Monday, March 30, 2009

Reforming sex offenders

March 30, 2009

Prison programme prevents repeat crimes by those likely to re-offend

By Teh Joo Lin & Kimberly Spykerman

BALA Kuppusamy, now 48, was first jailed in 1987 for rape and other offences. He was out five years later, but within 45 days, he was back at it.

During his second, much-longer jail term, he was put through a treatment programme designed for sex convicts likely to re-offend.

But he committed sexual assault after his second release in March last year - and this time, he held out for just 41 days.

Now hit with a 42-year term, he is so far the only known offender on whom the Singapore Prison Service's programme has failed to work.

Inside prison

The programme tailored for sex offenders began in 2001.

The Prisons' head of psychological services, Mr Timothy Leo, 48, explained that not all convicted sex offenders are put through the programme.

They have to first be assessed on factors that shape their likelihood to re-offend, such as how deviant their sexual habits are, their attitudes towards sex offences, and their history.

Those assessed to be at 'moderate' or 'high' risk of re-offending are put through the programme. Those at high risk go through a more intensive version lasting six to eight months, and involving group discussions; those in the 'moderate' group undergo a workbook-based course for about four months.

Mr Leo describes the approach as 'scientific', that is, evidence-based - 'what works rather than what seems nice or faddish'.

The programme helps sex offenders learn about the way they think and how their actions flow from this. An awareness of this process is supposed to help them choose not to commit sex offences when the urge arises again.

In the first stage of the three-stage course, inmates learn to defeat the secrecy, shame and denial surrounding their acts and to 'own up' to what they did.

Mr Leo said not all offenders deny what they have done, though they do tend to talk it down.

For example, they come up with excuses for their actions, such as by saying they were drunk when they committed the offences; others convince themselves that it was their victims' fault.

In the second stage of the programme, the inmates break up their thought processes in the run-up to their sex crimes into 'little bits', so their 'thinking errors' can be identified and addressed.

For example, some offenders believe their victims 'asked for it' by dressing provocatively; others are blind to their victims as fellow human beings, and choose instead to see them merely as objects.

This part of the programme thus teaches them empathy, that is, to realise that their victims are 'more than just a face', said Mr Leo.

In the final stage, inmates develop a 'relapse prevention plan' for themselves.

By this time, they would have found out how they think and what they believe in, and so are in a position to choose the right thing to do.

'We don't adopt a view that people don't have control over what they do. This works on the view that people have choices they can make,' added Mr Leo.

The Prisons declined to say how many sex offenders go through the programme each year, but the police caught 816 sex offenders for molestation and rape last year, a dip from 855 the year before.

Mr Leo said the programme has worked well so far: Between 2001 and 2006, no sex offender who underwent it committed sexual offences within two years of his release.

Bala is not included in these figures as he was released only last year.

Among sex offenders deemed low risk and exempted from the programme, the relapse rate was 6.9 per cent within two years of release.

Asked whether low-risk offenders should undergo the programme, Mr Leo said existing research did not prove conclusively that this would significantly lower their chances of re-offending.

At the moment, such offenders are given religious counselling and offered jobs within prison, among other schemes.

Among the offenders who do go through the programme, there is still a chance they will re-offend - successful though the programme may seem to be.

Bala is a case in point. The Prisons and the police noted in a joint statement that whether a former offender falls back into his bad old ways also depends on how motivated he is about turning over a new leaf, and the amount of support he gets from his family and community upon his release.

Outside prison

When Bala came out, he was neither electronically tagged nor getting psychological treatment. He was also not signed on with any support group.

His family members said they were aware help was available outside prison, but did not seek it as they believed he had reformed.

But signs were there that Bala's attitude towards women had not changed. His 34-year-old nephew, who wanted to be known only as Joe, said that several times, his uncle pointed at women on the street and derided them for 'tempting' him by their manner of dress.

His tendency towards violence also seemed undampened. Several times, he told Joe about how easy it was to just shove women, grab their purses and run.

Such remarks triggered no alarm bells among his family members, who believed he was still re-adjusting to life outside prison and needed time to recover at his own pace. So they just let him be.

Bala got a job as a cleaner in Suntec City, and insisted on turning over his entire $900 salary to his sister, with whom he lived following his release.

That he re-offended so soon after his release - not once, but twice - begs the question of what more can be done to follow up on the Prisons' programme.

Psychiatrists interviewed called for other specialised programmes to support sex offenders after their release.

Dr Munidasa Winslow, who worked at the Institute of Mental Health for 20 years and is now a consultant psychiatrist at Raffles Hospital, explained that the prison environment is 'artificial', with none of the outside world's distractions, such as television and the Internet.

A 1997 study of sex-offender treatment programmes in Canada showed that for rehabilitation to be successful, communities and treatment centres must be prepared to follow up on the offender's progress, either with formal programmes or informally through group support and peer counselling.

Help is available here in the form of counselling and support services, but no coordinated care network exists for the rehabilitation of sex offenders.

The director of the Singapore After-Care Association, Mr Prem Kumar, 40, said the help now available is insufficient to meet the needs of former offenders freed by the Prisons every year.

When resources fall short, needs have to be prioritised, he said. For now, resources are going into less challenging areas, for example, dealing with the needs of, say, first-time offenders, rather than serial offenders who may be battling addictive behaviours.

Programme director Marjorie Nixon of We Care Community Services, which helps people with addictions such as sex addiction, said that often, too much emphasis is put on finding jobs for these former offenders - when they are ill-prepared for the stress and challenges of the workplace.

'There is this belief that if we can just get them a job, they are going to be fine, but it's not true. The reintegration process is difficult, so one tends to fall back into what one did because the behavioural triggers are going to be there.'

One former offender, who was fined $40,000 last year for possessing uncensored and obscene material, can attest to the need for a 'more socially accepting climate' where help is available so he will not re-offend.

Declining to be named, he said his crime was the result of an addiction, and that he masturbated regularly. He knew he had a problem but did not know where to go for help.

'No one in my circle gave me the impression that I could comfortably approach them on such issues. There was always so much shame and condemnation regarding such things,' he said.

He lasted only two weeks in an online programme called 'Setting Captives Free' before he found a rehabilitation programme, which he believes is giving him the support and treatment he needs.

[The insight from a practitioner is informative. It's not as simple as just get him a job. That in itself may cause stress.]

No comments: