Jenelle Clarke – The Value of Prison Therapeutic Communities

‘The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.’
– Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Last month, Claudia Hammond from BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind visited HMP Grendon, the only prison in Europe which is run completely as a therapeutic community (TC).  The focus of the programme was to speak with prisoners, most of whom are serious offenders serving indeterminate sentences, and staff members to find out how the prison works and how they seek to address issues of reoffending.

As the programme identified, in a prison TC offenders are continuously encouraged to understand why they offended and to take responsibility for what they have done.  Grendon staff members noted during the programme that because residents have a stake in not only their own but others therapy, there is a strong sense of accountability.  Reality confrontation is crucial as members are encouraged to confront each other with honesty and frankness.  Jones’s (1968) concept of social learning is utilised so that every social encounter between residents and staff members could potentially be one in which residents gain new insight about their own behaviour and their ways of relating to others.  These principles are found in most TCs, and as with most TCs, the way it all works in practice is complex and at times chaotic.  However, as Hammond’s visit to Grendon highlighted, in a prison setting, these issues become even more multifaceted.  Not only is applying therapeutic principles challenging in a prison (Rawlings, 1998) whereby the goals of safety, security and therapy do not always fit comfortably together, there are the financial costs and the political issues at stake.  The type of specialised therapy on offer within a prison TC is expensive, requires a high level of commitment from prison administration and staff (Wexler and Prendergast, 2010), and as members at Grendon pointed out, the perception of spending public money on helping, rather than punishing, offenders is not always politically popular.

However, the value of this type of approach cannot be diminished by its challenges.  A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit a prison TC as part of the Community of Communities Peer Review Process.  Residents engaged with our team openly about what it is like to address personally painful issues with other people on a daily basis.  Like any TC, the meeting was full of mutual support, honesty and the occasional argumentative outburst, all of which the entire group had to manage.  Unlike other present day TCs, residents were together 24/7 and opportunities for reality confrontation, support and honest reflection were always available.  Such a regime, whilst far from easy, was clearly valued.

As for the commitment that this type of approach requires, the staff members I have met over the last several years from various prison therapeutic communities demonstrate that they are committed to their roles and helping prisoners.  They echo what Grendon staff members report in Hammond’s program, namely that offenders do learn to work together in order to take responsibility for their actions, there is little violence on the units, and more importantly, they can point to research (c.f. Wexler and Prendergast, 2010; Newton, 2010) that indicates that reoffending rates do go down.

Of course one visit to a prison community and a few conversations with staff members are not enough to definitively argue why these communities are worth their challenges.  But it does give pause for thought and reflection about the potential of people to help other people, especially in a prison.

Surely one of the hallmarks of a democratic society is where offenders can learn to see the impact of their actions from another’s perspective, to experience ‘victim empathy’ (Smartt, 2001:13).  Such insight does not fade with time as one has to live forever with this knowledge.  Greater awareness of these issues*, including more research and programme’s like Hammond’s, is needed in order to continue this conversation about the value of a prison therapeutic community in our society.

(*In addition to All in the Mind, former prison governor Tim Newell has published a review (publically available) in the Prison Service Journal on Dovegate: A Therapeutic Prison in a Private Prison and Developments in Therapeutic Work with Personality Disordered Offenders (released 2011), by Dr Eric Cullen and Dr Judith Mackenzie, which touches on similar issues to ones discussed above.)

Posted by:
Jenelle Clarke
ESRC PhD Student (Sociology)

All in the Mind (2012) BBC, BBC Radio 4. Broadcast on 8 May 2012. Available through BBC iPlayer:

Jones, M. (1968) Beyond the Therapeutic Community: social learning and social
. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Newton, M. (2010) Changes in Prison Offending Among Residents of a Prison-Based Therapeutic Community. in Shuker, R. and Sullivan, E. eds. Grendon and the Emergence of Forensics Therapeutic Communities: developments in research and practice. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Rawlings, B. (1998) The Therapeutic Community in the Prison: problems in maintaining therapeutic integrity. Therapeutic Communities 19(4): pp.281-294.

Smartt, U. (2001) Grendon Tales: stories from a therapeutic community.  Winchester: Waterside Press.

Wexler, H.K. and Prendergast, M.L. (2010) Therapeutic Communities in United States’ Prisons: effectiveness and challenges.  Therapeutic Communities 31(2): pp.157-175.


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