The untapped utility of peer-support programs in prisons and implications for theory, policy, and practice

Perrin, C., 2017. The untapped utility of peer-support programs in prisons and implications for theory, policy, and practice. PhD, Nottingham Trent University.

Christian Perrin 2018 Full Thesis - Corrected.pdf - Published version

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Peer-support has existed in prisons both in the U. K. and abroad for decades, primarily in the form of discernible yet informal 'programs'or 'schemes'. Through these programs, prisoners are able to access support from fellow prisoners for issues ranging from emotional distress and addiction problems to practical and educational needs. Peer-support, as a general 'help resource', is underscored by the principles of mutual reciprocity, empathy, and shared problem solving. Although this resource has existed in prisons for decades, research focussing explicitly on those who uphold peer-support roles is virtually non-existent. This is surprising when considering the apparent benefits of peer-led helping (i.e. prisoners upholding meaningful empathetic roles) and the ever-present global obsession with identifying 'what works' in addressing the problem of crime. It is even more surprising when considering that peer-helping boasts the innate and transparent benefit of being virtually cost-free. Indeed, an intervention that has organically established itself in the prison context, remained there for decades, and has clocked up no calculable monetary cost warrants further investigation. To this end, the overarching aim of this thesis and its empirical chapters was to provide a deeper understanding of how adopting a peer-support role in prison may affect offenders’ attitudes, beliefs, emotions, and experiences of imprisonment. This was approached qualitatively and on two levels in terms of offence type (generalised and sexual), and three levels in terms of context (personal, institutional, and social). Three empirical chapters (studies) represent the core of this theses.
Study 1 explored the broad construct of peer-support with those who uphold peer-helping roles in prison. It asked participants questions relating to how peer-support roles are delivered, experienced, and assimilated into a number offending contexts (i.e. at an experiential and institutional level and at a personal subjective narrative level). Given this holistic focus, this study utilised a sizable (N=22) sample comprised of mixed offence type participants who resided across three U.K. prisons. It relied on semi-structured interviews and employed thematic analysis to draw out recurrent notions that portrayed an understanding of the dynamics of peer-support in prison and its utility amongst offenders. The analysis within this study revealed that the implications of peer-helping in prison transcend far and wide the simple notion of shared problem solving. For incarcerated people, upholding a peer-support role offers a wellspring of meaningful activity that can be used to cope with prison deprivation, enhance well-being, contribute to good lives and possible selves, and energise cognitive transformations. Ultimately, this study introduced the encouraging notion that through peer-support roles, prisoners can gather forward momentum and create trajectories that are not predetermined by being doomed to deviance.
Study 2 continues the enquiry into the utility of peer-support in prisons and focuses on the experiences of the role-holders themselves. This time there is an explicit focus on a smaller sample (N=15) and on sexual offenders. The justification for these decisions was based on both previous exemplary studies, and the fact that sexual offenders represent an under-researched, poorly understood, and deeply ostracised population. Sexual offenders are also required, more so than other offending populations, to go through intensive treatment programs and demonstrate reduced risk. Therefore, such offenders were considered an important population with which to explore peer-support, given that it appeared from study 1 to engender a community and restorative aspect typified by 'doing good'. The inherently personal-subjective and deeply phenomenological insights that characterised much of the dataset in study 1 featured in the decision to employ an interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) in this study. Here, the 15 participants who upheld roles as 'Listeners', 'Insiders', and 'Shannon-Trust' mentors participated in semi-structured interviews. The IPA reiterated many of the findings from study 1 in terms of the experiential benefits of peer-support and the importance of meaning-making in prison. However, analysis also revealed specific benefits of peer-support for sexual offender populations, such as the chance to earn self-forgiveness and consequently move away from harmful labels such as 'monster'. There were also some important implications alluded to throughout this chapter that related to maximising sexual offender treatment gains, and these are discussed alongside rehabilitative climate and therapeutic community bodies of literature.
Study 3 edged away from the phenomenological experiences of the individuals who upheld peer-support roles and asked questions about peer-support as a wider level of intervention that might be formally assimilated into the institutional context if prison. A convenience subset sample of participants from studies 1 and 2 were follow-up interviewed and their thoughts about the status and potential utility of their peer-support programs were explored. The objective here was to explore peer-support on more of a structural level, but while still relying on the insights from the experts – the peer-supporters serving time. Therefore, participants' general understandings of peer-support, rehabilitation, imprisonment, and how these constructs interact were sought. The aim here was to generate an understanding of the organisational and structural influences that govern rehabilitative work, and how these can either represent challenges or opportunities for the future of peer-support. The questions put to participants yielded responses that were thematically analysed and reduced to three superordinate themes ('through the gate implications', 'stumbling blocks', and 'implications for policy and practice'). The analysis highlights several ways in which peer-support can assist the criminal justice system in dealing with the intricate challenges that come with attempting to rehabilitate and reintegrate offenders. A set of stumbling blocks (institutional challenges) that need to be addressed in order to maximise the utility of peer-support in prisons are also identified and unpacked.
These empirical findings from this research are reflected on in the final two chapters of this thesis, firstly within the scope of a literature-informed discussion, and secondly within the framework of desistance and reintegration theory. The former looks to tie any loose-ends between the literature review and the analytical chapters, and rework any early assumptions and definitions according to the research findings. Accordingly, the extant theoretical definitions of peer-support are re-examined, and some suggestions for how these can be extrapolated to incorporate the prison environment are offered. Also, many of the theoretical understandings interweaved into the analyses in this thesis are revisited, and the degree to which they synergise with peer-support in offending contexts is deliberated. One of the main discussions in this section relates to the extent to which peer-support roles might compliment desistance and whether, therefore, it may be considered to have an innate redemptive property. The final chapter proposes some potential uses for peer-support, mainly for the endeavours of operationalising and shaping theory, and contributing to practical work with offenders.
This thesis closes with a discussion of its limitations and its hopes for the future. It departs with two fundamental messages: 1) a call to policy makers and scholars to acknowledge and further investigate the vast utility of peer-support in prisons; 2) a plea to society to listen to and be willing to accept the people that so often want to be a part of it.

Item Type: Thesis
Creators: Perrin, C.
Date: July 2017
Rights: This work is the intellectual property of the author. You may copy up to 5% of this work for private study, or personal, non-commercial research. Any re-use of the information contained within this document should be fully referenced, quoting the author, title, university, degree level and pagination. Queries or requests for any other use should be directed to the owner(s) of the Intellectual Property Rights.
Divisions: Schools > School of Social Sciences
Depositing User: Linda Sullivan
Date Added: 27 Feb 2018 11:12
Last Modified: 27 Feb 2018 11:12

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