Why are workers excluded from the discussion on rehabilitation work?
The foreword to Hannah Graham’s new book: Rehabilitation Work: Supporting Desistance and Recovery starts with a bald and somewhat puzzling statement — not puzzling in the sense of “hard to understand” but puzzling because it leaves you wondering why is this the case?
Conversations about rehabilitation and how to address the drugs-crime nexus have been dominated by academics and policy-makers, without due recognition of the experience and knowledge of practitioners.
Her book, based on work in Tasmania, reveals compelling differences between official and institutional accounts of rehabilitation work, and the fascinating realities of what practitioners actually do with service users.
The fascination of the book to me was that it is equally interested in practitioners themselves as the work they do; it draws out practitioner perspectives on:
working as people with complex needs, as people deserving their own support while they do difficult work in the midst of complexity, crisis and change.
The research discusses practitioners’ reflections on their own beliefs, hopes, rights, needs and much more.
The fact that Dr Graham is keen to share the humour of practitioners makes for a very engaging read.
I whole-heartedly recommend this book for its summary and critique of the three dominant paradigms in work with offenders and substance misusers: the risk paradigm, desistance and recovery. To be frank, I can’t hope to do her analysis anything like justice in a short blog post, so have opted instead to share some of Dr Graham’s work on how prison, probation (known as community corrections in Tasmania) and other staff working with offenders make sense of these theories in a real-world setting and how they look after their own needs in a pressurised work setting.
Working with offenders
Probation and prison staff in the UK will recognise many of the main features of a career working with offenders in Tasmania. The most common themes were:
- High caseloads
- Limited resources
- Working in roles where their professional status was marginalised compared to other colleagues
- Working with difficult people who were often either suffering or causing suffering to others
- Constantly responding to crises including frequent lockdowns for those working in prison
- Battling with bureaucracy and colleagues
On this last point, Dr Graham quotes Dana Britton [At work in the Iron Cage: The prison as gendered organisation]:
workers discover that the primary source of stress is usually not the unruly client whose behaviour can be understood and rationalised as part of the job, but inflexible and illogical work rules, inept colleagues or incompetent or unsupportive supervisors
Theory and practice
There is a particularly interesting section on how practitioners develop, modify and individualise their way of applying models of work which are subject to rigid organisational standards and procedures.
Some practitioners felt that the application of an actuarial risk assessment tool missed the point of their professional skills and values and criticised a culture which seemed to suggest that by asking the same questions of every offender, the tool would simply generate the right “answers”.
Dr Graham traces a sophisticated process by which some practitioners applied key skills relevant to desistance theory such as pro-social modelling to make the risk assessment more “human” which enabled the offender to be engaged in the process of developing their own rehabilitation plan.
For some practitioners, the need to navigate their personal ideological objections to a risk-management model with the requirements to comply with organisational expectations and standards made for a very stressful work life.
She identifies similar tensions between practitioners who held very closely to the belief that as probation staff they should focus (almost) exclusively on criminogenic needs and others who felt that approach was pointless if an individual’s basic needs for adequate food and housing were ignored.
Different staff from different agencies could be stereotyped as being too welfare- or too punishment-oriented; too reluctant or too eager to breach for non-compliance. Many staff succeeded in reconciling different approaches and organisational needs; explicitly or implicitly managing the care-control tension which used to be a central issue in the discussion of the probation officer role in the UK.
Dr Graham’s main point is that the subtle and sophisticated ways in which practitioners adapt and modify their practice in an attempt to stay true to their own values, find a common working culture with colleagues and comply with organisational requirements are both typical and mainly missing from any official or research perspectives on work with offenders and those who misuse substances.
About the author
Dr Hannah Graham is a Lecturer in Criminology in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) in the School of Applied Social Science at the University of Stirling where she moved after three years at the University of Tasmania. Her research interests are:
- Criminal justice institutions and the sociology of punishment;
- Desistance from crime;
- Social innovation and its interfaces with criminal justice; and
- Electronic monitoring and the uses of technology in criminal justice.
You can keep up with her work via her Twitter feed: @DrHannahGraham
[Regular readers may find a common theme with Professor Wendy Fitzgibbon’s recent article which explores the survival of a “counter-culture” of traditional individualised rehabilitative work in the English and Welsh probation service despite an emphasis on a more mechanistic approach within a context of national standards over the last 25 years.]
If you’re looking for work in the probation or drugs fields, there are dozens of opportunities on the jobs board.