Five rehabilitative assumptions

In the previous page, I described how the Risk-Need-Responsivity model underpins the design, planning and provision of rehabilitative provision in prisons. I also explained how the RNR model, as a scientific theory, has advantages and disadvantages when it comes to thinking about how people’s identities and circumstances change when they are moving away from crime. On this page I outline five assumptions which are implicit in the RNR model. In doing so, I am writing in a slightly different way than on the other pages in this section. There, my aim was to report descriptively on some aspects of how prisons think about ‘rehabilitation’ when it comes to lifers. The five assumptions here are more interpretative than descriptive, and offer more of a critique.

Assumption 1: offender managers are like clinicians

First, criminal justice professionals are cast as the authority figures: their task is to ‘manage’ offenders and the risk they present. By identifying ‘criminogenic needs’ and ‘prescribing’ the proper response, they act in a quasi-medical role.RNR puts the professional in the ‘driving seat’ of the change process. There is no easy place in the theory for an offender who changes under their own steam,or pursues a rehabilitative agenda of their own making. The individual’s role is that of a patient who must comply with the treatment they are offered. ‘Success’ is measured by whether this compliance has been secured.

Assumption 2: offenders must ‘take their medicine’ to ‘cure’ their risk

Second, RNR holds offenders responsible for complying with treatment even if they do not experience it as meaningful or worthwhile. For lifers, completion of the treatment listed on the sentence plan is often a condition of future release. This is a powerful incentive for compliance, and as a result, some argue that RNR opens itself to ‘gaming’ by prisoners who comply with treatment in order to secure release, rather than because they have undergone what might be seen as a more profound change of values.

Assumption 3: All risk ‘belongs’ to the offender

Third,focusing on the individual offender as the ‘owner’ of risk (and holding them accountable for reducing it) does not easily account for the subjective impression that life is often ethically complicated, presenting dilemmas and difficult choices rather than always a straight and obvious ‘right path’, raising the possibility that even someone who is trying hard to ‘desist‘ may make mistakes or experience relapses. To take one example, it is an observable fact that prisons generally are more violent and dangerous than most places in the outside world. Moreover, some are more violent and dangerous than others, presenting greater threats and provocations to their residents. This raises complex questions: are prisoners just as responsible for reducing risk if it is generated by a dangerous prison environment, as they are if it is generated by violent abuse they suffered in childhood, or if it is generated by their ‘poor anger management’?

Assumption 4: All true need is ‘criminogenic’

Fourth,risk-reducing interventions are usually (though with exceptions) narrowly focused, relatively short in duration, and based on short courses of cognitive behavioural therapy. They address a specific kind of behaviour, last between a few weeks and a few months, and use tools such as role plays to teach how negative thoughts and feelings can trap the patient in a vicious cycle, and that changing one’s beliefs can break the cycle. Critics argue that this ignores wider questions that are relevant to individuals serving long prison sentences, such as, ‘what is the purpose of my life when I haven’t seen the outside world for two decades?’ Interventions that are framed narrowly and address only need which is diagnosed as criminogenic might not help lifers to answer these wider questions, choosing instead only to respond to others which are easier to address. There is nothing illegitimate in doing so, but it does not render the wider questions unimportant, as far as lifers themselves are concerned.

Assumption 5: Lifers must wait for their ‘medicine’ (indefinitely if necessary)

Finally, the resources ‘prescribed’ for risk reduction are not always available, and those who are assessed as presenting ‘high risk’ tend to take priority if there are shortages. Waiting lists for offending behaviour programmes are not unheard of, and courses do not exist to address all identified risks. This means that the conditions attached to progression can be difficult for prisoners to understand, let alone meet. From their point of view, this can raise questions of fairness, reduce their motivation to work towards the objectives set by the sentence plan, and can make them mistrust the genuineness of the prison’s rehabilitative ‘offer’. It has real impacts, too, such as when people are held in prison after the end of their tariff because they have not completed a course, even if their record is otherwise exemplary. Not all prisoners believe this to be fair or legitimate.


In summary, the offender management model implies a rather smooth, rational ‘template’ for rehabilitation. Its primary emphasis on individual risk does not make it easy to account for the influence of other factors which result in risk. It also tends to imply that the only needs which are legitimate targets for rehabilitative resources are those which generate ‘risk’, and de-emphasises wider questions of meaning and purpose which are relevant to lifers themselves.

Photo, with thanks, by John Tecuceanu on Unsplash

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