that rehabilitation should equally apply to those who have been held unconvicted on remand, as well as victims of miscarriages of justice who are released when their convictions are quashed by the Court of Appeal. 

In my experience, these are two specific groups that are routinely overlooked when it comes to rehabilitation. They are expected to leave prison with nothing in the way of support and effectively ‘pretend’ that it all never happened and just go and pick up the pieces, even when they may well have lost their jobs, homes, family relationships and are possibly carrying their entire worldly goods in a black prison holdall back into the outside world that neither knows nor cares what nightmares they have lived through.

Taken at its most basic level, the rehabilitation of prisoners can sometimes be defined as having ‘reformed’ people in preparation for their return to the community, although I think that there is a significant difference between reducing the risk of reoffending and actually facilitating the reintegration back into society of a person who has been convicted of a criminal offence. Of course, this is relevant not only to those who have been sentenced to a custodial term, but it can also apply to someone who has been given a community penalty, or even a fine since these outcomes also involve the person concerned getting a criminal record with all the civil and employment-limiting consequences that can involve.

A multi-dimensional approach
Perhaps we need to think about rehabilitation in the sense of repairing damage that has been done, both to the victims of crime, but also to prisoners, some of whom are coming out of prison in a worse state than they went in, particularly since the wings of many jails are now awash with drugs of all kinds. There is also the longer-term psychological damage that can be inflicted through bullying and exposure to other kinds of violence that inmates may experience while they are inside, including – perhaps to a more limited extent – sexual assaults or the trauma of seeing fellow cons commit suicide. 

Certainly in its medical or therapeutic context, rehabilitation is all about the treatment and management of injury, illness or the addressing of dysfunctions. Given the high levels of drugs or alcohol misuse by those committing crimes – not to mention the astonishingly widespread availability of drugs (legal and illegal) on our prison wings – rehabilitation often also needs to include the wider issues of ‘rehab’ in that sense too.

To be honest, depressing as it may sound, I have rarely met a fellow con who came into prison with a drug dependency who has really managed to kick whatever addiction they have. Often they just look for available substitutes inside. Even most prison support services for addicts, which are contracted out to external service providers, are doing little more than managing these problems at best. 

Prison wings awash with drugs
I well remember one particular peer mentor – a ‘former’ drug addict who was supposed to be supporting his fellow prisoners to get clean and stay off drugs – who was high as a kite almost all the time. I would see him wandering down unit corridors in one establishment completely out of his head mid-morning. None of the screws or civilian staff could possibly have failed to notice it, but they simply seemed to let it all go.

One of my principal criticisms of our current prison system is that rehabilitation, in any of its accepted meanings, no longer seems to play any significant part in the average prison sentence. Those inside on short stretches are basically ‘warehoused’ until being shoved out of the main gate of the nick with their £46 discharge grant – unless they are under 18 in which case they won’t usually get a penny. 

Massive cuts to the prison budget have also seen a number of establishments close down their resettlement units. These were specialist centres staffed by experienced officers who helped prisons preparing for release with problems such as housing or registering for benefits or other support. These units seem to have all but disappeared, even in Cat-D (open) prisons. This is particularly concerning as almost all lifers and many other prisoners who have served very long sentences will eventually pass through what are laughingly termed these ‘resettlement’ prisons.

Going back inside again?
At present, the commonly-used yardstick seems to be whether a person released from prison reoffends (that is actually gets reconvicted), rather than whether they are making a successful resettlement back into society. I’ve known many former prisoners who are discharged from custody and are then unable to find any type of paid work, even if they are ready and willing to start from scratch on casual, unskilled minimum-wage jobs. Their criminal record can mean that they are all but unemployable.

Add to that the whole range of addictions and substance dependencies, mental and physical health problems and dysfunctional relationships, as well as functional illiteracy, that can all play a part in excluding many prisoners from successful reintegration back into the community and it’s clear to see how a custodial sentence very often fails to address any of the real issues. That is why I continually refer to prison sentences as offering little more than costly human warehousing.

Above all, I think that our underfunded and understaffed prison system is missing potential opportunities to support and encourage genuine rehabilitation. One of the most obvious examples of disjointed thinking about custody, particularly in the closed prisons, is that by depriving adults of any meaningful choices or degrees of responsibility for their everyday lives, we somehow expect them to emerge from prison at the end of their sentences as people ready to become responsible for themselves and their own actions. Locking anyone behind a heavy steel door for 22 or 23 hours per day can never, and will never, achieve such positive outcomes.

Learning to take responsibility?
I firmly believe that we need much greater debate over what we, as a society, really want imprisonment to deliver. There are a series of fundamental questions that need to be answered. 

Do we want safer communities with lower rates of crime (particularly when it comes to violent or sexual offending) and positive outcomes for public protection, or do we simply want to continually repeat outdated penal policies and practices that have been shown time and again to be failing? This is evidenced by unacceptably high reconviction rates, particularly among those who have served short prison sentences, even though overall crime figures are falling. 

Do we genuinely want ex-prisoners to become useful, law-abiding and productive members of society again – or does imprisonment bring with it an indelible stigma that should continue to marginalise thousands of men, women and even children for the rest of their lives? If so, are we willing to continue footing the bill for generations to come?

Are we content to see these ex-prisoners as rejects and outcasts who serve as a terrible warning to everyone else? Have we really considered the longer-term economic and social implications of our prison system’s potentially catastrophic failure to provide opportunities for rehabilitation?  

Since society itself – including our political leaders and representatives, as well as most of the media – seems unable to decide what rehabilitation really means and why it would be beneficial, it’s perhaps unsurprising that our crisis-hit prisons aren’t delivering on HM Prison Service’s own mission statement that commits it to help prisoners “lead law-abiding and useful lives, both while they are in prison and after they are released”. By this measure, at least, prison definitely isn’t working. 


  1. In my view several things could really help the situation:

    1. Have ex prisoners working in all fields to do with the criminal justice system. Especially in areas where policy is developed. After all, who better to tell people what really works and what doesn't than someone who has actually been a service user?

    2. Unless someone has been convicted of murder or any kind of sex offences when your licence is over then that is when you should stop having to declare the conviction. It's ludicrous that you have to declare for eternity any sentence over 4 years given that it is remarkably easy in this day and age to get slapped with a sentence of over 4 years for actually very little. This would aid enormously with being able to resume a life after prison.

    3. If you want people to go straight you need to make it as easy as possible for them to do this. The current system makes it as difficult as possible which is why so many fail. Human beings generally opt for the easy option so if it is easier to go straight than be a criminal people will go straight.

    If politicians really did want prisoners to be rehabilitated whilst in custody there would have to be a radical rethink of how the prison estate operates because the current set up will simply never produce any kind of rehabilitation.

    Get rid of offender behaviour programmes. Studies have shown they have absolutely no impact on reoffending because they don't work. You'd be better off giving everyone some kind of therapy/counselling to explore why they offended and what would stop them reoffending in the future. Couple this with tailor made practical assistance - be that proper job training, decent education, proper accommodation, jobs etc and you may have a fighting chance. Get people to be responsible for their choices and allow them to make choices whilst in custody so that people get used to being a responsible adult and so on.

    1. Thanks for your interesting suggestions. I would agree that more positive use needs to be made of ex-prisoners: prison policy formulation, mentoring, provision of services to ex-offenders, rehab... all of these areas should have input from people who know the system from the inside.

      I take your point about the rehabilitation of ex-offenders, especially those who have been given more than four years (of which most will actually only serve half in custody, plus half on licence). Although the latest legal changes have improved the situation for people who have received sentences of four years or less, anyone else seems to fall in the category of "never spent" - and therefore seemingly 'incapable' of being fully rehabilitated - which is, in many cases, patent nonsense.

      I would also broadly agree with your analysis of the current offender behaviour programmes. Some 'victim awareness' courses are more suitable for naughty school kids than adult prisoners and seem to be pitched around that level. I've known a few lads who've done the entire coursework in the cells in the evenings, often copying bits from other people's workbooks! It's basically a meaningless tick-box exercise.

      I am far more in favour of a 1-2-1 approach to analysing offending behaviour where individuals build trust and feel free to discuss their problems in order to try to understand why they broke the law in the first place. Many prisoners - well over 60 percent, although in reality it's probably much higher - suffer from mental health issues and a high proportion of those also have addictions that, at best, are managed in custody.

      As I've written elsewhere on this blog, simply warehousing damaged individuals until they are released - even if a mentor is waiting for them at the gate - is a complete and utter waste of taxpayers' money spent on imprisonment. The Prison Service needs to be funded adequately in order to meet its own stated objectives - particularly facilitating rehabilitation. If not, then it's basically a fraud on the public.


  3. Off topic, but returning to a subject you've covered before - the book ban.

    Have you heard whether anybody has actually received a book under the new rules? I want to send one, but would like to know how likely it is to get through. I suspect every prison will be different.


    1. Thanks for your question. A friend of mine who is in a private sector Cat-B local had a lot of problems with a book order placed after the new arrangements were announced. However, I heard that he finally received his first book yesterday!

      Every prison is likely to be different, so my advice would be to either ask the prisoner to check the local rules or to give the prison a call and ask what the local arrangements are.

    2. I've checked with this particular prison, as you suggested, and I was quite surprised at the clarity of the reply. The operator assured me that I could send a new paperback book from Blackwells, Foyles, Waterstones, or W H Smith, and that it will get to the prisoner without him having to apply for it.

      We shall see. I hope they don't think Shakespeare contains extremist material.

    3. Thanks for letting us know the response from the prison. It seems that the new system may have started working - slowly, but at least it's a start!

  4. Prison gate mentors scheme unveiled

    1. Thanks for the link. Unfortunately, in my view these 'meeting at the gate' schemes will never make up for the entirely wasted opportunities for rehabilitation that prisons are officially tasked with providing at the taxpayers' expense and yet fail to deliver. If an addict has maintained a drugs habit (or even become hooked) while inside, they are likely to face even more difficulties in getting clean once they are back in their home community.

      One of the fundamental flaws in the present system is that ex-prisoners on licence are expected to return to the area in which they were living prior to their imprisonment. In too many cases this means returning to dysfunctional home environments or social circles where criminal behaviour is tolerated or even encouraged as being 'the norm'. Ex-prisoners who want to make a clean break with the past still face being sent back to the same situation that they were in prior to being sent to jail. I have always seen this as a fundamental flaw of the probation system.

      While I am a believer in positive mentoring this scheme should be in place to support ex-prisoners who have already made progress in rehabilitation while serving their sentences. The fact that due to our present prison crisis rehabilitation has virtually fallen off the agenda is a sad reminder of just how dysfunctional our prison system has become due to underfunding, understaffing and overcrowding.

    2. I find it so hard sometimes to know where to start to make a comment because so much of what you say is so true.

      I shared a cell with a very dysfunctional young man who came from a community which encouraged his drug taking and illegal activities. He was, of course, released into a probation hostel in the very same area with the very same people that got him into so much trouble.

      I've met some amazing people who work in resettlement in prisons however non of these were employees of the prison - they were charity workers. They helped me immensely to get accommodation upon my release - something MoJ were totally unprepared to do.

      It is very worrying that reoffending rates are so high but at the same time astonishing they aren't even higher given the lack of any rehabilitation offered by the prison service.

    3. Thanks for sharing your own prison experiences. I share your views about probation hostels that house ex-prisoners in an environment where they all end up associating with each other. Anyone who knows anything about addictions - whether involving drugs, alcohol or other addictive behaviours - will be aware that mixing numbers of addicts together, particularly those not yet in recovery or people who have no intention of getting clean and/or dry, is a recipe for disaster. Add to that the influence of dysfunctional family and friends in the same area and the likely end result pretty much writes itself.

      I think that some amazing help can be given to prisoners and those who have just been released by charities and support groups. However, this provision is very patchy and resources are almost always a problem. At some prisons I was completely unaware of any resettlement help or advice being available.

      At another prison the job pretty much fell into my lap and when I was out on town leave (ROTL) I used the internet and occasionally payphones in order to contact local service providers on behalf of other cons who weren't able to sort out their own resettlement needs. Why didn't the prison itself do this work? Because the resettlement unit had been closed due to lack of staff resources!

  5. What a terrible thing it must be for a person to go through, to have to be a prisoner and to realize that society has condemned them to a long period of confinement into a cage. This blog has definitely helped bear light on the reality of prisons and why people should do everything they can as individuals to stay outside of those cages.

    Johnnie Smith @ Ranch Creek Recovery

  6. Thank you for providing such a detailed article about rehabilitation. I feel that this subject is often overlooked. Many people don’t put a lot of stock in this subject. Rehabilitation is a crucial part of ensuring that a prisoner is prepared for life after imprisonment. Failure to provide this service can have negative effects on the prisoner and society.

  7. Your blog has given me that thing which I never expect to get from all over the websites. Nice post guys!