Planning and serving time

The previous page set out the basic facts about life imprisonment as a penalty. This page sets out how the Prison Service aims to help lifers to plan and serve their sentence, and particularly to set expectations and requirements regarding how they use their time.

Offender management

‘Offender management’ is the term the Prison Service uses to describe its efforts to work with prisoners to ensure that they are less likely to offend in future. This page describes the process (which is generic for all prisoners).

Prisoners are given a named probation officer called the ‘offender manager’, whom they will meet with regularly throughout the sentence to review progress and make further plans. They will usually also have ‘offender supervisors’ and ‘personal officers’ or ‘key workers’, staff members who they are likely to see more often, and whose job (in theory) is to help them to meet the requirements of the sentence plan.

Risk assessment and sentence planning

At the start of the sentence, an offender manager will sit down with the prisoner and conduct an assessment using the Offender Assessment System (‘OASys’ for short). OASys is a structured questionnaire aiming to find out why someone has offended, what they need to do to stop, and whether they are likely to harm themselves or other people. It asks questions based on analyses of large numbers of people who have committed offences in the past, and it assigns scores for different factors which are held to be relevant. For example, prisoner might be assigned a higher score if they have a history of substance abuse, or if they have previous convictions, because these have been associated in the past with a higher level of risk.

One result of the assessment is a risk score. This is used to further categorise prisoners into ‘high’, ‘medium’ and ‘low’ risk (of reoffending or further harm). The OASys assessment helps the prison authorities to decide how to prioritise their resources (for example, high-risk prisoners are prioritised for access to various rehabilitative interventions). It is repeated at regular intervals during the sentence, and helps to identify the points to be include din a sentence plan.

The sentence plan and ‘risk reduction’

Another output from the assessment process is a sentence plan. If the OASys has identified ‘criminogenic needs’ (that is, factors believed to have influenced the person’s offending which, if unaddressed, may result in further offending in future), then the sentence plan will set targets intended to reduce that risk.

‘Criminogenic needs’ can be various. For example, one ‘criminogenic need’ might be a history of addiction, in which case the sentence plan will usually include requirement to get clean, and may ‘prescribe’ forms of addition treatment.Other ‘criminogenic needs’ relevant to different kinds of offending might include, for example, a history of intimate partner violence or alleged involvement in gangs, which are taken to indicate faults in the individual’s underlying psychological makeup – sometimes described as their ‘attitudes,thinking and behaviour’.

The key point is that the identification of ‘need’ will usually result in a‘prescription’: the requirement in a sentence plan for the prisoner to ‘reduce risk’ by participating in certain accredited interventions, which are believed to address need and reduce risk.

Interventions to address offending behaviour

Most accredited interventions are in the form of ‘offending behaviour programmes’,usually based on comparatively short courses (measured in weeks or months) of cognitive behavioural therapy. Courses aim to help participants to think differently about whatever aspect of their offending behaviour the programme addresses, often by using role-playing scenarios held to be similar to those in which past offences have occurred. These are used to reflect on non-participation and cognitive reactions, and what these are taken to reveal about‘faulty’ thinking. The course tutors aim to teach participants different ways of thinking and different actions that could be taken in such a scenario in the future. Courses of this kind are highly focused, addressing only elements of thinking and behaviour which are believed to have been relevant to the offending.

A smaller number of accredited interventions take a somewhat more holistic and long-term view. For example, Therapeutic Communities (TCs) exist in a number of prisons. They use a regime of small group therapy, and aim to give prisoners a degree of trust and responsibility by participating in self-governing communities run on democratic principles. The degree of freedom enjoyed by prisoners in TCs is, of course, highly constrained, but is significantly greater than in other prison settings.

Participation is voluntary, and prisoners apply to go to TCs from elsewhere in the prison system; they may be sent back if they are judged unready for the responsibility that is involved. In small group therapy, their interactions with each other are processed and analysed in daily meetings, with the aim of exploring the deeper roots of character and personality. TC interventions last longer, range more widely, and take a more holistic view of prisoners’ lives and backgrounds, though still with a strong focus on reducing risk through the assessment of what caused past offending.

Other sentence targets

Not all the targets in a sentence plan will address the offending behaviour specifically. Lifers often serve sentences far longer than the total length of any interventions they might complete, and they often have years to pass. Some sentence targets might, for example, include working successfully at a job or in education at the prison, or (for example) ‘settling in’ to a new wing after a move. A sentence plan could also require a prisoner to undertake various forms of education or work training that do not directly address the person’s offending. In theory, such opportunities increase the prisoner’s chance of obtaining employment in the future.

Regular reviews

Sentence plans are meant to be reviewed regularly. The intention here is to review the prisoner’s progress against the targets set in the plan, and to set new ones. Future reviews are meant to be done regularly, often annually. So are reviews of a prisoner’s security categorisation, which determines the kind of prison where he or she is to be confined. For male prisoners, Category A designates people for whom the highest security is needed; category A prisoners are held only in high-security prisons, which also hold long-term category B prisoners. Category D designates open prisons, and prisoners who are deemed trustworthy to be housed in them; and Categories B and C represent intermediate points in between.

How accurately does the sentence plan reflect real life?

Many of us in the free world will be familiar with processes which superficially resemble sentence planning, for example because we have participated indifferent forms of performance review at work. Such processes aim to give a certain structure to how we plan and approach our work; but they do so by focusing on narrow components within our overall lives, isolated from their wider context. They do not address the ‘meaning of life’ in all of its complexity. In theory, the sentence plan sets out a smooth path by which, provided they comply with its requirements, a life-sentenced prisoner will be rehabilitated. In practice, the path is not always as smooth as it implies, and the model does not always capture the full complexity of a prison ‘career’.

In short, the lived experience of the sentence is not always as smooth as the model implies. Why this is so is addressed on another page.

Photo, with thanks, by John Tecuceanu on Unsplash

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