Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Prisons as progressive punishment?

The State of Corrective Services

Prisons, by their nature and the communities they house, suffer more acutely from the factors of social exclusion that characterise the underprivileged sectors of Australian society.

Without the exacerbation of a custodial experience, these characteristics alone militate against the successful reintegration of prisoners back into the community. Any revision of punishment policy, therefore, requires more than retarding spiralling imprisonment rates.

For those who do end up in gaol, and for those employed to manage them, the prison environment requires significant redevelopment if inmates are not to leave prison more maladjusted than when they went in.

Prison staff have either worked to ameliorated the negative influences of social exclusion amongst inmates, or have contributed to the brutality of prison experience.

In New South Wales (as no doubt in other states), for instance, prison education officers have over the years had a significant influence improving prisoner literacy rates.

In so doing, they have addressed one of the simplest and yet most significant factors at work against prisoner reintegration. Prisoner education is recognised as one of the few correctional initiatives which seem to correlate with improved recidivism prospects.

In New South Wales prisons today there has been a move away from basic, egalitarian inmate programs in preference for elite cognitive therapies. This shift has been justified, it is argued, by the misguided belief that prisoners with the greatest risk of serious re-offending can be identified, and on them limited correctional resources should be concentrated.

In addition, this is again incorrectly supported by the conviction that, for these few inmates, their recidivism rates can be radically decreased through psychological intervention in gaol.

Against this, it is proposed that community corrections are cheaper and more efficient than prison rehabilitation. Having said that, for those available for corrections in custody, a more general improvement in the social environment of the prison is a simpler, cheaper and fairer way of dealing with recidivism than elite cognitive therapies.

The important ancillary benefit of this approach is that inmates and prison staff contribute to a more productive prison community. The quality of prison life then becomes as important a performance measure for the prison as recidivism, and recidivism will be improved as the prison addresses the fundamental issues of social exclusion.

The challenge is for prison management, staff and the community at large to accept that more humane rather than harsher prison conditions may be more conducive to lower re-offending and, thereby, improved community safety. This is the future for the prison in progressive punishment, rather than a problematic commitment to the deterrent effect of 'tough gaol time'.

Corrections in prison?

In 1988 I published an article entitled The Demise of Corrections. The central thesis was that penal correctionalism had failed because it was piecemeal and without the support of a well developed commitment of alternative strategies to the prison:

One would be rightly cynical of the relevance of correctionalism for criminal justice, when an examination is made of the limited, unimaginative and few semi-custodial and non-custodial alternatives which have been introduced into NSW since settlement.

The criticism is sharper in the current context of imprisonment in NSW, where correctional expectations continue to disappoint, despite a recent revival of interest in 'what works/offender management programmes.

In these days of post-just-deserts punitive conservatism, such a criticism has almost become and article of faith for punishment practice in NSW.

It is as if the significance of restorative justice and the manifold empirical failures of the prison have simply been swept aside, in favour of a vision of punishment which promotes custodial outcomes as the answer to public dissatisfaction with criminal justice.

All this is politically justified in terms of deterrence and community safety. Politicians, judges and prison administrators are frightened to talk publicly in terms of corrections, rehabilitation and reform and the legislation on sentencing sidelines their significance.

What is the taxpayer getting in return for the punishment dollar? It now costs over $160 per day to keep a prisoner in the state's gaols, half that figure going in capital costs.

Fading hopes for corrections?

Why is it corrections remains a euphemism in the popular culture of punishment in NSW? Do we continue to be bound to the single aim enunciated by Royal Commissioner Justice Nagle that inmates should not leave prison in a worse state than before they were incarcerated?

There is, however, a resonant critique of the motivation behind this new era for rehabilitation in prison. The criticism reflects the long established debate in criminology between psychological and social determinism. Let me pose a simple example.

There appears to be a significant connection between the imprisonment of parents and the eventual incarceration of their children. How can this be explained? Social determinists would propose that the criminogenic structural conditions of family life for the parent and the child remain constant, and the marginalisation they produce leads to crime and prison.

Psychological behaviourists will either blame criminal genealogies, crime as an intergenerational or genetic feature, or learning patterns within families that promote crime.

Psychological determination has taken hold in contemporary prison rehabilitation thinking. A reason for this may be that it holds out a causal connection between programmes and the reduction of recidivism. In a more cynical context, it also allows prison administrators to rationalise programme resources and to restrict programme entry on the basis of risk.

The criminogenic needs model of offender programming in prison argues for psychological intervention which addresses criminogenic thinking, needs and risk on the basis of cognitive behaviour research. Advocates of the model argue that a greater adherence to psychological justifications for rehabilitation will exclude other modes of explanation.

Even the belief that rehabilitation in risk has failed can be overcome by psychological models such as this, which explain criminal behaviour and go onto address offender risks, such as eventual re-offending.

This predictable intervention approach is said to enable targeted programme funding that can significantly reduce re-offending through programming of cognitive skills, promoting behavioural change.

Like the treatments and therapies of the 1960s that left rehabilitation in tatters, this new wave of behavioural prisoner programming may be equally problematic. For instance, when criminogenic needs programs themselves are unpacked they seem to contain little which is different from the teaching methodologies employed by prison teachers in general curricula.

Generally programme assignment is based on the principal that offenders who are at high risk of recidivism should be given priority for treatment. It is assumed that allocations of services to low risk offenders is wasteful because the latter group recidivate at rates which are too low to be affected by interventions.

What seems from the research to lack justification is risk classification based on diagnosis, of the original offending behaviour, rather than more material indicators, such as the offending history of the inmate, age, drug record and current offence.

The reliability of claims that selective allocation of cognitive behavioural programmes, based on individualised criminogenic diagnosis, will reduce recidivism is suspect. The ability to diagnose the cause of the inmates underlying criminal behaviour through psychological determinism is not sufficient to overturn more universal rights to programme access for prisoners.

If this diagnostic capacity was routinely available, and it is not, then such predictive wisdom would be more economically applied to crime prevention than correctional remedies.

Criticising the contemporary penal model for criminal justice

In recent years in NSW, political and public debate about criminal justice has moved from prison reform, through police reform and on to sentencing. Unfortunately, the analysis of sentencing has been constrained by several taken-for-granted public truths: Judges are soft on crime; tough sentencing makes for community safety; sentencing discretion needs to be constrained because it is inconsistent; lenient sentences are evidence of inconsistency; harsh imprisonment sentences are the only appropriate response to all crimes that make the community feel unsafe.

Responding to this pressure, the legislature has restricted sentencing discretion, raised sentencing ranges, introduced more factors of offence aggravation, reduced opportunities for executive release, and downplayed any punishment strategies beyond imprisonment.

This has led to more people going to prison for longer. Remand populations are at record highs. Any court disposition which might be interpreted as soft on crime is now met with the media response that prison is the only appropriate response.

As a consequence, criminal justice policy is skewed towards concerns about penal outcomes. Limited and costly prison resources are being squandered on whole classes of offenders who Justice Nagle declared as unsuited for prison. Suggestions that short-term prison sentences are ineffective now seem novel.

More than this however, everything associated with criminal sanctioning is measured against penal expectations, principal amongst these being community safety. Yet, even in this context, it is not easy to argue that rehabilitation needs to be directed towards cost-effective themes of social restoration, rather than psychological and institutional reprogramming.

With individual responsibility and appropriateness re-emerging in sentencing principles, it is not surprising that the behaviourists are back in the ascendancy when it comes to inmate programming.

By Mark Findlay posted 13 July 05

Mark Findlay is Professor of Criminal Justice at Sydney University

Next week: Custody as the challenge to corrections.

Crime and Punishment

Prisons, by their nature and the communities they house, suffer more acutely from the social exclusion that characterises the underprivileged parts of Australian society. Without the exacerbation of a custodial experience, these characteristics alone militate against the successful reintegration of prisoners back into the community.


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