Forensic Psychology and the Prison Service

The very fact of being detained and following an imposed routine can have negative mental effects on prisoners. Institutional neurosis is a syndrome of difficulties that Barton (1959) observed developing in response to institutionalisation. Symptoms include apathy, lack of initiative, loss of interest in things and events not of immediate relevance, deterioration of personal habits, lack of interest in the future, and a loss of individuality (Milan & Evans, 1987).

It is caused by lack of contact with the outside world and the enforced idleness that being imprisoned implies. The general atmosphere of deprivation, sterility, and disrepair characteristic of many institutions also contribute to the institutionalisation process. The American Association of Correctional Psychologists (AACP) has established 57 standards for the delivery of psychological services in adult prisons.

In general, these standards state that the treatment inmates receive should be no less than that of the general public, psychological staff should have professional autonomy within the correctional system, the same principles of consent apply to prisoners, and all inmates must be screened for past and present mental disturbances and their current mental state. This screening is necessary to prevent new arrivals from hurting themselves or hurting others (Blackburn, 1995). Because so many freed prisoners re-offend there have always been alternatives sought for confinement.

In recent years, this has revolved around placing offenders in programs and facilities around the community. This most frequently takes the form of probation or parole. Probation is intended as a combination of treatment and punishment. According to Hood and Sparks (1970) for many offenders a period of probation is likely to be as effective in preventing re-offending as an institutional sentence, fines are more effective than imprisonment or probation for first time offenders, and longer prison sentences do not reduce the reconviction rate.

Currently, there is optimism that psychologists working within the prison system can contribute to crime reduction (Howitt, 2006). Some interventions have a positive effect in reducing re-offending, and this is more likely if interventions are well designed, targeted, and systematically delivered (Blud et al, 2003). The most widely run and effective programmes in prisons are two cognitive skills programmes – Reasoning and Rehabilitation (R&R) and Enhanced Thinking Skills (ETS).

The theory on which cognitive skills programmes are based involves an assumption that for some offenders their offending behaviour is linked to a lack of thinking skills, such as interpersonal problem solving, social perspective taking and self-control (Wilson et al, 2003). Research conducted by Ross and Fabiano showed that persistent offenders appeared to lack cognitive skills when compared with less persistent and non-offenders.

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