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Enabling Effective Probation Practice Using Complementary Digital Media
Jason Morris on designing digitally-enabled approaches to support desistance.

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Skills for Relationships Toolkit

In this blog, Jason Morris introduces new research completed with Dr Steven Watson (University of Twente) to advance ideas about creative desistance-oriented digital approaches. The views expressed below belong to the author and do not necessarily coincide with HMPPS policies relating to HMPPS efforts to support desistance.

Designing Digitally-Enabled Approaches to Support Desistance

For most people in prison and on probation, there are few opportunities to access digital services that help them make positive changes and fulfil sentence requirements. Whilst digital solutions are emerging in the Education, Training and Employment (ETE) arena, these systems encounter an array of challenges and barriers that limit or prevent their use. Outside of the ETE space, there are isolated but encouraging examples of digitally-enabled approaches that complement therapeutic interactions with psycho-educational digital material. 

In 2018, I helped to develop a digitally-enabled structured intervention titled ‘Spectrum’ that aimed to help practitioners work constructively with gay or straight men who had committed Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) but did not meet the criteria for the accredited Building Better Relationships (BBR) programme. Around this time, the Domestic Abuse Bill consultation was also bringing into focus the probation supervision of people who had committed IPV offences. The HMPPS Domestic Abuse policy lead (Jeff Cluff) identified the potential for Spectrum’s digital content to be repurposed for delivery during routine supervision sessions to men with IPV convictions who could not access group work due to responsivity needs like severe mental health problems and addictions. A pilot to test the viability of this ‘digital toolkit’ subsequently became a HMPPS commitment in the Domestic Abuse Bill Consultation Response.

Retitled as the ‘Skills for Relationships Toolkit’ (SRT), a pilot project was established in the North of England. SRT consisted of 25 exercises with accompanying practitioner guidance, participant worksheets and between-session tasks. The content was structured into a mandatory foundation component followed by ‘needs-led’ modules relating to: thinking; emotions; and, relationships.

Like BBR and Spectrum, SRT’s key emphasis was promoting and building on the strengths of participants with skills designed to help them self-manage their relationship behaviour by overcoming challenges stemming from their own unique psychosocial development. Both Spectrum and SRT were comprised of the same digital content. They also shared their aims to help participants: understand their behaviour; think about their views of themselves and others; commit to self-responsibility; learn and practice skills to aid maturity & social competence; and, develop working alliances. The key distinguishing feature of SRT was that unlike Spectrum and BBR (which were delivered in a group by interventions facilitators), SRT was delivered by the Probation Practitioner one-to-one as part of routine sentence management.

Building the Evidence Based for Digitally-Enabled Desistance Focused Toolkits

Recently, the Probation Journal have published an article that shares SRT pilot evaluation findings. Firstly, the research found that practitioners and the people they supervised perceived SRT to have a positive impact on working alliances. The Complementary Digital Media (CDM) clips that made up SRT helped break-the-ice during sessions by using stories and voices of experts-by-experience to introduce skills and concepts. This helped create dynamics in sessions where practitioners and participants could explore therapeutic messages from a third-party perspective before moving on to address their potential relevance to the participant. Secondly, the potential to personalise supervision through the use of SRT was a key advantage. SRT enabled practitioners to respond to the specific interests and needs of participants as well as prioritising relevant content to focus on ‘live’ issues.

The research also identified challenges. Firstly, not all participants related to the narratives presented in the content and some called for more diversity in the user stories reflected in the content. Secondly, some practitioners were slow to adopt SRT. Finally, some technological barriers were encountered (e.g., wifi blackspots) which impacted negatively on the flow of sessions.

The Case for Technology in Supporting Desistance

In some respects, its rudimentary use of technology was an advantage to SRT in that the absence of sophisticated and automated interactive elements necessitated a central role for the practitioner. Notwithstanding, the research offered suggestions as to how better technological design could improve user experiences and extend engagement outside of face-to-face sessions. For example, an ‘App-based’ approach was suggested by one participant with features like: secure login, notifications of required actions, access to media, two-way messaging, online assignments, and the validation of submitted assignments. ‘Native’ apps can store content offline to enable continual service whenever required whilst avoiding either performance loss due to internet connection problems (experienced during SRT) or data charges for the end user. These features are also likely to have utility within prisons.

In the video below, created for a Justice in the Digital Age Conference, I talk about the Skills for Relationships Toolkit in some detail.

Future Directions for Complementary Digital Media

The findings will inform the continuing development of structured supervision using Probation Practitioner (PP) toolkits, which now have an important place in the recently released target operating model for the new unified probation service. PP toolkits (like SRT) have become an important component of the HMPPS response to COVID-19. They have enabled structured work to take place with people who have not been able to complete accredited programmes due to lockdown. CDM from toolkits has also enabled facilitators to adapt programmes for one-to-one and remote-access delivery. CDM can also be accessed via in-cell computers at one prison in the East of England. The delivery of Spectrum has also continued throughout the pandemic; delivered remotely by BBR-trained probation practitioners via the telephone.

As the volume and inter-relatedness of digital content within programmes increases, a broad digital content framework is forming with the potential to underpin all HMPPS programmes (both accredited and non-accredited) as well as PP toolkits. This has a huge potential to increase the efficiency of training pathways and extend the reach of desistance-focused messaging to a broader audience in all criminal justice settings.

Finally, the findings of the research add weight to three conclusions regarding digitally-enabled approaches to supporting desistance. Firstly, digital services should complement, not replace, the core values and practices of prison and probation practitioners; secondly, people seeking to desist are the greatest resource for service designers who want to build a more humane prison and probation system; and finally, digital can provide opportunities for service integration within a system blighted by fragmentation.

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