A study of prisoners released from the 'therapeutic community' at Grendon jail, in Buckinghamshire, found that its former inmates were twice as likely to keep a clean record as offenders released from ordinary jails.
The prison's psychology department tracked 214 inmates released between 1983 and 1989. Only 18 per cent of men who had been through Grendon's 18-month course of therapy reoffended. Nationally, 42 per cent of prisoners reoffend.
Tim Newell, the governor of Grendon, said that the research was the first proof that violent men who had been through the jail's course had a much better than average chance of reforming. The findings could have a wider significance as the belief that sex offenders can be treated remains highly controversial.
Grendon does not claim that it can cure violent criminals and emphasises that staff can only work with inmates who want to reform. Nevertheless, news of the study's findings, which were accompanied yesterday by the publication of a highly complimentary report on the jail's 'extraordinarily high' standards from Judge Stephen Tumim, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, will be seen as a vindication of its often brutally frank use of group therapy.
Mr Newell described the study as 'a very positive confirmation that our policy of challenging the concepts of violent offenders can have an effect'.
Grendon organises the majority of its 190 inmates into communities of about 40 prisoners. These are broken up into smaller sub- groups in which the men are encouraged to confront their relationships with women, self- esteem, sexuality and ability to handle conflict and stress.
The results of the self-criticism can often be explosive. One visitor described seeing a child abuser being 'torn apart' by his group when he announced that he had been offered a place in a Catholic monastery. 'Everyone else pointed out that child abusers wanted to become priests and teachers so they could prey on children from a position of trust,' he said. 'They . . . forced him to reconsider.'
The jail has also rejected the practice of giving sex offenders libido suppressing drugs.
Adam Sampson, deputy director of the Prison Reform Trust and one of the country's leading experts on sex crime, praised Grendon's attempts to break up patterns of offending, but added that only a few hundred of the 3,000 sex offenders in British prisons could go to the jail.
'Most offenders are in pretty dreadful prisons,' he said. 'The Home Office did promise that inmates outside Grendon would receive treatment too, but in reality only a handful have benefited.'
Mr Sampson also warned against using the criminal records of former prisoners to prove that a course of treatment had worked. 'The truth is that many sex offences aren't reported and most sex offenders aren't caught. We simply cannot say with certainty whether an ex-prisoner . . . has not reoffended.'Reuse content