This week [25.06.2019] I was extremely lucky to have the opportunity to visit HMP Grendon and HMP Springhill. HMP Grendon is a category B/C prison surrounded by the open prison Springhill. These prisons are situated in Buckinghamshire, near Aylesbury, in the UK.
As my mum frequently likes to point out, this was not my first trip to prison. My dad frequently stay-cationed at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. But this was a different kind of visit, I was here to have my eyes opened to the wonderful world of therapeutic communities.
As an MSc Forensic Psychology student, we had touched on TCs briefly in our textbooks, it was amazing to see them in action. In my personal opinion, this is how all prisons should be.
The first thing that blew me away, was the female governor of the two prisons, Becky. In such a male-dominated career sector, it was nice to see such an empowered woman making a change in this industry and her 200+ residents.
The regime of Grendon is quite unique, with TCs encompassing the core work of the prison. Each of its 6 wings has its own therapeutic community. It remains the only prison in Europe to operate wholly as a TC.
A democratic therapeutic community provides group-based therapy to promote positive relationships, responsibility and participation. A TC gives residents control over the day-to-day running of their lives, they can buy and wear their own clothes, and interestingly, residents can be voted out by their peers.
All 45 residents on the wing will meet once a month to discuss what they’ve done in their smaller groups, and if an individual has behaved in an unacceptable way, they can be voted out of the prison.
Within a TC, both staff and residents give feedback about unacceptable behaviours and those which are linked to offending behaviours – known as their index offence. The therapeutic dialogue produced throughout the TC helps residents to understand and recognise their triggers, their behaviours and previous offending behaviours.
There is a constitution which all residents live by, written by the residents themselves. They are each accountable to themselves, each other, their constitution, as well as the general prison rules. Every single resident which I saw truly believed in this peer-made constitution, it’s hard to believe you’re actually talking to previously ‘dangerous’ individuals.
One of the techniques which is considered to be most effective is psychodrama. It teaches the residents about perspective-taking. At some stage, the resident will have to reenact the index offence which lead to their stay in custody, with and amongst their peers. During this process, they have to swap positions with their victims and explain how they must have felt. Following this, they take an outside perspective looking onto the scene and see how this can relate to previous traumas in their life or to see how their behaviour has made them into this individual.
After listening to some speeches about how TCs work and watching some mock-psychodramas, we had lunch with the residents. Another great thing about this prison is that this label doesn’t sound so demonising like ‘inmates’ or ‘offenders’. Residents say they are treated with respect amongst their peers and staff. When I spoke to some residents over lunch, I heard firsthand how much they’ve learned and benefitted from these interpersonal relationships in terms of their emotional regulation, self-management and general psychological wellbeing.
The men in this prison, all chose to be here. They chose to participate in therapy.
To be accepted into this prison, an offender must…
- have more than 18 months left to serve
- have been off of category A/ escape risk for more than 6 months.
- meet their drug-free criteria.
- have no current diagnosis of major mental illness
- accepts responsibility for their offence
- meet their self-harm criteria.
- be over 21 years old
- stay at least 24 months.
I am such an advocate of rehabilitating those in contact with the criminal justice system. It seems bizarre to me that some people think the way to address crime and prevent reoffending is to simply lock people up and do nothing to address their underlying issues.
Through my own experiences of therapy, I believe this approach is by no means the ‘easy way out’. Most men had been abused as children, subjected to violence, exposed to alcohol and/or substance misuse in their teens. I respect these men for opting to go through, assess and address some of their worst experiences to try and better themselves for when they are released and for their loved ones.
People may say this prison’s approach is a ‘soft touch’, I personally believe it must be a lot harder to work through your thoughts and behaviours and to be held accountable by your peers as well as the staff, as opposed to being locked up in your average prison.
Many men even turn down the possibility of parole to complete the process.
A therapeutic community is a twenty-four-hour, seven-days-a-week, fifty-two-weeks-a-year commitment for these men to analysing their own behaviours in the context of prison to attempt to gain insight and understanding into why they ended up in prison. If we truly want to reform our prisoners, to break the cycle of offending behaviour, to give them coping mechanisms – this may be the way forward.
They are made to relive it every day. They work through it every day. It’s not just the victims who have to think about it, these men do too.
HMP Grendon has one of the lowest rates of violence of any UK prisons. There is no segregation unit, residents have to work through their behaviours within their small groups.
Research has shown that if a resident spends two years in HMP Grendon, they are less likely to re-offend in the future.
As per prison rules, we weren’t allowed to take any photographs, but the walls were decorated with art; art created by residents during art therapy sessions. A constant reminder of what this prisons focus is. It’s not what the prison looks like, but what goes on inside that matters.
I feel really lucky to have been inside.