Is re-habilitation even the right word?


Stone carving project at HMYOI Reading as part of the Learning to Learn through the Arts Scheme

I feel like Government ministers have suddenly found a new word and are bandying it around like children who think they have discovered it. We are now in a ‘Rehabilitation Revolution’, a Prison Spring of sorts. And of course I welcome it and it is music to my ears to hear ministers finally and seriously presenting measures that are designed to have an impact on the ‘revolving door’ syndrome of our current Criminal Justice System. But something is also making me want to weep.

Maybe I’d welcome it more whole heartedly if I, and others like me, hadn’t already known, preached and practiced rehabilitative measures for decades, fighting against the ‘flog ‘em and hang ‘em’ attitudes that prevailed over the past umpteen years in this country, while putting up with being called soft, bleeding heart liberals. Other European countries ‘saw the light’ years ago. Even when I worked in Cologne Prison in the nineties, the role of the arts was recognized and largely supported. But here rehabilitation has been embraced – reluctantly – simply because statistics, figures and costs don’t allow even the hardcore cynics to claim that “Prison works!” anymore.

So rehabilitation has suddenly become fashionable and the obvious solution to crime and re-offending. But what exactly is meant with this word “rehabilitation”? Re-habilitation suggests that a process of habilitation was followed by a de-habilitation of some sort that now needs re-habilitating again. But dealing with prisoners at close hand and hearing their stories – as I have done – you realize that there usually wasn’t much in the way of habilitation in the first place. And that is where this whole ‘rehabilitation revolution’ thing falls down for me.

You see I don’t think you achieve rehabilitation by focusing on housing, employment, drug avoidance and imposed supervision. Those are all very important features of a crime-free life of course, but I have witnessed offenders being released and being given all those things and more. And yet it doesn’t stop them from re-offending. Imposing outer structures to contain and hold together chaotic lives is like propping up a broken spine with metal rods. Once you take away the rods, the spine collapses. What is really needed is to strengthen the core muscles around it so that the spine is supported and strengthened by it’s own body.

People only stop offending when they really want to change their lives. People don’t set out to do harm, to hurt others, to be bad. They become all that because… because… because. So we need to inspire people who have caused harm to not want to cause harm anymore. We need to transform destructive energy into creative energy. We need to support the often buried but nonetheless innate will in all of us to lead a fulfilling life. How? By offering experiences that result in positive outcomes – a sense of achievement, a sense of worth, a sense of “I can do this, now what else can I do?” Getting people excited about the possibilities of their own life and about themselves, not pushing them into a life that may not fit. These are the real building blocks needed to kick start the habilitation process that never really occurred in the first place.

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