Staff-Client Relationships, Treatment for offenders

What do incarcerated youth want in their relationships with custodial workers?

Practitioners in youth justice facilities encourage their staff to develop positive relationships with the youth in their care with the aim of establishing a therapeutic alliance to address the causes of offending. This Dutch study investigates how workers might tailor their interactions with incarcerated youth to enhance such an alliance.

The study

The study involved 47 youths across two juvenile correctional facilities in the Netherlands. The youths volunteered for the study. The study used a Q Sort Methodology.

Results from previous studies

The study notes that previous research indicates that incarcerated youth are generally positive about their relationship with group workers and that they seem to value both affection and cooperation in the interaction. Youths expressed that they value fairness, integrity, respect, righteousness, commitment and empathy in the interactions with group workers and that they want to feel safe and without stress.

The Results

The study identified four different groups of incarcerated youth in terms of their preferences for relationships with staff. I have summarised the results below. A more complete description can be found in the appendix at the end of this post.

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It makes sense for custodial staff to modify their interaction style to meet the needs and requirements of incarcerated youth. Too often staff have a single interaction style, typically based on their personality or belief system (e.g. see previous post) which they utilise for all interactions with all youth. This study provides a basis for staff to develop a differential approach. However, there are two issues with this study:

  1. The authors provide no guidance as to how workers might assess the YP relationship preference, therefore translating the results into practice will be difficult.
  2. The question of ‘how youth perceive relationships with staff’ is not that dissimilar from ‘how they perceive the world in general’. The former has been subject to much research over the years.
  • For example, as far back as the 1960s, American psychologist Carl Jesness developed a classification system of young offenders based on their interpersonal maturity.
  • More recently, Australian psychologist Patrice Cooke developed an approach based on Personal Construct Theory (see her book Persistent Young Offenders (2017))
  • Both these approaches – and many more in the intervening years – provide a more detail guide about how staff might tailor their interactions with youth to form a therapeutic alliance.


Patrice cooke croped
Geenen, M.-J. (2017). “A Tailored Approach for Incarcerated Boys: Q Study into the Needs of Incarcerated Boys in the Interaction with Group Workers in a Juvenile Correctional Institution.” Residential Treatment for Children & Youth 34(3-4): 227-243.


The study identified four types of incarcerated YP in their expectations of the relationship with YJ staff. The definitions are fairly nuanced, so I have included verbatim quotes from the study. Note that the study refers to YJ staff as ‘group workers’ and the incarcerated YP as ‘boys’.

Preference A: Anxious and Willing

Boys with this preference fear the aggression of other inmates. It makes them feel unsafe if group workers are not able to protect them from that aggression. They prefer to deal with group workers who are neither afraid of them nor of the other boys It is important to them that group workers are experienced, so they can have a strong impact on the group. They do not long for much social contact with a group worker In their opinion that would weaken his position as an authority. They expect the group worker to be firm and straight. But they also appreciate personal attention and one-on-one conversations with a group worker. Clarity is essential for these boys. They want everyone to be treated in the same manner . Just like the D-preference boys, they long for encouragement from group workers; that group workers believe they can change and that they have confidence in their future .

One can hear self-reflection and remorse in their words. They say they belong in ‘prison’ because they have done something wrong and that they are convinced they can learn from this experience. Remorse is also heard in what they say about their families ‘they have already a hard time because of me sitting here.’

Preference B: Rebellious and Defensive

These boys expect honesty, justice and clarity in their contacts with group workers. It is crucial to them that group workers do not lie are honest about what they think of them, keep their promises , do not go behind their backs  and treat them like any other boy Clarity about rules is important Fairness and justice come along with reciprocity. ‘If you expect me not to lie, then I expect that you won’t lie either.’

These boys do not want to be bossed around. ‘If the group worker asks me “do you want to shut the door?” I will do it, but when he says “shut that door”, I think “fuck you”.’ These boys differ from the other three preferences by not valuing empowerment by group workers. In their opinion it does not mean much if group workers believe in their ability to change  or have confidence in their future ‘I got to have faith in my own future, that’s important.’

These boys want group workers not to come too close. They have trouble trusting group workers. ‘They don’t need to know what I feel, I don’t believe they can understand. At the end of the day they close the door and go home.’ Although they act rebelliously, more than other boys they do appreciate humor in a group worker and like their company, for example by doing sports together.

Preference C: Autonomous and Indifferent

These boys argue that because of their age and length of stay, they should be treated as adults and not being ordered too much by group workers They judge most of the rules as childish and want group workers to make exceptions to the rules or occasionally do something

. Wanting to be treated as an adult is also expressed when it comes to contact with ‘home.’ They do not want group workers to maintain with their families (1: −3) or understand what is going on at home ‘It’s me who stays here, not my family.’

Just like the rebellious boys (preference B) these autonomous boys attach great importance to justice and fairness. Especially if it comes to not telling lies and acting as promised But whereas unfairness and injustice for the preference B-boys makes them rebellious, these boys become indifferent. ‘We don’t want to waste our energy on that kind of behavior.’

These autonomous boys want to be seen as a unique person and expect that the committed crime does not influence the opinion or behavior of the group workers (39: +2). They expect reciprocity in their contact with group workers, for instance that they help them with doing the dishes and cleaning They do not expect group workers to watch a film with them or doing sports ‘I don’t have to be friends with them, they are just the people that open and close my door.’ These boys only respect professionals with a lot of experience Interns and new professionals must earn their respect. ‘Too often they think that they know it all already.’

Preference D: Dependent and Approachable

This preference differs a lot from the other three preferences. In contrast to the other boys, for these boys fair treatment seems no big issue. For example, they find it less important than the other respondents that a group worker keeps his promises or that he treats every boy in the same way or that he helps them with doing the dishes or cleaning These boys have a strong need for individual attention and support from group workers. They want group workers to know what is important to them and that a group worker takes time to talk with them if something is bothering them Contrary to the boys with the other three preferences, these boys appreciate it when group workers are concerned for their well-being These boys expect – more than the other boys – help and guidance of the group worker for instance when they have a difficult appointment coming up or if there is an important issue to be settled Just like the anxious boys (A) they want encouragement from group workers. Not, as the preference A boys, to feel safe, but because they feel uncertain about their own capabilities. They value it if group workers show that they believe in their possibility to change and have confidence in their future In contrast to the other three groups, for these boys it is important that group workers know what is going on in their families


About graemembaird

I am a psychologist with a special interest in improving the outcomes of families, children and young people in the Out of Home Care and Juvenile Justice systems.
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