Rehabilitation and the Label Makers

The criminal justice system in Britain often relies upon labels in order to deal with offenders. Individualised rehabilitative treatment is both expensive and time consuming and it is far easier to set a few different standard treatment pathways and then to divide offenders according to easily applied labels in order to determine which pathway would be most appropriate to their treatment needs. However, not only does labelling in this way preclude the delivery of treatment in the most effective way possible (i.e. on an individualised basis), it is also easy to apply the wrong labels.

The problem here is that, just as history is written by the victors, labels ore decided upon and fixed by those in power. An offender is never able to determine their own labels, they are applied externally. Even the term ‘rehabilitation’ itself is a label which (although differently interpreted by each and every individual) is given a fixed, non-negotiable definition by the criminal justice system.

In terms of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, anyone serving longer than four years in prison can never have their convictions spent because they are never truly classed as rehabilitated, regardless of whether they spent most of those years on adjudications or whether they spent most of them on offending behaviour courses.

Most right thinking people would agree that true rehabilitation is an internal process which can be assisted or hindered by external influences. Rehabilitation is the adaptation of a person’s internal processes and thinking patterns until they are no longer motivated to use illegal or anti-social behaviour.

However, this is achieved within the criminal justice system not through individualised treatment and assisted self development, but through externally reinforced lessons which are decided upon based on a choice of generalised treatment pathways which in themselves have been picked according to labelling and classification. In other words, indoctrination. Of course, this indoctrination is almost always with a positive intent (prevention of further offending) but as long as it is applied as an external process it will remain indoctrination.

Sometimes the best way to highlight the point is through reductio ad absurdum – reducing the argument to the absurd. In this case we can do this by examining the fact that efforts towards rehabilitation are undertaken by imprisoning an offender, usually against their wishes, and using a system of rewards and punishment to encourage them to engage with those holding them. By repeatedly reinforcing a consistent message to the offender they become increasingly likely to adapt their thinking to those who have power over them, which they are rewarded for with progression, until the offender builds up obedience and even loyalty to the system they are subject to, and are therefore deemed suitable for release. This is especially the case for indeterminate sentenced prisoners. Now imagine a kidnapper, terrorist, or bank robber who takes hostages and holds them prisoner against their wishes, threatening them with harsh treatment if they don’t do as they are told but treating them relatively reasonably if they cooperate, and constantly reinforcing their ideological message. Perhaps this is political, perhaps it is a sob story, or maybe it is just plain manipulation. However, the hostages are slowly conditioned to associate their obedience and loyalty with more positive treatment and, what’s more, they begin to buy into the philosophy that they are consistently told about. Eventually the hostages could even be allowed to walk around freely, the hostage taker safe in the knowledge that the loyalty that has been built up will stop the hostages ever turning against them. This is exactly what happened in a bank in Stockholme which later became known as Stockholme syndrome and which has been repeated many times since in a whole variety of circumstances.

Of course, Stockholme syndrome is radically different to genuine rehabilitation on all levels. It is different in intent, different in application, different in effect, and different in moral position. However, we are not talking about genuine rehabilitation as defined by any right thinking person. We are talking about rehabilitation administered under a regime of time saving and cost cutting. Rehabilitation as defined by the label makers rather than by those who need that rehabilitation in the first place. In this sense rehabilitation could still arguably be said to be different to Stockholme syndrome in respect of intent, effect, and moral position, but it is not different in application. The methodology is the same. The psychological and physiological processes within the brain and within the mind are one and the same. The individual is being conditioned to adapt their thinking to come in line with those who have power over them. One is positive and the other negative, but the method is the same.

So what makes one Stockholme syndrome and the other rehabilitation? Simply put, the label makers do. The kidnapper, terrorist, and bank robber don’t have the power to define one or the other in the eyes of the public. But those in government, those who make all labels, have the power to define whatever they wish. This is how they get away with calling a ‘war’ a ‘military intervention’, a ‘lie’ an ‘untruth’, and a prison ‘riot’ a case of ‘concerted indiscipline’. All of these are simply labels which have been changed to alter the perception of all those who hear them used. Similarly, the criminal justice system do not administer Stockholme syndrome (and I wouldn’t realistically claim that they do) but their attempts at rehabilitation use the same methodology. However, they still label it as rehabilitation, even if it is quite different from the form rehabilitation should take in the ideal: individualised treatment to assist an internal rather than an external process of change. The label makers may use indoctrination, but they would never label it as such. They label it as intensive cognitive behavioural therapy. They use a system of rewards and punishments to promote obedience and engagement, but they don’t label it this way. They label it as an incentives and earned privileges policy. However, labels are not reality. The reality is undeniable. A rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet.

So here is the reality: the rehabilitation offered by the criminal justice system in Britain is built upon indoctrination and threats of punishment, assessments of success are arbitrarily measured, and the methodology of this type of rehabilitation is no different, in terms of the psychological and physiological effects on the brain and on the mind, than Stockholme syndrome. I believe the intent behind these processes is quite different, but even if they are not, the effect and the moral position of them are certainly different and, therefore, the intent is academic anyway. Rehabilitation, despite all else, remains a positive thing which should be aided wherever possible. But we should not believe that the rehabilitation we see in this country is the same as rehabilitation in the ideal, or that it is without moral doubt.

So what do you do with this? The truth is, it doesn’t really matter. Ideal rehabilitation is certainly an internal rather than an external process, but anyone who can see the rehabilitation we are offered for the poor imitation it is will also be able to rehabilitate themselves from the inside out. That is what I was determined to do years ago. I wanted to change and to grow. So I took the good of what was on offer from the rehabilitation services available and from all the resources around me, and I changed by choice. Unfortunately, there are many people who are not really interested in changing and there is absolutely nothing we can do about that. They will either be indoctrinated into subservient obedience (which will have a negative effect on them personally but a positive effect on society generally as they lead law abiding lives out of fear) or they will play along and tick the boxes whilst resisting indoctrination and change (creating an indifferent effect on them personally and a wholly negative effect on society as it expends significant resources changing absolutely nothing).

Rehabilitation in the way it is presently offered does not in and of itself preclude genuine change and those of us who genuinely want to change may actually be assisted by it. But it is not as effective as it could be and it is counterproductive in the case of many individual offenders who do not wish to change. The only solace we can draw is that it does nothing to stop those who want to rehabilitate themselves from doing so.

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2 thoughts on “Rehabilitation and the Label Makers

  1. This is exactly why imprisoning people to rehabilitate them or sticking them on community sentences with the same goal or in deed probation will never work. If the rehabilitation is not targeted to the individual personality and circumstances true change will never occur

    • I completely agree, Cait. Teaching has come a long way in the last 100 years precisely because it has finally been recognised that people have different learning styles, so I am amazed that a one size fits all approach is still applied to rehabilitation. Is educational development really any different to rehabilitative development? It’s all learning after all.

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