The Chemsex Court Assessment Tool
On 25th September, 56 Dean Street was proud to co-host the official launch event for the chemsex court assessment tool, from HMPPS (Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation service). The tool is designed to support all disciplines working with and within the criminal justice system to be better informed about chemsex contexts, free from stigma, misinformation, bias and moral/religious judgments that might innocently or otherwise interfere in the objective criminal justice system process; ensuring that the treatment of all people who find themselves entering the criminal justice system for chemsex-related charges, have a culturally competent and fair experience and outcome.
Stephen Morris is the chemsex and sexual crime lead for the London division of HMPPS, and ahead of the Chemsex Court Assessment Tool being published, he writes about it here for the 56 Dean Street Wellbeing programme.
Thinking the Unthinkable
For thirty years my job has invited me often to think the unthinkable. Working in prisons and probation offices across London there is not much about the destructive capacity of human condition I have not encountered, most days I am amazed and horrified in equal measure. The depths we can sink to in our cruelty towards each other and the heights of resilience and survival, I guess, at some point level out in my own mind and enable me to make some sense of it all. But occasionally a case file will land on my desk and no matter what has gone before, the story it tells makes me think things or know things that until that moment for me has been unthinkable. Never more true has this been as with the 52 cases of crime committed in what I refer to as the chemsex context.
Those 52 case files represent 52 men convicted of a variety of sexual and non-sexual crimes and assessed as high risk of harm and high risk of re-offending. High risk means the crime and sentencing is considered very serious. Unthinkable, because just twelve months ago, it was rare for me to work with a gay or bi-sexual man and certainly not for crimes considered high risk. Unthinkable, because many of those 52 would not meet the profile of the majority of offenders I work with. Nonetheless, here they are, I know for a fact more are on the way. I also know this is the tip of the iceberg. There are many other crimes being committed that do not come to court and many men who for a number of reasons are not facing conviction. What are we to do?
Like many institutional organisations, the principles of diversity are enshrined in HM Prison & Probation Service policies consequently, rainbow flags are often flown proudly from prison landings there are visible numbers of LGBT officers of every rank and uniformed prison officers march proudly in Prides across the country. However, in terms of specific rehabilitation services, treatment programmes and LGBT aware interventions for those gay men who have committed crime the response has not been great. Until this month the criminal justice response to gay men has been just the same as it would be for a heterosexual man. The provision of a court assessment tool and a 36 session intervention resource designed specifically for men convicted of chemsex related crimes is about to change all that.
Chemsex and crime innovation
Last October the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) awarded me £10K for innovation. When I conveyed the desperate and disturbing impact of chems on the lives of a growing number of gay men to the MoJ. When I explained the causal factors of; unresolved trauma, grief, loss, high rates of suicide, depression, anxiety, hate crime, shame, rejection, loneliness, guilt and self-hate. When I described the searching for connection and meaning through self-medication and when we shared with them the life stories of the men being convicted, both they are I were met with belief, were met with understanding and importantly met with a commitment to address the issues of immense vulnerability and risk.
The Chemsex Court Assessment Tool
The Chemsex Court Assessment Tool, designed by myself, will soon to be rolled out to every London court. It will allow chemsex related to cases to be identified very early in the legal process. It will flag issues of vulnerability, suicide risk, treatment needs and will facilitate pathways into appropriate sentencing, support and other services. In practice every male defendant in London will no longer just be asked ‘What substances do you do?’ But also, ‘What chems do you do?’ This subtle small addition in assessment questions can open a longer process which is sensitive to the particular identity and experience needs of gay men, bi sexual man and men who have sex with men. It has been designed to reduce shame and to highlight genuine need. It is designed to help man talk and not hide in fear.
The Rehabilitation Activity Requirement Chemsex Tool Kit
When it comes to sentencing courts also need appropriate options and on conviction designated probation officers and therapists need resources. A judge can attach to a sentence a condition known as a Rehabilitation Activity Requirement. (RAR). This a specified number of hours the convicted man must fulfil which is focused on an activity purposely aimed at reducing the risk of re-offending and addressing the issues that caused the person to commit a crime in the first place. Tadgh Crozier, Katie Evans, Lisa Whinstone and myself have worked since October to produce the world first RAR Chemsex Intervention Tool Kit. It’s called ‘Connection and Community’ and contains 36 focused sessions to be completed by men with their probation officers. It is a creative interactive process involving; discussion, reflective processes, on-line talks, reading, journal keeping, structured exercise and ongoing assessments to address causal factors, risk issues, offence related thinking, personal safety and related psychological needs at the core of chemsex. It’s overall aim is to reduce re-offending by addressing with dignity and respect the painful dynamics found hidden underneath this particular offending behaviour. The first men to use the resource will commence their rehabilitation process in November.
I would never underestimate the power of these resources and I am confident they will change lives. My confidence is founded in the quality of the professionals working with the men and in the men themselves. For most of the them coming into the criminal justice system has acted like a massive full stop from which they can start to rebuild and get their lives back. Many, if not all have been overwhelmed, often for years with complex and unmet needs. Chems initially provide relief and then increase that chaos, increase the levels of pain, despair and vulnerability to unimaginable levels. So much so that, also a year ago, David Stuart from 56 Dean Street and myself set up a monthly peer support group for professionals working with men who had committed chemsex related crimes. The coming together of HMPPS officers, sexual health workers and specialist workers from LGBT agencies has been a powerful experience. There is no road map for this territory and working with outstanding levels of risk, sometimes dangerousness, whilst trying to respond to vulnerability is no easy task. At the two-hour meeting we share our stories and the lives of those we work with, we cry and we comfort each other when those we care for are sectioned, suicide or disappear. We also regain and celebrate hope when they complete their sentences, when they gain employment, make positive changes, take responsibility for what they have done and resolve to rebuild afresh.
For me, when a new file lands on my desk containing yet another invitation to think the unthinkable, I will respond and do just that because, this last year and the men I work with, have taught me that the unthinkable does not always need to be something horrific, it can and is often the start of something different, something new and something wonderful . I recently re-read an early account of the unfolding chemsex scene in London, in which a journalist described the gay scene in London as getting darker. These years on, I cannot deny that, but I would like to suggest that in this development we have a glimmer of light.
For further information on chemsex and crime, the resources and the chemsex professionals chemsex and crime peer support group contact:
CROZIER, T., EVANS, K., MORRIS, S. Connection and Community. HMPPS RAR Toolkit for Men Convicted of Chemsex Related Crime