Rehabilitative Adjudications in Prison - What Difference Do They Make?

June 18, 2020
Flora Fitzalan Howard & Dr Helen Wakeling
Evidence-Based Practice TeamInsights Group, HMPPS

We work in the Evidence-Based Practice team in HMPPS, and our purpose is to bring the best available and recent scientific evidence into practice and policy, with the aim of achieving better outcomes wherever we can.

We recently published an evaluation of something we have called ‘rehabilitative adjudications’.  In this blog, we will summarise our findings, but you can also find the full report here.

We have been interested in disciplinary adjudications for some time.  For those of you not familiar, this is a formal process in prisons used to respond to more serious rule-breaking.  It works a little like a court does in the community; if a person is formally charged with breaking a prison rule, they attend a hearing where this is discussed, evidence is presented, legal advice can be sought and so on.  If the person is found guilty of the rule-breaking, then punishment(s) can be issued.  If you want to know more about adjudications, you can read the policy here.

We were interested in whether there was a way of making this process do more than investigate and punish (if proven) rule-breaking.  For example, we wanted to know if the way the process is conducted could improve how fairly people felt treated; if this could influence their intentions to cooperate and comply with rules and staff; if it could help them to reflect on and develop skills to make rule-breaking less likely; and if this could change people’s future conduct in prison.  We also wanted to know what it was like for staff to deliver this process a little differently, and what this meant for how this process fitted within all the efforts that prisons around the country have been making for some time to develop rehabilitative culture.

We drew on existing scientific evidence about skills and practices that adjudicators could use during hearings, which we believed could make the adjudication process more rehabilitative and constructive.  These included ‘rehabilitative skills’ (or ‘core correctional practices’) and ‘procedural justice principles’.  More detail on these can be found in section 2.2 of the full report.

We trialled the approach in four prisons in the North West of England.  The findings are covered in detail in the report, but some headlines include:

  • Compared to more traditional adjudications, we found that rehabilitative adjudications were associated with significant improvements in prison resident perceptions of procedural justice, and intention to comply with rules and regulations. 
  • Adjudicators were committed to delivering rehabilitative adjudications; they felt this was an important part of having a rehabilitative prison culture, and they felt this approach was more constructive, productive and meaningful.  They felt that if this approach was used alongside other rehabilitative processes in prison, it could contribute to better relationships, conduct and outcomes in the longer-term.

We are enormously grateful to all of the staff and prison residents who agreed to take part in this trial.  We could not be on site in four prisons for the six months, and so we relied on four ‘go to’ people who coordinated the activity in each prison, got the trial off the ground and kept up momentum for the duration.  And they did all this on top of their usual roles! 

We did face some stumbling blocks, especially getting as many questionnaires completed as hoped for.  This is such a common challenge with real-world research, where regardless of people’s commitment to develop practice and the evidence-base, prisons are very busy places and sometimes a lack of time or clashes with other activities or priorities are inevitable.  However, what we hope we have achieved, in conjunction with those four prisons, is to show how we can develop long-established practices and culture, and do things in ways that feels more rewarding and constructive and fair for everyone involved.

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