The Failure of Prison Sex Offender Programs; Psychology is not the Problem

A response to an article published by BBC:



For almost two decades I have been among several who have anticipated this disappointing outcome and it gives me no pleasure to have been correct. I should say that I have been involved with sexual offenders for many years, as advisor to courts, therapist, program developer / manager and as Chief Supervisor of Forensic Psychology for the British Psychological Society. I have talked about it, tried to practice what I preach (against the tide of theocratic ‘What Works’ devotees), and written chapters of books, alone and with others, all intended to prevent the march of Neo Liberalism and New Public Management undermining the quality of treatment programs and the reputation of psychology.

Positive outcomes for sex offender programs have never been more than very modest, although the impact on victim prevention, no matter how small, could hardly be described as this. However the pressure on quality and forcing the decline of therapeutic impact of psychological treatment has been relentless. We have seen the decline in Anger Management programs and now in Sex Offender programs. It has been bad enough that the definition of professional psychologists has been eroded in some places to something just higher than automated ‘Program Drone’, conducting assessments that do not impact therapy and blithely following manualized programs, but in the UK and in the Federal system of Canada, there are many instances of psychologists being excluded from providing psychological treatments. It is cheaper to have someone without a professional training, or a training with no psychology at all to deliver program doses of psychology, like medication from a spoon. They are also less likely to challenge or question some of the excesses of programmatic interventions. Better to do without professional psychologists altogether than take their advice and change things to make them work.

Psychology should take some of the blame for allowing mistaken beliefs about the change process of therapy programs for sex offenders. For example, there has never been evidence that everyone is suitable for group interventions, so why do we expose people to group programs knowing that so many will fail? There has never been evidence that confrontation of offenders, on their attitudes and beliefs supporting offending, is effective. Actually, there is good evidence that it will cause more harm, hardening unhelpful attitudes and leading to more offending, so why have we ubiquitously employed confrontation as a therapeutic tool? Neither has there been evidence of the necessity of overcoming denial among offenders. Of course implacable denial of all culpability cannot be worked with, but as we all live with denial to some extent and manage to evolve and grow, why do we require of sexual offenders that every morsel of culpability is torn from them before they can move forward? Occasionally I have thought that the whole purpose of treating sex offenders is to find vindication of our moral outrage, rather than actually changing people.

What we ask of sex offenders being treated in standard programs is often inhuman and counterproductive. There is no attempt to mitigate the awful things they have done within this statement and neither would I advocate taking risks that put in jeopardy someone’s safety. My point is that if we need to change people to make them safer in the community we need to engage them with sophistication of understanding and not simply a rigorous application of pre-determined steps. To do this, even in the context of programmatic interventions, requires someone who can draw on a depth of psychological knowledge to derive unique psychological solutions to unique psychological problems. They must have the competence to adapt, change, accommodate and remain guided by theory and principles. We will not know for some time, or perhaps ever, if these results would have been different had the programs been implemented differently. However, one thing is certain, this was not a test of psychology or psychologists, at least not as I understand either.

BATP Author page here

2017 UK Gov report here

Connected references

Thomas-Peter B. A. (2015 May). Structural Violence in Forensic Psychiatry. In, D. A. Crighton and G. Towl (ed) Forensic Psychology 2nd Edition. Wiley-Blackwell

Harkins, L. & Thomas-Peter, B. A. The Treatment of Sex Offenders. (2010) In J. Brown, J. & E. Campbell, E. (Eds.) ‘The Cambridge Handbook of Forensic Psychology’. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge

Garrett, T. & Thomas-Peter, B. A. (2009) Interventions with sexual offenders with mental illness. In Beech, A.R., Craig, L., and Browne, K.D. (Eds). Assessment and Treatment of Sex Offenders: A Handbook. Chichester: Wiley.

Thomas-Peter B. A. (2007) The Modern Context of Psychology in Corrections: Influences, Limitations and Values of “What Works”. In, G. Towl (ed) Psychology Research in Prisons. Blackwell

Thomas-Peter B. A. (2007) The Needs of Offenders and the Process of Changing Them. In, G. Towl (ed) Psychology Research in Prisons. Blackwell

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