Criminal Justice Interventions Facilitators: Unsung Hidden Heroes or Forgotten Variables?

A critical perspective on unsung #HiddenHeroes and the neglected role of criminal justice Interventions Facilitators and their wellbeing.

Dr Nicole Renehan is an ESRC-funded postdoctoral Research Fellow at Durham University, UK. She specialises in domestic violence perpetrator programmes and her research interests lie within the area of domestic abuse, both victims and perpetrators, and workforce development. Nicole also has a practice background in domestic abuse.

Last weekend I was inspired (or should I say felt compelled) to respond to a #HiddenHeroesDay post which was shared (and ironically I missed) on 28th September 2021. Hidden Heroes Day celebrates the work of prison and probation practitioners. Their work usually takes place away from public view. Hidden Heroes Day recognises their “tireless” efforts which often go “unnoticed”, and it is an opportunity to remind these “unsung Hidden Heroes” they are not “forgotten” and to “truly appreciate them for all they’ve done, and continue to do”.

The “unsung” hero described in this post was a prison Interventions Facilitator. Interventions Facilitators deliver Offending Behaviour Programmes in prisons, or in the community to people on probation. This role often involves, for example, working with people on approved programmes to address their sexual offending, general offending, or domestic abuse. The Hidden Heroes post wanted to put a “spotlight” on an enthusiastic prison Interventions Facilitator, by asking her some questions about their role.

The Interventions Facilitator had been motivated to do this role to help others change their lives and said that seeing people make positive changes was the best thing about being a facilitator. Such experiences had also changed her as a person, making her more “assertive, resilient and patient”. The proudest moment in her role had been supporting a vulnerable prisoner believe he had reasons to live. She concluded with advice to prospective facilitators that, while the work is challenging, a true passion for helping others makes the work “rewarding and worthwhile”. This Interventions Facilitators’ reflections will no doubt resonate with some criminal justice practitioners and provide inspiration to those thinking about entering the field.

This is just one of the many Interventions Facilitators who would be described as an ‘unsung Hidden Hero’. In fact, my research with Interventions Facilitators working with men convicted of domestic abuse offences revealed that they are not just hidden AND forgotten, but are systematically neglected and excluded in theory, policy and practice. Shockingly, a literature search threw up just one single article that explored the experiences, perspectives and impact on Interventions Facilitators when working with domestic abuse perpetrators. Depressingly, though this research could and should have been ground-breaking, it was written over a decade ago and has received as much attention in 13 years as have facilitators.

Like the prisons Interventions Facilitator, my own interviews with probation-based facilitators revealed that they were motivated to do this work because they too wanted to help others and believed that people can and do change. But when given the permission to speak freely and provide detailed facilitation stories, these laudable vocational endeavours did not necessarily play out in practice. The facilitators often felt unable to deliver interventions in ways that were commensurate with their own values. Some observed that the men they worked with experienced many emotional vulnerabilities and structural disadvantages that the programme could not (nor did it purport to) address. Despite knowing that many more resources would be needed to support these men to change, their calls for more training, time, and knowledge to help them do so went answered and unnoticed.

The lack of practical and emotional support had significantly impacted on the facilitators’ wellbeing. Like the prisons Interventions Facilitator, the job had also “changed” them. But instead of feeling more “assertive”, some facilitators felt there was little point in continuing to raise important practice issues because they were either minimised or ignored. Concerningly, some facilitators even lacked the confidence to speak out about issues affecting their own wellbeing for fear of being seen as weak or emotional. Instead of feeling “resilient”, facilitators said they felt “exhausted” and “stressed”, comments that were qualified during the research where I observed two facilitators crying as they arrived on shift. While resilience can be a significant human capacity for learning to cope with many of life’s difficult situations, it can also be used as an invisible tool to silence and responsibilize employees instead of investing in policies which foreground wellbeing in practice. Instead of feeling “patient”, some experienced facilitators had become more cynical about whether the people they worked with could change, no doubt a defensive reaction in the absence of the resources they needed to be able to work in responsive ways.

While helping others can be “rewarding and worthwhile”, these intangible rewards cannot be used as currency for everyday essentials. The facilitators I spoke to felt undervalued and underpaid. There were no structures in place for career development and no pecuniary incentive to stay. “But this work is vocational” we often hear politicians say, who have hijacked the word to justify low pay, pitiful pay increases, and deteriorating working conditions while clapping on their doorsteps for our “unsung” public service heroes.

“These experiences are just subjective or localised issues” I hear you say. While they cannot be generalised, one only has to read Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation’s report on domestic abuse work in Community Rehabilitation Companies. This found that the confidence and support experienced amongst Interventions Facilitators was varied. The experiences and perspectives of Interventions Facilitators in my research have certainly resonated with many other criminal justice facilitators who have contacted me to say reading these accounts had made them feel validated. One stated that she had found the research “emotional to read” as she had “consistently felt much of the negative aspects” the facilitators had described. Another contacted me to say that “decent pay and a proper career structure” was lacking and that while Hidden Heroes were being acknowledged, “you can’t eat a hero award”.

So, while it is important to put the “tireless efforts” of facilitators in the “spotlight”, we should shine a whole road of streetlamps on the institutions, organisations and cultures within which they work.  Facilitators are often hidden behind programme manuals, forgotten variables in evaluation, unsung because to invest in them and the resources they need would be too costly, and neglected because (I am guessing) many of them, given the chance without fear of repercussions, might just sing in a way that even the canary would be envious of.   

Voices like the prisons Interventions Facilitator are valid and need to be heard, certainly if we want to encourage a generation of committed and enthusiastic practitioners into prison and probation practice. This is surely pressing in the wake of the long-awaited Domestic Abuse Act 2021 which commits to addressing the behaviour of domestic abuse perpetrators in increasingly higher numbers and the backlog of referrals resulting from the covid-19 pandemic. But we must now be prepared to ask and hear from more critical voices about the difficulties facilitators also experience. These voices must no longer be hidden but used to good advantage to ensure interventions and those delivering (and participating in) them receive the very best of care and support.


Dr Nicole Renehan, Durham University
(please note that this is spelt incorrectly and currently waiting for IT to give me an ‘e’ in Nicol!)

Twitter: @nikitarenee37

Personal website/blog:

This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the institution she works for.

Stop Blaming Drill for Making People Kill

UK Drill music finds itself accused again of inspiring violent crime in Britain’s major cities. A closer look at the most recent source behind such claims, however, tells a different story

image of author
Lambros Fatsis is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton and the co-author of Policing the Pandemic: How Public Health Becomes Public Order (with Melayna Lamb). In 2018, he won the first-ever ‘British Society of Criminology Blogger of the Year Award’ and recently won an Outstanding Research & Enterprise Impact Award for his work on the criminalisation of drill music.

Nearly three years have passed since UK drill music was discovered as the malignant source of Britain’s “knife crime epidemic”. Portrayed as “the knife crime rap” – if a Sunday Times Magazine cover (May, 5 2019) is anything to go by – drill became policed as such, following a long history of racial(ised) criminalisation of Black music genres. Despite the absence of tangible evidence that could link drill music to criminal wrongdoing (see, e.g. here, here and here) and ignoring the protestations of law reform and human rights organisations, leading legal professionals, the expert witnesses they instruct, social scientists and 65 signatories of an open letter— drill is still summoned to stand trial for glorifying violence, glamourising outlaw lifestyles and causing “crime”.

The latest instalment of such unfounded, ill-thought, irresponsible and discriminatory panic-mongering came earlier this week, in the form of a report by Policy Exchange, which recycles moralising platitudes about “gangsterism”, “(black) criminality”, stop and search and “knife crime” to show ‘[h]ow gangs are drawing another generation into a life of violent crime’. Lacking in rigour, (re)citing shaky evidence, using contested terminology carelessly and making wild assumptions, this report is not only deeply flawed. It also peddles injurious falsehoods and fails to uphold high standards of evidence. Posing as a research report, it actually amounts to what a colleague described as: presupposition, police statistics and Google. A timely response is therefore needed and this blog article aims at providing it, focusing on the unsound arguments made about drill music— that liken it to a criminal outfit (which it is not), instead of treating it as an art form (which it actually is).

Gangs, Drill Music and Social Media

In a section entitled The Legitimisation of Gang Culture, this Policy Exchange report uncritically echoes the familiar refrain about how gangs use drill music and social media to celebrate violent crime. This can be true and legal guidance from the CPS and the Government’s Serious Violence Strategy maintain that it is. Alas, the reality is neither as simple as that, nor does it become “reality” because law enforcement institutions tell us so. Before jumping into facile conclusions about how gangs, drill and social media all conspire to plunge society into violence, what “gangs” are officially defined as— tells us a lot about whether they really are as dangerous as they sound. Section 34(5) of the Policing and Crime Act 2009 defines gangs as a group which: (a) ‘consists of at least 3 people’, (b) ‘uses a name, emblem or colour or has any other characteristic that enables its members to be identified by others as a group’, and (c) ‘is associated with a particular area’. Such a definition is too vague to be helpful, other than as a prosecutorial tool for targeting those whose activities are stereotypically associated with “criminality”. In the context of drill music, this means that anyone who raps on camera with at least 3 other people, wearing T-shirts with the drill collective’s name or logo in their neighbourhood, can be identified as a gang member and prosecuted as such. Inferring gang association through appearances in drill videos that circulate on social media is hardly “evidence” and complicated further by the fact that the pose, imagery and performance of “gang lifestyles” have been a staple in various rap subgenres (drill included) since the emergence of gangsta rap in the 1990s.

Doing Violence to Drill

Ignoring the dangers of relying on criminal justice definitions for understanding “crime” is not the only error in this report. Neither is the absence of any criminological approach to “crime”, “knife crime”, “gangs” or “violence”. The report’s author also assumes that one can write confidently about music genres and forms of cultural expression that they are ignorant of, or that such knowledge is not even necessary—when making claims about how dangerous and violent drill music is. Context and nuance become irrelevant, as do the artistic conventions of the music. All that is needed is a court verdict without looking at: how the prosecution’s case was made, what evidence it was based on, whether such evidence is relevant, admissible and has sufficient weight to withstand scrutiny, whether such evidence has significant prejudicial impact but little probative/evidential value, what expert witnesses were relied on, what are they experts of/in, what their credentials/qualifications are, or whether the success of such evidence depends on making an emotive case to the jury by portraying defendants in a  negative light, or whether the law itself, expert witnesses for the defence and relevant academic research on “rap on trial” challenge simplistic connections between drill music and violence.

Worse still, the fact that much of what drill music is and does is fictional and performative rather than literal or factual, is grudgingly admitted (albeit sketchily) but not accounted for when interpreting how drill rappers consciously pander to the voyeuristic demand for “digital slumming”/“gangbanging” by staging and embodying, exaggerated, hyperbolic and often fabricated violent personas in search of the material rewards that online infamy promises; even at the expense of commodifying their own stigmatisation. Nor is there any serious reflection on what social conditions make such activity a potential source of income, in a social context that denies people secure employment, decent housing, access to healthcare, equal educational opportunities and fair treatment by the criminal justice system. For the report’s author, it is enough to accuse drill rappers for creating violent content without interrogating the violent context in which such music is made and blaming that perhaps. Besides, there is no such thing as society is there? People are mere individuals who make their own independent choices in ‘self-selected circumstances’ they fully control. Everything else is a distraction or leftist propaganda.

Evidence of Things Not Known

A more charitable reaction to this report might excuse the author for not being an expert in rap culture or Criminology, allowing some margin of error in that regard. Besides, didn’t the report mention the work of Keir Irwin-Rogers, Craig Pinkney and Simon Harding? Aren’t they Criminologists who also write about such issues? Isn’t it enough to just mention three academics, but otherwise ignore a large body of research that buttresses the report’s arguments on stop and search, gangs and youth violence, and knife crime? Isn’t it enough to base an entire report primarily on news media sources, a few government publications and vague allusions to ‘analysis by Policy Exchange’ to advance unreliable, scarcely evidenced claims that are often correlation-causation fallacies of the kind that first-year undergraduate research methods courses caution against? Does it matter that there is no information whatsoever about how ‘key statistics’ were produced to inform us that ‘at least 37% of cases were directly linked to drill music in 2018 and 23% in 2019’? Do we really need to know how such data was collected, how such research was conducted, what methodology was used, what the exact findings were, or whether such research was peer-reviewed? Does it matter that 37% on page 13 becomes 36.5% on page 23? Does it matter that these figures are probably based on cases that relied on rap material as “evidence” during a period (2018-9) when the validity of such “evidence” wasn’t contested by rap experts— like the members of the Prosecuting Rap Expert Network (of which I am part)? Is it significant that drill music is “believed” to incite violence in some pages (53, 58), but is otherwise indiscriminately blamed for violent crime? I can go on, but won’t. It would suffice to say that if there is any evidence of anything in this report, it points to the very opposite of the ‘painstaking research’ that we are promised in an endorsement, penned by none other than Trevor Phillips himself.

The Politics They Hide

None of the above should occasion surprise, knowing as we do that this is a Policy Exchange report after all. That is to say, a report produced by a think tank whose members include: David Goodhart, who staunchly defends ‘hostile environment’ immigration policies, and ‘white self-interest’ and is the charity’s Head of Demography, Immigration & Integration (!), Eric Kaufmann who also advocates for white racial self-interest politics, but does not consider that racist (in a Policy Exchange report, obviously!) and other conservative bigwigs like Charles Moore and Tony Sewell. But make no mistake about it, Policy Exchange is an ‘independent, non-partisan educational charity’. It’s just a coincidence that its reports drip with the kind of right-wingery which considers ‘[t]he real injustice [to be] the disproportionate way young black men are victims of crime, not policing tactics’ (p.7) – can’t it be both? – and complains about the fate of a ‘far-right activist’ who ‘was jailed for branding immigrants and refugees as rapists at a series of marches that were linked to an attack on two Asian men’, compared to those pesky drill rappers who ‘do not receive similar scrutiny and treatment’ (p.54)—despite the discriminatory suppression of their music by the state and its criminal justice institutions. If this scathing blog has made you think that this is all that is problematic with this Policy Exchange report, I promise that I have merely scratched the surface. Read it in full to find out more about how sneakers (Adidas), music (drill) and social media (take your pick) are to blame for violent crime, but a socio-political and cultural context and policies that exclude, marginalise, criminalise and confine aren’t.


Dr. Lambros Fatsis, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, University of Brighton

Twitter: @lfatsis

This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the institution he works for.

Photos courtesy of author and Mark Angelo Sampan from Pexels

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