HMP Grendon is a men’s prison near Oxford specialising in therapy and rehabilitation, and aiming to allow high-risk offenders convicted of violent or sexual offenses to safely enter lower security prisons as a path towards reintegration into the community. HMP Grendon held an open day to show staff working in other prisons how the therapy-heavy rehabilitation programmes work, to which I was invited by a neighbour who works there as a forensic psychologist. We were given demonstrations of art therapy and psychodrama therapy, heard accounts from residents past and present, and had the opportunity to chat with newer residents during the lunch and frequent coffee breaks.

The open day took place on G Wing. Residents in G Wing transfer in from other ‘mainstream’ institutions following a lengthy and involved application process, remaining on G Wing for up to 6 months while they are continually assessed for suitability for therapy (meaning they graduate to longer-term residence on one of ‘the wings’). There is a perception in mainstream institutions that HMP Grendon is an easy place to serve time, but the residents (and prison officers) were unanimous in the consensus that the time was physically easy but mentally extremely hard.

From my perspective as a psychologist studying decision-making, the most notable aspect of HMP Grendon is its culture of challenging behaviour which is routine in other institutions - particularly masking vulnerabilities with the hard-man image. Decisions are a product of internal inclinations and external contexts, and many of the residents have trouble regulating their tempers, meaning that they have an intrinsic bias towards escalating confrontations. In mainstream prisons, and in the communities many residents grew up in, rapid escalation is socially rewarded, bringing respect and relative safety. It is easy to see how this forms a feedback loop which must be broken if people are going to be able to function appropriately in contexts which do not reward this kind of behaviour.

By emphasising a culture where self-management and normative responses to confrontations, disagreements, irritations, etc. are rewarded rather than punished, HMP Grendon attempts to create an environment in which anger management and the like are seen as useful tools which bring benefits to the person exercising them, rather than as commandments handed down from a vindictive society. This part of the process is particularly hard, because each resident has to figure it out for himself (although the staff, from psychologists to officers, do their best to help). This is the ‘work’ that was consistently and somewhat resignedly referred to by the residents: they spoke of it as a pilgrim might speak of the arduous journey ahead.

The therapies, art and psychodrama, both act as mechanisms for allowing men who have learned to ignore or suppress their feelings to explore, express, and learn to anticipate and control their feelings. Art therapy involves creating quick and simple artworks followed by a discussion of the themes, while psychodrama is a guided theatre improvisation focusing on events and relationships from residents’ lives. Both are done in groups of six or so, and the outcomes of each session supported by discussion in ‘small groups’ therapy (a weekly meeting group comprising 8-16 residents).

The setup at HMP Grendon looks like it may have an approach which is capable of producing genuine rehabilitation, although this comes with a string of caveats: the people entering the programme are self-selecting, the residents we encountered there were mostly in the initial assessment phase and the others were self-selected, no statistical information was offered about the numbers of people who apply, acceptance rates, Wing assignment rates, transition rates to lower security institutions, or recidivism rates. The latter, particularly, are difficult to estimate faithfully given the self-selection, although a matched-controls methodology might be able to identify whether there is a long-term effect of the HMP Grendon approach.

Given the presumed additional expense of a higher staff-to-resident ratio, and emphasis on expensive activities, it would be wonderful to see clear evidence of what the residents and staff certainly feel is a challenging but rewarding and successful approach to rehabilitation.