Applications of psychology in prisons

Psychologists are useful in aiding the hostage negotiator of a prison in situations where one offender takes either another offender or a member of staff hostage because they are able to objectively act as an advisor supporting the process of negotiation, this has been the primary role for psychologists working within the prison system since the 1980s (Ashmore, 2003).

This usually requires the psychologists to actually be at the scene of the incident or within the command suite. The role that the psychologist plays is one of the hostage-negotiator advisor and has been aptly summarised as ‘supporting the incident commander in designing negotiation strategy and tactics, and then helping the negotiators with the implementation of these tactics by advising on suitable techniques’ (Evans and Henson, 1999).

Psychologists are also effective in monitoring the Stockholm Syndrome (in which the hostage becomes an ally of the perpetrator, thus creating difficulties in the situation) as well as monitoring members of command and negotiation teams in addition to profiling of the perpetrator(s). Psychologists who are not involved in the incident can offer post-incident support for the victims and staff as well as the negotiator himself, suggesting ways of dealing with the stress induced by the event (Wardlaw, 1983). Attempting to Reduce Recidivism

Recidivism refers to a previously convicted person committing and offence-related behaviour, be it legal of illegal during a specified time period (friendship and Falshaw, 2003). There are a broad range of reasons why people offend and Andrews and Bonta (1994) identified numerous factors including inability to get employment, lack of education, breakdown of family relationships, criminal social networks, substance abuse, poor community functioning, personal and emotional factors and anti-social attitudes.

The greater the number of the above factors in any person’s life, the more likely they are to become a perpetrator of the law. Although there has been a huge increase in offending-behaviour programmes in prisons such as Enhanced Thinking Skills (ETS) and Reasoning and Rehabilitation (R&R) – and are generally seen to have a significant effect on the reduction of recidivism amongst prisoners who complete the programme successfully, they do not address all of the factors listed above.

With regards to the employment factor, understandably, young offenders who find employment as soon as they are released are least likely to re-offend and concentration on improving the likelihood of gaining employment on release may be effective in minimising the chances of perpetrating again.. if programmes that provide help for prisoners with advice on how to combat the factors that have been instrumental in causing them to offend, offending behaviour programmes may be able to be evaluated as being rather effective in reducing recidivism in offenders.

This has been the basis of the “what works” debate that has dominated prison based research for the past few decades. Before we consider what methods do work in reducing recidivism in an effective manner, it may be easier to determine what does not work. General psychological literature suggests that punishment can be effective in reducing and perhaps preventing behaviour although there is more evidence suggesting that using positive reinforcement to induce changes in behaviour is more effective.

The conditions under which punishment is most effective include: Inevitability – this means that when an undesirable behaviour is witnessed, there is no doubt whatsoever that punishment will follow; Immediacy – the punishment should be administered as soon as the offensive behaviour is manifested; Severity – the more severe the punishment, the more effective it is likely to be. Also the punishment needs to make sense, i. e.

it must relate to the offending behaviour in order to be effective. Finally punishment only works when there are alternative responses to ‘criminogenic factors’ which can be learnt and reinforced. The conditions in prison are not considered as inductive of an effective punishment and many researchers have concluded that ‘treatment’ based programmes are more effective in the reduction of recidivism (Grendeau et al. , 1993; Mackenzie & Souryal, 1994).

The conclusive findings of research is that punishment on its own will be effective in identifying and treating criminogenic factors that are specific to the individual offender and may do more damage by limiting the skills and avenues of support the offenders are exposed to. Rice et al. (1990) found that incentive based programmes do not produce a lower rate of re-offending, perhaps because of the fact that programmes such as the Prison Service’s Incentives and Earned Privileges System is not typical of the strict behaviourist regime of token economies that the IEP system is based on.

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