'Psychologists have knowledge and skills to support prison reform'

Ahead of a British Psychological Society supported meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Psychology, our journalist Ella Rhodes meets some of the speakers.

On 18 July, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Psychology is due to meet for the fifth time at the Houses of Parliament, to discuss mental health in the criminal justice system. The speakers will include a neuropsychologist, forensic and clinical psychologists, covering the links between brain injury and crime, the potentially protective role of the secure estate in supporting children and young people, and the effects of traumatic material on civilian police staff.

Clinical Psychologist Dr Jenny Taylor, who has worked extensively with young offenders in the community and secure settings, will be talking about her work on mental health provision for children and young people in the secure estate – which includes prisons for young people and secure children’s homes. She said there needs to be a rethink in the use of secure and custodial settings as a way to address anti-social behaviour in children and young people as they have little power to change someone’s home and peer environment.

Taylor said that in many settings applied psychology is only offered to children and young people who have a diagnosable mental health condition. She suggested we need to move away from this way of thinking, and instead accept that anyone society has deemed unmanageable and locked away before the age of 18 will have significant problems with their psychological development and should have access to specialist expertise. Training staff to communicate with these young people in the most helpful way, especially those who spend the most time with them such as prison officers, would be the best route to improving the services currently on offer.

Associate Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology and Co-Director of the Centre for Clinical Neuropsychology Research, Professor Huw Williams (University of Exeter), has researched the links between traumatic brain injury (TBI) and entry into the criminal justice system. He will discuss some of his research, including findings that rates of TBI are three to four times higher in the prison population compared with the general population. Head injuries are linked to earlier entry into the criminal justice system, and more violent offending.

Williams, who is also involved with the APPG on Acquired Brain Injury led by Chris Bryant MP, has been working to raise the profile of this issue with policymakers. He has worked with the British Psychological Society, who provide the secretariat to the APPG on Psychology, leading a report on children and young people in the criminal justice system with neuro-disabilities and collaborating on written evidence for the Justice Committee’s report on the treatment of young adults in the criminal justice system. He told us: ‘The APPG on psychology is a really good opportunity to widen the way in which we think about the issues that lead to people being vulnerable to offending and many of them are to do with the early environments people are in: adversity factors, mental health issues, drug and alcohol disorders, and we know head injury is very common with these kinds of issues.’  

Co-Director of the Centre for Crime, Justice and Policing and Director of the Centre for Applied Psychology (University of Birmingham), Professor Jessica Woodhams, has spent most of her career working with UK and international police forces. She has explored the impact of exposure to traumatic material on those who work within the police but in back-office based roles such as crime analysts and call handlers.

Woodhams, who has worked as a crime analyst herself, said she hoped to outline the work these ‘police civilians’ do, the kinds of traumatic material they are exposed to, how and in what volumes, and to report on her own research findings on risk and resilience in this group. ‘What I would ask the Government to do is to first ensure that the exposure of civilian police staff to traumatic material is given equal recognition as the exposure of first responders and front-line officers as both groups deserve our support. Second I would ask them to put investment into research that documents the traumatic material that criminal justice workers are exposed to, the pathways through which it can have damaging effects, and how this might be mitigated and finally to ensure that budget cuts in policing are not stripping away the psychological support that workers in these roles need.’

Also speaking at the event will be Chartered Forensic Psychologist Dr Tracy Lavis, (Psychology Associates) and Dr Emily Glorney, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology (Royal Holloway, University of London). Glorney told us that in the last 40 years psychologists have made critical contributions to improving the Criminal Justice System – designing, implementing, and evaluating interventions to restore mental health, and raising awareness of mental health and psychological well-being. ‘The high prevalence of mental health problems in prisons is well-established and, despite improvements in mental health care provision in recent years, access is very limited and service provision and quality is highly variable across the prison estate,’ she said. ‘This is one of the reasons why I am pleased to have accepted the invitation to speak at the APPG. Having worked in research and practice in the field of forensic mental health for the past 20 years and generated a robust understanding of the importance of psychological health and well-being for risk reduction, it seems to me to be critical that opportunities for improved mental health are embedded within prison reform. This is not just about increasing funding, mental health practitioners and psychologists, it's about having a dialogue with policy makers about the objectives of prisons. If the prison service aim of risk reduction might best be achieved through a service objective of rehabilitation then how might psychologists influence improvements in whole systems so that prisons can be fit for purpose in supporting risk reduction and, in many cases, mental health restoration, whilst taking account of diversity in the prison population? Psychologists have knowledge and skills to support prison reform and I'm excited to be a part of making positive change.’

- Find out more about the Society's work with the APPG for Psychology.

Read our previous reports from APPG on Psychology meetings; see our Research Digest round up on the mental health of prisoners, and revisit our March 2016 special

Image from an inmate at HM Prison Winchester, courtesy of the Koestler Trust.

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