The only UK prison to have proven to reduce reoffending rates, HMP Grendon is a model for therapeutic care. Rowenna Davis reports
MP Grendon is no ordinary prison. As new inmates pull up at its iron gates, they are surprised to find themselves called by their first names rather than by their numbers. They’re bemused by the lack of prisoner uniforms, shocked by the absence of segregation units and – most importantly – they’re challenged by the prison’s programme of intensive therapy.
A radical 1960s experiment, Grendon is the only prison in Europe to operate solely as a therapeutic community. It is also the only prison in the UK that has been proven to reduce reoffending rates.
All of Grendon’s 187 male inmates have made a personal choice to serve their sentences at the prison’s site in Buckinghamshire rather than in mainstream jails. About 70% are serving life sentences and between 30% to 40% score highly on the psychopathic test list. A significant proportion are sex offenders or paedophiles, scared of the bullying their offences are likely to provoke in other prisons.
By consenting to serve their time at Grendon, these prisoners are signing up for an intensive programme of therapy. Each wing of up to 40 men has its own psychologist and psychotherapist and every day inmates are asked to sign up for one of a selection of group therapy sessions. Sitting and listening to each others’ stories, they take it in turns to counsel and be counselled to judge and be judged. This process leaves the inmates surprisingly emotionally sensitive and self-aware.
“I want to understand why I’m violent, why I’m angry, why I’m on drugs,” says James, an inmate serving life for robbery. “I’d never thought about the victims I created before I came here – I was always onto the next thing. But you have to be honest with yourself if you want to change. You need to deal with the underlying issues, and that requires more than a workshop on drug abuse.”
Grendon’s daily therapy regime is highly intensive. The prisoners are asked to participate in three group sessions of an hour and a half every week as well as two wing meetings. Group sessions are psycho-dynamic in nature, and although they are very open, they tend to focus on past events that prisoners believe may have triggered their offending behaviour.
Grendon’s therapeutic regime might sound less authoritarian than most prisons, but as any prisoner or staff member will tell you, it is far from the “cushy option”. Mainstream prisons are undoubtedly challenging, but they rarely ask prisoners to confront their past actions or the type of person they are – questions that Grendon’s prisoners are forced to address.
As James explains: “Coming here challenges your behaviour. Psychologists analyse it and peers challenge it. The men get really affected by what they hear. I’ve seen plenty of them come out of the small groups crying.”
Grendon’s therapeutic regime is entirely group-focused – no individual sessions are available. According to Grendon’s governor Peter Bennett, this is a key part of the therapy’s success.
“There needs to be an agreement that nothing is hidden from the group. Everything has to be open and up for challenge and discussion. This gives the group special potency in shaping positive behaviour. It also means there is no concept of ‘grassing’ because everything gets talked about,” he says.
Of course, therapy does not work for everyone. Grendon’s drop-out rate is about 20%, but the majority of those leave during the 12-week induction programme.
“Some come to Grendon expecting one-on-one care, some find it difficult to open up to therapy and feel too threatened by it,” explains Bennett. “Some are highly manipulative and they get caught out by the group. The men’s deepest thoughts and emotions are challenged so much – it’s just hard.”
For the majority of prisoners at Grendon, however, this intensive therapeutic regime seems to be working. As one prisoner puts it: “Being held accountable to my group and my peers has given me the strength to be accountable to myself. Coming here makes you face your actions. They make you go to some very dark places, but having them go there with you is very important. It’s not friendship exactly, but it’s support.”
Grendon’s success shows up in numbers as well as anecdotes. As well as reducing the chances of reoffending, Grendon experiences the lowest number of assaults of any prison in the UK. It also has some of the lowest rates of drug use and self harm in the prison estate – figures that become even more impressive given the supposedly high risk nature of their intake.
According to Mark Edwards, a principal officer at Grendon, part of the institution’s success has been its uniquely democratic approach to prison governance. Unlike other prisons, each of Grendon’s wings is semi-autonomous.
“Monday and Friday we have wing meetings where prisoners bring up any problems that might have occurred,” says Edwards. “For example, if someone is throwing rubbish out of the cell windows, it will be reported. Prisoners will take a vote on whether the offender can stay. Of course staff have the ultimate say, but they will normally go with what the wing decides. It gets prisoners in the habit of challenging behaviour.”
Similarly, if a prisoner wants to sign up for a particular duty, they have to convince the wing that they’re the right man for the job. Prisoners say that having to make their case in front of peers leaves them better equipped for life on the outside.
Rami, an inmate serving life for GBH, says: “In most prisons if you come in aged 22 and stay 10 years, you will come out still acting like you’re 22. Grendon does things differently. They give you the language of a straight guy they show you how to live a normal life.”
Staff also gain an advantage that other prisons just can’t offer. They all receive therapeutic training – even prison officers and chaplains are required to go on accredited courses before they can start group work. This gives them a deeper sense of involvement.
Edwards says: “I worked in other prisons, but I got sick of just locking doors. I wanted to do some restorative work. Here I get to work with the prisoners and I even facilitate some of their meetings. The work is incredibly satisfying.”
With such positive results, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Grendon was phenomenally expensive, but this is not the case. The institution’s £42,000 per prisoner per year figure may be higher than most Category B prisons, but it’s substantially lower than the £250,000 per head charged by therapeutic hospitals. Once reduced reoffending rates are taken into account, Grendon may well offer better value for money than most mainstream jails.
So why aren’t more prisons run like Grendon? The real problem is not so much results, economics or impracticalities, but politics. The political tide has turned against such liberal initiatives, and a growth in penal populism has left politicians thinking that support for Grendon will be paid for in political points.
Bennett believes it would be difficult to establish such a restorative institution from scratch today: “We survive on a shoe string. But the research proves our success and keeps us going. Sadly, other therapeutic communities haven’t survived, and I wouldn’t want Grendon to go the same way.”
Given Grendon’s success, it seems we should be investigating whether the prison’s therapeutic regime might be suitable for more inmates rather than less. If Grendon can move from radical experiment to mainstream practice, then maybe its excellent results on prisoner welfare, democratic accountability and reduced reoffending rates can also become less extraordinary.
● After serving 18 months at Grendon, prisoners are 10% less likely to commit another offence.
● Grendon experiences the lowest number of assaults of any prison in the UK
This article is published in the 28 August edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Prisoners opt for honesty