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The role of Social Responsibility Units in the trauma pathway

After HMP Thameside recently opened their Social Responsibility Unit (SRU), Kate Marsh, a Senior Forensic Psychologist at Thameside has written an article highlighting the role that these units play in the prison population:

HMP Thameside has opened an SRU designed to manage, develop and support prisoners with a history of anti-social and/or violent prison behaviour. These prisoners often present with challenging, complex needs and have experienced trauma within their lives. As such, trauma informed working has been integral to the practices and approaches utilised on the SRU, for example, management of sensory stimuli, adopting a consistent approach and understanding triggers and significant events from past trauma experienced. Serco has opened four SRUs in HMPs Doncaster, Lowdham Grange, Dovegate and Thameside.

The SRU is distinctly different from other areas of the prison. There is a higher level of staffing on the unit including ring fenced psychology staff of one senior forensic psychologist and two forensic psychologists in training. Whilst there are existing means within the prison to address institutional misconduct, such as the care and separation unit (CSU), the focus of the SRU is not punishment and has been introduced to address this behaviour in a collaborative, progressive and therapeutic manner. As such, location of a prisoner onto the SRU is voluntary; prisoners give their consent to engage. The environment is designed with soft furnishings and inspiring artwork to create a therapeutic space.

SRUs have an extensive theoretical underpinning, drawing upon custodial violence literature, factors contributing to desistance and building pro-social environments in a custodial setting. The Good Lives model (Whitehead, Ward & Collie, 2016) is an integral framework that informs the SRU model and its associated Clinical Delivery Manual and Theory Manual.

SRUs are jointly run by prison officers and psychology staff. Structured group and individual sessions are provided. This affords prisoners the opportunity to reflect on what is important to them, explore their violent and/or anti-social behaviour and identify realistic goals. Prisoners are supported by psychology staff to collaboratively develop their understanding of their ‘own story’ (clinical formulation). This enables prisoners to gain insight into the impact of their earlier life experiences and how this has linked to their belief systems, behaviour and decision making within adulthood. This is an empowering, trauma informed process where prisoners have often felt a greater understanding of themselves and how they can work towards addressing their needs in future.

The SRU model aims to promote prisoners’ positive attitudinal and behavioural change, instil motivation and encourages hope and optimism for building a better future. Additionally, the unit aims to support and empower staff in addressing refractory behaviour in a trauma informed way. There is an emphasis on the development of appropriate relationships between prisoners, staff and significant others. For some prisoners, the experience of caring, supportive and appropriate relationships with others is a relatively new experience, particularly for those with traumatic histories.

Staff are selected to work on the unit based on their demonstration of appropriate values aligned to the principles of the SRU, resilience, empathy, teamwork, and their ability to uphold boundaries whilst maintaining therapeutic alliance, albeit this is not an exhaustive list. SRU staff and partner agencies complete specific training to enable them to understand the underpinning psychological theory and principles and how these are practically applied. SRU staff are afforded weekly continued professional development (CPD) sessions, which have included developing their psychological understanding of the function of prisoners’ behaviour through clinical formulation. In turn, this has informed effective and responsive risk management plans.

Multi-disciplinary working has been essential for the success of the Thameside SRU. Strong working relationships exist between the SRU team and Oxleas NHS Foundation Trust, the CSU and other partner agencies. This has afforded an effective referral process as well as opportunity for multidisciplinary decision making as to appropriate sequencing of services to best meet the prisoners’ needs. This can include a pathway from CSU to SRU and ensuring the prisoner is able to engage from a mental health perspective. Utilising the expertise of professionals in varied roles ensures an enriched and rounded experience for prisoners on the SRU.

Empirical research has been conducted as a means of SRU evaluation and to aid future development of the model. The research thus far has focussed on the development of the model (pre-post psychometric evaluation), development of prison social climate on SRUs (culture) and evidence of the impact on institutional anti-social behaviour and violence. This has provided positive outcomes for the effectiveness of the SRU model in addressing prison violence and anti-social behaviour in a therapeutic and trauma informed manner.