Prisoners’ Penfriends improves chance of rehabilitation, study shows


flickr photo by Muffet shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

A recent study of Prisoners’ Penfriends – a charitable scheme that runs a volunteer pen pal programme in 52 prisons – has shown that having a pen pal can contribute to prisoner wellbeing and increase the likelihood of successful rehabilitation.

Researchers Prof Jackie Hodgson and Juliet Horne from Warwick University analysed the impact of the scheme and found that the simple act of being written to and having someone to write back to provided a cheap yet effective method of maintaining moral.

In addition, pen pals could provide an early warning of a prisoner’s decline in mental health. Pen pal confidents became aware of the state of mind of their prison pen pal and were able to alert prison authorities to any increasing depression or risk of suicide.

Professor Jackie Hodgson, leading researcher, commented to Warwick Press:

“We found that something as simple as a pen pal relationship can lead to tangible benefits for prisoners. Given the recent rise in prison violence and suicides, increased prison overcrowding and the current resource pressures on the prison system, letter-writing seems an extremely valuable way to provide greater support for prisoners, based on genuine relationships of care and trust, at remarkably little cost.”

Typical pen pal

The study found that the typical prisoner was male, serving a long term sentences and before the pen pals scheme, had ‘little or no contact with anyone outside of prison’. The effect of having a pen pal helped to reduce their sense of isolation, provided a different focus from their daily routine in prison and also ‘raised their hopes for being outside of prison’.

The Prisoners’ Penfriends scheme matches volunteers with prisoners and delivers post via a PO box to ensure confidentiality. Volunteers are advised to use a fictitious name and exclude personal details such as address and family names to maintain anonymity when writing. Before being matched to a pen pal, volunteers must to agree to follow strict guidelines to ensure relationship boundaries are maintained. All ingoing and outgoing letters are read by prison staff.

The pen pal scheme however has proven to be a life changing relationship for many, with very little cost to implement. One prisoner wrote of his pen friend:

‘He is very helpful and caring and very understanding. He makes me feel like I can achieve things in life. It’s made me want to be a better man when released and achieve my dreams if possible.’

Figures and interesting stats

  • Nearly all prisoners said they intended to remain pen pals for the length of their sentence.
  • The longest pen pal relationship so far has been nine years.
  • The scheme has seen 16,000 letters being sent.

What volunteers say 
What prisoners say 

‘Imagining more than just a prisoner: the work of Prisoners’ Penfriends’.

For more information on the Prisoners’ Penfriends scheme and to sign up to be a volunteer pen pal visit or email directly.

Excess screen time affects academic achievement, study finds


flickr photo by Funky64 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

According to a new study by Cambridge University, 15 year olds who spend an additional hour watching TV, surfing the web or playing computer screens showed a marked reduction in ability at GSCE level at 16.

In a paper published by the Journal of Behavioural nutrition and physical activity, researchers also found that an additional hour of study or reading improved academic success.

Researchers also analysed whether a link existed between academic success and physical activity. No such link was found.

A team of researchers looked at 845 secondary school children measuring levels of activity and sedentary behaviour at age 14.5 then comparing to their attainment at gcse the next year.

Researchers measured objective levels of activity and time spent sitting as well as asking pupils how long they spent on screens.

The team found that screen time was related to achievement at GCSE. Each additional hour spent on a screen led to 9.3 less points at GCSE level, the equivalent of two grades in a subject (i.e., a  B to a D). Two extra hours was seen to lower points by 18.

The study found that even if students did a lot of reading, screen time still affected achievement. Of all the screen activities, TV watching was the most detrimental.

Dr Esther van Sluijs, from CEDAR:

“We believe that programmes aimed at reducing screen time could have important benefits for teenagers’ exam grades, as well as their health. It is also encouraging that our results show that greater physical activity does not negatively affect exam results. As physical activity has many other benefits, efforts to promote physical activity throughout the day should still be a public health priority.”



Use of TV, internet and computer games associated with poorer GCSE grades

New chip mimics human brain

The neuromorphic chip – so called due to its brain-like processing abilities – has been created on a production-scale in a joint project by IBM and Cornell University.

The new chip acts like a brain, of sorts. Each chip is made up of 5.4 billion transistors with 1 million electronic neurons that talk to each other via 256 synapses.

Today’s world

Today’s computing is based on the computer chip created by John von Neumannover 70 years ago. The humble chip performs two tasks; processing data and holding memory. Just the job for many simple data processing tasks, however, yet not able to perform advanced tasks, such as language or vision.  Continue reading

Crowd psychology: safety in numbers


Image: creative commons licensed (BY) flickr photo by ChadCooperPhotos

The level of safety within a crowd is dependent on how much the participant identifies with the people in it, according to psychologists at Sussex University.

Researchers studying a survey of 1194 pilgrims during the 2012 Hajj – one of the five pillars of Islam that attracts 3,000,000 pilgrims to Mecca every year – made the discovery through a crowd survey.

Research by psychologists Hani Alnabusi and Dr John Drury show that if participants identify with the crowd that they are part of, this promotes expectations of support. This then results in an increase in considerate behaviour and feelings of safety. Continue reading

Brain Trickery, Body Ownership and the Sense of Self Gone Awry

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 08.10.07

Image by Coscurro of RGB Stock

Neuroscientists at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science have created a virtual reality version of the classic ‘rubber hand illusion’ to explore consciousness and body trickery.

A virtual-reality hand, set to pulse in time with a heart beat, created the illusion of body ownership with the brain ‘accepting’ the virtual hand as part of its own body.

Easily hoodwinked, the brain was first proved to accept a foreign hand as its own in 1999 in the now classic rubber hand illusion.

The trick involves an inflated washing-up glove and a feather. With the participant’s real hand out of sight and only sensory stimuli to go by, the brain perceives the rubber hand as it’s own when stroked at the same time as the real hand.  Continue reading

Pain empathy increases with other-race contact, study shows


flickr photo by geofones shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

When a person in pain is of the same race as the observer, a greater response is activated in the observer’s brain associated with empathy.

Queensland University investigated if other-race empathy levels were affected over time. Chinese students who had first arrived in Australia within the past 6 months to 5 years were recruited for the study. Each Chinese student’s level of contact with other races across different social situations were compared using rating scales.

During fMRI (a neuroimaging  procedure used to measure brain activity by measuring blood flow), participants were asked to observe videos of own-race and other-race individuals receiving painful or non-painful touch.  Continue reading

Takeaway food outlets rise by 45% in deprived areas, study finds


creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by Stevie Spiers (Photography)

The number of takeaway food outlets has risen by as much as 45% in some of the poorest areas, according to a new study by the University of Cambridge.

Using Yellow Pages telephone directories, researchers were able to collect data on the number and location of takeaway food outlets at various points during 1990 and 2008. The findings were then mapped onto electoral ward boundaries from which a clear pattern emerged linking a rise in fast food outlets with areas of high deprivation.

The highest absolute increase in the number of outlets was seen in the areas of the highest deprivation with an increase from 4.6 outlets to 6.5 outlets per 10,000 residents.  Continue reading