The Short Violence Prevention Programme: An offence-focused intervention for short-serving incarcerated men with a history of violence who are at high risk of re-offending
Clinical Psychologist, Department of Corrections
Ryan Perkins graduated from the clinical psychology programme at the University of Canterbury in 2010. He initially worked with the Department of Corrections before taking up a role as a clinical psychologist at the MindSpot Clinic at Sydney’s Macquarie University in 2013. Ryan has been a senior psychologist with the Dunedin Psychologists’ Office since 2016. In this role, he has delivered group-based treatment to high risk prisoners, supervises group practice, and manages the local delivery of the Short Violence Prevention Programme.
The Department of Corrections remains committed to the goal of reducing re-offending. This goal is central to the Department’s 2018-2019 strategic plan, ‘Our Priorities’, which aims to both improve outcomes for individuals serving prison and community-based sentences and to reduce the societal costs that result from crime and high levels of recidivism. The Department currently provides access to a range of rehabilitation, employment, and educational initiatives that are intended to reduce re-offending rates in New Zealand. Central to the Department’s strategy of reducing the social costs of re-offending is developing and delivering interventions that are likely to have the greatest positive impact on the people in its care.
At the present time, the Department delivers a range of high quality, empirically-supported rehabilitative programmes within the prison sector. These include programmes that target women who are at moderate risk of re-offending (Kowhiritanga and Short Rehabilitation Programme for Women), men who are at moderate risk of general re-offending (Medium Intensity Rehabilitation Programme, Short Rehabilitation Programme for Men, Mauri Tū Pae, Saili Matagi, and the WHARE Programme), and men who are at lower risk of committing sexual offences against children (Short Intervention Programme).
The importance of providing interventions to men and women who are considered to be at high risk of re-offending is well-documented in the literature (Andrews & Bonta, 2017). At the present time, the Department offers intensive prison-based therapeutic programmes to high risk women (Kimihia), high risk male adolescents (Mauri Tū, Mauri Ora), high risk men who present with complex personality traits and who are subject to maximum/high prison security classifications (High Risk Personality Programme – Revised), and men who are at high risk of committing further sexually-motivated offences against children (Child Sex Offender Treatment Programme) and adults (Adult Sex Offender Treatment Programme). In addition, the Special Treatment Unit Rehabilitation Programme – Revised (STURP-R) is the Department’s flagship prison-based programme for addressing the complex criminogenic needs of men who are at high risk of general and violent re-offending.
To support its strategic vision of reducing re-offending rates, the Department has placed increased focus on targeting individuals in its care who have traditionally had limited access to meaningful offence-focused intervention. One of these groups is men who are serving short prison sentences. As the trajectory of short-serving incarcerated men is characterised by rapid cycling in and out of prison, addressing the criminogenic needs of this group appears critical to reducing the harm caused by high rates of re-offending. Due to the length of time that is required to complete the STURP-R, this is not an accessible rehabilitation pathway for men serving short prison sentences. Therefore, improving access to high quality treatment for men who are otherwise ineligible for intensive interventions should assist this traditionally under-serviced population to “break the cycle” of release and re-imprisonment.
As part of broadening the suite of interventions available to high risk populations within the prison system, the Short Violence Prevention Programme (SVPP) was designed to target the complex dynamic needs of short-serving incarcerated men with a history of serious or repeated violence. The SVPP is a brief intensive intervention delivered by departmental psychologists using evidence-based violence prevention strategies. A project plan guiding the delivery and evaluation of the pilot SVPP at Otago Corrections Facility (OCF) was endorsed by the Department’s Industry, Treatment, and Learning (ITL) Project Board in December 2017. A function of the ITL Project Board is to improve access to interventions that use best practice methodologies to target offending behaviour. Funding for the SVPP pilot phase was approved as part of the ITL Project Board’s strategy for reducing violent re-offending.
Two pilot SVPPs were delivered at OCF between March 2018 and October 2018. This article provides a brief overview of those programmes, including the participant recruitment process, the cohort of men who were selected for the programmes, the structure and content of the programme, participants’ views on their treatment experience, and some preliminary post-treatment findings.
Men were initially identified as eligible for the first pilot programme using the following criteria:
- Currently serving a prison sentence for violence against another person and/or has previously served a sentence for serious violent offending
- An imposed aggregate prison sentence length of two years or less
- Most recent RoC*RoI score of 0.7 or above
- Aged 18 years or older
- Four or more months of imprisonment remaining prior to statutory release date.
- Subject to a maximum security classification or unable to be in the OCF Programmes Building due to operational reasons
- Active Identified Drug User (IDU) status
- One or more convictions for sexual offences against a child
- Currently serving a prison sentence for sexual offences against an adult.
Due to operational challenges associated with recruiting eligible men from across the New Zealand prison estate, approval was obtained from the ITL Project Board to extend the eligibility criteria for the pilot phase to include men serving a prison sentence of two years or more who had insufficient time remaining on their sentence to participate in the STURP-R. Eligible men were subsequently identified by the SVPP programme manager through COBRA lists or from the prison waitlist managed by the local psychologists’ office. Of the 17 men who started the two pilot programmes, four met the original criteria and 13 were identified based on the revised criteria.
The two programme therapists assigned to deliver the pilot programmes then completed an initial suitability screen for eligible men using electronic file information held in the IOMS database. Men were not further considered for the programme if they were already waitlisted for an offence-focused treatment programme, were currently participating in a departmental rehabilitation programme or engaged in treatment with a departmental psychologist, were subject to operational restrictions that affected prison transfer or group participation, or were unlikely to manage the requirements of an intensive group-based treatment programme. Following this screening process, all suitable men were contacted to establish their motivation to participate in the SVPP. Motivated men were then interviewed either in person or by audio-visual link. The key focus of this interview was to assess the men’s views about engaging in a treatment programme focused on violence prevention, their motivation and readiness to engage in all aspects of the treatment programme, their willingness to adhere to protocols established for the group and within the delivery setting, and their capacity to manage the demands of an intensive group-based treatment. Additional treatment responsivity and programme suitability factors considered for each man as part of the screening process included prison segregation status, cognitive capacity, mental health status, group fit, vulnerability and personal safety issues, and potential risks to others within the treatment context.
Men assessed as being “programme ready” (that is, suitable and motivated) then met with the programme therapists to identify their key criminogenic risk factors and treatment needs, and to develop individualised treatment goals for the programme. Treatment planning was informed by administration of the Level of Service/Case Management Inventory (LS/CMI), an integrated assessment tool that uses historical and stable dynamic risk factors to predict an individual’s risk of re-offending over the next 12 months. In addition, psychometric measures were used to provide a baseline measure of personality features and psychopathology (Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory – Fourth Edition; MCMI-IV), attitudes towards violence (Criminal Attitudes to Violence Scale; CAVS), and offence-relevant cognitions (Criminogenic Cognitions Scale; CCS) and thinking styles (Psychological Inventory of Criminal Thinking; PICTS). Participants’ overall scores on the CAVS, CCS, and PICTS reflected high levels of criminogenic thinking and attitudes.
In addition to holding strong pro-criminal views, many of the men identified for the programme had a history of behavioural instability in the prison environment and limited experience of managing the demands of a therapeutic programme. Consequently, the programme delivery team developed a communications plan in collaboration with custodial staff to ensure any behavioural management concerns related to participants were directly reported to the programme therapists. It was anticipated that this would enable the programme therapists to actively support participants and prison staff with containing and managing problematic conduct, monitor offence-paralleling behaviours, and address persistent behavioural issues using the therapeutic framework of the programme.
The pilot SVPP treatment manual integrated principles, components, and techniques from a variety of evidence-based therapeutic models. A full description of the psychological theories underpinning the pilot manual is outlined by Louw (2017). In summary, the SVPP treatment model shares the theoretical and therapeutic approaches used by other intensive departmental programmes targeted at high risk populations. Broadly speaking, these programmes use well-established interventions and strategies based on social learning theory (including from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, Good Lives Model, and Relapse Prevention), the principles of the Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR) model of rehabilitative change (Andrews, Bonta, & Hoge, 1990), and John Livesley’s (2012) integrated treatment framework for working with individuals with personality disorders.
Given the significant overrepresentation of Māori men/tāne and women/wāhine in the New Zealand prison system, the SVPP was designed to be relevant and responsive to Māori participants. During the development phase of the programme, a strong focus was placed on the inclusion of Māori practices, processes, and concepts that are widely used within rehabilitation programmes delivered by the Department. As an outcome of this process, the SVPP uses a range of cultural devices and models that have been developed in consultation with cultural advisors to enhance the therapeutic experience for tāne (such as Te Whare Tapa Whā and the wayfinding waka journey).
The pilot programmes consisted of 25 three-hour sessions, with sessions delivered up to three days a week. Due to the high and complex needs of the target cohort, all sessions were co-facilitated by the two programme therapists. The flexible and dynamic nature of the programme enabled the programme therapists to use multiple delivery methods to maximise the learning experience for participants. This included using group processes and dynamics to support active learning tasks, pitching content to the level of participants’ language and cognitive abilities, creating opportunities for participant-led discussions and peer feedback, and drawing on culturally-relevant analogies, concepts, and examples.
The pilot SVPP consisted of three phases based on the broad principles of Livesley’s integrated framework:
- Phase One (sessions 1-8) oriented participants to the programme content and aims, introduced basic skills required to undertake treatment (such as providing and receiving feedback and strategies for containing acute problem emotions and behaviours), and provided opportunities for the process of whakawhanaungatanga to occur (building connections and relationships among the participants and between the programme therapists and the participants). Sessions focused on setting behavioural norms, creating a safe therapeutic and learning setting, developing a shared group identity, exploring personal values and goals, enhancing treatment engagement and motivation, and understanding personality functioning and relational styles.
- Phase Two (sessions 9-16) focused on the acquisition of critical skills and knowledge to assist participants to understand and manage criminogenic thinking and behaviour. Session content in this phase was designed to highlight offending-related thinking styles and emotions, address beliefs and attitudes associated with offending, improve coping with difficult emotions and impulses, identify unhelpful interpersonal and behavioural patterns, and increase communication skills and competency with managing conflict.
- Phase Three (sessions 17-25) aimed to further increase problem recognition and to support participants with preparing for the future. Sessions were focused on outlining the functions of aggression and violence and the impact of violence, exploring offence-desistance pathways, developing future goals linked to positive life values, mapping out cognitive-affective-behavioural cycles relevant to previous violent offending, identifying potential future problems and considering alternative responses to aggression, and developing personalised safety plans.
As well as the group sessions, participants were provided with three or more individual sessions with the programme therapists. These sessions were used to deliver personalised treatment content to participants (such as information regarding personality style), reinforce critical programme content, provide participants with individual feedback about their treatment progress and programme participation, obtain participants’ views on group and treatment processes, and assist participants with offence mapping and safety planning. For men completing the requirements of the programme, a formal graduation ceremony was held in the communal whare space at OCF. Ceremonies were attended by local stakeholders from within the prison and community settings, and graduates had an opportunity to invite their key support people. While the programme therapists were not able to take the lead in organising whānau hui/support meetings for men following the programme, graduates were encouraged to work with their case managers to coordinate such meetings prior to their release. As requested, programme therapists were available to attend these meetings to assist the graduate to provide his support network with information relevant for managing his reintegration and future offending risk.
Reflections on the pilot groups
The first SVPP pilot began on 19 March 2018, with nine of the ten programme starters graduating from the programme on 31 May 2018. The sole programme non-completer self-exited after five sessions due to low motivation to engage in the programme requirements. The second pilot commenced on 13 August 2018 with six of the seven starters graduating on 23 October 2018. The non-completer from this programme self-exited after 13 sessions following a period of variable treatment engagement, which he attributed to his low affiliation with the therapeutic content. Table 1 provides an overview of the key demographic, offending and sentencing history, and prior treatment history information for the 17 programme starters.
Table 1: Summary of demographic, offending history, sentencing history, and prior treatment history information for programme starters.
Māori = 10
European = 3
Māori/European = 3
Māori/Pasifika = 1
18-20 = 3
21-25 = 4
26-30 = 6
31-35 = 3
36-40 = 1
Minimum = 2
Low = 1
Low-Medium = 5
High = 9
13-24 months = 4
24-36 months = 8
36-48 months = 5
Active = 12
Retired = 1
No history = 4
Total prison sentences
1-3 = 6
4-6 = 7
7-10 = 5
0-15 = 4
16-30 = 2
31-50 = 2
51-75 = 5
76-90 = 4
Total violence or weapons offences
1-5 = 4
6-10 = 9
11-15 = 3
16-20 = 1
Prior programmes completed
MIRP = 3
SRP-M = 1
YOP = 1
MTP = 1
Analysis of the data presented in Table 1 indicates that the two SVPP pilots started with 17 men aged between 18 and 35 years old (median: 27 years) who predominately identified as being of New Zealand Māori descent. Four men were serving prison sentences of two years or less, and five men were serving sentences longer than three years. More than half the men were subject to a high security classification when they commenced the programme, and 12 men had active gang membership. The men had received between 10 and 90 convictions in total (median: 56), had been convicted of between one and 17 violence or weapons offences (median: 10), and had served between one and 10 separate prison terms (median: five). While five men had previously successfully completed at least one of the Department’s criminogenic programmes, none had completed a programme targeted at the offending-related needs of high risk and/or violent men.
On the RoC*RoI, 12 of the 17 men were at high or very high risk of re-imprisonment within five years of being released from prison. However, when broader lifestyle, attitudinal, and personality factors predictive of criminogenic risk were assessed using the LS/CMI, all 17 men were identified as being at either high or very high risk of committing further re-offending within the next year. On reviewing the MCMI-IV results, 15 men endorsed features consistent with severe personality disturbance and nine exceeded the cut-off score for clinically significant traits on three or more clinical personality patterns. Notably, 15 men had elevated scores on the scale measuring antisocial traits, and more than a third endorsed high levels of either or both narcissistic and sadistic traits. Sixteen of the 17 men disclosed a history of drug dependence.
This data suggests that the two pilot programmes were delivered to a cohort of men who had engaged in a pattern of serious repetitive offending, had demonstrated a propensity for violent and weapons-related offences, and were criminally versatile. Prior to entering the programme, they had been unresponsive to previous prison sanctions and had experienced minimal success in completing intensive offence-related treatment. The majority of starters presented with a pattern of lifestyle and interpersonal factors, as well as psychological features, known to be associated with high rates of serious offending behaviour (including violent offences).
Individual semi-structured exit interviews were offered on a voluntary basis to the men who completed the SVPP pilots. All 15 programme completers agreed to be interviewed, with the interviews undertaken by the local SVPP programme manager.
Results from these interviews indicated that, overall, the SVPP completer group was highly satisfied with their experience of the programme. They rated the programme strongly in terms of its perceived usefulness and relevance for effecting positive change, for improving their motivation and confidence to desist from future offending, and for enhancing their understanding of factors that had contributed to previous offending. All 15 completers indicated that they would recommend the SVPP to others, with many noting that future participants will benefit from the programme if they are prepared to be honest within the group and open to making changes. Completers also consistently rated the programme therapists highly in terms of perceived competence, helpfulness, genuineness, and trustworthiness. None of the completers (including those identifying as Māori or Pasifika) reported any outstanding cultural needs related to the treatment process or programme content. When completers were asked to comment on how they perceived themselves as having changed while on the programme, their responses reflected themes related to increased personal awareness (about their own thinking and behavioural patterns, others’ perspectives, potential consequences, and behavioural options to manage emotional responses), reduced reactivity, increased willingness and capacity to control their emotional experience, increased personal accountability for their actions, and increased openness to seeking support.
The CAVS, CCS, and PICTS were re-administered to all SVPP completers as a means of measuring changes in attitudes and beliefs regarding offending. As noted in Table 2, the mean score of the 15 completers on the CAVS at post-treatment testing had reduced by more than one-fifth compared to the pre-treatment mean score for this group. A similar trend was observed on the CCS, with the average post-treatment total score representing a more than 15 percent reduction from the pre-treatment mean score. Pre-treatment and post-treatment scores on the PICTS also suggested reductions in criminal thinking across the majority of subscales on the measure.
Table 2:Pre-treatment and post-treatment mean score comparisons for the CAVS and CCS.
Pre-treatment mean score
Post-treatment mean score
In an attempt to obtain an objective and independent measure of demonstrable behaviour change, each completer’s electronic prison records of major problematic behaviour “events” (as recorded in IOMS through incident reports and adjudicated misconduct charges that resulted in internal warnings or sanctions) were examined for two time-periods: the six-month period prior to their suitability assessment interview for the SVPP (pre-programme phase); and, the six-month period following the suitability interview (post-programme phase). All incidents and misconducts were manually reviewed, with events classified by type (violence, property damage, contraband, non-compliance, substance-related, and other). Violence-related events included any act of physical or verbal aggression against staff members or other men in the care of the Department.
As shown in Table 3, when the rates of incidents and misconducts were compared for the two phases, modest reductions were found in the total number of new recorded events in the post-programme phase. However, marked decreases were found in the number of violence-related incidents (75 percent reduction) and misconducts (71 percent reduction) recorded during that phase. These results suggest that, while the pilot programmes were associated with a general reduction in the overall frequency and severity of problematic prison-based behaviours, the incidence of violent and aggressive events, in particular, was greatly reduced in the six months following the participants’ initial contact with the programme therapists.
Table 3:Comparison of incidents and misconducts for the six-month pre-programme and post-programme phase.
Violent incidents only
Violent misconducts only
The SVPP was designed for a sub-population of short-serving incarcerated men who have a history of violent offending and who are considered to be at high risk of re-offending. This programme uses a flexible, multi-method therapeutic approach to support participants to better understand the factors that have contributed to their violent offending behaviour, to develop skills that will support long-term emotional and behavioural stability, and to script future lifestyles based on desistance from violent offending.
Two pilot SVPPs were delivered at OCF between March 2018 and October 2018. Despite participants presenting with complex offending and personality profiles, anecdotal information suggests that the therapeutic content and intervention approach of the programmes matched the needs of the participants and addressed anticipated institutional and responsivity issues. Moreover, there is objective evidence that the group of men who successfully completed the pilot programmes demonstrated early indications of clinically relevant changes in their criminogenic thinking patterns and in their behaviour within the custodial environment. However, examining the effect of the SVPP on criminal desistance rates and re-offending patterns in the community will require a longitudinal analysis of post-release data.
Based on feedback from the participants and programme delivery staff, as well as a detailed review of the pilot phase, a number of revisions have been made to the original programme content and treatment process. These amendments are intended to enhance the therapeutic experience for participants by reducing didactic teaching of content, increasing learning through active participation, and improving the quality and utility of therapeutic resources. A comprehensive formal evaluation of the SVPP pilot phase is underway and a summary of that evaluation will be included in the next edition of this journal. Based on the successful implementation of the pilot programmes at OCF, the Department is exploring opportunities to expand the SVPP into other prison sites and into the community setting.
 In New Zealand, incarcerated men and women whose aggregate prison sentence is two years duration or less are classified as “short-serving” and are automatically released after serving half their sentence.
 The RoC*RoI (Risk of Conviction/Risk of Imprisonment) is an actuarial measure developed for the Department of Corrections to assist in the prediction of an offender's risk of re-imprisonment. The RoC*RoI uses criminal history and demographic variables to predict the probability that an individual will be re-convicted within the next five years, the likely seriousness of the offending, and the likelihood of imprisonment.
 Men who had completed the STURP-R during their current sentence were ineligible for the programme. Men who had been excluded from, or who had self-exited, from the STURP-R were eligible.
 COBRA (Corrections Business Reporting & Analysis) is the computerised operational reporting system used by the Department of Corrections to analyse, extract, and report data related to the population of men and women under its care and management.
 Registered Clinical Psychologists from the Dunedin Psychologists’ Office. To ensure consistency in the implementation of the pilots, both programmes were delivered by the same therapists.
 IOMS (Integrated Offender Management System) is the Department’s computerised database of men and women in its care.
 Departmental treatment programmes focused on addressing criminogenic needs: MIRP (Medium Intensity Rehabilitation Programme), SRP-M (Short Rehabilitation Programme for Men), YOP (Young Offenders Programme), and MTP (Mauri Tū Pae).
 Two of the 15 men who completed the programme were released during the post-programme phase and were not included in this analysis.
Andrews, D. & Bonta, J. (2017). The Psychology of Criminal Conduct (6th Edition). New York: Routledge.
Andrews, D., Bonta, J., & Hoge, R. D. (1990). Classification for effective rehabilitation: Rediscovering psychology. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 17(1), 19-52.
Department of Corrections, New Zealand (2018) ‘Our Priorities’ Strategic Plan 2018-2019.
Livesley, W. J. (2012). Integrated treatment: A conceptual framework for an evidence-based approach to the treatment of personality disorder. Journal of Personality Disorders, 26(1), 17-42.
Louw, C. (2017). Development of a Violence Prevention Programme for High Risk Short Serving Prisoners (Unpublished Project Report). Department of Corrections, NZ.