Question 6

What is the impact of probation on the offender’s social integration (resettlement)?

by Maurice Vanstone (Professor Emeritus)
Swansea University (UK)

Imprisonment may not be designed to cause permanent harm, but it is a deliberate, judicial infliction of pain, and it is from that paradox the core problems of prisoner resettlement (or what some call re-entry) derive.

Indeed, the impact of imprisonment can have many unintended consequences and, as a result of its powerful social environment, undermine the chances of successful resettlement. It follows, therefore, that the amelioration of both the damage caused by imprisonment and the problems carried into the prison by prisoners is essential if they are to be able to lead constructive crime-free lives and if society is to be afforded protection.

For a period of fifty years or more, whether in Scandinavia, Romania, United Kingdom or America, research has identified the many problems prisoners face with issues such as accommodation, unemployment, education, family problems, addiction, mental health, anger management, poor problem-solving and thinking skills. In addition, research has shown that commonly minority ethnic prisoners have experienced the additional problem of victimisation and women have endured further problems related to violence from partners, sexual abuse, social isolation and self-harm.

As late 20th century shifts in policy (most recently in Romania) confirm, the removal of these impediments to successful resettlement is dependent, amongst other things, on reinforcing the connections between the prisoner, family and community. In its various formats around the world probation has always been associated with this kind of work.

So, what positive impact does probation have on resettlement? The straight answer is that cumulative research evidence leaves us with uncertainty: as Joan Petersilia has pointed out, there are too few methodologically robust studies available to be sure.

In any event, because of the range of problems and the societal, political and organisational factors at work, inevitably successful resettlement work depends on multi-agency work; and therefore the question is more appropriately framed around assessing the contribution of probation to a wider process of social reintegration. Notwithstanding this uncertainty, the evidence available does throw some light on components of probation’s contribution that offer promise of success.

Research suggests that this contribution has to be informed by more general research findings on what is now termed desistance from offending. Accordingly, in collaboration with significant others, probation should focus on the problems related to offending as well as the behaviour and thinking that led to imprisonment, and promote and stimulate a prisoner-led process of change which pays heed to and recognises the importance of:

  • the individual’s ability to deal with the personal and practical problems to be faced (because evidence suggests that negative reactions to everyday problem situations lead to re-offending);
  • the specific needs of the individual (rather than assuming offenders all have similar needs);
  • the contribution to be made by family or other important members of the person’s social network;
  • relapse prevention strategies; and
  • appropriate referrals to other agencies that can assist with social reintegration.

Moreover, the potential for success of the resettlement strategy will be enhanced if probation staff develop trust and respect, and:

  • offer continuity in the working relationship;
  • begin the work with the individual before release (i.e. in prison);
  • assist the individual in the process of motivation using a cognitive-motivational programme;
  • help her or him to acquire a wider and adaptive range of skills; and
  • encourage the individual to gain community acceptance by taking responsibility for behaviour and making amends through a strengths-based approach which provides tangible and practical help to members of their community (in other words, to become pro-social).

Finally, the available evidence indicates that such help might be enhanced by the use of a mentor.

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