"Who holds prison psychologists to account?"

A prisoner at HMP Whatton writes to us, and their Governor and Psychology Lead respond.

One would think that prisoners and prison psychologists would nurture a symbiotic relationship, to create a rehabilitative culture. However, this is definitely not the case at HMP Whatton. I accept that there are extremely challenging cases at the largest sex offenders prison in Europe, but the foci of the Psychology department appears to be ‘bums on seats’ for the programmes they offer (as they provide additional governmental funding for the 80+ staff existence). 

Trainee psychologists are fielded to undertake any initial assessments and the most tenuous of links between crimes and risk factors are established to justify participation in one of the plethora of unevaluated programmes on offer. All of the programmes are described as ‘voluntary’, but this is not strictly true as the Parole Board see these programmes as a prerequisite for release and the prison psychologists know this!

The British Psychological Society published a list of questions one may ask any assessor, in order to better understand reasoning, justification and benefits of any recommended programmes:

1)      What cognitive deficits do you claim I have?

2)      What qualifies the assessor to diagnose any deficits?

3)      How are these deficits related to my offending?

4)      How does the proposed programme address these deficits?

5)      Are there background papers, research outcomes and criteria?

6)      What evidence is there that the programme addresses my deficits?

7)      What evidence is there that the programme reduces offending for prisoners that share my characteristics?

8)      What are the possible negative consequences of taking part?

The psychologist adamantly refuse to answer any of these questions at HMP Whatton and if this is challenged, it is noted in your file that you are objectionable, anti-authority and possibly in denial of one’s cognitive deficits.

Post programme prisoners are subjected to a Structured Assessment of Risk and Needs (SARN); again, undertaken by trainee psychologists and not ‘structured’ at all, judging by the arbitrary questioning. It will never be the same trainee that initially assesses you pre-programme, which negates any continuity or effective measurable impact of the programme. The questioning takes place over a number of two-hour sessions and rarely does it focus on the programme content. You can receive a glowing post-programme review from the programme facilitators, but you can guarantee that the trainee psychologists will recommend additional programmes. If during your SARN you question qualifications and reasoning, in their reports you present with conflicting personality traits, entitlement views and/or minimization of culpability (requiring a Psychopathy Check List – Revised, or PCL-R).

I am unsure whether this behaviour is emulated outside of prison forensic psychology and whether it is common to include widely speculative and unsubstantiated diagnoses within reports, but why is it that prison psychologists refuse to believe responses given by prisoners? Why do they become so defensive and dismissive when a prisoner questions them? Why are trainee psychologists allowed to ‘cut their teeth’ on a subjugated group of people like prisoners? Who holds prison psychologists to account when there is absolutely no empirical data which corroborates a positive impact on re-offending rates for the programmes?

Millions of the tax payers’ pounds are spent on legally aided independent psychologists, whose sole purpose is to undermine prison psychologists. Surely there must be a way to ensure prison psychologists can be more fair and trusting, so that money is not wasted?

Mr Stanley
HMP Whatton


Thank you for sight of the letter from one of our prisoners. As the points raised in the letter relate to the psychology team as well as the wider prison team, we felt it was important to prepare a joint response.

We strive to work collaboratively with all prisoners and building trust is essential to positive working relationships. This is important to us and is fundamental to a rehabilitative culture. In this instance, there is an individual who feels let down and it is important to us to learn from their experience so that we can continue to do our best for our residents. We are grateful for the opportunity to comment.

We would first like to outline the context of the work we do at our prison to correct some misunderstandings that are present in the letter. This will help us to address the other issues raised.

The prison is the largest provider of Offending Behaviour Programmes for people convicted of sexual offences in England and Wales. The prison, rather than the Psychology Department has responsibility for the delivery of any nationally imposed targets, including the Offending Behaviour targets. The programme delivery team is multi-disciplinary, made up of prison officers, intervention facilitators and probation staff in addition to trainee and registered Psychologists. No additional funding is provided to the prison for the delivery of the programmes, it’s an integral part of its function and budget to run treatment programmes.

Accredited programmes are regularly and extensively reviewed and updated by HMPPS to ensure they are in line with the most up to date thinking. As such, accredited programmes have changed and adapted over the twenty five years that they have been in operation in prison. They will continue to be adapted and change as new evidence emerges about the most effective ways to help support people to desist from criminal behaviour. 

The current data on the effectiveness of programmes to reduce reoffending presents a mixed picture, however, when speaking to people who have completed the programmes, many regularly speak of life changing experiences as a result of attending them. There are a multitude of factors affecting re-offending rates, not least post release support, what happens in prison to support the delivery of programmes and a personal choice to offend or not on behalf of the individual.

All members of the programmes team meet with and assess prisoners for their suitability for accredited programmes. Part of this process involves a detailed consent phase, where individuals are given information about the programme and possible outcomes. Participation is voluntary and not all people will be suitable or willing to complete programmes. As result of the growing research on rehabilitation, HMPPS recognises that individual change happens at different times, for different people, for different reasons. Programmes are not the only way people can address the factors linked to their offending. For this reason, the Parole Board examines a range of evidence before considering a prisoner for release. Performance on programmes are considered to be an important factor in the board’s consideration. However, prison behaviour, attitude, performance and release plans are of equal importance in the decision making progress. Prisoners do make progress in our prison; 230 prisoners were released from the prison directly to the community in 2016/17.

The Structured Assessment for Risk and Need (SARN) is a risk assessment that has been routinely completed with all individuals who finish an SOTP. It is completed by a psychologist. Pre 2006 the report writer would usually have been a psychologist who worked on treatment with the prisoner. However The Rice Review (2006) recommended that post treatment risk assessments should be completed by a psychologist independent of the treatment process in order to ensure they could carry out an objective assessment of the individual. This system was implemented to ensure that judgements of risk and need of a particular prisoner are balanced and impartial. We recognise that this can feel frustrating for prisoners, particularly where they have built up good working relationships with their treatment staff and feel understood by them. SARN writers do follow practice guidelines for risk assessment and review all the available evidence including the treatment material, as well as talking to the prisoner and treatment staff. The SARN is not the only outcome of accredited programmes and a progress log written by treatment facilitators is produced and routinely shared with parole boards and other staff so that there is well rounded view of the individuals progress. The requirement to complete additional programmes are not necessarily the likely outcome following the completion of a SARN report. There are a range of outcomes dependent upon the risks posed by the prisoner and their needs.

As mentioned, trainee and registered psychologists work on accredited programmes. Trainee psychologists always work under the supervision of registered psychologists. It is not unusual for trainee psychologists to work in frontline services, and it is not specific to HMPPS. For example, trainee psychologists employed by the NHS work in a variety of physical and health based settings.

The Rehabilitative Culture of the prison is not focussed on or led by the Psychology Department as the prison has a whole prison approach to addressing an individual’s offending. The education, mental health, intellectual disability and physical health services, in addition to wing staff and prisoners have a role to play in practicing a positive rehabilitative environment.

Lynn Saunders      Dr Kerensa Hocken

Governor               Psychology Lead

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