Image for In the circle: a holistic solution to prevent sexual abuse

In the circle: a holistic solution to prevent sexual abuse

New initiatives popping up across Britain are taking an alternative approach to criminal justice – one that aims to break the cycle of reoffending and set people with convictions on a more positive course

New initiatives popping up across Britain are taking an alternative approach to criminal justice – one that aims to break the cycle of reoffending and set people with convictions on a more positive course

The Corbett Centre, opened in a secret location in Nottingham in February by the Safer Living Foundation (SLF), is said to offer the world’s first holistic approach to integrating sex offenders back into society. Here, men who have committed sex offences and served sentences are given support to make friends, find jobs, learn to cook and to manage inappropriate sexual thoughts. The Aurora Project at the centre, meanwhile, helps men who have not committed an offence but are worried they might, because they are disturbed by unhealthy sexual thoughts.

Organisers recognise it’s controversial, but say the aim is simple; to prevent sexual abuse. “It’s a community centre for people with sexual convictions,” says Professor Belinda Winder, head of the research unit at Nottingham Trent University which is piloting the scheme in partnership with SLF and HMP Whatton, Europe’s biggest prison for men who have committed sexual offences. “To our knowledge there isn’t another one in the world.”

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According to the Office for National Statistics, 121,187 sexual offences were recorded by police in England and Wales in the year ending March 2017. The reoffending rate for such offenders is around 10-15 per cent.

But previous schemes haven’t always worked. In 2017, the main sex offender treatment programme for England and Wales was scrapped after a report revealed it led to more reoffending. The study suggested sessions had become too generic.

The Corbett Centre hopes to succeed where previous methods have failed. One of the biggest precursors to sexual reoffending is social isolation, explains SLF’s David Potter. “With a sexual offence more than any other, people are disowned and written off by society. If you’re in a bedsit with no friends, family or job, [you’re more likely to commit another offence and] go back to prison,” he says.

We try to help people see they are more than their offending behaviour

At the centre, Potter runs ‘circles of support and accountability’, where volunteers meet regularly with an individual who has committed a sexual offence. Through tailored, compassion-focused therapy Potter and his colleagues help them manage their sexual thoughts. “We try to help people see they are more than their offending behaviour and they can do more for society,” he says. “It’s quite a leap for a lot of people to get their head around, but ultimately it is about preventing further victims.” Such circles have been shown to reduce sexual reoffending by 70 per cent.

Circles usually involve a social activity, like going for a coffee. Volunteers, often criminology and psychology students, listen and offer guidance on how to limit isolation, manage the risk of reoffending or find a job. One man says joining a circle at the Corbett Centre has helped him break a cycle of offending triggered by isolation and low self-esteem. “I’ve now got a real incentive to sort myself out,” he says. “I didn’t have that in the past and the upshot was I reoffended. Now, if I have a bad day, I have a walk. I genuinely haven’t had a desire to reoffend since leaving prison.” Without this help, he believes he would have been “much more likely” to commit another sexual offence.

I’ve seen people who would barely speak get jobs and relationships. It feels like we’re on the cusp of something new

Such comments may be difficult for some to accept. “I understand the stigma,” Potter says. “There’s a misconception that sexual offences are premeditated; quite often they’re not. They’re not all about sexual urges.” There are a number of reasons, including past trauma, abuse and disempowerment. To reduce the likelihood of reoffending, offenders must understand why they committed the crime, he says.

Critics may argue the centre supports perpetrators over victims and directs funding away from survivors. “We’re mindful of that,” Winder says. “We say we need both; we absolutely need to help survivors, but there also has to be prevention.” Others may be concerned the centre makes the nearby area unsafe. “[But the alternative is to] have twenty people wandering around Nottingham city centre with nowhere to go,” Winder says.

The full impact of the Corbett Centre has yet to be evaluated (preliminary results are expected in 2020). But Potter says he has already seen positive results. “I’ve seen people who would barely speak get jobs and relationships,” he says. “It feels like we’re on the cusp of something new; a more humane, person-centred way of dealing with people who have sexual convictions.”

Image: Chris Pecoraro/Getty Images

Progressing past punishment

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