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New prison incentives scheme
The MoJ's new Incentives Policy Framework gives governors the flexibility to tailor programmes to fit their own prison.

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Last week (11 July 2019), the MoJ & HMPPS published its new Incentives Policy Framework which will be implemented over the next few months.

The new Framework aims to provide overall consistency while giving Governors greater flexibility to tailor programmes that address the specific situation in their prison.

Among the new initiatives is the removal of the low ‘entry’ level of privileges which was felt to effectively punish new prisoners and create an adversarial relationship with staff from the outset.

The revised scheme has been developed following consultation with prison Governors and other stakeholders. It is built on evidence that shows positive reinforcement is much more effective at shaping behaviour than punishment, while also encouraging lasting behavioural change and rehabilitation.

The MoJ is, however, keen to emphasise that the new framework is not interpreted by the mainstream media as making prison life easy:

For those who don’t follow the rules or engage, however, a strict system of adjudications ensures that Governors are able to act swiftly. Punishments range from the removal of privileges to harsher measures such as prosecution and additional prison time.

The evidence for incentives

The framework sets out three important areas of evidence that can help Governors to implement more effective incentives schemes. These include how fairly procedures are seen to be implemented (sometimes called procedural justice), the use of positive reinforcement, and the design and monitoring of the scheme itself. 

Research on the impact of fair procedures shows that:

  • When people believe the process of applying rules (how a decision is made, rather than what decision is made) is fair, it influences their views and behaviour. When people feel processes are applied fairly, they have more confidence and trust in authority figures, see authority figures as being more legitimate, and they are more likely to accept and abide by decisions and rules, and comply and cooperate with authority, even if the outcome is not in their favour.
  • When prisoners perceive authority to be used in a more procedurally just way, this predicts significantly less misconduct and violence, better psychological health, and lower rates of reoffending after release.

Research on behaviour change shows positive reinforcement is more effective at shaping people’s behaviour than punishing them. Punishment may be required, but on its own it does not effectively change behaviour or deter people from impulsive actions. Punishment can result in compliance, but not the internalisation of values and so works less well in securing positive lasting behaviour change. Evidence also points to a range of other challenges that can result from punishment, such as aggression and damaged relationships with the punisher. Positively reinforcing desirable behaviour, on the other hand, can produce robust gains in a variety of desired behaviours; this approach teaches an individual what to do.

Research on implementing incentive schemes shows that they work better to encourage good behaviour in prison when:

  • There is a clear understanding of what the scheme is trying to encourage – i.e. what desirable behaviours it is trying to increase.
  • Increasing desirable behaviour is the main focus of the scheme rather than punishing poor behaviour.
  • The response to behaviour is immediate and consistent. Immediate verbal praise for good behaviour or verbal challenging of poor behaviour can support this approach.
  • Staff have some basic training in behaviour management principles.
  • The scheme is carefully monitored to ensure it remains consistent, transparent, fair and is focussed on positive reinforcement. Without careful monitoring, schemes can easily deteriorate into coercive regimes that work less well and can even increase anti-social behaviour.
© Andy Aitchison

Main elements of the framework

The MoJ press release accompanying the publication of the framework highlights seven of its key features, saying that the new system: 

  • Retains the three privilege levels: basic, standard and enhanced, but removes ‘entry level’, which Governors say is bureaucratic and penalises prisoners who are new – setting up an adversarial relationship with staff from the outset
  • Emphasises that staff should consistently use verbal reinforcement for good behaviour and challenge poor behaviour outside formal reviews
  • Requires Governors to immediately review prisoner incentives after single serious incidents of bad behaviour with a strong presumption that such incidents lead to downgrade
  • Gives Governors the freedom to increase the amount of time out of cell for recreational activities or exercise alongside education and work programmes
  • Prisoners that behave well and engage in meaningful activities such as education and employment programmes could receive privileges such as more time in the gym or additional visits
  • Establishes local ‘incentive forums’ – comprised of staff and prisoners – to review the fairness and effectiveness of the policy locally, delivering on recommendation 24 of the Lammy Review
  • Will retain sensible limitations on Governors’ freedoms, so that, for example, no paid-for TV channels or other inappropriate incentives are permitted.

It will be interesting to see how different governors implement the new framework and how prisoners who are transferred throughout the prison estate adjust to different systems. 

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.


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