Rehabilitation: incarcerated social work or humane prison reform?

Saturday 13 October, 16:0017:15, Cinema 3Law and Order


One of the concerns about the present, headline-grabbing prison crisis is that rehabilitation is being sidelined by staff shortages, overcrowding and financial cuts. Often caricatured as a soft approach to penal policy, today’s advocates of rehabilitation often present it as a silver bullet to stop reoffending. The theory goes that if we give prisoners skills, job-training and educational qualifications they will not be back inside again.

But is prison just about rehabilitation? The secretary of state for justice, David Gauke, has said that he wants to get rid of short sentences because they ‘don’t work’, but this presumes prison is only for reducing recidivism. For many people, the role of prison is for punishment and deterrence – or even just getting criminals off the streets for a while – rather than to reduce reoffending. And if the aim of the education and employment rehabilitation strategy is always an instrumental tool for ending the revolving door, this raises the question of its role for those serving long-term or life sentences. Moreover, with increasing numbers of men serving sentences for serious sex offences, is it appropriate to say that if we have improved their employment prospects or educational level, they are ‘rehabilitated’?

Nonetheless, the rehabilitation agenda today is very different from previous decades. There is a greater focus on prisoners’ prior social backgrounds, where prison is called on to compensate for a variety of socio-economic deprivation. But this raises potential conflicts and inconsistencies, such as whether a middle-class person should get a longer sentence for the same crime than someone who grew up in care. Moreover, the focus on rehabilitation has coincided with a change in how prisons are run. Today, it is increasingly a white-collar profession, with the proliferation of a range of fashionable managerial theories and therapeutic interventions set against the questioned wisdom of traditional frontline experience. Is there a danger this shift means seeing prisons as little more than incarcerated social work?

Making prisons safe, secure and decent, and ensuring prisoners spend their time purposefully, should not be mutually exclusive, but can the system do both with the money available? Is it sloppy, utopian thinking to expect prison to solve prisoners’ social problems that are so often neglected ‘outside’? What is the proper aim of rehabilitation – to stop reoffending, to transform troubled teens or druggies into ‘respectable’ citizens, or to enable prisoners to reflect more on their actions and regain agency?