Aotearoa New Zealand cultural interventions: Current issues and potential avenues

Annalisa HughesIntern, Research and Analysis Team, Department of Corrections

Author biography:
Annalisa Hughes worked as an intern for the Research and Analysis team in 2017, after which she returned to continue studying towards her Masters of Forensic Psychology and Postgraduate Diploma in Clinical Psychology at Victoria University. Her research interests are focused around the notion of “culture” and understanding what this means for human behaviour, particularly offending.

While cultural interventions comprise a core part of the Department’s programme suite, both in terms of specific programmes as well as components to “mainstream” criminogenic programmes, there is a lack of evidence showing that cultural interventions “work” to reduce re-offending. Despite this absence, a myriad of evaluative studies have documented that both providers and offenders believe culture enhances programme effectiveness and improves offender responsivity in a number of ways. This article explores some of the challenges entailed in trying to research whether cultural interventions “work”. It considers the concept of “culture” in the Corrections’ sphere (including what does and does not “count” as a cultural intervention) and examines some of the theories how and why culture should, in principle, “work” to reduce re-offending. Applying recent findings from psychological research on culture, it closes by suggesting some ways in which the Department could further realise the potential of cultural initiatives.

Culture is a topic often neglected in forensic psychological research, yet it is imperative if we are to further understand the significant disparities experienced by different groups (Tamatea, 2017). One of the most pressing issues for the Department of Corrections is the overrepresentation of Aotearoa New Zealand’s indigenous population in prisons, with approximately half of all inmates identifying as being of Māori heritage (Department of Corrections, 2017). In recognition of this disparity, the Department provides offenders with rehabilitation programmes that are designed to be culturally responsive, in order to meet specific needs. It is the ethical responsibility of the Department to ensure these programmes are proven to be effective in reducing re-offending through robust research and evaluation. Unfortunately, both international and national research is limited when it comes to evaluating cultural interventions, and only a small effect upon recidivism found, with research indicating that for every 19 offenders who complete a cultural intervention, only one less will be reimprisoned (Heffernan, MacKenzie, & Frawley, 2017).

When it comes to ensuring our cultural interventions adhere to best practice and are evidence-based, a number of challenges present themselves. One of the most significant is the innate complexity that accompanies working with culture in any medium, when no standard definition of the term exists. In 1952, some 150 meanings of the word “culture” were recorded, and this complexity has only increased in the 65 years since (Baldwin, Faulkner, Hecht & Lindsley 2006). Researchers seem to agree that culture is something that can be investigated at both the group and the individual level, but this agreement dissipates as we delve further (Jahoda, 2012). Some seem to understand culture as something that exists externally to a person, the dynamic social environment in which an individual is located (Bond & van de Vijver, 2011; Cole & Parker, 2011; Schwartz, 2009). Others see it as something that can have an impact upon an individual’s internal processes, such as their cognitions and emotions, and still others put forward that it affects behaviour from both directions (Hong, 2009; Oyserman & Sorensen, 2009; Wan & Chiu, 2009). Thus, when we consider cultural interventions in a correctional setting and attempt to evaluate their effectiveness in reducing re-offending, the question of what exactly we are measuring or examining is raised.

This problem is further perpetuated when we try to address the issue of how to measure culture. The term is often conflated with race and/or ethnicity, when it seems clear that culture – for all people – is far more complex (Causadias, Vitriol, & Atkin, 2017). It subsumes not only racial and ethnic factors, but also factors relating to one’s age, gender, sexuality, family roles, social class, and many more. Part of what differentiates humans from other animals is our capacity for culture, and our development is rooted in the particular cultural context/s in which we were raised (Rogoff, 2003). Subsequently, each person’s lens through which they view and interact with the world is partially culturally derived. Therefore when we attempt to produce and evaluate interventions that are culturally responsive, there are multiple concepts to consider.

When we begin to think of culture in this way, it indicates that the term “cultural intervention” is in some way a misnomer. An intervention is deemed “cultural” when it incorporates aspects of Māoritanga or Pasifika culture alongside aspects of correctional treatment drawn from scientific research and evidence. Te Tirohanga (previously known as Māori Focus Units) is an example of this, where correctional services are administered within a kaupapa Māori framework (Department of Corrections, 2017a). However, all interventions – including mainstream-style – contain aspects of Māoritanga in order to increase responsiveness in Māori clients, who make up over half of the prison population. Importantly, mainstream programmes not explicitly labelled as culturally adapted or based, are no less “cultural” than their counterparts. No programme is “culture-free”, as they are intrinsically imbued with the meanings and knowledge present in the cultural context in which they were designed. The development of these programmes is primarily rooted in Western cultural contexts, and therefore drawn from and informed by this background. What we term a “cultural intervention” is actually the attempt to address more than one cultural context in a correctional setting, an integration of Western and indigenous knowledge.

The movement to integrate indigenous and mainstream Western knowledge is an important one for multiple reasons. The Department of Corrections has a dual-responsibility when it comes to ethically managing the offender population. It must prioritise the safety of both individuals and the community, whilst remaining responsive to the multi-cultural nature of the people of Aotearoa New Zealand. The Department has an obligation to adhere to the principles of te Tiriti o Waitangi and work for the restoration of equity between Māori and non-Māori offending (Waitangi Tribunal, 2017).

In addressing this, it must be recognised that human behaviour is best understood from a multi-level perspective. In other words, offending is the result of multiple intersecting processes, at a range of levels (Bronfenbrenner, 2009). It is well known that Māori face a number of unique disadvantages in society which can manifest across these multiple levels, and such disadvantages may play a substantial role in offending committed by Māori (Chalmers, 2014). The integration of cultural concepts assists in recognising that the needs of an individual will differ, in part, as a result of varying cultural background (ethnicity, age, gender, and so on). This allows programmes and interventions to provide treatment that is correspondingly intersectional. The holistic nature of culturally integrated programmes is also important in this regard, as it allows for a view of offenders as nested within multiple bio-psycho-socio-cultural contexts, and helps to avoid the application of a “one size fits all” model to rehabilitation.

There is currently a plethora of evidence for the significant role culturally dominant (“mainstream”) interventions play in the reduction of re-offending. Evidence further indicates that such programmes are effective for offenders regardless of their cultural background (Waitangi Tribunal, 2017). However, there is much less evidence supporting the ability of culturally integrated programmes to have such an effect on recidivism. Qualitative methods have consistently found that participants and facilitators of these programmes report high levels of enjoyment and engagement alike, alongside other benefits (Department of Corrections, 2017a). It is suggested the effectiveness of culturally integrated programmes is most enhanced when they are “holistic and address multiple risk factors, involve whānau and the wider indigenous community, and use culturally informed personnel.” (Heffernan, MacKenzie, & Frawley, 2017). Interestingly, it has been found that while cultural identity may not “buffer” recidivism directly, it is predictive of cultural engagement (i.e. engagement with culturally-specific activities, behaviours and sustaining of other cultural connections). In turn, increased cultural engagement has been found to correlate negatively with recidivism (Shepherd, Delgado, Sherwood, & Paradies, 2017). Other psychological research suggests a similar pattern, wherein cultural attachment has been found to act protectively against alcohol abuse and suicidal behaviours (Whitbeck, Chen, Hoyt, & Adams, 2004; Yoder, Whitbeck, Hoyt, & LaFromboise, 2006). Thus, it seems aspects of “culture” may act protectively in relation to factors that have an impact on re-offending, although how this occurs has not yet been analysed.

Culture certainly has an important role at the “responsivity” stage of the rehabilitation process. Even if culture’s only role in the desistance process is to enhance an individual’s engagement with a particular intervention, the inclusion of explicitly cultural concepts therefore remains worthy of investment. Enhanced engagement with one programme can make an individual more amenable to other therapeutic features which address criminogenic/personal needs, and more likely to respond to other rehabilitative/reintegrative interventions (Department of Corrections, 2017a). Increased engagement may also enhance an offending individual’s view of therapeutic staff as being more than simply “agents of the state”, by reframing them as health and care professionals with whom they can communicate their honest thoughts and feelings (Singer, Dressler, George, & NIH Expert Panel, 2016). What remains to be determined is how to disentangle culture as a purely responsivity-increasing factor from cultural aspects that may have a direct impact upon rehabilitation and subsequent desistance from crime. This will contribute to a better understanding of why evaluations of culturally-integrated interventions are not indicating a greater impact on recidivism than we might expect (Heffernan, MacKenzie, & Frawley, 2017).

Modern cultural theorists have proposed that culture may play a more significant role in criminal desistance processes, which may provide a platform for ways through which correctional services may further realise the potential of these interventions. Glynn (2016) argues that offending individuals who belong to marginalised cultures need to be engaged in rehabilitation programmes that are intersectional (i.e. that recognise their unique, double-stigmatised position as criminal and culturally marginalised) in order to encourage the internal processes that lead to the decision to desist. Rehabilitation needs to support individuals in navigating their socio-cultural context, part of which involves increasing their social capital through skill development to overcome the impacts of belonging to a marginalised cultural group (Bracken, Deane, & Morrissette, 2009). In an Aotearoa New Zealand context, these ideas are applicable to more than just those who identify as tangata whenua. Culture is more than ethnicity, and therefore marginalisation can occur at different levels for different reasons. Corrections’ cultural interventions are open to offenders of all cultural backgrounds, and the culturally integrated nature of these programmes means they are suitable for a wide range of people.

This should not be taken to mean that culture by itself should be considered a therapeutic treatment, something that researchers and practitioners have rightly cautioned against (Heffernan, MacKenzie, & Frawley, 2017). It is the marginalisation of a group, not the group membership itself, which may act as a risk factor or increase exposure to risk factors associated with crime. The conclusion that can be tentatively drawn is that culturally-integrated interventions may be effective to instigate intergenerational change. Particularly for members of marginalised cultural groups, hurts have occurred over many generations that may now relate to why higher proportions of these groups’ members are managed by the criminal justice system. It may be beneficial, therefore, for attempts to reduce re-offending to address intergenerational issues.

It seems clear that empirical and theoretical research has yet to fully capture the variable of “culture” and how to measure it. Subsequently its impact upon the processes that lead to both offending and desistance from offending has not yet been disentangled from other factors. It has been recognised that cultural concepts have a significant impact at the “responsivity” stage of an offender’s rehabilitation. However, recent research suggests that culturally integrated correctional programmes may also directly promote desistance from crime through so-called “protective factors”, and targeting varying and sometimes unique treatment needs by addressing cultural marginalisation. The Department will continue to develop evidence-based programmes that reduce the risk of harm to the community. It seems clear a unified empirical and theoretical understanding of what culture is, and how it may operate as a separate factor that impacts upon behaviour, would significantly enhance the measurement of culturally-integrated interventions, and inform how these may be developed to improve outcomes for recidivism.


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