Why I Do What I Do - Professor explains why paedophiles and sex offenders 'deserve a second chance'
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Nicholas Blagden started working with people with sexual convictions in prisons over 15 years ago, before co-founding the Safer Living Foundation and the Corbett Centre in Nottingham to further that work.
He helps to rehabilitate those who have committed some of the worst sexual offences the UK as well as performing prevention work with people who have a sexual interest in children to attempt to stop more people becoming victims of abuse.
Now, he explains to LADbible why he believes in giving a second chance to people who have committed monstrous crimes, his belief that no human should ever be left on the scrapheap by society, and some of the difficulties and common misconceptions that he deals with in his profession.
“Like quite a lot of people I found myself in the job by accident,” he explained.
After giving up his job in a law firm, Blagden began work in probation which ‘opened [his] eyes’ to different types of offenders. In 2006, he got a role part funded between the prison service and a university at HMP Whatton, one of the biggest prisons in England and Wales for people with sexual convictions.
“Everyone in the prison has a sexual conviction, so it has always been the biggest treatment site in England and Wales as well,” Blagden explained.
“That opened my eyes to different ways of working with it.”
In 2014, Blagden and his colleagues created the Safer Living Foundation charity, noting ‘there was nothing for people as they went out into the community’.
“They were doing good stuff in prison, making progress, but a lot of people were really anxious about going back into the community, and with good reason.
“It’s not as if [prisoners] live in sealed vacuums, they know what the community thinks of them.
“There was no support, and that increases risk.
“We think ‘who cares if a guy is ostracised or pushed out?’ but it’s those things that actually increase the risk [of reoffending] and we wanted to bridge that gap.”
The Safer Living Foundation and the Corbett Center are specifically aimed at getting people who have offended to reintegrate into society, as well as aiming to prevent people from offending by working with them to prevent abuse.
Blagden’s work has often attracted criticism from those who want to see harsh punishment doled out to sexual offenders and those who are sexually attracted to children, and he admits it hasn’t always been easy.
“You can’t not be emotional about it – we’re not robots,” he said.
“I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times when I’ve found things trying or difficult...
“There is this idea that these people are these alien others, that they are really different, but I was looking at people and they weren’t different.
“You were thinking about their lives and stories and thinking ‘in another set of circumstances could this be me?’
“These are quite powerful questions to ask yourself.
“The way we worked with people in a therapeutic way – the approach of the prison but also the way we got the best outcomes – was that we saw them as humans.
“That really altered the way I saw people in prison.”
Blagden continued: “The overall recidivism rate for sexual offenders – where they reoffend and are caught for it – stands at around eight percent across all risk categories.
“Obviously higher-risk people recidivate at higher levels, but lower risk people tend to recidivate really low.
“It’s not like there are huge swathes of individuals who have reoffended – most people don’t tend to reoffend.
“That’s an important message because the idea that they are irredeemable doesn’t hold water – for a lot of people it’s a one-time offence.”
Understanding what makes people offend is a big part of the job, and through research and therapy the organisations aim to not only understand why people offend, but help them through it with the intention of preventing future offensive behaviour.
“Trauma is a really big thing for our client group,” Blagden explained.
A large population of offenders have ‘suffered from really horrific backgrounds’, according to the professor, and while ‘that doesn’t excuse what they’ve done […] it helps us understand’.
“If you’re working with someone who has gone through a lot of hurt, a lot of abuse – we know that people with sexual convictions are four times as likely to have suffered from things like physical or sexual abuse, or 13 times more likely to have suffered some sort of abuse – you’re dealing with people who have done great harm but have also had great harm visited upon them.
“Most people want to do things that are quite punitive to them but that is actually the worst thing you can do.
“It’s never going to have the effect that you want it to have, and in fact it might make things worse.”
Another huge part of the work done at the Corbett Centre and by the Safer Living Foundation is research, which looks into the best outcomes and practices which can minimise the risk of more abuse victims being made.
It isn’t always an easy thing to understand, particularly as society tends to dictate that these crimes are unthinkable and must be punished with utmost severity.
“[People] want simple solutions to what are often complex problems, and sexual abuse is a massively complex issue,” Blagden said.
“Another misconception is that this is done by strangers and it’s often much closer to home, which makes it more devastating.
“The other aspect that we need to think about is how prevalent it is.
Though some might assume these types of offenders make up ‘some small deviant group’, Bladgen pointed out they are actually ‘doctors, lawyers, pilots, teachers – people who you wouldn’t want to think of as those type of individuals’.
“Often people end up on a human scrapheap, and that’s a massive motivation [for me] to help people lead meaningful offence-free lives.
“That’s the aim of much of the work I do.
“People who have meaning in their lives, who are happy in relationships and work and have happiness in their lives don’t tend to be the people who are offending.
“We don’t want to think that our brother or father is capable of those things.
“We want to be able to point to a group over there somewhere that we are somehow different from, but we are humans, we are made of the same stuff.”
Perhaps the most controversial part of Blagden’s work is done with people who admit to having a sexual attraction to children.
These people haven’t offended, but admit that they hold certain proclivities that can be disturbing even to them.
The research and statistics involved with the work are surprising to say the least, with Bladgen revealing that the population statistics for those that have a sexual interest in children ranges from about one to five percent.
“Yes, it is a minority, but it’s not as small as what people think.
“There have been a few studies about people who have any sexual interest in children.
“This could be whether they would have sex with a child if they could get away with it, or have sexual fantasies about children, and if you add those together – this is done with nationally representative samples – it tends to come out at about 20 percent.
“That is a sizeable number of people.”
So, what makes these people offend?
Blagden argues that sometimes the struggle that these people – who have done nothing but struggle with their problematic sexual interests – can be a factor.
“There are people who have a paedophilic interest but that doesn’t mean they are going to offend against children.
“That is really difficult to square.
“So, what is it that pushes people to offend? A lot of life circumstances – there could be trauma, they could be really struggling with their sexual interest in children.
“We’ve had people say that they were struggling for five years before they offended, but there was nothing there to help them.
“You’ve got people who are struggling with a problematic sexual interest and have nowhere to go, and then they offend.
“The day that they offend is the day that – I think – we failed them as a society, as a service, as a profession. We’ve failed people at that point.
“A lot of what we do in terms of prevention is known as tertiary prevention. Abuse victims have already been created at this point. Our job then is to stop further abuse.
“Primary prevention is to try to intervene before victims are created,” Bladgen said, but he explained there is ‘literally no government funding for this at all’. Prevention methods include signposting services that are available, and therapy.
Of course, there are differing schools of thought about how one actually prevents people from offending, but the work being done at the Corbett Centre and through the Safer Living Foundation aims to further understanding on the subject with the intention of helping to stop people becoming victims as well as allowing those who have these problematic interests to live meaningful, offence-free lives.
Blagden clarified: “If you have a service that is about changing the sexual interest, it is likely to be unsuccessful.
“Most treatment intervention that has tried to change a sexual interest in children, the results tend to be pretty dismal.
With evidence showing that sexual interest is not going to be changed, the organisations’ prevention service instead tries to ‘help people with their thoughts, to manage those thoughts better and ultimately to lead lives that are based on their values, and to help them get meaning out of their lives’.
“One of the things that we like to think is that we’re doing this to help people with things that have happened in their lives, often quite traumatic things, but also to stop victims.
“That’s the primary aim of our prevention – to stop victims and stop any victimisation.”
When the Corbett Centre was soft-launched in 2019 there were loud expressions of dissent from the press and the community, who were understandably wary about the work being done, and perhaps lacking a complete understanding of the aims behind it.
Bladgen and his team have received public backlash and even death threats, and while it’s ‘not nice’, the professor says he ‘understands’ the response.
“I guess it comes down to – what do we want?
“We want to make sure that it doesn’t happen again, so is ostracising, demonising, and shunning people the best way of doing it?
“We know categorically that isn’t the case. The things that tend to keep people on the straight and narrow tend to be being believed in and having some hope that there is going to be a better day.
“Belonging to something and finding a place within a social network is a really important thing.”
“I remain committed to what we do because the evidence says that is the case.
“The way to help create fewer victims is to work positively with this group, to work on things like rehabilitation and reintegration is the best way of keeping people safe.
For the victims themselves, Blagden believes they and their families also need more help and support.
“These things don’t need to be mutually exclusive – you can do both.
“We know what’s going to help people in terms of surviving and thriving going forward and leading productive lives in terms of victims, and the same goes for groups that have an offence background as well.
“We know what works best for them out in the community and what is going to ultimately keep the community safe.”
In work like this, it can be seriously difficult to separate professional life from personal views.
After all, these are serious issues and Blagden has worked with people who have committed serious atrocities.
How then do you commit fully to offering these people a second chance, avoiding them ending up on a human scrapheap?
“Everyone at some point will experience something where it’ll hit home to them,” he admitted.
“I remember when I first started working in prison with men who had sexual convictions, one guy talked really graphically about things they had done.
“I took that home with me and I had a young son at the time, there have been times when I have been having intrusive thoughts.
“These things do impact you, because you’re working in really rarified emotional situations. Good supervision and being able to talk it through was the antidote to that.
“Being open about these sorts of things.
“Ultimately you make a choice – I want to be a part of something that helps people, I want to be a part of something that helps us understand this more and make intervention more effective and helping people lead better and offence-free lives in the community.
“That was the main motivation.”