Research has shown that rehabilitation programmes introduced into prisons cut re-offending once sex offenders leave prison and return to live in the community.
But a new study which investigated the take-up of such programmes warns that many offenders at Dumfries and Edinburgh prisons, which house some of the country’s most dangerous sex criminals, are refusing to take part, accept their guilt or tackle problems likely to make them re-offend.
Some prison staff admitted “there was nothing they could do to motivate sexual offenders who were unwilling to engage in programmes”, the report says.
The findings have led to calls from MSPs for prisoners to be required to take part in rehabilitation programmes as part of sentencing or face longer terms if they refuse. .
At present, offenders cannot be forced to attend any type of treatment or counselling.
Although refusing treatment and failing to take responsibility for crimes can count against prisoners when they appear before the parole board at the halfway stage of a sentence, they will still be released automatically at the two-thirds stage even if they have refused to engage.
That means dangerous sex offenders who deny their crimes and refuse treatment still get out of prison early.
The study, Sex Offender – Lack Of Engagement, looked at a group of sex offenders who refused treatment and found they were living in denial, launching endless appeals against their sentences and not facing up to their crimes.
Forensic psychologist Sarah Miller, author of the report, wrote: “Nineteen of the 20 prisoners interviewed were not willing to engage in offender behaviour programmes because they denied their sexual conviction(s).”
In some cases treatment was refused because the offenders were in denial that the offence happened at all, and in others because they believed the sexual activity was consensual, she said.
The combination of denial and status as a candidate for appeal protected participants’ private and public identities by allowing them to avoid labelling and stigmatisation, she added.
“Instead, denial and appellant status ensured (perceived) psychological safety by allowing participants to detach from others.”
MSPs have called for tougher rules to force inmates to join rehabilitation programmes or stay in jail longer.
John Lamont, the Scottish Conservative chief whip, said: “When other criminals, such as those on certain drugs offences, are handed treatment as part of their sentence they must comply with it. If they don’t, their sentence can be extended under the terms of the conviction.
“There’s no reason why this should be any different for sex offenders. If they refuse treatment, they should face the consequences of a longer spell inside until they agree.”
Graeme Pearson, Scottish Labour’s justice spokesman, added: “As a threat to public safety, re-offending sex offenders present a very clear danger.
“As a result, the decision an offender makes about whether to participate in treatment must be a key determination as to whether that person is then eligible for release.
“Treatment in prison is vital, so that an offender recognises that they have committed a crime and that their behaviour can be addressed.”
Sandy Brindley, national co-ordinator for Rape Crisis Scotland, a charity which helps the victims of sex offences, questioned whether the justice system was discharging its obligations by allowing offenders to serve their sentences without taking part in treatment programmes.
“In considering whether it is safe or acceptable to release sex offenders, public safety must be the paramount consideration,” he said. “When sex offenders have refused to engage with the opportunities for rehabilitation offered when they are in custody or, in very many cases, to accept responsibility for their crimes, the impact is often devastating.”
The engagement study revealed 70 prisoners at Dumfries and 31 at Edinburgh were refusing treatment when it was carried out last year. There are currently 80 sex offenders in HMP Dumfries, 170 in HMP Edinburgh and 330 in HMP Glenochil. As Glenochil was not part of the study the true figure for the number refusing treatment is likely to be far higher.
A further 120 sex offenders are held at Barlinnie, but these are short-term prisoners, typically sentenced to less than six months.
A Scottish Prison Service spokesman said: “While SPS can and does constantly and consistently challenge denial, it needs to be recognised that for some prisoners non-engagement is categorical.”
He added: “Dr Miller’s report has helpfully highlighted that some sexual offenders who deny the sexual content of their offending may be amenable to other interventions which can help to address associated behavioural problems and mental health issues.”