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Responsibility: key or obstacle to rehabilitation?

Responsibility: key or obstacle to rehabilitation?

The prison population is a socioeconomically selective population. Recent plans to reorganize penitentiary programmes risk increasing class bias also within prisons.

The Dutch Ministry of Safety and Justice is reorganising the penitentiary institutions (in order to save 271 million Euros). The reorganisation includes a regime change: the prisoner is given ‘more responsibility for the course of his sentence or measure’. During the execution of the sentence, ‘self-reliance’, ‘motivation’ and ‘responsibility’ are central in determining eligibility for activities within the prison walls. This approach should ‘reduce the risk of hospitalisation, which contributes to a responsible way of re-integrating into society’. The attempt to avoid hospitalisation can be applauded, as is the focus on re-integration, but should they be linked to responsible behaviour?

Promotion and degradation

In the new regime, all prisoners start with a ‘basic programme’ while ‘plus programmes’ (freedoms, rehabilitation) can be earned by good behaviour. A system of ‘promotion’ and ‘degradation’ is introduced through which ‘freedoms during the sentence or measure can be earned and lost based on behaviour’. Educational and behavioural interventions become ‘privileges’ based on the efforts of the prisoner.
One point of critique is that the system of promotion and degradation violates the rehabilitation principle as stated in the Penitentiary Law: rehabilitation should be central in every sentence, not just in some sentences.
Furthermore, some prisoners risk exclusion more than others. In 2001 Dutch criminologist P. Nelissen expressed his concern about the emergence of a ‘second-rate’ group of prisoners, ‘a kind of underclass’ within a group of people who are already ‘a repository of social outcasts’. Nelissen studied differentiation in prison programmes and found that rehabilitation becomes ‘self-help’ and that, ironically, prison counsellors tend to give up on those who are not capable of self-help. Moreover, he concluded that differentiation based on ‘initiative’ and ‘adaptive behaviour’ risks selectivity based on socioeconomic status.

The irresponsible underclass

It is not difficult to imagine that people who have little education or work experience, or who grew up in an unstable environment, are less confident about their ability to shape their own future and therefore show little motivation for rehabilitation. What is more, our judgement of whether someone behaves responsibly may also be linked to our ideas about social class. Sociological studies on class show that the behaviour of the lower classes is often characterised as irresponsible and irrational: think about sexuality (teenage pregnancy), health (fast food, obesity), work ethos (unemployment), self-reliance (dependency on social security), and, above all, behaviour (anti-social, maladapted, criminal).
The combination of actual behaviour of prisoners and how behaviour is perceived by counsellors is therefore likely to result in selective treatment. In order to avoid class-based selectivity, and improve the re-integration of also the most vulnerable prisoners, rehabilitation should include programmes that teach prisoners to understand and improve self-reliance, motivation and responsibility.

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