By Nicholas Blagden & Ralph Lubkowski
For men convicted of a sexual offence life in prison is not easy and can often be a brutal experience. They are despised by all for what they have done. They may have lost, or fear losing, the support of those who care for them. They will be at the bottom of the prison hierarchy, living in constant fear of being identiﬁed as a ‘sex offender’ and will often be the victim of physical and verbal assaults (Schwaebe, 2005). The difﬁculties facing these men are innumerable. Yet, despite all of these issues, we still expect these men to be rehabilitated, to volunteer willingly for, and commit to, treatment where the intimate details of their lives are laid bare (Ware & Blagden, 2016). Treatment must seem like a frightening prospect on many levels. It is important to note that while a populist response to this may be that such individuals ‘deserve’ to feel that way, it does little to help rehabilitate individuals. The goal of prison and prison rehabilitation for such individuals must be to prevent other victims and to help men lead meaningful and pro-social lives because this is what will keep people leading offence-free lives. We know that harsh environments make people worse and not better and negatively impact both staff and prisoners (Chen & Shapiro, 2007).
However, despite the environment being highly adversarial for those convicted of sexual offences, there is very little research considering the impact. The prison climate and the attitudes of staff in that prison play an important role in successful treatment and rehabilitation of offenders. In an era when the treatment of men with sexual convictions is contested and even questioned, there is a real need to take seriously the environment in which such individuals reside and understand the opportunities within that environment to help men flourish.
Rehabilitative climate of prisons for men with sexual convictions
Men convicted of sexual offences represent around 18% of those serving a prison sentence. This has brought challenges e.g. where to locate such individuals, as many are separated onto ‘vulnerable prisoner units’, but still experience threats and fear from others. One solution in England and Wales has been to increase the number of prisons specifically for men with sexual convictions.
There is some debate as to whether housing men with sexual convictions together is a good idea. Some suggest that they may share deviant fantasies, groom others including staff and create an overly sexualised environment. These are important issues, but the incidence of such events happening is not as frequent as we might think. Recent research (see e.g. Blagden & Wilson, 2019, Blagden et al, 2016) has found incidences to be unexpectedly minor given the sample. Instead in these research studies, participants expressed that they were experiencing the prison as a “different world”, one in which they were less anxious and less fearful. This was helping men have the ‘headspace’ to contemplate change.
Prisons for men with sexual convictions with a good rehabilitate prison climate promote constructive and meaningful relationships between prisoners and staff and provide opportunities for meaningful experiences to allow men the possibility to try out new identities. Relationships matter in prison, especially for this client group, as they can be testing grounds for future relationships and identities. An important aspect of meaningful relationships for this client group (and others) is creating opportunities for reciprocal relationships i.e. those that promote shared exchanges, shared learning and understanding. Two things which have been important for creating reciprocity within the prison are peer support and active citizenship. Indeed, the reciprocal aspects of these have been found to galvanise staff-prisoner and prisoner-prisoner relationships, which is important as the relational properties of both are linked to the ‘self-change’ process (Mead, Hilton, & Curtis 2001). HMP Stafford is a prison that has an active citizenship focus. Active citizenship at its heart is about creating a community and a shared sense of ownership of the space they inhabit, it helps prisoners to engage more with the people and the world around them, to reintegrate in the community (Edgar et al, 2011). Finally, we will look at what active citizenship looks like in practice.
Rehabilitative Climate in Action - Active citizenship
In 2016 HMP Stafford was rerolled to hold exclusively people convicted of sexual offences (PSOCOs). This dramatic shift in population was closely followed by a new focus on Rehabilitative Culture across the prison estate. Stafford’s approach to these two new opportunities was Active Citizenship, a simple concept of recognising, reinforcing, and recording acts seen to be doing good for the community, environment, and others. Visually striking and simple promotional materials were produced, and staff and resident champions appointed to drive the concept forward.
Initially the result was that residents strived to be in jobs linked to “citizenship” such as carers, listeners, or resident’s council reps. Citizenship was regarded as a position to be attained and closely linked to employment or activity. There were no financial rewards, nor was it directly linked to the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme. The only tangible benefit was a badge, however being recognised as an Active Citizen created a new identity for those willing to do good, and built momentum behind the idea of contributing to the prison community.
As Active Citizenship embedded, it evolved. Residents looked for new opportunities to contribute, and staff recognised and valued these small acts of kindness. Citizenship became less linked to specific roles or activities, and more of a way of life. Even the badges, albeit still worn proudly by those that received them, became less significant. Contributing to helping others and making Stafford a better place became a shared objective for staff and residents, the act itself being the reward. This has led to a remarkable transformation in the past 18 months. Trust has built between staff and residents, with a progressive and innovative climate resulting in what at times seems like an avalanche of new initiatives and opportunities. Many of these have been created and driven by residents and front line staff, often in their own time and with little or no resource.
Stafford is now a place where residents are given a real opportunity to change and grow, a community where people care for each other and where hope flourishes. We do not shy away from the reality of what our residents did, or what difficulties they will face after prison but Citizenship has created a climate where they can rebuild and renew themselves. They feel valued and empowered, enabling them to confront their previous life and wrongdoing and move forwards. We are still on a journey, and there is more to do, but the foundations have been built allowing us to build something truly remarkable.
Blagden, N., & Wilson, K. (2019). “We’re All the Same Here”—Investigating the Rehabilitative Climate of a Re-Rolled Sexual Offender Prison: A Qualitative Longitudinal Study. Sexual Abuse, DOI: 1079063219839496.
Blagden, N., Winder, B., & Hames, C. (2016). “They treat us like human beings”—Experiencing a therapeutic sex offenders prison: Impact on prisoners and staff and implications for treatment. International journal of offender therapy and comparative criminology, 60(4), 371-396.
Chen, M. K., & Shapiro, J. M. (2007). Do harsher prison conditions reduce recidivism? A discontinuity-based approach. American Law and Economics Review, 9(1), 1-29.
Edgar, K., Jacobson, J. and Biggar, K. (2011), “Time well spent: a practical guide to active citizenship and volunteering in prison”, Prison Reform Trust, London, available at: www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/ Documents/Time%20Well%20Spent%20report%20lo.pdf (accessed July 8th, 2017)
Mead, S., Hilton, D., & Curtis, L. (2001). Peer support: A theoretical perspective. Psychiatric rehabilitation journal, 25(2), 134.
Schwaebe, C. (2005). Learning to pass: Sex offenders' strategies for establishing a viable identity in the prison general population. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 49(6), 614-625.
Ware, J. & Blagden, N. (2016), “Responding to categorical denial, refusal, and treatment drop-out”, in Boer, D.P. (Ed.), The Wiley Handbook on the Theories, Assessment and Treatment of Sexual Offending, John Wiley & Sons Ltd, West Sussex, pp. 1564-71.