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Hound Pound Narrative: Sexual Offender Habilitation and the Anthropology of Therapeutic Intervention

Hound Pound Narrative:  Sexual Offender Habilitation and the Anthropology of Therapeutic Intervention

Author: James B. Waldram
Publisher:  Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2012. 261p.
Reviewer: Richard Tewksbury | November 2012

Hound Pound Narrative is an ethnographic exploration of a Canadian federal prison-based sex offender treatment therapeutic community.   Based on 18 months of fieldwork in the program, anthropologist James Waldram provides insights into the program’s structure, goals, processes, participants and problems.   While social scientists (along with policy-makers, media and the public) have devoted considerable attention to the issues of sex offenders, sex offenses and community-based responses to such offenders/offenses (especially registration and community notification), there has been very little attention to the issue of treatment of sex offenders (other than a near universal call for there to be such).  Hound Pound Narrative provides one of the rare looks inside sex offender treatment, and leads readers to question whether they should be calmed and comforted knowing that sex offenders are receiving treatment.

Waldram explicates both an overarching emphasis and three rather broad goals for the book.  As an overarching emphasis, this book is an example of an emerging focus of scholarly attention on therapeutic intervention.   Such a focus is centered on examinations and explanations of a health-related context in which individuals experience an unwelcome intrusion into their worlds.  This intrusion imposes a narrative that the individual is in need of help; they may or may not accept interventions, may or may not accept the diagnosis imposed on them, may or may not accept either the message that they need treatment or the specific formulation of treatment provided, or they may simply abandon agency and allow themselves to be swept along in a current of intrusions, impositions and interventions that may or may not make a difference in their lives.

The three goals Waldram enumerates for his work are “to fill what I refer to as a forensic ‘black hole’ by providing an ethnographically rich account of the experience of treatment for imprisoned sexual offenders” (p. 223); to offer a critical analysis of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as it is practiced in the prison with sex offenders; and, “to explore the impact of the paradigmatic mode and truth discourse on treatment, with an emphasis on the generation and performance of narrative” (p. 226).  The first two goals are most definitely addressed and fulfilled, but it is the third goal that is dominant throughout the text.

As suggested by the title of the book, a focus on narrative – the socially constructed telling of our lives – runs throughout the text.   Waldram contends that the narratives sex offenders construct, know and present are central to the experience and understanding of the who, what, when, where, how and why of life.  Although all persons have multiple narratives of and about their lives, for sex offenders engaged in prison-based CBT, there are not only multiple narratives presented, but also multiple challenges to known narratives, and strong pressures to refine and re-present one’s narratives in line with CBT principles.    Standing at the core of cognitive behavioral therapy is the idea that sex offenders experience myriad cognitive distortions (e.g. “thinking errors”) that “give permission” to the offender to commit sexual offenses.  Primary in the efforts of CBT is developing the ability to recognize and subsequently overcome cognitive distortions, and such efforts are seen throughout Waldram’s ethnographic detailing of the therapeutic community process for sex offenders.

Where Waldram’s book may be most important from a policy perspective is in the fact that he makes it clear (although he never really states it outright) that CBT for incarcerated sex offenders is a poorly focused, unlikely-to-succeed effort that while it may appear logical and sound in theory, in practice is rife with problems.   The CBT program presented here is founded on three tasks all participating offenders must complete.  These tasks – the presentation of an Autobiography (focused on disclosing the “true” facts of one’s offense(s)), a Crime Cycle (examination of the context of one’s offending behaviors) and a Relapse Prevention Plan – are all presentations made by offenders to the therapy group (e.g. they are narratives).  As Waldram shows, each of these narrative presentations is not only heard, but actively challenged and redefined by group members.   In essence, the offender’s narratives are reworked and reconfigured by others so as to fit with the CBT approach.    In this way sex offenders are pushed to think of their offenses and themselves in new ways, which may or may not resonate and be of true therapeutic value to the offender.      

Throughout the book, Waldram argues that what sex offenders need is not rehabilitation, but rather habilitation.  Whereas rehabilitation suggests a return to a previously known “good place” in one’s life, this is seen as more or less impossible for a population that has largely never known a “good place.”   Instead, what is needed is that sex offenders be taught and directed in how to construct a crime-free, fulfilling, safe and desired way of life.  If sex offenders (and presumably many if not all types of criminal offenders) can receive interventions that redirect them to prosocial ways of life, then all parties, including offenders and society members in general, will benefit.  However, for sex offender treatment to continue with a rhetoric and focus (e.g. a narrative) that emphasizes a return to a previously experienced way of life is flawed from the outset.  And therefore, any attempt to “rehabilitate” is unfortunately and unavoidably unable to be successful.

When coupling the redefinition of one’s offenses and efforts to find and redirect offenders to a previously experienced prosocial way of life with the fact that following treatment completion each sex offender must return to a regular (e.g. nontherapeutic) prison rather than being released or segregated from “regular” inmates and prison life, the value of treatment such as described here, must be called into question.   Yes, many sex offenders are deemed a treatment “success”, but the meaning of this is very different from what the public and policy makers may believe it means.   It is in this conclusion, together with the numerous documented instances of offenders’ presentations of their Autobiography, Crime Cycle or Relapse Prevention Plan that are essentially rewritten for presenting offenders, that it becomes clear that sex offender treatment – at least insofar as it is practiced in this institution – is flawed.  In many regards, the reader can easily come away seeing that the comforting relief that societal members derive from knowing that sex offenders receive treatment is off-target, just as is the case with registration and community notification.  It is in this respect that Waldram’s book makes its greatest public policy contribution.

Hound Pound Narrative is a solid piece of research, exemplifying the solid contributions that can be realized by ethnographic inquiry.  The presentation is engaging, albeit occasionally thick with jargon and anthropological theory, and allows readers to feel as if they are getting to know some of the offenders and can at least somewhat picture and understand the experience of being in such a program. This is a book that achieves as both an ethnography and a theoretical treatise on the forms and uses of narrative.  Although seemingly presented as a criminal justice book, it is really only such in part.  Readers will most certainly learn about this largely research-neglected correctional social world, but the criminal justice scholar is likely to at times be lost and confused by the theoretical discussions.  Scholars trained and experienced in ethnographic methods will enjoy the interweaving of qualitative data with theoretical interpretation and explanation, but this reviewer suspects that quantitatively oriented criminal justice scholars will find much of the discussion of anthropologically grounded narrative theory distracting and confusing.  In particular, students may find this book especially challenging, although at times highly informative.

As a piece of scholarship, the book is strong and valuable.  As an investigation of a therapeutic intervention, it provides an interesting and important introduction to the perspective.  As a public policy informing investigation of prison-based sex offender treatment, the book should be considered important and lead to at least an active reconsideration of current policies and practices.  And, as a critical analysis of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for incarcerated sex offenders, this book is a success.  The reader who comes away from the text and does not question why such an approach is common in the treatment of sex offenders, and why such programs are structured in the way the one at the center of this ethnographic investigation is structured, has missed the point.

Richard Tewksbury. Professor of Justice Administration, University of Louisville.

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