Semantic revolution, or knowledge evolution?

On the language of offending behaviour programmes.

As designers of accredited offending behaviour programmes, we were delighted to read the letter submitted by Ewen Scott in the January issue. The use of language which reflects a strengths-based approach has been an ambition of Intervention Services for many years. It was a decade ago that the Becoming New Me (BNM) programme for people with learning disability and learning challenges first adopted the use of Jim Haaven’s strengths-based Old Me–New Me identity model. Language can empower change. When language affirms, it can help people to recognise and invest in their pro-social capacities and ability to reduce their risk of reoffending.

We all have versions of self that carry the potential to care for ‘New Me’ and to harm ‘Old Me’, and both can be present at the same time. Some individuals who access programmes routinely live through acts which are dominated by ‘Old Me’, behaviours that ultimately reflect risk to those around them. Ewen is right about that. All too often we find that this version is in many ways self-protective, developed and shaped in response to biopsychosocial circumstances that were never consciously chosen, for example prenatal neurobiological vulnerabilities, childhood abuse, and adversity such as growing up in neighbourhoods with high levels of crime and violence. These circumstances fall short of creating the important conditions that contribute to a strong and consistent ‘New Me’; a version of self that carries capacities for a non-harmful life.

The programmes are available to those who accept their conviction for offending and also those who maintain their innocence, and therefore want to strengthen their capacity to lead offence free lives. In all cases, the programmes are accessible to individuals who are motivated to learn more about themselves in the context of building skills for a safer, healthier life.

The programmes offer opportunity to learn and practice new skills, thereby empowering agency, creating choice for change and responsibility for living safely. We argue that we are already in the business of strengthening New Me. Responsibilities toward safer living lies with the individual and wider society to support them in maintaining ‘New Me’.

Ewen is right, it is not hard to learn a new language in relation to rehabilitation. However, the process of semantic evolution takes time. We recognise that in the context of programmes we need to continue to value the integrity of individual participants in facilitating their own engagement in the change process, which is well within the context of public protection. The majority of people imprisoned for harming others will return to the community. To the extent they can lead safe, non-harmful lives among us, social responses like offending behaviour programmes aim to strengthen some of the capacities that makes these lives possible.

Laura Ramsay
Establishment Lead Psychologist 
Women’s Estate Psychology Service (WEPS), HMPPS

Dr. Jamie S. Walton
Chartered and Registered Forensic Psychologist, HMPPS

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