‘Change must engage a person’s senses of identity, meaning, control and belonging’

Dr Adrian Needs is the winner of Lifetime Achievement Awards from the British Psychological Society’s Practice Board and Division of Forensic Psychology. Here, he talks prison and reform in a conversation recorded by Sarah Lewis for her Growth Uncut podcast.

You work at the University of Portsmouth, where you run the MSc in Forensic Psychology; indeed, you were my supervisor. Before, academia, you worked for 14 years in the prison service as a psychologist, mainly in high security but towards the end in training. Through involvement with the British Psychological Society, you helped get training and qualification for forensic psychologists off the ground. In terms of that breadth of experience, and looking at it through the context of growth, what does personal growth mean to you?
One of the most useful approaches is from Blake Ashforth. It was originally developed to understand role transitions into, within and out of organisations, but it actually provides a useful starting point for understanding other sorts of change in people’s lives. It’s centred on the idea that personal change must engage a person’s senses of identity, meaning, control and belonging. Interventions, for example in the criminal justice system, haven’t always recognised the importance of these areas. You go through a programme, but then because other influences and pressures on the person are still the same, they actually go back to where they were. In dynamic systems terms, which are very relevant to change, that would show that there’s a very strong attractor state, maybe reflecting the person’s previous reconciliations of identity, meaning and control are still in operation.

So through a systems lens, people are trying to get over those obstacles and there’s almost this edge of chaos at which people either get through that transition and make that identity change, or resort back to that old sense of self.
That’s absolutely true. In the desistance literature in recent years the importance of change in the area of identity is being recognised more and more, and research coming out that supports that… not just small sample qualitative research. In institutions such as prisons, if people feel that others still regard them as they were, or if they feel society regards them as excluded or looks down on them, then it’s quite difficult for them to really get hold of the possibility of a new identity.

In other areas of psychology, it’s very important how people feel about themselves. One of my favourite studies in psychology was an old one Liam Hudson did, where he looked at whether school kids thought of themselves as arts people or science people. He gave them tests of divergent and convergent reasoning and lo and behold the arts people were better at divergent and the science people at convergent. But it gets interesting when he asked them to think of themselves as a person who was characterised by the opposite set of aptitudes, so the arts people now thought of themselves as science people and vice versa. He found that, typically, people were able to up their scores on these ‘reliable’ ability tests. These tests are constructed so as to be insensitive to change, and yet sometimes people were knocking their scores up by as much as 15 points, which you’re not really meant to do. These roles, the perspective associated with a role that a person incorporates into their identity, can have very real and tangible effects. It gives them a different vantage point from which to make sense of things.

So if we can nurture an individual to think of themselves in a different way, then ultimately that adaptation could be one contributing factor if the context was congruent to change and positive in nature, with support networks around them… lots of aspects have to line up for that pull factor be strong enough to get people over those obstacles of identity in order to transform. It’s a hard job, a painful process.
Yes. Systems develop in interaction with other systems; of course, with people, other systems are other people. That’s why human development is not just influenced by social factors, it’s constituted by them. Think of the work on the growth of intersubjectivity in early years – the capacity to make sense not just of people but with people. That ties in with work on attachment.

The view is being put forward more and more in fields like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy that all forms of psychological problems – certainly all things that are usually described as mental disorders – represent a fundamental stagnation. The person has stopped changing, stopped transitioning.

When I did my masters, and working with you on the HMP Holloway project, we looked at some stuff around attachment. There’s that idea of a secure or an insecure attachment that creates a blueprint of life. But I’ve read recently about experiences of neglect, longitudinal studies in orphanages, where children didn’t get any kind of form of attachment. Is that a lost sense of self, or is that something different?
‘Lost sense of self’ suggests there was one to start with. What we saw with Holloway was that quite often they had never really developed a coherent and consistent sense of self in the first place. To me that was one of the most striking findings. Everybody talks about the big problem with young women prisoners or prisoners in general being lack of self-esteem, but it wasn’t so much lack of self-esteem as just lack of a sense of self.

These people were often overly responsive to situational cues… what people were saying and that sort of thing. There was a very high correlation between having an unstable sense of self and paranoid ideas. That set off a number of thoughts: to what extent should an institution be focusing its efforts on trying to give people a foundational sense of who they are, and can there ever be much positive development until that’s achieved?

There were other ramifications. This was also in the early days of Big Brother on the TV. I was very reminded how in male, long-term prisoners there is often a dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest, look after number one ethos. That’s exactly the sort of ethos that some people have identified as being the core of, for want of a better word, psychopathy. The person feels disconnected from others and it all comes down to survival… ‘why should I bother with others, nobody’s ever bothered with me’. Get enough individuals like that in an environment, they create the environment in their own image.

At Holloway, there was something about the environment – you probably remember the noise, the volatility, the way people were constantly moving from being best friends forever to worst enemies – that reflected some of the characteristics associated with the sort of people in it. Through that environment being constituted, it was helping perpetuate those problems. Unstable relationships, and leading on from that, the unstable sense of self, was often very evident.

It was a lesson in how environments can both reflect and perpetuate individual characteristics. If we want to do anything therapeutic we need to interrupt that cycle, perhaps try and create the conditions in which people can develop a more stable sense of who they are.

In enabling environments or therapeutic communities, there are ways in which that context is considered, so people feel less on survival mode. They’re creating those safe spaces. Yet we continue to have the majority of our prisons, not taking on that. Why don’t we learn the lessons from more effective prison environments?
It’s got a lot to do with lack of imagination, probably lack of resources, as well as the tendency for all organisations to become self-perpetuating rather than transforming themselves. In some places there is some movement, there has been some useful development in areas such as five-minute interventions, and Every Contact Matters. I remember doing some work on that in the early 90s, really trying to encourage staff to use even routine interactions that occur at several points in the day, as opportunities for helping a person’s development in areas such as problem solving, seeing other people’s points of view, that sort of thing. But a lot of these things are done rather inconsistently and staff aren’t allocated sufficient time. They need good leadership as well, otherwise we get people saying, this is not part of the job of a prison officer’, whereas you get other people saying it most emphatically is part of the professionalism of being a member of prison staff.

I feel sad when I meet some new officers who say ‘I came into the service to make a difference in a person’s life, but now all I do is turn keys’. When we look at how many prison officers leave the service it’s heartbreaking. If an environment is hostile, you might see some fantastic officers with a real heart for the work and yet their hope erodes. They don’t have that level of investment or care from the top.
That’s why some get cynical, burned out, have early heart attacks…

Why did you become a psychologist, working in prisons? What did you value?
It’s a cliche but I wanted to do something useful in my life. I was never particularly drawn to just making money. Which is just as well, because I haven’t! I was never interested in being a cog in the machine, making money for somebody else. I studied psychology and wanted to continue with that.

Nobody talked of forensic psychology in those days, it was usually prison psychology if you were in the prison service, or the relevant Division of the British Psychological Society was the Criminological and Legal psychology. It seemed that area offered variety, as well as being very worthwhile. I had some sort of inkling of traumatic backgrounds, for at least some of the prison population… there seemed a cruel irony that even though they might have done some pretty awful things, they should go on living in this distorted environment, excluded from society. Most people deserve a second chance. But how do you actually do that, in a government institution such as the prison service, which hardly seem to be organised around things like compassion?

There seemed lots of things that needed doing – to contribute to positive development, both of an organisation, but also the application of psychology to that environment itself. It was trying to develop new ways of understanding and facilitating change in individuals who had long-standing problems, but it was also about understanding and developing more effective interviewing techniques with people who had, for example, killed somebody. Plenty of challenges to think through.

Who has inspired you along the way?
One person who comes to mind was Don Bannister, who I got to know in the last three years of his life. He tragically died in 1986 at the age of 58. I had come across his name when I’d read about personal construct theory. The approach was all about how individuals make sense of things, and behave, experience and feel accordingly. At the time, most psychology was not like that at all: it was very behaviourist, and to do with observable events. ‘How people make sense of things, why would that possibly matter, it’s how psychologists make sense of things that counts!’ I was doing a doctorate, and it really was quite difficult to get access to participants because not just the psychiatrists but the clinical psychologists too were saying ‘You want to know how people make sense of things, what’s that got to do with anything?’.

Anyway, Don was a leading light in this approach, he was very encouraging, and I kept in touch with him. (A nice clinical psychologist had introduced me!) I joined the prison service in 1983 and a couple of years later was applying this approach with prisoners. He was a larger than life character: great sense of humour, successful novelist in his spare time, quite a renaissance man but very human, very warm. His approach put the focus squarely on how individuals make sense of their lives.

Which is so important, in the context of desistance and identity… it’s not necessarily about the things that we do, it’s about how we can reflect and learn on those things. The process of making sense and making meaning, that’s got to be good in terms of resilience, coping, all these things.
Fundamental, yes. Another person, I’ve always been intrigued by is Henry Fielding, best known as author of Tom Jones, one of the first novels in the English language, published in 1749. He was a bit of a lad in his younger days… gambling, drunkenness, assault. But it seems that he completely turned his life around, and became a humane magistrate in an era when you could get hung for over 200 offences. He wasn’t soft or anybody’s fool, it was about being compassionate. He was also a friend of the artist William Hogarth, a social reformer involved in the Foundling Hospital in London. He wasn’t all touchy feely though, he also founded the Bow Street Runners, are usually taken as the forerunner of police service. He often behaved with great courage, going and ‘lifting’ people who have done pretty nasty things from quite hostile environments. He was exposed to a lot of danger, but he stuck to his principles.

So he could be regarded as a forerunner of forensic psychology, not least because in Tom Jones there are a lot of things that are pure personal construct. He talks about how different people will give different accounts of things and each will believe that they’re right, but also how some people can be misled by other people who are seeking to influence their perceptions. It’s quite modern in a way.

Yes, all the stuff around suggestibility and eyewitness testimony…
Yes it’s interesting, somebody saying all this stuff but in 18th century language. You asked me about values, and I guess the ones I would sign up to would be regarded as rather old fashioned… integrity, honesty, empathy, courage, compassion, duty. Sometimes you don’t always find them where you might expect them… in academia, for example.

The list wouldn’t be complete without saying humour: I think that’s important in life. Henry Fielding also wrote political satire, exposing bribery and corruption, under the name of Captain Hercules Vinegar. Sounds almost like something out of Blackadder. He said that his purpose in writing Tom Jones was to ‘laugh mankind, out of their favourite follies and vices’.

Love that! We’ve talked about your values experiences along the way. But what has been the biggest obstacle you’ve faced, and what have you learned from it?
Eight years ago, I received a diagnosis of  post-traumatic stress disorder. I experienced an accumulation of situations where I felt metaphorically seriously stabbed in the back. These circumstances seem to take the lid off something that had actually been laid down 20 years earlier, when I had been involved in some quite seriously violent situations in the prison service. I wasn’t fazed by the violence, I think I can honestly say that. But what really got to me was bad decisions that really undermined things… everybody makes mistakes but it’s when they start doing things like covering up, being dishonest.

I didn’t have too long to think about it at the time, it was on to the next one. But in 2012, after some not very decent goings on at work, I started to experience the sound of somebody burning alive in my head.

Oh my word.
It seemed to be linked to a hostage incident in the prison service where one prisoner trussed up another, and absolutely drenched him with a full large canister of lighter fuel, and was going to ignite it. The powers that be made some pretty awful decisions along the way, including trying to hurry the bloke into giving himself up… it was a Saturday night, I think they were bored and wanted to go home. I had to take over at the siege and it was the most intense 10 minutes of my life. The whole thing lasted about four hours, but after there was one thing they did which nearly pushed things over the edge, I had to work quite intensively to rein the situation back. If the guy had flicked his lighter we’d have all gone up, you could smell the vapour. I just can’t think of anything worse than someone burning alive in front of me, and the fact that it would have been unnecessary just adds a twist.

I did manage to get things back on track, the perpetrator gave himself up, and nobody was hurt… at least physically.

What did you take from that, in terms of making sense of it?
That there can be a resonance between current circumstances, and earlier ones. It was interesting that there was the sound of someone burning alive when actually that didn’t happen in real life. So it gave me a renewed interest in trauma. It even connected me to the prisoners…  they’re not a separate species.

And if we continue to create these distant relationships where there is a lack of understanding – prisoners towards staff and staff towards prisoners – then there will be a gap in understanding behaviours. If people work with those behaviours knowing that there’s reasons behind them – not excuses, but reasons – that’s creating a compassionate environment.
Yes, that can move towards co-creation of more positive behaviour. Let’s not just punish bad behaviour but let’s make it a better environment, a community. In a community, everybody has responsibilities. OK, the backgrounds and past experience that people have had don’t just go away overnight and everybody lives happily ever after. But you’ve got to make a start because otherwise, things will just drift towards the other extreme.

In society as a whole we need to develop the vocabulary that reflects some of the things we were talking about. People need to be much more aware of the importance of connectedness – put that in systems terms if you like, the fact that we’re systems who’ve developed with other systems. And there are a range of things that can stop us from developing. There’s a range of things that can make us instead of develop and be connected, actually turn inwards. I mentioned earlier about how I see some individuals who grow up with a dog-eat-dog mentality which can set the tone of prison establishment unless you bring other influences. Very often these are people who’ve never really learned that there is such a thing as connectedness. To them the world is a hostile place, it’s them against the world. I think Alex Gillespie called it a semantic barrier. You can’t mobilise your other psychological functions towards openness and development if you’ve got this big distrust. In prison, that lack of trust can just be perpetuated: people remain rigid, closed, and any sort of rehabilitation or therapy is a non-starter.

Do you think you could trust people, the system that’s there, if you became a prisoner tomorrow?
I think I could probably trust some individuals within it. But as a system, it shares a lot of the problems of large organisations, including impersonal bureaucracy. When I was in the prison service, the governors I was friendly with were the ones regarded as delinquents or oddballs! They were often the ones passed over when it came to promotion… there was an image that we imagined the service wanted to see, held by those who were top of the pile. Most of the thoughtful ones didn’t get lucky, even though their own staff often thought they were great because of things like their sense of humour and thoughtful solutions to problems.

With one governor we had this system called ‘cunning plan management’. If there was a problem on the wing, we’d think about it and one of us would say ‘I have a cunning plan’, which would start off as something pretty off the wall. But often it became surprisingly effective, because it was going beyond the obvious.

I probably laugh the most within prisons, and that’s not to say it’s happy place, certainly, but it’s a buffer, a protective factor to unite people a little bit.
It’s important that whatever the governor does, it doesn’t cause that team spirit to be lost. Until staff morale is improved, then it’s unlikely that prisoners are seeing any benefits. It’s a basic aspect of morale that people feel acknowledged or recognised or valued. There was research, I think it was Lyons, 1992, that indicated that low morale, and then being assaulted, had a very close relationship. Not because people were assaulted and then morale was low, it was the other way around. When morale was low, interactions with prisoners became much more negative, and limited, and then they were much more likely to get assaulted.

I speak as somebody who spent most of 1995 doing team building training with prison officers. Within a couple of years the Leadership and Team Building Centre  was shut. It seemed such a retrograde step, you know, it’s an accountants’ world. And same as when they build new prisons, they get architects to do it. Use architects, but don’t forget people who actually know about prisons. Sometimes the architecture creates the problems, if you’ve got lots of blind spots, that sort of thing.

It’s about connecting people and adding value, building resilience before people go on a landing. Just to excite people about the impact of the work that they’re doing, the virtues and rewards of it. Get people that have been in prison to come and talk to them about the importance of being a prison officer – whatever they do, good or bad, that impact lasts.
That’s absolutely right. Another thing I did was live as a prisoner for a few days, testing security and that kind of thing. The insight that gives you into things like what it’s like to be in a cell, blocked in, and somebody on the outside has got the key. A very valuable experience.

Did you change? Did you find yourself shifting and shaping?
It made me more aware of some of these pressures on prisoners that we probably take for granted. Some of the areas that certainly psychologists would never normally see them in. It also made me aware of some of the security implications, for example, how much voices travel. If you’re a prisoner listening behind the door you know what a couple of staff are saying 30 yards away around the corner. Things occurred to me, possibilities presented themselves from that perspective that wouldn’t have normally from my perspective as a psychologist. That goes back to what we were saying about how things appear differently from different perspectives, and that influences identity, meaning and so forth.

If prison officers did have experiences such as this, and things like teamwork were not neglected… if they felt recognised and valued, and the senior officers were no longer snowed under with paperwork and bureaucracy… maybe that does promote the beginnings of being able to talk about things like connectedness. ‘You value connectedness as part of the staff team, how would you feel if you didn’t have that?’

You can then maybe even introduce attachment concepts. A lot of prisoners do come from backgrounds typified by anxious attachment, which is to do with erratic responsiveness, and avoidant attachment, which is to do with lack of responsiveness. So put them in an environment where their caregivers are often either erratic or unresponsive, that can only resonate and jangle with early experiences, and probably elicit the kinds of behaviours that we associate with those thoughts, whether that’s the pervasive sensitivity to things like rejection of the anxious style, or the ‘couldn’t care, I’m self-reliant, sod everybody else’ perspective of avoidant attached people.

The things that we develop from our attachment relationships, in terms of intersubjectivity and making sense with people, are empathy and thinking ahead, problem solving, being able to self soothe, that kind of thing and not get carried away. These are the things we try to teach prisoners in cognitive skills programmes. But there seems such a paradox. A prisoner comes from a classroom straight back to a prison where somebody undermines or even contradicts what they’ve just been hearing about; where they’re not given any opportunities to take responsibility and make choices. So the way the prison environment is constructed needs a lot more thought, and staff need to see their place within that as part of their professionalism.  

A lot of these concepts are actually very simple, I only wish they were part of the school curriculum! There’s some catching up to do.

But if we are going to transition into a ‘new normal’, if we looked at it identity meaning control and belonging in terms of that transition, that could be really powerful. Co-producing a new community… how does that new community behave towards each other, and what happens when things go wrong? It’s not necessarily about HMP Utopia, it’s about small steps or a roadmap to something that’s really ambitious.
It’s almost like people don’t expect a lot from prison, or from prison officers and prisoners. But that is completely the opposite to what I see. I see so much in terms of what all those individuals can offer and what it could be rather than rather than what it is.

Yes, and it’s not just about things within the individual, it’s about viewpoints can come together and maybe the interaction can create another viewpoint, one that people can agree on, because they have co-created it. For many years, our big logical mistake has been overlooking or ignoring the effects of context, even when it’s such a powerful influence, self-evidently so, somewhere like a prison environment. We stick people on programmes which are focused mostly on effecting change within the individual, whereas really all we’re beginning to know about change is about creating context, it’s allowing interactions, it’s fostering openness to change by those interactions. Otherwise things just stagnate.

Find out more and listen to the podcast via www.penalreformsolutions.com

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber