In a better world, prisoners would leave jail and turn away from crime. Despite falling crime rates, there are some offenders who seem to be committed to a life of persistent offending: almost half of all those released from prison will be convicted of at least one other offence within a year. The effort to drive down recidivism has led to a number of rehabilitation programmes within prisons. Under government plans to transform justice, an increasing number of such programmes are run by external agencies. One of the most innovative charities in this field is The Forgiveness Project. Drawing on counselling techniques and group work, their prison programme (now known as Restore) encourages prisoners to develop empathy and emotional awareness - "to open prisoners' minds to an alternative way of viewing themselves and the world, one that makes a crime-free life seem attractive," as Prof. Joanna R Adler and Dr Mansoor Mir of Middlesex University's Forensic Psychological Services put it in their 2012 evaluation of TFP. Their research was funded by the Monument Trust, the Bromley Trust and the Rayne Foundation.
Tracking released prisoners is notoriously difficult, and it was beyond the scope of the Middlesex evaluation to find out what impact TFP might be having on recidivism. The team produced a qualitative and quantitative analysis of its short-term effects, following up programme participants after 3 months and 1 year. They conducted interviews and used standardised measures to consider prisoners' cognitive processing and other psycho-social indicators of well-being. They also evaluated offenders' empathy towards victims gaining perspectives from both offenders and staff about the project and comparing programme participants against a control group of similar prisoners who had not participated in the programme.
There have been mixed findings regarding the efficacy of empathy programmes and this study showed limited impact from a quantitative perspective but this may well have been because the prisoners were able to talk about empathy for others before they engaged with the programme. The qualitative findings demonstrated considerable shifts in the nature of such empathy and how prisoners really understood it. However, demand for direct evidence of a positive effect on recidivism means that the prison service is currently moving away from empathy programmes, says Prof Adler. She worked with the TFP's executive to help refine and codify their aims and approaches.
Joanna and Mansoor found that while TFP had the potential to reduce reoffending, it was unclear how any such change may be occurring. They did find, however, that the project was unusually well received in prisons. Offenders said it was different from similar rehabilitation programmes. "It makes you think about yourself, and the kind of person you are," was a typical verdict. Young offenders spoke of becoming calmer, and better able to deal with small setbacks. Others - especially Muslim prisoners - appreciated the fact that TFP was not a Christian programme, and it encouraged many different religious views to be expressed.
"From the perspective of prisoners, the group provided a rare opportunity for 'pause', 'calm' and 'reflection'," wrote the authors. "Many prisoners described a movement from feeling isolated, alienated, mistrustful and hostile, and perceiving forgiveness as a sign of 'weakness', to regarding forgiveness and 'expressing yourself' as a sign of strength."
For some, more vulnerable prisoners, there was some concern that TFP may worsen anxieties already present. Although there was no evidence of direct harm being induced by TFP, Adler and Mir recommended that potential participants be screened for trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Middlesex PhD student Sarah Edwards is researching the role empathy might play in custody, and has already made further use of the study data. "It's a really rich data set," says Prof Adler, who will be working with Ms Edwards to publish secondary analysis of the results. "Sarah's work will extend further our initial findings and contribute a nuanced, timely reconceptualisation of empathy work with offenders".
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