In challenging economic times, Jo Cursley an academic from the Marchmont Observatory, argues the case for investment in prisoner rehabilitation.
A group of prisoners work together to put on a concert in Italy: for the first time two of them have begun to come out of their cells for activities. In the Netherlands, a narrator begins the play, a man who has found it difficult to relate to others but who is now part of the group. In Portugal, a group of prisoners perform a routine with chairs which they pick up and which suddenly seem to become heavy. We watch in silence as the symbolism of their guilt and anxiety becomes apparent. There are cathartic tears on the stage.
So what is rehabilitation? On a board outside every prison’s gate is a notice which reads: “Her Majesty’s Prison Service serves the public by keeping in custody those committed by the courts. Our duty is to look after them with humanity and help them lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release.”
The idea of rehabilitation here is linked to the phrase “help them lead law abiding and useful lives in custody and after release.” The implication is that prior to prison they lacked the skills to do this.. Rehabilitation in all its forms is thus seen as providing an intervention which seeks to repair this lack of skills; that somehow, rehabilitation will provide the route which will make them behave in a more socially acceptable way in the future.
However, I argue that having a rehabilitative model which only focuses on improving social skills misses the point. To make a rehabilitative step change there needs to be self-belief, a feeling that something significant has changed which will lead to a better future for them. As those in prisons often have deep rooted issues with their self- esteem, the rehabilitative intervention has to ensure it provides space for the possibilities for this to happen. My research and that of others strongly indicates that any programme should be focused on the personal growth of the prisoner which enables them to re-vision their future; a future that doesn’t include prison. While this sounds like it might be expensive, surely it is cheaper than sending prisoners out unchanged and wringing one’s hands when they appear again through that revolving door a short time later.
If a focus on raising self esteem, and also providing offenders with the space for a re-consideration of their future selves is needed in order for offenders to have any chance of a crime free future, then how should this be provided? An international prison project I have been involved with seems to have the answers. The project, based around arts performances using the SEPE (Supporting Employability and Personal Effectiveness) award, has been developed by the University of Exeter and accredited through Edexcel. Working with Superact, a not for profit organisation, Exeter University laid the foundations for a training pack which has been used by Superact who have trained artists and performers in each country to deliver the project. The all important feedback the prisoners receive as a result of participating in the programme is based on their employability skills; ability to communicate, work in a team, focus on a task, solve problems. The resulting increased self-awareness has led to their re-considering the possibilities of using their newly awakened social capital in their future lives, post prison.
As a result of this project I have seen remarkable rehabilitative transformations in those taking part. I have seen groups of men and women in prisons in Portugal, the Netherlands and Italy learning to trust each other and understanding their own importance in the group situation, becoming reliable, persevering, discussing instead of shouting and using their fists, finding commonality with other members of the group they formerly despised. As Bruna Scarcello, a Head of Education in an Italian prison, said at the beginning of the concert which marks the end of each programme: “Other courses teach them how to do; this course teaches them how to be.”
While the assessment results showed that the prisoner participants improved their employability skills, and as such therefore meant that they are more work ready than before the project, surely rehabilitation is about other profound factors as well. Those in authority are good at saying what should be done to prisoners to improve their rehabilitation, but giving the prisoners themselves a voice is important because who better to judge what help is best to give? I have interviewed focus groups of prisoners in each of the countries where the performances have taken place. They were very eager to tell me all about their projects. A selection of the comments from prisoners in Portugal, the Netherlands and Italy who took part in the SEPE projects is below:
- “I had never been able to work with others before but this has taught me to listen and work together, not to just to follow my own ideas.” [Prisoner Focus Group, Portugal, 16th Feb 2012]
- “I’m ready to face up my life outside the prison with more self confidence and belief according to the legality value of our society.” [Italian Prisoner Questionnaire, 28th July 2011]
- “Now I express my feelings and I talk much more with the others; before I write about my emotions … now I share everything.” [Italian Prisoner Questionnaire, 28th July 2011]
- “I have learnt to trust.” [Dutch Prisoner Focus Group, 5th July 2011]
These results show rehabilitation in action. The possibility of this project to awaken, settle, and prepare offenders for their future lives has been recognised by Portugal and the Netherlands in particular. In both cases the projects have been brought to people in government to see the performances and to discuss the benefits. Indeed in Portugal , the Government representative was so impressed it is now going to be taken to perform to the whole of the Portuguese Parliament. Yet the link with rehabilitation and the Arts are uneasy bedfellows in Britain, where the British press derides them as wasting money on “fun”. Indeed the Arts were not mentioned by the Ministry of Justice’s Report “Breaking the Cycle” (2010), yet the profundity of development in these offender participants indicates that this is just what this project is likely to do.