The article is devoted to presentation of a psychological/criminological investigation of 163 young offenders who in 2000 after serving at least 12 months of a custodial sentence were preparing for release from a penal institution. This study formed part of a wide-ranging survey carried out under a research project entitled “The Effectiveness of the Reformed Criminal Law”, financed by the Committee for Scientific Research.
The convicted delinquents were young males with, compared to the totality of Polish youth, a very low level of education. Only 27% of the respondents had completed some form of post-elementary education and most of these had not progressed any further than basic vocational training. Also, a clear majority did not possess any acquired trade and prior to detention had never held a job. Barely 22.7% were in full-time employment.
Very disturbing is the evidence provided by the survey of alcohol abuse by a majority of the respondents. They drank frequently, and in large quantities, not only beer, which is widely advertised, but also spirits.
Low levels of education, lack of a trade and tendencies to alcohol abuse add up to a decidedly negative prognosis factor. At a time of high unemployment persons without an education or trade and exhibiting tendencies to alcohol abuse have virtually negligible prospects of social readjustment after release from a penal institution.
Another equally negative factor is the fact that a substantial percentage of young offenders began their criminal careers already in childhood or early adolescence: only 24.6% had never previously been brought before a juvenile court charged with a punishable act and during the period of the survey were serving their first prison terms. The remainder either had prior convictions, had been prosecuted in a juvenile court for a punishable act or been tried on criminal charges both as minors and after their 17th birthday.
A decided majority of the respondents (89.6%) were serving prison sentences for crimes against property, including 36.2% convicted of robbery with violence.
One of the aims of the investigation was to establish the family backgrounds of the respondents, the current state of their relations with their parents and the chances of their families being a source of assistance and support after their release from prison.
Compared with the parents of all children attending post-elementary education, the young offenders’ parents have much lower standards of education; another finding was that in the families of convicted delinquents there is a much higher incidence than in the families of youth in general of various pathological phenomena. It was found, for instance, that 79% of the respondents were raised in homes in which fathers, mothers or siblings were alkohol abusers (including 338% in which members of the immediate family were chronic alcoholics). In many families (63.8%) there was a history of violetce in various forms and a quite substantial proportion (45.3%) of the respondents had persons with criminal records in their immediate family. Between the parents of the respondents, probably as a result of alcohol abuse or financial difficulties caused by lack of permanent employment, there were frequent conflicts.
Fathers were perceived by over half the respondents as persons taking very little or no interest in their welfare. Mothers, on the other hand, were thought by most of the respondents to have shown them love, accepted them fully, provided care and support and tried to shield them from all kinds of dangers. Despite this perception of mothers as affectionate and devoted the delinquents were far less inclined than law-abiding youth to trust them completely. Aside from progress at school, nothing was expected of the respondents by their parents and consequently the only things for which they were punished were bad grades, truancy and disobedience. Among the punishments most frequently imposed by parents were corporal punishment and detention. As in the case of punishments rewards were usually received by the respondents for good grades at school and assistance with household chores. The most frequent forms of rewards were money or presents.
During their imprisonment almost all the respondents maintained frequent contacts with parents. Family members, especially mothers, visited them regularly and provided assistance in the form of care packages and money transfers. After release from prison comprehensive assistance was expected from fathers by 42.9% of the respondents and from mothers by 73%.
Since attitudes to religion differentiate to a large extent people's attitudes and behavior the survey sought to establish the view taken of religion by the respondents. A decided majority of them were persons who described themselves as believers but non-practicing. There was also a significant percentage of non-believers (14.8%). By contrast the least numerous group comprised systematically practicing believers.
All the convicted delinquents were, in accordance with the provisions of the penal administration code, serving their sentences in a system of individualized treatment. Prior to implementation of such programs, information is collected about the offender (from court and police files, interviews, observation, medical histories, psychological tests, etc.) and used by a psychologist or pedagogue to prepare a penitentiary diagnosis which explains the causes of the delinquent’s flouting of socio-moral and legal norms, describes his metod of social functioning and indicates the basic problems which may be future obstacles to social readjustment.
To determine whether the subjects included any identifiable groups of persons with similar characteristics in terms of the causation of criminal behavior cluster analysis was used. Based on this analysis two distinct groups of delinquents were identified. The first comprised delinquents with strongly developed consumption needs, disposed to pleasure and avoidance of effort but also very susceptible to negative influences in their environment. The second group consisted of delinquents whose criminality was connected primarily with a dysfunctional family situation, alcohol abuse, and low mental capacity, especially with regard to planning and foreseeing the consequences of their actions.
In the picture of the social functioning of the respondents obtained by the cluster analysis technique three distinct groups were identified. The first group, comprising about 40% of the subjects, consisted of delinquents good at establishing interpersonal contacts but with a scornful attitude to all moral and legal norms and no respect for any kind of authority. The second group was made up of delinquents of a submissive temperament, often functioning in a victim role, but who were also characterized as acceptance-seekers and quiet and conscientious students or employees. The third group consisted of delinquents betraying symptoms of emotional disturbance, displaying little self-awareness and incapable of critical assessment of their own behavior, inclined to manipulate other people and disposed to satisfaction of immediate needs.
Rehabilitation treatment of convicted delinquents must take account of their basic problems. Cluster analysis of respondents with differing problems made it possible to identify two distinct groups of delinquents. The first consisted of individuals whose basic problems were, in the first place, lack of education and skills, an uncritical disposition, inability to control themselves in difficult situations and immature personalities. The second group was made up of delinquents whose chief problems were tendencies to alcohol abuse, susceptibility to negative influences, lack of aspirations and aims in life, and lack of family support.
To determine how delinquents cope in difficult situations a study was conducted using the A-R Action Strategy test (developed by K. Ostrowska) and the Life Orientation Questionnaile (A. Antonovsky). The findings yielded by the A-R questionnaire indicate that in difficult situations, especially when prized values are threatened, a decided majority of the subjects emploi a strategy of resignation. A preference for this strategy was typical of delinquents disposed to avoidance of effort and situations requiring risk, courage and perseverance, and with a pessimistic view of the world. The second psychological test employed in the study was the Life Orientation Questionnaire which is used to identify the level of a person’s sense of coherence defined as the characteristic responsible for resistance to stress. Based on analysis of the study’s findings it can be said that the lower the respondents’ sense of coherence, the more frequently they were inclined to adopt a resignation strategy. There are, therefore, grounds for the hypothesis that employment of a resignation strategy, which could greatly impede the rehabilitation process, may derive from a low sense of coherence, that is, treatment of the stimuli flowing from the outside world as chaotic and incomprehensible, coupled to the absence of any sense of being capable of coping with tasks requiring commitment and effort.
Based on the information about the convicted delinquents contained in the penitentiary diagnoses, the psychologists and pedagogues drew up, with the assistance of the subjects themselves individualized programs of treatment. The kinds of tasks most frequently specified in these programs called for the delinquents to maintain contacts with their families (94.5%), engage in cultural, educational and sports activities (91.4%), undertake work (76.1%) and study (63.8%), and develop desirable habits.
Individualized programs ought to take account of, on the one hand, the characters of the delinquents themselves and their needs and problems and, on the other, the possibilities for implementing the recommended tasks in the conditions of a penal institution. Since at present, given the overcrowding of prisons, pedagogues are incapable of devoting too much time to each inmate and there is also a shortage among prison-service staff of the requisite number of therapists and trainers to conduct psycho-correctional activities and workshops in various interpersonal skills, some of the recommendations are of a general and formal character. Besides, not all of the recommendations laid down in the individual programs can be implemented by the inmates. This applies in particular to work-related recommendations since in a situation in which broad sections of Polish society are afflicted by unemployment the prison service is incapable of providing work opportunities for all inmates.
The study also sought to determine delinquents’ attitudes to prison-service personnel and the way in which they function while serving their sentences as reflected in the punishments and rewards received. The inmates’ attitude to prison staff was described in most cases as positive, especially with respect to pedagogues, psychologists and therapists, less often with respect to warders. It was also found that a positive attitude to prison staff was decidedly more
frequent among delinquents serving their first sentence than among ones with previous convictions.
The most frequent transgression for which the subjects had been punished was infractions of prison rules and illegal contacts. The most frequent punishments were formal reprimands and temporary exclusion from participation in cultural, education and sports activities. As for rewards, these were conferred for performance of community service, diligence and orderliness, and exemplary job performance. The most frequent rewards were commendations and additional visits.
Since, as mentioned earlier, all the respondents were preparing for release from prison the survey sought to establish iheir plans for the immediate future. A decided majority (82.8%) intended to seek employment as soon they were released; in some case the plans, included starting a family, further education, severance of ties with their previous criminal environment, etc. Sadly, no less than 17.2% of the subjects had no concrete plans.
For each of the delinquents the psychologists examining them drew up a psychological/criminological prognosis. In drawing up this prognosis they factored in declarations by respondents of a wish to change their way of life, their degree of demoralization, self-improvement activities while in prison, previous convictions and contacts with the criminal justice system as minors, and what support they could expect from their familie. A decidedly favorable prognosis was made for only 9.2% of the subjects and a decidedly unfavorable one for 12.9%. Most frequently, the psychologists were unable to formulate a prognosis, realizing that the social readjustment of released prisoners depends on very many diverse factors.
All of the respondents were released in 2000. When follow-up checks on reconviction were carried out two years later it was found that 23% of the subjects had committed violations of the law in the catamnesia period.
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