Token Economy Programmes

Notes on token economy programmes when treating offenders

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Token economy programmes (TEPs) are used in prisons and community based projects to encourage pro-social
behaviour. Based on the principles of operant conditioning, they involve imposing a system of rewards that can
be gained if a desired behaviour is performed. Prison management draws up a list of appropriate and, if an offender
complies, they receive a token. Exchange rewards for tokens are negotiated with the offender- this is important as
the reward is only effective if it is wanted.
Originally, TEPs were seen as a rehabilitative technique that could be used to encourage law abiding behaviour.
Today, they are generally viewed as a way of controlling behaviour rather than a solution to crime. The system is
useful in prisons because it provides a legitimate way of gaining access to privileges that would have otherwise
been denied or only available by non-legitimate means. It also promotes positive social interaction between
prisoners and prison staff.
Pearson et al. (2000) conducted a meta-analysis to review the effectiveness of behavioural techniques (e..g. token
economy programmes) and cognitive behavioural techniques (anger management). They examined the findings of 69
studies and concluded that cognitive-behavioural therapies helped reduce recidivism whilst behavioural treatments
did not work. It seems that behaviour cannot be changed without a change in thinking.
Although no specialist training is needed to implement a TEP, most experts recommend training for all staff as
the system is open to abuse.
TEPs give prisoners a sense of control over their behaviour and the rewards they earn. However, some have
argued that the programme can lead to learned helplessness where prisoners feel they have no choice but to
comply otherwise basic privileges are withheld. We can also question whether TEPs violate human rights; at the
very least they are patronising for adults.
Whether tokens work is questionable. Their validity can be questioned as success could equally be due to
improved staff-prisoner relationships, increased attention from staff or the benefit of clear rules set by the
TEPs need careful monitoring or they could become a form of contraband within prisons. Prisoners must be
willing to engage with the programme fully and rewards or payments should be motivating. Ineffective tokens
can be easily superseded by other sources of reinforcement in the prison, such as a fear of a hardened inmate.
A weakness is that the learnt behaviour may not generalise to the outside world. Society does not work on a
system of rewards for good behaviour and good work, but the rewards are subtler and less frequent than


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