A Forensic view of Prison


prison barsThe case of Anders Breivick certainly raises questions, as have cases here in the U.K., be that Steve Wright or Ian Huntley. The consideration of sanity is a relevant question and whether or not Breivick’s plea of self-defence is the product of a delusional mind is no doubt being debated in court. The age old control versus rehabilitation roles of prison continue to be debated but currently the consensus falls on rehabilitation. Daily Mail type headlines of BBQs in the sunshine or playing on PlayStations do little to support the good work of Her Majesty’ Prison Service staff. Unfortunately the by-line does not explain that prisoners have to earn the right to privileges.

In considering the arguments in a humanistic way; imagine an offender is released from prison and moves in next door to you and your family. Who would you prefer this person to be? The person who comes out of prison with no further understanding of what they have done and the impact it has caused, nor the skills to become a law-abiding citizen. Or the person who has achieved numeracy and literacy level two, can legally work as a forklift truck driver and understands the ripple effect their crime has created. The answer appears fairly straight forward. Others would say that we should keep offenders of certain types of crime in prison, but at the average cost of £38,000 a year, I wonder who will be footing this bill. I am sure others would fight for capital punishment but that is probably a debate that is better left for another page.

We live in a country where most people that are sent to prison will be released, one day. The question we therefore have to ask ourselves is what would we like them to be doing with their time whilst inside. Currently, being sent to prison is the punishment, what they do whilst they are there is not. Primarily prison is there to protect the public. So how do we protect the public – lock them up and kick them out when their time is up or do something productive with them? Imagine being in prison for five years, being away from friends and family. Think about the last five years of your life and what you would have missed had you not been there; the birth of grandchildren, children getting married, the rise of Facebook and the rising prices of living. You may say that this is their punishment for committing a crime but surely the point is to reduce the risk of them doing it again. You only have to think of the transitions we have made in our own lives; moving house, going away to university, divorcing or going travelling. If we kick people out of prison without rehabilitating them, what chance do they have? They may well walk out of the gates similar to the person they were when they came in. If we are to stand any chance of reducing re-conviction we need to rehabilitate offenders, giving them the tools to live offence-free lifestyles.

The idea of rehabilitation is not a complicated phenomenon. Often prisoners have come from backgrounds where they have been raised in domestically abusive homes, have learnt to use violence to gain respect, come from economically deficient areas and have not been taught the basic life skills of communicating effectively. By treating prisoners as human beings, as people, and by modelling pro-social behaviour they can learn transferable skills for when they are released. Offenders do have skills and are often just using them in illegal ways. By encouraging pro-social application of those skills we may keep to reduce reoffending.

You can run offending behaviour programmes with prisoners and generally there seems to be around a 15% reduction in recidivism. They will not and cannot work without a culture of rehabilitation around them though. By this, I mean that all staff members should be supportive of rehabilitating offenders and back the seven pathways to reducing re-offending; accommodation and support; education, training and employment; health; drugs and alcohol; finance, benefits and debt; children and families; attitudes, thinking & behaviour. Some may think that having ‘family days’ in prison where family can visit for the day, have faces painted and play games is too lenient but when family support is one of the biggest protective factors against re offending, why would we not do more to support family ties?

Community sentences are now becoming more favourable than short sentences, which may go some way to reducing the cost to the tax payer, although probation funding is having to increase. Figures appear to show that for each violent crime, it costs an average of £19,000. It is easy to focus on the monetary aspects of crime but we have to remember that there is a person behind that offence and a person on the receiving end. We need to consider the social and emotional costs of crime as well. What I would encourage people to reflect on is what sort of people do we want coming out of those prison gates. We therefore need to do that we can to increase the chance that it is those people walking through the prison gates.


Prison Forensic Psychologist

May 2012



prion Robben islandThis week Norway is very much in the news with the trial of Anders Breivick having begun. To most of us anybody that can kill 77 people, most of them young and from all walks of life, and appear to have no remorse is clearly insane. However, of course, that is not the way it works. Breivik has been examined by various people and there seems to be some disagreement as to whether or not he is actually insane. He pleads not guilty by way of self defence and will fight any diagnosis that he is insane. He wishes to portray the view that his violent and horrific protest against multi-culturism in Norway was the act of a sane and rational man protecting the Norwegian people. 

It remains to be seen which way the court views these possibilities but the outcome of that aspect will determine whether Breivik is incarcerated in a special hospital for the criminally insanr, probably for the rest of his life or whether, if found guilt but sane is given the maximum sentence under Norwegian law of 21 years in prison. If the latter then at some stage he is likely to find himself in Halden Fengsel a new high security prison notable for its high standard of accommodation. It has beautifully landscaped gardens where the prisoners can have BBQs often with prison guards. The aim is to ensure that life inside mirrors life outside so that the transition from prison life to civilian life is much easier and sustainable. This approach is designed to reduce recidivism and indeed Norway's 20% compares with Britain and USA's 50-60%

Convicted murders spend a lot of time out of their cells in a pleasant environment full of the artwork and furniture they produce. They are able to study and learn new skills which are designed to make them more employable when they leave. The prison has a house in the gardens where prisoners can stay with their families for a weekend at a time. Half of Halden's guards are women, a fact that the authorities believe helps to reduce the overall level of violence. 

By way of contrast the prison in which Hamza will probably end up in in the USA when he is extradited will be the high security ADX Florence in Colorado. It is the latter day Alcatraz where prisoners spend 23 in their cells and their only window is angled so that the only thing they see outside is sky. Our understanding of these tough high security prisons in the UK and US is largely governed by what we read and see in dramas in the cinema or on TV. Unless you've had first hand experience of course. My impression would be of competitive groups of prisoners with hard won loyalties, protecting their turf and preying on the weaker members of the community. A Place where drugs are in free circulation and the consequences that brings with them clearly in evidence. We seem to have a strong incentive in designing our prison regime to achieve punishment and in many cases social revenge. Rehabilitation is suppose to be part of the process but it can't be assisted by an overly harsh regime.

There is no doubt the the prisons system has to dish out punishment but when you compare the differences between prison in Norway and ours, together with their re-offending rates, you wonder who has it right. It seems the Norwegian people have little time for revenge and the way that those young people that survived the massacre have spoken about Breivik and their experiences is very impressive. They seemed to be calm and measured , certainly with a hope that true justice is done and that he is punished but hate and revenge has not been part of their vocabulary.


    Please login to make comments.