Improving the Institutional Behaviour of Prisoners: Challenges and Opportunities for Behaviour Analysis

  • Christopher J. Seel

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    Prisoner misconduct presents a significant issue to correctional administrators, disrupting the orderly running of regimes, endangering safety, and negatively impacting the health and well-being of both prisoners and frontline staff. While an extensive literature has emerged around rehabilitative intervention with offenders, research efforts have been more commonly directed towards reducing post-release recidivism, resulting in a relatively sparse literature concerning the in-prison behaviour of prisoners. Persistent and rising levels of violent and disruptive behaviour in prisons highlight the need for greater research attention to be devoted to this issue. The field of applied behaviour analysis may be well placed to address this research deficit, with historical work in prisons and more recent efforts in juvenile justice settings suggesting that approaches derived from behaviour analysis may hold promise in correctional settings. This includes an emerging literature relating to the adaptation of school-wide Positive Behavioural Interventions and Supports (PBIS) to juvenile justice facilities. PBIS offers a framework within which to integrate a continuum of evidencebased practices to address the needs of the population to which it is applied. Preliminary evidence suggests that the approach is feasible, is viewed positively by residents and staff, and can be efficacious in improving resident behaviour in these settings. However, addressing prisoner misconduct within adult prisons may present distinct challenges to that of juvenile forensic settings, given differences in their size, staffing ratios, and focus on education and rehabilitation.

    This thesis aimed to contribute to the literature on identifying effective behavioural interventions for use with adult prisoners. First, a comprehensive systematic review was conducted to explore the range of interventions directed towards reducing prisoner misconduct and identify “what works” in reducing institutional infractions (Chapter 2). Findings suggested that cognitive behavioural approaches reduced violent infractions but not overall misconduct, while therapeutic community interventions and educational approaches reduced overall misconduct. Second, focus groups were conducted with prisoners and frontline staff (prison officers) to assess valued intervention outcomes and explore potential barriers for PBIS implementation (Chapter 3). Three overarching values were identified: a need for rehabilitation, consistency, and respect. Potential barriers to PBIS included pessimistic views towards rehabilitative approaches and perceptions of limited resources. Third, the intervention design process of a universal (Tier 1) intervention strategy was described that incorporated evidence-based practices, stakeholder values, and institutional data on prisoner behaviour, whilst also operating within available resources (Chapter 4). The resulting intervention was a peer-led approach that focussed on increasing prisoner engagement in purposeful activity. Fourth, a feasibility study was conducted to establish the viability of the intervention as well as the feasibility of research procedures in the setting (Chapter 5). The intervention successfully promoted prisoner engagement, with prisoners reporting beneficial effects on behaviour, social relationships, and well-being. Staff perceptions of the approach were more tempered but generally positive. Institutional records did not appear sufficiently sensitive to detect changes in prisoner misconduct, suggesting that alternative measurement approaches may need to be identified. Finally, opportunities and barriers to behaviour analytic research in adult prisons were explored (Chapter 6), highlighting the continued relevance of the seven dimensions of behaviour analysis to prisonbased research.

    Date of Award2024
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorKaty Holloway (Supervisor) & Richard May (Supervisor)

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