Friday, 12 July 2013

SARNwich Anyone?

July 2013

The non-sense of prison psychology

"Anthony Boden uncovers the inconsistencies of a ‘pseudoscience’

I am a post-tariff IPP. Along with many others in the same position to say that I am frustrated by this sentence would be a gross understatement. My biggest complaint is the government-prescribed, psychological abuse delivered in the form of Offending Behaviour Programmes. There is no scientific basis behind OBPs, which are nothing more than psychological experiments. This country condemned the Nazi’s for conducting psychological experiments on prisoners during World War II, and yet we allow this travesty to continue upon our own shores and in our own prisons. Every intelligent being should ask themselves how this inexcusable position has arisen and what can be done to resolve the issue. I have already formulated my own theories, which I will explain with the help of some of the greatest minds in history.

It was Marie Curie who said, ‘Nothing in life is to be feared, only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more so that you may fear less ...’"



"As a forensic (though not prison) psychologist, I have a great deal of sympathy with Anthony's frustrations. However, quoting Feynman is a bit risky, partly because he wasn't a psychologist, and partly because his views must be somewhat out of date as he is somewhat dead (25 years ago this year). Also, he is somewhat wrong - for example, in stating that psychological experiments don't get repeated. Anyway, none of this actually bears on the scientific status (or otherwise) of present day UK risk assessment.

There has actually been some respectable scientific investigation of risk assessment techniques. For example, a couple of studies have recently investigated the SARN, and demonstrated that the allegedly "dynamic" factors assessed do not have any predictive power over and above that of the static factors of the Risk Matrix 2000. In other words, if someone is assessed using the SARN, this cannot tell us anything at all about his risk before "treatment", his risk after "treatment", or any improvement during it. Therefore, assessments of alleged "unmet treatment needs" which depend upon the SARN are scientifically invalid. I have seen such an assessment successfully challenged in a parole hearing (the man was released) and am astonished that no one has apparently challenged it in the High Court. This is even more astonishing, because studies have been available for as long as 15 years showing that certain "risk factors" routinely assessed in sex offenders are in fact not risk factors at all. A 2005 study concluded: “Many of the variables commonly addressed in sex offender treatment programs (e.g., psychological distress, denial of sex crime, victim empathy, stated motivation for treatment) had little or no relationship with sexual or violent recidivism.Yet people carry on as if nothing had happened.

Another practice which has been scientifically investigated, and shown to be invalid, is the practice of "adjusting" static risk assessments in the light of clinical information. For example, saying something like "the Risk Matrix 2000 says this man is low risk, but in the light of XYZ I would estimate his risk as medium". A number of studies have shown that altering a static risk assessment in this way reduces its accuracy. Always. This is mathematically inevitable, because clinical estimation of risk has been scientifically demonstrated to be very poor, and mixing a poor predictor with a better one reduces the overall accuracy to the level of the poor one. Static risk predictors are not fantastic, but they are about 65 to 70% accurate, which may sound impressive until you realise that you can get 50% accuracy by tossing a coin. Still, they do better than chance.

What worries me is that those doing the risk assessment seem very often not to be aware of how limited it is. They should be."

SARN and SOTP useless: Official

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