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Prison reward systems do not work well and prisoners are the ones who pay

Ten years ago, a new reward system was introduced in Dutch prisons: the only way prisoners could earn extra ‘freedoms’ was through good behaviour. Freedoms such as more visits and more training options. PhD candidate Jan Maarten Elbers concludes that this system does little to encourage behavioural change and can even be counterproductive.

Until 2014, prisoners were entitled to ‘freedoms’ such as relatively generous visiting rules and access to rehabilitation courses. This could mean anger management training or courses to increase their employment opportunities. But these options changed in 2014 with the introduction of a new reward system. Good behaviour could earn prisoners access to the Plus Programme, with ‘rewards’ such as more visiting options, work and debt training and more freedom of choice in educational courses. Unacceptable behaviour relegated prisoners to the Basic Programme with only the minimum statutory activities such as limited exercise.

Over a thousand prisoners completed survey

This radical new reward system had not been properly evaluated since its introduction. Elbers therefore worked with the Dutch Custodial Institutions Agency on a study of the theoretical assumptions of the system and its efficacy in practice. Over a thousand prisoners from eight prisons participated in the research. ‘This system is based on the assumption that possible rewards encourage people to follow the rules’, Elbers explains. ‘In theory, that might work but then under strict conditions and those are not currently being met. My research shows that people in prison follow the rules mainly because they think that is of intrinsic value rather than to earn extra privileges.’

Prisoners say they do not receive rewards they have formally earned

Inconsistent approach

Elbers found that the practical implementation of the reward system did not follow the policy. Prisoners in the Plus Programme reported not receiving rewards they had formally earned whereas those in the Basic Programme reported receiving rewards they had not formally earned. This inconsistent approach can cause ambiguity and be demotivating, he says. ‘Possible reasons for the policy not being followed are short-staffing and prison staff lacking time and training. This is also repeatedly noted in reports by inspectorates and advisory bodies.’

System does not meet prisoners’ needs

Another key finding of the PhD research is that the reward system does not meet the prisoners’ needs. A large group within the prison population has difficulty with basic social, practical and conceptual skills, says Elbers. This can be due to a mild intellectual disability. ‘That group finds it especially difficult to follow the rules in prison and earn rewards that would help them change their behaviour. They are at risk of missing the boat.’

Foster intrinsic motivation

Elbers therefore advises policymakers to make profound changes to the system. Less self-reliant prisoners benefit in particular from behaviour change support. ‘Ensure people can understand the system and that it is achievable and above all encourage prisoners’ intrinsic motivation. For example, by helping them achieve personal goals such as completing vocational training. A positive approach like that stands more chance of promoting behavioural change than the current, difficult-to-implement system.’

PhD defence on 19 June ‘Reward systems in prisons’

Text: Linda van Putten
Photo: DJI

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