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Progressive punishment?

Mark Findlay

In the early days of his third term as Premier of NSW, Bob Carr challenged his government to move away from current law and order politics and come up with a more progressive approach to punishment. Central to this would be a reconsideration of the place of the prison in criminal justice.

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. A revised punishment policy therefore requires more than retarding spiraling 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.

Violent, inhuman, unsafe, confrontational and exploitative prison settings will distort social and moral messages that are consistent with crime prevention.

Prison staff have either worked to ameliorate the negative influences of social exclusion amongst inmates, or in a regrettable minority of instances have contributed to the brutality of prison experience.

In NSW, prison education officers have had a significant influence in improving prisoner literacy rates over the years.

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.

Unfortunately, however, many cost-effective prison programs, like remedial reading, have recently suffered from a deprivation of resources and policy commitment, while expensive and selective cognitive behavioral initiatives have been favored by Australian prison administrations.

Psychological determinism has taken hold in contemporary prison rehabilitation thinking.

A reason for this may be that it holds out a causal connection between prison programs and the reduction of recidivism. More cynically, it also allows prison administrators to rationalise program resources and restrict program entry on the basis of inmate risk.

This psychological - or 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, such as social exclusion. They hold that, even the belief that rehabilitation in prison has failed can be overcome by psychological models such as this, which explain criminal behaviour and go on to address offender risks such as eventual re-offending.

Like the treatments and therapies of the 1960s that left rehabilitation in prison in taters, this new wave of behaviourist prisoner programming may be equally problematic.

The empirical research tends to suggest that the justification, that criminogenic needs approaches will reduce the re-offending of the most risky and the most dangerous, cannot be substantiated.

The ability to diagnose the cause of the inmates underlying criminal behaviour through psychological determinism is not sufficient to overturn more universal rights to program access for prisoners. And 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.

There are more successful and less discriminating approaches to corrections in prison. Victoria, for instance, is investing substantially in a best practice strategy to reduce re-offending.

Recidivism rates alone, as a performance measure of the effectiveness of offender programs, are too narrow an evaluation of rehabilitation practice in prison.

More realistic is an integrated approach, focusing on the climate of program delivery, program cost effectiveness, program integrity and treatment outcomes. Life quality issues are needed as a vital measure of the relevance of correctional programs in prison.

The Home Office as the administrator of English prisons is now required to meet modest targets in the improvement of prison life and the reduction of re-offending following release.

This has necessitated the development of a new context for corrections; one directed to the improvement in the quality of prison life and an investment in 'what works' with offenders.

A recent study to evaluate the quality of life in five English prisons from the perspective of staff and offenders found staff and prisoners agree on 'what matters' in assessing prison quality.

The study suggested there is a broad consensus about values - which include respect, fairness, decency and order; that prison life quality resembles the expectation for civil society; and that safety is a critical concern.

"To me", said one prisoner respondent, reflecting on his aspirations for prison treatment, "being treated with humanity means being provided adequate, reasonably comfortable and clean accommodation and being acknowledged as a person with individual needs, desires, concerns, strengths and weaknesses."

Prison staff would find it hard to argue against this. It is, however, the bigotry of public opinion about prisoners 'getting it too easy' which tends to endorse further social exclusion in prison. Paradoxically, this is what increases the likelihood of re-offending and the associated threat to community safety.


Mark Findlay is Professor of Criminal Justice at Sydney University. This article has been drawn from his chapter in the Evatt Foundation's new book, The state of the states 2004, to be launched at Sydney's Vibe Hotel (111 Goulburn Street) at 6pm on Tuesday 26 October (6pm for 6.30pm, all welcome, free).


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