Friday, May 19, 2006


Inappropriate and criminal behaviour cannot be condoned and society must have a means of communicating this through consequences that both act as a deterrent and a means of ensuring that it does not arise again.

Unfortunately, whilst posing a limited deterrent, the use of punishment as the primary means of promoting change has simply not been effective in reducing re-offending. Rather it has often stemmed from a desire by society for retribution and revenge. This is a strong and understandably emotional response. It does not however recognise that such behaviour is caused by a range of factors and circumstances, many of which propel offenders into a situation of survival in whatever way they can, including acts of crime and the use of drugs as a state of mental denial and avoidance of responsibilities.

The reality is that patterns of criminal behaviour and substance misuse will only be addressed by tackling the underlying causes of crime. Critically, until ‘people’ are treated as unique individuals and there is a real understanding that anti-social behaviour is triggered by emotional and basic human needs not being met, then people’s behaviour will not change and crime will persist.

Personal behaviour and thinking is shaped over the years by the environment and experiences in which we grow up – home, school, college, university, work place, city, countryside, our peers and travels. Some experiences are exciting, challenging and rewarding. Others are less so. Regrettably, research has clearly shown that in the case of offenders, such experiences have in the main be particularly damaging, resulting a various levels of despair, depression, anger and failure, all of which has led to a range of disturbing attitudes, criminal behaviour and substance missus.

Whilst historically society has resorted to a basic response of punishment and retribution as a means of addressing such behaviour, there is now increasing recognition that by itself this is not effective.

In responding to the issues of crime and its consequences, it is important to reflect upon one’s own life and to ask how it might have been had those experiences been different.

Most people have been challenged, chastised and even punished for mistakes that they made; many have done things in the past and are only too glad that they did not get caught. Had they been their latter circumstances might have been very different.

Making mistakes and enduring the consequences is part of life’s rich learning process. Without mistakes it is unlikely that one is doing anything different. Rather one would tend to exist within a limited environment and personal comfort zone, never daring to ‘step out’ in an attempt to do something new.

Importantly, in undertaking any new experience, the greatest incentive and motivators are the feelings of safety, success, recognition and reward - not those of confusion, punishment and failure. By itself punishment merely serves to demoralise, de-motivate and depress, confirming a sense of worthlessness, without providing the insight as to how it could have been done differently. Critically, the de-motivation experienced tends to discourage any perceived risk taking for positive change.

Depending simply upon punishment as a means of promoting positive change can be compared to putting diesel into a petrol engine vehicle. Yet historically, this is effectively what society has been doing with offenders. There is now a need to recognise and acknowledge that the fuel many offenders need is a sense of self-worth and success; a feeling of pride and the knowledge that despite everything, they can become worthy and trusted citizens.

Maslow - Maslow described his hierarchy of basic needs ranging from food and water through personal security, social belonging and support, to achievement, success and belief. Without these fundamental building blocks our lives simply go nowhere. Rather we all wither and die.

Many offenders recognise the damaging impact that they had on their victims. Equally, many describe previous contact with ‘impersonal people’, a ‘lack of social tolerance’, about ‘being marginalised’ and ‘abused’, of failing to gain any qualifications, with ‘the ultimate drama driven by a sense of worthlessness and fear of life and what is happening to them’. Importantly, many are desperate to rediscover themselves by becoming part of something tangible, enabling them to develop their personal belief systems, confidence and spiritual growth, establishing goals and having the support and opportunities to “mix it with other people” and to become accepted within society. Only by experiencing such feelings and beliefs can they move on from a feeling of emotional despair to one of self-worth and success.

As part of the reducing re-offending agenda the provisions of basic skills qualifications, accommodation and employment have been promoted as essential. Whilst undoubtedly important end goals in any offender management plan, sadly, this is also where the weakness lies. If ex-offenders are to be capable of holding down a job and effectively managing their lives over the longer term, it is also essential to address their basic human and emotional needs. Currently, programmes of personal development and social and life skills training are not receiving the attention they merit. Consequently many offenders will fail to complete the journey and transition to a more purposeful life.

Scientific research has shown that people’s emotional intelligence is set within the first few years of life and unless they experience a major life change, most people will never feel significantly higher or lower than they have learned to be during that time. In order to help address this issue, private, voluntary and the public sector organisations spend vast sums of money on personal development and soft skills training programmes for their employees, all aimed at increasing performance, efficiency and output, as well as reducing stress and anxiety and improving staff moral. Many books and programmes have been written and designed to promote confidence, motivation and the ability to take on new challenges.

Yet, for those members of our society who lack even the most basic positive belief systems and social skills, we make the situation worse by re-affirming their weaknesses, telling them they are worthless and evil and incarcerating them in prison, an environment that is simply not conducive to the necessary changes required. One is left wondering, is it that the system does not understand the issues surrounding these basic needs, or has it become so entrenched in the mindset of fear, security, punishment and retribution that providing what is really required is not even recognised, let alone considered for implementation?

For most offenders the transition from crime to full time employment, settled housing and citizenship is a journey of massive change. For some the prospect is extremely frightening, so much so that they often tend to run away from the process. Critically, the transition is not achieved simply by putting someone in a class room and going through the motions of teaching them basic skills. Neither can ex-offenders be expected to fit into a strange work place without support. Both are environments where historically they have already failed. Indeed, by insisting that this is the way forward, we can often set them up for further failure, thus re-affirming what they already believed – they are useless and cannot do it.

For it to be otherwise there has to be a fundamental change in how we address these issues, all being aimed at changing individual attitudes and behaviour with a real focus on the soft skills and issues of personal development and overall confidence. The ‘bottom line’ is simple, if we keep doing the same things, we must expect the same outcomes in levels of re-offending and human and financial waste.

In 2002 the Social Exclusion Unit (SEU) published a report on reducing re-offending by prisoners. Along with many important issues, the report highlighted that one persistent 19 year old offender was costing the tax payer in the order of £164,000 per person, year on year. With inflation and other revised factors, this figure is now well in excess of £170,000. With such sums one could send each young person to some of the best private schools and colleges in the country and still have change at the end. Indeed, with the number of young people currently trapped within the criminal justice system, were this money to be freed up it could be used to establish a whole new range of establishments specifically designed to promote the education and personal development of offenders and others at risk. This of course demands a concept of joined up government and ‘change’!

Dr Stephen Covey once said –
“We must not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploration will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time”.

“People can’t live with change if there’s not a changeless core inside them. The key to the ability to change is a changeless sense of who we are, what we are about, and what we value”.

As highlighted in the SEU report and many other research papers over the years, most persistent offenders have experienced a wide range of failings and abuse. Changing their behaviour is therefore like learning a new skill. This has four essential stages all of which can take different periods of time: -

Denial - Resistance – Exploration - Commitment

Denial - in this state, you really don’t know that you don’t know! In some cases young people don’t even care, and furthermore they don’t care that they don’t care – such a process is mentally blocked and considerable one-to-one motivational work is needed in order to start the process off.

Resistance – you have tried and you know enough to know that your not very good at it – it takes a tremendous amount of thought and concentration – it can feel uncomfortable with a sense of deep vulnerability – but this is also the time when a person is learning the most.

Exploration – you can do it – you have reached a level of capability, however you still have to concentrate and think about what you are doing. It feels more comfortable and the vulnerability is considerably lessened or gone completely.

Commitment – you do it without thinking – it becomes habitual, and often you can do other things at the same time.

Comfort Zones - Where we belong and feel at ease is often described as our comfort zone. This tends to match our inner picture or self-image. Of note, we can often feel out of place when our inner picture doesn’t match our outer one. If we believe we have moved too far outside our comfort zone we experience feelings and physical symptoms which cause discomfort; - we want to get back to ‘safety’ very quickly – back to where we came from and what we know. For offenders, this will tend to be their previous environments and social groups; nothing changes.

Anxiety is often directly linked to being out of our comfort zone, resulting in stress, tension and fear about what we see coming our way – even panic attacks!

In what is known as 3D Thinking - words – pictures – feelings, the words trigger the picture in our mind which triggers our feelings – good and bad. It is what happens when one feels out of place - embarrassed, frightened, being frozen to the spot, blushing, stuttering, muscles tighten etc. Some even experience sweating and palpitations or dizziness.

People therefore have a tendency to stay with what is familiar – not because they do not have potential to do other things, but because it is not out of their CZ - they feel safer. It is easier not to face the challenge. This experience can happen to us all.

Regrettably, in our efforts to reduce re-offending we do not recognise or bother to understand this process. Rather we assume that by offering an offender a job and putting him or her into accommodation, the rest will follow. This is simply not the case.

Reducing re-offending rates requires a holistic process of personal development, support, time and growth, enabling individuals to step out of their old and familiar environment into a new and exciting world where they can learn to grow and live more fulfilled lives. For offenders, this process is currently conspicuous by its absence. As a consequence, any experiential change is severely limited and many offenders fail to complete the journey resulting in more victims, more financial costs and most importantly, wasted lives.

One is left wondering if the system and society is afraid of failure and stepping out of its comfort zone!

Trevor Philpott

Friday, May 12, 2006

Follow-up from BBC Radio Five Live broadcast

On Monday 8 May 2006 the Howard League for Penal Reform launched its important report ‘Out for Good’ which addresses the needs of 18 - 20 year old male offenders. As part of this launch a former offender, Craig, joined me in a number of live radio interviews to discuss some of the many associated issues. Following the Radio Five Live broadcast I was contacted by Paul, himself a former offender and prisoner. What follows is his brief story of his personal courageous and determined journey to change his life. Whilst recognising that there are probably few offenders capable of undertaking such a similar journey alone, one is left asking how many could, were they to be supported and encouraged to do so.

"Hi Trevor

I was moved to write to you after listening to BBC Five Live this morning. I want to tell you my story and offer myself as a mentor or a speaker to motivate; if ever you need me in the future, keep my details and keep doing what you are doing, it is fantastic.

I basically came out of prison and with hardly any support eventually became a university lecturer and am now a counsellor. Fundamentally, I understand that the majority of people should not be in prison, I have lived and suffered it. Working class cultural norms, peer pressure, learning difficulties and dysfunctional family relations put vulnerable people in prison, this is an outrage.

I was born in Teesside and was raised in a notoriously depressing estate. My grandmother was a prostitute and allowed a paedophile to baby sit my father and his three brothers and two sisters. I won’t explain the horrendous circumstances of the arrangement; however, he had the freedom to abuse if he waived the baby sitting fee. Several months later, my five year old father witnessed the horrendous murder of his 6 month year old brother, my uncle.

This came to my attention when I was 15 years of age. My father psychologically tortured me for this length of time and was often violent towards me and my mother every other day. As a counsellor, I now know he was ‘acting out’ and suffering from post-traumatic shock.

My mother, out of desperation, then abandoned us both when I was 15 to start a lesbian relationship. My father then became more unstable so I went into the depressing culture of gangs to escape his violence; I was also an angry young man. The only self-esteem and respect I knew was now developing within my peer group. Classically, I was having my damaged ego stroked by being ‘one of the lads’. I was involved with criminals and a football hooligan gang and was sent to prison (Durham) when I was 22 for a burglary, then later for gang fighting. So from the age of about 19 to 23 I was involved in a lot of crime. During my low ebb, I had a local gangster making a genuine threat to kill me. Currently, he is serving life for murders. My two best friends from those days are now sadly dead, from heron addiction.

Through all of this, I remained fairly sensitive and understood right and wrong. It may sound paradoxical, but my obvious success of the last two decades indicates this. The day I came out of prison I put my thumb out on the A19 and ended up walking into a Cambridge hotel and asked for a job. I then moved to Germany and had 5 wonderful years rebuilding my life with a loving woman and her family and a great works agency. Alex then encouraged me to educate myself as I picked up the language quickly, we parted friends then and I moved to Bradford to begin university.

I have had a tough and incredible journey. I now have a tough client group at a local hospice. I counsel local men who have similar backgrounds to myself, and I hold them through their pains. I am developing my own tools of counselling, when clients, with difficult upbringings, tell me they ‘cant’ then I look them in the eyes warmly, self-disclose my story, and tell them they can. I bring hope to those in hopeless situations. I am now looking forward to step out into the community.


Paul M"