16 September, 2015 | Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge
A full house of over 250 people attended Putting Research Into Practice, an academic conference marking the 30th anniversary of the Butler Trust, in partnership with the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology.
The audience included NOMS senior managers, prison governors, probation and youth justice managers and staff, civil servants from MoJ and beyond, and staff and students from The Institute. They were joined, for the afternoon session, by Her Royal Highness, The Princess Royal, who has been the Trust’s Royal Patron since its founding.
Delegates heard talks from five of the world’s leading criminal justice researchers, focusing on emerging themes from their research and implications for prison and probation managers, as well as HRH The Princess Royal, who reflected on her observations of the criminal justice system over the 30 years of her patronage.
Full proceedings of the event, and links to videos of each speaker and copies of their presentations, can be found below. To go straight to a particular speaker’s write-up, click on the relevant link:
Delegates were welcomed by the Institute’s Director, Lawrence Sherman, and Malcolm Butler, the Butler Trust’s Chair. Malcolm is a grandson of R.A. ‘Rab’ Butler (1902-82), after whom the Trust is named and who, as Home Secretary from 1957 to 1962, was responsible for a plethora of penal reforms. Rab Butler was a driving impetus behind the establishment of the Institute in 1959, and Lawrence gratefully acknowledged his role by thanking him for providing him with a job!
Professor Sir Anthony Bottoms, Emeritus Professor at the Institute, then presented on Prisons, order, and the development of virtues. Sir Anthony referred to the important role of Rab’s ‘Command Paper’, Penal Practice In A Changing Society (1959), in establishing the Institute, although noted that Cambridge had a long history of interest in criminology. This was recently underlined by the rediscovery and display, earlier in the summer, of an 1822 donation to the University, by his son, of the “incredibly rare” death mask of penal reformer John Howard (1726-90).
Sir Anthony noted the interest created by a recent speech from the new Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove MP, The treasure in the heart of man – making prisons work, to the Prisoners Learning Alliance, and in particular his choice of a famous and moving quotation by Winston Churchill:
‘As Winston Churchill argued, there should be “a constant heart-searching by all charged with the duty of punishment, a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment, tireless efforts towards the discovery of curative and regenerating processes and an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man.”’
Sir Anthony spoke to a receptive audience when he remarked that “anyone who has seriously researched prisons acquires a great admiration for the skills of staff” working in them. He likened the skills of a prison officer to that of a footballer, and noted that footballers, asked how they had scored, often found it hard to explain, as many prison officers do when asked about how they do their jobs. He emphasised that prison “is a social institution,” and noted the features of a “morally performing prison regime”, citing a 2004 work by Professor Alison Liebling, Prisons and their Moral Performance.
Looking back at some older research, Hostels for Probationers, by Ian Sinclair (1971), he went on to explore the role of combining ‘warmth’ with ‘a set of clear rules’. He acknowledged the complexity of teasing out such relationships, and the limited extent to which their benefits endured (or were ‘washed out’) once the probationers had left the hostels. Sir Anthony pointed out that the challenge lay in the question of “how do we get a good transition into the community.”
Turning to more recent research on desistance, he explored some of the findings from the Sheffield Pathways Out of Crime Study (SPOOCS), for which he is the principal investigator. He explored the top six obstacles for going or staying straight:
- Lack of money
- Opportunity for easy money
- Need for excitement or to relieve boredom
- Lack of work
- Having a record
- Taking drugs
Sir Anthony then explored the role of ‘situational self-binding’ (a type of self-control), which might include avoiding criminal friends and specific places, self-displacement (e.g. going fishing instead), and altering the structure of daily activities (e.g. only going out with trusted friends). He concluded with a brief explanation of what is a virtue in this context.
The next speaker was Professor Shadd Maruna, Dean at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. Having worked at Cambridge earlier, he made the near obligatory joke at the expense of Oxford University, while making a fascinating extended comparison between the way in which attending supposedly high status institutions like Cambridge University “sends signals” in a similar way, but with different content, to being sent to prison. “Prisons are all about signalling”, he argued, adding that he too, has “enormous respect for anyone who works in this field.”
Unpacking the idea of signalling further, Shadd argued that people have a kind of “cognitive shortcut” to explain someone having gone to prison, in which the conclusion was that the person had “done something wrong” and was a “mostly bad person.” He suggested this logic was an essentially largely unconscious one, based on the notable signal of a prison in that it was somewhere people were “locked in a cage at night.”
He went on to look at how such signals are received by a wide circle of people, including other employees, spouses, families, and friends, adding that, “most importantly they are sent to the prisoner themself.” Citing labeling theory, he considered the “self-fulfilling prophecy” created by this context, dubbing it “the ex-prisoners’ dilemma”.
Noting that the idea of desistance had been around since the 1990s, Shadd went on to consider what he called “The Redemption Script” (presumably another of his many cultural nods, this time to the famous Bob Marley song). This concerns the question, he explained, of “what to do with the past.” This involves a variety of elements, including separating offending behaviour from the ‘true self’, finding ‘the diamond in the rough’ as it were, as well as what he called ‘tragic optimism’ – finding meaning in the biggest mistakes, or ‘the silver lining’. Another element he identified was the desire to put one’s past to use by helping others in similar situations. Elaborating, Shadd noted that this concept has traction for all of us, in terms of wanting to make sense of the mistakes of our past.
Shadd then spoke about his work in terms of how ‘self-narratives’ can help prisoners work through these issues. He noted that there was “lots of accounting going on anyway”, and cited examples like cognitive therapy and the Twelve-step program, as well as initiatives in San Quentin and elsewhere, in which prisoners use books and writing to work through their narratives as a way to alert them “to the power of symbols, of stigma.” He mentioned a particularly inspiring program in California, in which prisoners are given a chance to make a difference at Fire Camps, where they can help fight fires.
Some of Shadd’s thought-provoking work can be found in his book Making Good: How Ex-Convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives (named the “Outstanding Contribution to Criminology” by the American Society of Criminology (ASC) in 2001), and the lively questions that followed his presentation confirmed both the engagement of the audience, and the way in which his work has opened a powerful perspective into this important aspect of criminology.
After a break for lunch, the afternoon session began with a presentation on the rehabilitation and resettlement of prisoners as Professor Mike Maguire, Professor of Criminology at the University of South Wales and Director of the Welsh Centre for Crime and Social Justice, who shared his thoughts on offender management and cultural change. Taking a wide view, he began by looking at what he called a failure of “broader thinking”, noting that the starting point in making progress here “must be people on the ground.”
Noting that there was “no shortage of big ideas” in the Ministry of Justice, he wondered, in looking at the recent history of reforms, and the fact that “many of the ideas around now” were around some while ago, whether we might be revisiting the past, so to speak, and therefore be looking to have “another Groundhog Day in 2025.”
Pointing out the sense of “far reaching changes” in policy circles, Mike’s presentation looked at how many of these ideas had, in fact, been the original “DNA” behind the concept of offender management. These included a recognition that some aspects of the system “were not fit for purpose”, the problem of ‘silos’ in which there was a clear lack of “joined up thinking”, alongside strong advocacy for radical change, in part driven by academic research and insights.
A critical component to achieving a more seamless experience here, Mike argued, lies in “the quality and continuity of relationships.” Citing a “damning series” of critical reports, he noted that there were many problems which beset the Offender Management Model, however laudable its aims. These included a lack of understanding by Offender Supervisors, on-going ‘silo’ issues, and “the lack of a broad rehabilitative culture.” Key reasons for failure included resource issues, communication difficulties, a top-down implementation without wider organisational “buy in”, and an emphasis on “organisational/process change” forgetting “key parts of the message” concerning “quality and continuity of the relationship with the offender.”
Progress would lie, he argued, in a renewed emphasis on both relationships and culture, and Mike then proceeded to outline some ‘key principles’ and elements to focus on. These included a “underpinning rehabilitative culture”, a more “collaborative approach” between offenders and staff, which emphasised “prisoner agency” and relationships with staff, a “skilled and supported” Offender Management staff, better targeting of resources, and, “perhaps most importantly”, a fundamental shift so that responsibility for Custodial Offender Management sat with the prison.
Mike then outlined a sketch of what a possible delivery model might look like, including the “key worker” concept. This model would, he argued, have the benefit of resting on clear principles, giving centrality to human rather than process elements, be more easily understood, and had the potential to be “a key driver of cultural change.”
He then took a closer look at how this vision might play out in practice, and identified a series of further considerations to bear in mind.
The next presentation, on New and old problems of long term imprisonment, was by Dr Ben Crewe, Deputy Director of the Prisons Research Centre and Director of the M.St. Penology Programme at the Institute of Criminology. As Ben noted, there has been relatively little research into this area.
He quoted the Radzinowicz Report 1968: The Regime for Long-Term Prisoners in Conditions of Maximum Security. Report of the Advisory Council on the Penal System, which noted that a growing number of prisoners were serving lengths that were a fundamental threat to their integrity and “barely survivable” – yet since then sentence lengths have increased significantly.
The Radzinowicz report defined a long-term prisoners “as one serving a term … of over four years”, with ten years considered “very long”, and noted that at that time, “[Only a] handful of prisoners sentenced under the Official Secrets Act or in connection with the 1964 mail train robbery will have to remain continuously in custody for over fifteen years”. There are now over 2,300 prisoners serving indeterminate sentences with a tariff of 15 years or more, while the average length of minimum terms imposed (excluding whole life sentences) has risen dramatically in a decade, from 12.5 years in 2003 to 21.1 years in 2013.
Ben and his team have been working to correct what he called the “sparse understanding” in this area by undertaking interviews with men and women serving lengthy sentences at different stages in their term.
They have looked at the main problems facing such long-term prisoners, including how they think about identity, change, and the future, as well as exploring their relationships with other prisoners and staff. They have also explored how they perceive the legitimacy of their sentences, and how that may affect their compliance, adaptation, and resistance.
With younger prisoners serving longer sentences, these issues have important potential operational impacts in terms of the risk of violence and disruption. He talked about prisoners’ struggle to conceptualise their sentence, of being “stuck in time”. Adapting to the sentence involved a process of learning to ‘manage time’, coming to terms with the offence, shifting perceptions around their conception of control, and making the sentence ‘constructive’.
The conference then heard from Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal, who in 30 years as Patron of the Butler Trust has visited almost every prison in the UK, as well as presiding over every one of the Trust’s annual award ceremonies. The Princess is also Patron of a number of other charities in the sector.
Noting the challenging and often exceptional work that happens in prisons, probation and youth justice, the Princess also spoke about the degree of change the sector has undergone in the thirty years since the Trust was formed, in particular in prisons, including: the introduction of integral sanitation; the improvement in relationships between prisoners and staff; and the increasing number of female prison staff and governors. HRH also noted the increasing role of prisoners in mentoring and supporting their peers, including as listeners and toe-by-toe mentors, and acknowledged the growing role of partnerships in prisons, and the role voluntary organisations have played in the lives of prisoners and staff alike. And citing the example of Save the Children, the Princess emphasised the value of evidence-based practice and sharing good practice across the sector.
Following the departure of the Royal party and a further break, the conference was treated to an optional extra, a late afternoon presentation by Professor Alison Liebling, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Cambridge and the Director of the Institute of Criminology’s Prisons Research Centre. Most of the speakers had referred to her work at some point, and almost everyone chose to stay on for a fascinating report about some of her latest work, Prisons, trust and the role of the prison officer.
“Moral climates in prisons,” Alison noted, “can make the difference between life and death”. The research she reported had as its focus trust, and how “the right combination of scepticism and trust, often called ‘common sense’ by prison officers, can make a measurable difference on a prison”.
Using a creative but empirical methodology, Alison reported results from a comparison of different prisons on multiple related factors, including the location and building of trust, the role of “intelligent trust” in the “good use of authority”, and the beneficial impact of outstanding prison officers and staff applying the right combination of skills.
Noting that ‘faith’ had become a “new no go area”, Alison’s work reframed ‘radicalisation’ with the more neutral and helpful term ‘political charge’, which could usefully include elements like anger, alienation, ‘a bit of fight’ and ‘anger at institutions’.
Empirical data was presented which reflected qualitative findings, and emphasised the vital role of trust. “Trust is like a fragile plant – once you get it started it will grow,” she explained. Unpicking measurable components of trust and political charge is ground-breaking work. Political charge, for example, is correlated with numerous factors, including ‘decency’, ‘humanity’, ‘bureaucratic legitimacy’, and ‘fairness.’
“Empirical differences in levels of trust have major consequences for life in those prisons.” Peeling apart a long list of factors, from ‘staff professionalism’ and ‘care for the vulnerable’ to ‘organisation and consistency’ and ‘personal autonomy’ provided a fascinating glimpse into the mysterious heart of trust. The key dimensions of trust, ‘intelligent trust’, ‘political charge’, ‘bureaucratic legitimacy’ and numerous others were then presented via comparisons between prisons. There were clear and measurable differences across these factors, suggesting routes to discover the differences between more or less ‘enabling’ and ‘disabling’ environments.
Using a lively analogy, Alison suggested a tentative “Failed States Theory of Prison Effects” that captured many of these findings, in which a combination of distal and proximate causes led to ‘political charge’, generating highly negative outcomes including violence, disorder, radicalisation and suicide.
This was then contrasted with a “Grounded Generative Theory of Legitimate Penal Order” in which distal and proximate effects led to ‘intelligent trust’ with a resultant legitimate order and positive personal outcomes.
Alison noted that people working in prisons today need expertise in a wide variety of novel areas, from youth cultures to religion. “They have to read a more complex world right – all the time.” This conference, and all of those who participated, undoubtedly made its own significant contribution to that demanding and important task.