Rehabilitative culture in prisons

A summary of evidence relating to how a rehabilitative culture in prison can support hope, change and desistence from crime.

A rehabilitative prison culture supports hope, change, progression, and desistance. Desistance is how people with a previous pattern of offending abstain from crime.

A simple example is telling a prisoner they can get out in 5 years if they keep their head down. This is a positive message, but a better one is to ask:

“What do you want to achieve to give you the best chance for a better life when you get out in 5 years?”

Staff can then help the prisoner to work out and achieve a realistic plan for their own success. Success can be as simple as making the decision to change.

An organisation or institution has a rehabilitative culture when it:

  • encourages its people to think with hope about their futures
  • supports them to plan and prepare for a different lifestyle
  • provides opportunities to change their attitudes and habits and try out new identities
  • reward them when they do good things

What does a rehabilitative culture look like?

  • a clear purpose, values, and shared vision of rehabilitation across the organisation
  • leadership, selection, coaching, dialogue and training to support the rehabilitative vision
  • strong visual images, posters, messages and careful use of language encouraging new identities
  • a wide range of evidence-based activities and interventions to meet peoples’ needs
  • sentence planning and activities based on risks and needs will ensure people benefit most

Routine processes can be carried out with their longer term impact on rehabilitation in mind, like:

  • equipping staff with confidence and skills to make every contact with prisoners matter, for example through Five Minute Intervention training
  • offender management
  • caring for prisoners at risk of self harm or suicide
  • adjudications
  • requests and complaints
  • processing Release On Temporary License
  • security categorisation
  • managing the Incentive and Earned Privileges scheme
  • managing violence, intimidation and debt
  • staff selection and training emphasising the importance of coaching, modelling, and rewarding

What works against rehabilitative change?

Punishment may create more compliant behaviour in the short term. But it has negative long term consequences and can increase hostility, grievance and alienation.

Further reading

Prison Service Journal special edition on Rehabilitative Culture (Jan 2018)

Analytical Summary (2017) Investigating disciplinary adjudications as potential rehabilitative opportunities. Is a greater focus on rehabilitation possible in disciplinary adjudications despite adjudications being a punishment-focused process by design?

This page summarises the available evidence base and is informed by independent academic peer review. It does not represent Ministry of Justice or Government policy.

Published 15 May 2019