The Broken Windows Theory

A few nights ago I was zapping through the late-evening programmes when I stumbled upon an episode of “Gordon Behind Bars” where Gordon Ramsay teaches cooking to convicts in Brixton prison. We were informed that 62% of the Brixton prisoners are convicted for drug offenses.

I was impressed at how Gordon listened to some of the inmates’ personal stories. One such story involved a 22-year-old man who had constant problems with the guards. Gordon was really impressed by the amount of work this young man put into the kitchen and said he didn’t see any aggressive behaviour during training. But he became wary and irritable as soon as he interacted with the guards.

I started making connections with a sociological theory I read about called the “Broken Windows Theory”, which states that when people see that their surroundings are a mess – litter everywhere, abandoned houses and cars, graffiti – they tend to contribute to this deterioration.  

The authors of the theory wrote: “Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighbourhoods as in rundown ones.”

Coming back to the 22-year-old man I was telling you about at the beginning, I started wondering if the bad behaviour is expected of him? He is only reacting to his environment and to how the guards are unconsciously responding to him. But when he is taken out of his environment the young man changes his attitude completely. When he is trusted, given a role and expected to perform well he responds in an appropriate manner.

What does all of this have to do with drug or alcohol abuse? 

Isn’t it somehow the same with drug addicts, alcoholics and compulsive gamblers? Sometimes the families of addicts maintain the environment – paying bills, keeping it secret, avoiding discussion – which is needed for the addiction to thrive. Furthermore, addicts in out-patient treatment return to the environment which fostered the addiction in the first place.

For me, all this is further evidence as to why residential rehab treatment works so well in overcoming addiction: the addict is taken out of their “normal” environment, given a role in the therapeutic community, trusted in their determination to stay sober, trained with new coping skills and sent on a lifelong journey of recovery.

As for the young man we mentioned, he was unfortunately taken off Gordon’s training programme and moved to another prison. But his work paid off as the cakes his teams baked were sold in a one-day fair at the “Bad-Boys” pastry shop. 

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