Social psychological development theory

Social psychological development theory suggests that prison education of any form develops cognitive processes, fosters new behavioural patterns (Ubah and Robinson, 2003) and stimulates positive emotions (Schinkel, 2014). Where people are given access to a wide curriculum of prison education programmes, cognitive skills improve, which in turn may help them after release (Keena and Simmons, 2014). This cognitive development eases the mental strains of imprisonment and they are better able to cope with life after release. It is proposed that various aspects associated with classroom learning have an impact on a person’s outlook and reforming behavioural patterns (Reuss, 1999). It can build confidence, self-esteem and self-worth (Van Wyk, 2014), all of which are necessary components in working towards a life without crime. Prison education can contribute significantly to a persons well-being, citizenship and social cohesion (Schuller et al., 2002; Pike and Farley, 2018). Furthermore, people learn new, more appropriate ways to interact with people, which strengthens social ties and social networks (Schuller et al., 2002).

VET was shown to increase morale and decrease behavioural problems among prisoners due to increasing self-control (Callan and Gardner, 2005). Porporino and Robinson (1992) examined the impact of ABE on prisoners, finding evidence of wide impacts on the person. In terms of personal changes, 58% reported that when they got mad at someone they were better able to work it out, and 74% felt more in control of themselves (Porporino and Robinson, 1992). The decision to participate in prison education itself shows maturity and a motivation to escape the negative aspects of a prison sentence (Hackman, 1997). The prisoner turns from committing self-defeating acts (crimes) to a constructive activity which shows a willingness to change behavioural patterns, a cause which is furthered by the education itself in a cyclical fashion (Hackman, 1997). Where a student takes an optimistic, diligent approach to learning in prison, they begin weaving together their own common sense with new knowledge, life experiences as well as positive, constructive interactions with other persons, and all of this can shape a persons attitude and thus change negative behavioural patterns (Reuss, 1999).

Referring more specifically to cognitive-based programmes of education, Samenow (2001: 275) states that “by identifying specific thinking patterns common to offenders, it is possible to take a more realistic and effective approach to containing and, in some cases, totally eliminating criminal behaviour”. While there is a need for caution in relation to programmes that aim to “treat” the offender (Costelloe and Warner, 2008; Behan, 2014), cognitive thinking programmes are becoming increasingly popular additions to the prison curriculum. Studies have also shown that cognitive model approaches for prisoners can reduce recidivism by as much as 74% over 3 to 15 years (Ross and Ross, 1989). Teaching cognitive problem solving skills to prisoners has been shown to help them gain physical, mental and emotion control when in social situations to the extent that there was a 60.3% reduction in the disciplinary action needed (Spradling, 2001). Similarly, Corrective Thinking Training programmes found a significant improvement in cognitive processing among prisoners who participated in the course, with a particular increase in responsible thinking levels (Bye and Schillinger, 2005). The control group in the same study, who were not participating in educational programmes, saw a decrease in their levels of responsible thinking, which appears to demonstrate the harmful effect the prison sentence has on cognitive function (Bye and Schillinger, 2005).

A significant element of social psychological development theory is focused on changing patterns of behaviour through the development of cognitive processes through the use of treatment-based programmes. Benefits such as those results reported in the preceding literature are positive, yet there is also a consensus that cognitive and behavioural programmes do not seem to have any greater impact on reported benefits or outcomes for prisoners than other educational programmes with a broader curriculum. According to Ubah and Robinson (2003), most forms of education can impact cognitive and behavioural processes to bring about change. Academic and vocational education, for example, have been shown to increase levels of self-confidence and self-esteem and belief in a prisoners own ability to succeed (Callan and Gardner, 2005). Therefore, it is education itself, rather than specific programmes, that produce the social psychological results. Advocating for these narrow “treatment” programmes can be harmful to the overall educational curriculum in prison and are representative of the “what works” influence. The danger is that these will become the mainstay of the education offered, with more mainstream and holistic curriculums being reduced.

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