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Prisoners Maintaining Innocence!

Prior to Operation Yewtree, which was launched at the time of the police investigation into Jimmy Saville, there had been a steady increase in the number of people who had been convicted of sexual offences but were maintaining their innocence, referred to by professionals as PMI’s (Prisoners Maintaining Innocence)

Since then, the number of PMI’s has risen considerably, although the MOJ has not produced any accurate statistics, law firms with a criminal contract, who specialise in appeals against conviction and Parole Hearings, are earning a reasonable income from this group of prisoners.

Recently there have been several reports in the press of cases that have been proven to be seriously flawed, due to police withholding evidence from defence teams. The spotlight is on court cases that have been abandoned and men who have been acquitted, who might previously have been found guilty.

Whilst this brings renewed hope to those facing trial and to those who await appeals against conviction there are still a large majority serving prison sentences, without any hope of a current appeal and therefore considered guilty as charged.

Their progress through the prison sentence is impeded due to being officially deemed as “being in denial”, although those imprisoned would argue that they cannot deny something that never happened or therefore, work with the prison or probation service to show a “risk reduction”.

After all, if they are truly innocent, there was no risk in the first place and therefore something that does not exist cannot be reduced. However, the stance that the Prison and Probation Service must take, by law, is that having been convicted by the courts, their guilt is proven and the only thing that can change that situation is a successful appeal.

For those eligible for parole, it is expected that they attend “offending behaviour” courses and to do this they must acknowledge their guilt.

Until recently PMI’s would be assessed for the national Sex Offenders Treatment Programme and would be required to complete the Core Programme and, if appropriate, the Extended Programme, depending on their level of risk and specific aspects of their sexual offending.

This year, both of these courses have been proven to be ineffective and disastrously flawed and in fact research as shown that men and women who completed the work were far more likely to reoffend than those who had not. The courses were scrapped!

I had argued for years that you cannot treat any offending, least of all sexual offending, through a classroom mentality and accredited coursework devised solely by psychologists, I felt that the work at some stage be found to be lacking!

Isn’t it just a little ironic that the eminent Canadian psychologist who promoted the theory that prisoners had some form of "faulty reasoning", that they lacked "thinking skills" and had become caught "in a cycle of thinking errors", was himself convicted of sexual offences.

Some Psychologists suggest they have the solution to offending, because offenders think differently to me and you and if those "cognitive distortions" were corrected they could be released with less risk of them reoffending.

Psychological interventions continue to dominate regimes within our prisons, often at the expense of education and vocational training. Even the Therapeutic Communities within Grendon Prison and Dovegate Prison have been forced down the route of “accreditation” and have become solely a psychological model, rather than multi-disciplined.

The government wanted something to show that offenders were the only ones to blame for rising crime rates and to shift the focus from other possible social causes, such as poverty, unemployment and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor.

Prisoners must acknowledge their guilt before any therapeutic work could begin, and if prisoners denied their guilt then they were deemed “unready” rather than “unsuitable” for treatment, meaning that they would be held in custody until they changed their stance. The courses became an integral part of the prison business plan and Governors had to hit their targets each year. Between 600-800 prisoners had to complete the Sex-Offender courses.

The push came to enrol prisoners on courses and produce Sentence Plans to ensure KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators) were met and Psychologists were assured a continuous flow of candidates and of course their own job security.

And the Parole Board were able to rely on what they believed to be solid evidence of “risk reduction” through the completion of accredited courses and psychological assessments provided by qualified experts. These became the benchmark and are still heavily relied upon when considering a prisoner’s release. The truth is that “risk management” is much more important than trying to determined any reduced risk!

Over a period of 4 decades I have worked with literally thousands of prisoners, the majority having been convicted of serious sexual offences and many of those struggled to understand victim empathy and wanted to create the impression that they too were victims and therefore used that to justify their offences. It was my task over the years to try to understand their reasoning but then to get them to see the damage they had caused by their actions.

Within the last 5 years I came across more and more prisoners who could not acknowledge their guilt because they truly believed they were innocent and furthermore when I examined their case files and court transcripts, I could not see how they had been convicted by the courts?

Their frustration became mine because having always dealt with people who accepted their guilt, I was now faced with a bigger problem, which was to find a way forward for those which I too believed were innocent of the crimes they were imprisoned for.

It is much easier to follow the route that most Probation Officers and Prison Staff are obliged to do, by treating all prisoners as guilty, by nature of their conviction and not considering at all the details of their defence or the process of their trial. It is much more difficult for them to discharge their duties once they accept their may have been a miscarriage of justice, although more frequently I am meeting people who are learning to work effectively with this group of prisoners.

I understand that the CCRC (Criminal Review Cases Commission) are dealing with 5 cases per day of prisoners arguing there has been a miscarriage of justice and there is a backlog of over 1000 cases. If this is true, then many may be released having served the custodial part of their sentence.

I began to look at how prisoners could be released by the Parole Board when they were being pushed to acknowledge an offence they had in fact not committed.

I started to witness many cases of blackmail by probation and prison staff who would offer the promise of a progressive move or even release if they agreed to attend the courses on their sentence plan, with a veiled threat that they would be punished if they didn’t, such as being denied release by the Parole Board. They would often state that the prisoner must show a reduction in risk by completing the course and that failing to do that meant they could not be considered for anything at all.

The truth is that the Probation Service, Prison Service and the Parole Board have all been forced, by the abolition of the Sex Offenders Treatment Programme to take a broader view of risk, and to examine how a prisoner maintaining innocence can progress through their sentence and be managed in the community by the Probation Service.

During 2017, the Prison Service and Probation Service adopted a course called “Horizon”, followed by a further course called “Kaizen” as a response to the problem faced by PMI’s and in view of the failure of the SOTP (Sex Offenders Treatment Programme) but once again they are solely facilitated by psychologists and without any evidence of their efficacy, so watch this space.

Will these courses eventually be found to be insufficient too?

At the end of 2017, I had witnessed several PMI’s who were granted moves to Open Conditions, having not completed any Offending Behaviour work at all and particularly two men, Stephen and Tom, who were granted direct release having maintained their innocence throughout.

The startling truth is that both were turned down for release by the Parole Board two years earlier and were not even considered for a move to open prison and yet, although nothing had changed, at their next hearing, the panel rightfully granted release!

Am I right to feel optimistic that the authorities have now accepted that the way forward is not simply through the attendance on accredited courses, or is it too early for that?

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