Rehabilitation: What Does it Really Mean?

Alex Cavendish on a term long since drained of meaning. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation. He blogs at Prison UK: An Insider's View.

It’s a funny word, rehabilitation. Not least because it’s one of those odd terms that is regularly used in the criminal justice system, but very rarely defined. And therein lies the problem. Without a clear definition of any word, it can mean something – or nothing.

But what does it really mean?
It’s also complicated because the term is often used in a medical context, whether the condition being treated is physical or mental. As ‘rehab’ it refers to support to recover from an addiction. Then again, in the old Soviet Union, it meant the quashing of a conviction – often posthumously – of those who had been wrongly convicted for political offences during the Stalinist era.

So what does rehabilitation mean for ex-prisoners? I have deliberately avoided using the officially preferred term ‘offender’ here, because I think that rehabilitation should equally apply to those who have been held unconvicted on remand, as well as victims of miscarriages of justice who are released when their convictions are quashed by the Court of Appeal. 

In my experience, these are two specific groups that are routinely overlooked when it comes to rehabilitation. They are expected to leave prison with nothing in the way of support and effectively ‘pretend’ that it all never happened and just go and pick up the pieces, even when they may well have lost their jobs, homes, family relationships and are possibly carrying their entire worldly goods in a black prison holdall back into the outside world that neither knows nor cares what nightmares they have lived through.

Taken at its most basic level, the rehabilitation of prisoners can sometimes be defined as having ‘reformed’ people in preparation for their return to the community, although I think that there is a significant difference between reducing the risk of reoffending and actually facilitating the reintegration back into society of a person who has been convicted of a criminal offence. Of course, this is relevant not only to those who have been sentenced to a custodial term, but it can also apply to someone who has been given a community penalty, or even a fine since these outcomes also involve the person concerned getting a criminal record with all the civil and employment-limiting consequences that can involve.

A multi-dimensional approach
Perhaps we need to think about rehabilitation in the sense of repairing damage that has been done, both to the victims of crime, but also to prisoners, some of whom are coming out of prison in a worse state than they went in, particularly since the wings of many jails are now awash with drugs of all kinds. There is also the longer-term psychological damage that can be inflicted through bullying and exposure to other kinds of violence that inmates may experience while they are inside, including – perhaps to a more limited extent – sexual assaults or the trauma of seeing fellow cons commit suicide. 

Certainly in its medical or therapeutic context, rehabilitation is all about the treatment and management of injury, illness or the addressing of dysfunctions. Given the high levels of drugs or alcohol misuse by those committing crimes – not to mention the astonishingly widespread availability of drugs (legal and illegal) on our prison wings – rehabilitation often also needs to include the wider issues of ‘rehab’ in that sense too.

To be honest, depressing as it may sound, I have rarely met a fellow con who came into prison with a drug dependency who has really managed to kick whatever addiction they have. Often they just look for available substitutes inside. Even most prison support services for addicts, which are contracted out to external service providers, are doing little more than managing these problems at best. 

Prison wings awash with drugs
I well remember one particular peer mentor – a ‘former’ drug addict who was supposed to be supporting his fellow prisoners to get clean and stay off drugs – who was high as a kite almost all the time. I would see him wandering down unit corridors in one establishment completely out of his head mid-morning. None of the screws or civilian staff could possibly have failed to notice it, but they simply seemed to let it all go.

One of my principal criticisms of our current prison system is that rehabilitation, in any of its accepted meanings, no longer seems to play any significant part in the average prison sentence. Those inside on short stretches are basically ‘warehoused’ until being shoved out of the main gate of the nick with their £46 discharge grant – unless they are under 18 in which case they won’t usually get a penny. 

Massive cuts to the prison budget have also seen a number of establishments close down their resettlement units. These were specialist centres staffed by experienced officers who helped prisons preparing for release with problems such as housing or registering for benefits or other support. These units seem to have all but disappeared, even in Cat-D (open) prisons. This is particularly concerning as almost all lifers and many other prisoners who have served very long sentences will eventually pass through what are laughingly termed these ‘resettlement’ prisons.

Going back inside again?
At present, the commonly-used yardstick seems to be whether a person released from prison reoffends (that is actually gets reconvicted), rather than whether they are making a successful resettlement back into society. I’ve known many former prisoners who are discharged from custody and are then unable to find any type of paid work, even if they are ready and willing to start from scratch on casual, unskilled minimum-wage jobs. Their criminal record can mean that they are all but unemployable.

Add to that the whole range of addictions and substance dependencies, mental and physical health problems and dysfunctional relationships, as well as functional illiteracy, that can all play a part in excluding many prisoners from successful reintegration back into the community and it’s clear to see how a custodial sentence very often fails to address any of the real issues. That is why I continually refer to prison sentences as offering little more than costly human warehousing.

Above all, I think that our underfunded and understaffed prison system is missing potential opportunities to support and encourage genuine rehabilitation. One of the most obvious examples of disjointed thinking about custody, particularly in the closed prisons, is that by depriving adults of any meaningful choices or degrees of responsibility for their everyday lives, we somehow expect them to emerge from prison at the end of their sentences as people ready to become responsible for themselves and their own actions. Locking anyone behind a heavy steel door for 22 or 23 hours per day can never, and will never, achieve such positive outcomes.

Learning to take responsibility?
I firmly believe that we need much greater debate over what we, as a society, really want imprisonment to deliver. There are a series of fundamental questions that need to be answered. 

Do we want safer communities with lower rates of crime (particularly when it comes to violent or sexual offending) and positive outcomes for public protection, or do we simply want to continually repeat outdated penal policies and practices that have been shown time and again to be failing? This is evidenced by unacceptably high reconviction rates, particularly among those who have served short prison sentences, even though overall crime figures are falling. 

Do we genuinely want ex-prisoners to become useful, law-abiding and productive members of society again – or does imprisonment bring with it an indelible stigma that should continue to marginalise thousands of men, women and even children for the rest of their lives? If so, are we willing to continue footing the bill for generations to come?

Are we content to see these ex-prisoners as rejects and outcasts who serve as a terrible warning to everyone else? Have we really considered the longer-term economic and social implications of our prison system’s potentially catastrophic failure to provide opportunities for rehabilitation?  

Since society itself – including our political leaders and representatives, as well as most of the media – seems unable to decide what rehabilitation really means and why it would be beneficial, it’s perhaps unsurprising that our crisis-hit prisons aren’t delivering on HM Prison Service’s own mission statement that commits it to help prisoners “lead law-abiding and useful lives, both while they are in prison and after they are released”. By this measure, at least, prison definitely isn’t working. 

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

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