Desistance, suffering and serving

Recently, I was invited to speak about desistance and criminal justice to an audience of academics, practitioners and policymakers in Barcelona (not a difficult offer to accept!). After the event, I was interviewed by a Catalan journalist. In the final part of the interview, she asked some interesting questions — sadly pertinent in many countries — about why governments turn to repressive measures to reduce crime, and what the likely consequences of such approaches might be in the light of evidence about desistance. I have reproduced the text of the interview below…

What does desistance mean?

It’s a word criminologists use to describe the process of ceasing to commit crime. Actually, there has been a long debate within criminology as to whether the word can be used to refer to the process itself or only the state of having finally desisted (when the process has unequivocally ended). However, since it is impossible to know if or when someone has finally and forever desisted (at least so long as they are alive!), most researchers now us the word to refer to the process of moving away from crime. To use an analogy, if teachers need to understand a child’s learning process to be able to teach, criminologists and criminal justice practitioners need a thorough knowledge of the desistance process to be better able to decide how to support positive change in each case.

How can desistance change judicial policies? Is it an alternative perspective on tackling crime?

Research shows that justice policies geared to combating crime have failed in many countries; or at least they show reoffending rates are often high. Desistance research has helped governments to recognize that the failure to reintegrate ex-offenders is very costly, especially at times like the present when our financial resources are limited. In that context, research into desistance seems to offer new and useful evidence for professionals and legislators to design policies and strategies better geared to supporting the reintegration process. Though there are many useful studies about the effectiveness of specific rehabilitation programmes, in my opinion, it isn’t just a question of helping individuals to change themselves, but also of achieving reintegration. It’s a question of forging bonds that generate a sense of belonging to a community, which will be conducive to that community’s collective security and wellbeing. Ex-offenders’ reintegration into society depends on our ability to rebuild those relationships. So, there have to be two aspects to our work, the first involving the ‘offender’ and the second involving the community; reintegration is a ‘two-way street’.

Could it be said that opting for desistance-based policies and practices means believing everyone deserves a second chance?

Yes, that’s right. Desistance research encourages us to believe in a second chance, a third, a fourth; as many as it takes. It’s vital to recognize that desistance can be very complicated for people who have been heavily criminalised and socially excluded. The fact is that most individuals cease to commit crime, so the question we have to ask ourselves is what we could have done better to make that happen sooner?

We’re talking about giving offenders a chance, but there’s also the matter of a change of mentality in society.

Yes, that’s absolutely correct. It’s somehow easier for us to brand criminals as abnormal, to treat them as people who are different from us. That’s part of what drives the desire to remove such individuals from our community. But the result is rejection, which affects their reintegration process. In my view, we have a duty to support ex-offenders for two moral reasons. Firstly, we’re often complicit in the social problems that generate crime. Implicitly, we tolerate social conditions of poverty and inequality, which are factors in driving crime rates. Secondly, as a matter of justice, when someone receives a punishment, we have to take responsibility for making sure that the punishment ends. The reality is very different though; the formal punishment may end but the collateral social consequences continue – for prisoners and their families.

Is it also a question of realizing that anyone can make a mistake?

Yes. It might sound like a joke, but trying to change our diets or exercise habits or drinking are similar processes to ceasing to commit crime. Many of us often fail to do what would be best for our health, such as exercising, eating healthily or spending less time at work and more with our family. We can all be weak under pressure, and we have to try to understand one another’s vulnerabilities. We tend to be very lenient with our own faults and much less forgiving of others. We mustn’t forget that we all make mistakes.

Is desistance limited to youngsters or can it happen to adults too?

It can happen at any age. There’s a general pattern in the case of persistent offenders. They begin to engage in criminal activity at an earlier age; for persistent offenders criminal activity normally begins aged 8 to 12 and ends when they’re in their early 30s. Nonetheless, some individuals follow a different process. They might begin offending when they’re 14 or 15. A good social worker or a special education programme could help a person to stop committing crime. However, unfortunately, the way we react to offending can and often does prolong criminal careers. It may be the case that we’ve rejected them, prompting them to reject us. The more we negatively label and punish people, the angrier and more alienated from society they feel, and the less they’re inclined to follow our rules. For that reason, I think our sentencing systems and the way we apply punishments can delay desistance in many cases.

Spain’s penal code is currently being reformed to make it far more restrictive. What consequences do you think that could that have?

Trying to put an end to crime through repressive policies might give results in the short term, particularly if the idea is to spend a vast amount of money on imprisoning a lot of people, but we need to be aware of all the costs and damage that this approach leaves in its wake. That’s the American experience. You’ve got to let all those people out of jail at some point, and the conditions of their release will have a bearing on the crime rate in the future. It’s also necessary to bear the substitution effect in mind. Even if we incapacitate one offender, another may fill his place, meaning the effect on the crime rate is negligible, so a repressive approach isn’t a very effective way of reducing crime in the long term. I’d say that repression has more to do with responding to a demand for punitiveness from a part of the population; that demand has a very visceral basis – it’s not a sound basis for rational policy-making, even if it sometimes makes for good short-term politics. I understand the desire to react vengefully to crime, but I think a restitutive approach is almost always a better option.

What does such an approach involve?

Committing crime breaks rules and damages social bonds. We obviously have to do something about it and take the issues very seriously. Rehabilitation is part of the response, but sometimes people don’t like rehabilitation’s focus on the offender and its lack of attention to repairing the damage caused to relations between the offender and their community. I’m more in favour of a restitutive, restorative or reparative system that has greater respect for human rights and ensures that people repay their debt to society, but in a constructive way. The difference is between settling that debt through suffering or through serving. One response places the offender in an unfavourable position, and causes him or her harm. The alternative is to require something of the offender – and to support him or her in making good the debt. I believe this second approach is both fairer and much more conducive to desistance, as it allows for bonds to be repaired, which is what ultimately protects us from crime as a community.

Is desistance also possible in cases of terrorism or sexual crime?

Yes, looking at the few studies that have been carried out in both cases, we are beginning to discern some similarities with other types of desistance. It seems that the connections between behaviour, identity and belonging may have similarities across offence types. The behaviour involved in political violence is related to ideology and identity, as well as to a sense of alienation from the community. The feeling of belonging needs to be reinforced in both cases.

So, could we conclude that there isn’t a magic formula for making desistance happen in every case?

You can design general policies and processes that might work better by attending more closely to the evidence about desistance, but you also need to adapt the approach to suit the individual in question. You can also find ways to secure greater commitment from all stakeholders, but you can’t simply systematize the process. There are lots of useful approaches, but there’s no single solution for making a community or a relationship work. It’s more a case of a deep experience of commitment, in which communication, dialogue and human development have a vital role to play. We all need to engage with that process reflexively and thoughtfully.

Profile: Fergus McNeill is professor of criminology and social work at the University of Glasgow, where he is head of sociology and works in the SCCJR. Prior to becoming an academic in 1998, he worked for a number of years in residential drug rehabilitation and as a criminal justice social worker. McNeill has carried out various research projects on institutions, punishment practices and rehabilitation. He is currently chair of Offender Supervision in Europe, an EU-funded research network involving around 100 researchers from 21 European jurisdictions. In addition to his research, lecturing and writing (notably including numerous books on desistance), McNeill has been an advisor to a range of governments and associations all over the planet.

Related links


Offender Supervision in Europe

Discovering Desistance

The Scottish Association for the Study of Offending

The Second Chance Act


Desistance in Scotland (and England and France…)

Readers of this blog might be interested to take a look at the special issue of the new journal Scottish Justice Matters (on desistance). You can access it here:


It contains a fascinating range of articles (and one from the Discovering Desistance team) covering questions about how desistance theory and research relates to probation, prisons, prisoners’ families, youth justice and sentencing.

The next edition of SJM is a special on the arts in criminal justice… and I hear very excited noises about it from guest editor Dr Sarah Armstrong, so it’s bound to be a cracker. The website for the journal is:   I’d suggest subscribing now — it’s open access and free to download.


Regular readers of this blog will know that we have enjoyed a long-running conversation (at least from time to time) about language and labelling as it relates to desistance and reintegration. Indeed, we’ve expended a lot of energy and some brain power trying to come up with alternatives to terms like ‘offender’, ‘ex-offender’, ‘prisoner’ and ‘probationer’. Not everyone gets the point. As the terrifying Minister of the Interior says in ‘The Clockwork Orange’, ‘Words… mere words. Actions speak louder than!’. I guess he had a point, except that words reflects and shape attitudes, and attitudes reflect and shape actions.

So, I was delighted when Baillie Aaron contacted me about her recent TEDx talk ‘Once a thief, always a thief?’. Bailie is co-founder and Executive Director of Spark Inside, a UK charity supporting young people in custody through life coaching. She is also the founder of Venturing Out, a Massachusetts charity teaching entrepreneurship to men and women in prison. Both ventures seek to expose latent human potential, and adopt strength-based approaches toward empowering prisoners to achieve legitimate self-sufficiency on release.

You can find the talk here: Once a thief, always a thief?

It lasts about 10 minutes… and it’s worth investing the time!

Transforming Rehabilitation: Evidence, values and ideology

I’m posting here the text of a paper recently published in the British Journal of Community Justice’s excellent special open access edition on ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’. You can access the journal here: BJCJ Open Access Special Issue on TR. I’m grateful to Paul Senior for permission to re-produce my paper here.

I’m writing this at Heathrow, on my way home from the first World Probation Congress in London on 8-10 October 2013. For me, it was a bittersweet event. Sweet to learn about and to celebrate what probation is and can be – at its best; bitter to be doing that at the very moment that the UK Government dismantles a world-leading, globally-renowned, award-winning public service with such a proud history.

On the first day of the conference – but at a separate event organized by User Voice — I was asked what my fears are about Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) – specifically from a research-informed or evidence-based perspective. In one sense, that’s a difficult question to answer. Transforming Rehabilitation is really about disestablishing probation as an institution, it is quite hard to advance a strictly ‘evidence-based’ response. Since it is impossible to experiment (in the strict sense) with criminal justice institutional arrangements, there is no ‘evidence-based’ organizational structure for probation. That said, there are many arguments that can be made about which structures might best facilitate or impede desistance. And that’s where the fears arise.

Firstly, TR seems to me to be based on several fundamental misconceptions about risk. Many informed commentators have noted the dangers of creating an organizational structure that reifies risk classifications; that assumes people can be easily or sensibly classified for any period of time as high, medium or low risk. They have also pointed out – repeatedly – that most ‘serious further offences’ by people under supervision are carried out by those classified as low or medium risk – not because the assessment and classification was wrong, but because risk is dynamic and situational; it is always changing.

My concern with risk is a slightly different one. Ever since NOMS has elected to pursue a policy that resources should follow risk, it has slipped into the assumption that people who present a high risk of harm require the most intensive supervision. In one sense they do – public safety demands that they be closely monitored. But the ‘risk principle’ in the ‘what works’ research said something quite different; i.e. that people who presented a high risk of reoffending — whatever the likely gravity of their crimes — required (and benefited most from) intensive interventions. The reason was obvious. People who offend persistently tend to have very complex personal and social problems and it takes considerable time and skill to address those problems in a way that reduces risk. Yet TR seems to me to be built on the assumption that people who represent a low or medium risk of harm (who may well represent a high risk of reoffending) don’t need skilled and intensive support – that their supervision can be safely delegated to less experienced, less skilled and less qualified supervisors or supporters. While desistance research certainly does suggest a potentially important role for peer mentors, other volunteers, friends and family in supporting change, it also makes abundantly clear that for people who have offended persistently (but not necessarily seriously), desistance is a complex and uncertain process — a long and winding road that requires skilled navigation. TR diminishes the likelihood of skilled navigation (for reasons I’ll elaborate further below) at the same time as making the route between services more complex and elaborate.

My second major fear also flows directly from research evidence. Even skilled navigators can’t enable and support change by themselves. First and foremost they need to be able to engage with the people doing the changing. That sounds simple, but it is no small task to develop relationships of trust with people whose relationships with others – especially with authority figures – have often been, at worst, abusive and traumatic and, at best, inconsistent and difficult. In those circumstances, the process of building trust is hard enough for those with shared experience or with professional skills; it is made easier where legitimacy is conferred or more often earned by demonstrating the sorts of human values so important to probation practice (and to user voice organizations). My fear is that marketization may be poisonous in this inter-personal process. A pecuniary contract preoccupied with achieving targets that generate financial rewards is not a recipe for trust and engagement; it is a recipe for service users feeling and being objectified as a potential income source – or, worse, as a waste of time and effort.

My third fear is also related to the logic of the market, but in a different way. I alluded above to TR’s creation of a more complex set of arrangements for service provision and delivery. This refers not just to the potential movements of service users between the rump National Probation Service (as and when fluctuating risk requires it) and the contractors/consortia, but also to the complexities of the partnerships involved in delivery within and across regions – and of their relationships with related services (in health, education, employment, housing, etc.). In short, this seems like a recipe for disruption and fragmentation, when desistance research points to the necessity of coordination, consistency and continuity in supporting change.

To make matters worse, competition creates new problems of intellectual property and commercial interest that risk the creation of a whole new set of silos; not this time the familiar silos of public sector bodies failing to cooperate (a perennial problem, I admit, but not one solved in any way by TR), but rather the silos of commercial competitors looking for an edge. That raises questions about the future of research-informed and evidence-based practice. First and foremost, private companies want to increase profits and shareholder returns and to grow their market share. If, as some of them argue, it is innovation and quality (and not just efficiency/cost reduction) that will drive profitability, then innovation and quality will be highly prized, and carefully guarded. Market logic demands that they will not be disposed to sharing their best ideas. An optimistic (or naïve) fan of the free market might say that this means that all will be driven to improve in a frenzied quest for quality and competitive advantage, but that means that they all have to waste time and (public) money individually inventing innovations instead of cooperating. Or, alternatively, the qualitatively best contractor will end up as a monopoly provider, in which case market logic itself suggests that the end of competition will ensure that complacency sets in and quality atrophies.

An alternative and more likely outcome is that as soon as they realise that there are no easy fixes or cheap ways of securing PbR outcomes (except perhaps by resort to the familiar problem of ‘gaming’), companies or consortia will have to make their money in the more familiar fashion — by recruiting inexperienced and unskilled staff and by overburdening them so as to drive down costs (compare the recent inspection report on HMP Oakwood). In this approach, they make money not on the unpredictable outcomes but on the reliable volume of  business; which leads of course to an even swifter abandonment of quality. It also creates an incentive to ‘grow the market’; that is, to lobby for increases in the numbers of people subject to supervision, just as some US private prison providers encouraged mass incarceration.

However, my ultimate fear is even more fundamental. I fear that privatization and marketization will corrupt criminal justice. I don’t mean corruption in the obvious sense of people carving up a quasi-market through bribes or other more subtle inducements or frauds (though that is an inevitable and serious risk in any and every market). Rather, my fear is that by transforming rehabilitation from being a moral good into a market good, something central to justice will be lost. Doing justice is not a task that we should contract out; it is a civic duty that citizens owe to one another. When we seek to sell off our mutual obligations, we weaken the moral bonds between us because we treat as merely instrumental goods that are in fact constitutive of ‘the good society’. Rehabilitation is one such good; it is a duty that citizens owe to one another. Those that offend owe it to those they have offended. Those that punish also owe it to those that they have punished. Is it really desirable that we seek to meet these obligations merely by paying others to do it for us? My view is that rehabilitation is best thought of as being everyone’s concern and no-one’s business. Transforming Rehabilitation risks turning it into some people’s business and no-one’s concern.

Re-Imagining futures: exploring arts interventions and the process of desistance

Charlotte Bilby is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Northumbria University.  Along with Laura Caulfield from Bath Spa University and Louise Ridley, also at Northumbria University, she carried out the research described below.

The context

At the beginning of the year, The Arts Alliance, a membership body which supports and promotes arts activity in the criminal justice system, commissioned research to investigate the relationship between taking part in arts activities and desistance from crime.  This project is part of the Arts Alliance’s process to build, collate and publicise evidence on the possibilities of creative practice changing people’s lives.

The coalition government’s Transforming Rehabilitation strategy means rapid change for criminal justice agencies and the way in which they provide support, management, punishment and rehabilitation for service users.  The agenda presents many challenges, but also acknowledges offenders’ complex backgrounds; it does so in an environment that highlights the importance of developing vocational skills that lead to increased employability.  Yet, there is also an understanding that there is an important role for other types of learning which might, for example, improve physical and mental health.  This, along with the belief that learning opportunities need to address responsiveness and diversity issues (NOMS, 2012; MoJ, 2013), suggests that there is an important place for arts activities within the criminal justice system.  Indeed the recent rapid evidence assessment of arts projects notes the positive impact that arts projects have on ‘facilitating readiness to change’ (Burrows, et al, 2013:4), and the government acknowledges this in the review of offender skills:

There is a long tradition of the arts being used within custody to motivate and engage learners, with much good work by voluntary and community sector organisations in support of that. We recognise the important role that the arts, collectively, can play in the rehabilitation process through encouraging self-esteem and improving communication skills as a means to the end of reducing reoffending… Engagement in the arts with the possibility of fresh vision, or at least a glimpse of a different life, often provokes, inspires and delights (BIS & MoJ, 2011: 19).

However, there is a need to evidence the impact the arts have on offenders’ motivation, intentions and journey to desisting from crime and realising their potential as crime-free citizens.  NOMS states that it will concentrate on commissioning services which have a proven track record of reducing reoffending.  Evidence, based on peer-reviewed quantitative research, will take precedence over ‘case studies and anecdotal reports’ (2012: 8).  It does, however, recognise that for many interventions it will not be possible to gather a level of quantitative data that is methodologically robust. We suggest (a) that this is particularly true of new and innovative projects delivered by smaller providers, (b) that it is likely that many arts practices fit within the categorisation of small and innovative projects, and (c) that this should not stop arts providers from endeavouring to capture data that will help evaluate outcomes.

The research

This research used a qualitative approach to investigate whether there was any evidence of the links between taking part in an arts activity while subject to a criminal justice sentence and desistance from crime.  The research addresses a number of questions

  • Do the arts contribute to an individual’s journey to desistance?
  • What intermediate outcomes do arts interventions contribute towards?
  • Do arts interventions enable people to form positive identities and build new narratives?
  • Do the arts contribute towards offenders building positive relationships?
  • Is there anything significant about the working relationship between arts staff and the offender, which might enable desistance?
  • Can arts interventions enable people to make significant behavioural changes?

Five projects in four locations were chosen to take part in this research.  The choices made tried to ensure that the impact on a variety of arts practice on different offender groups in varying criminal justice settings could be evaluated. The chosen projects were:A ISS music project run by a youth offending service (YOS) in a metropolitan area; art classes in a unit for personality disordered offenders in a high security prison; a creative writing project, run by the Writers in Prison Foundation and Padbooks, a bookbinding and paper craft project in a closed women’s prison; and a week-long, intensive music project, run by Music in Prisons in a resettlement prison for adult men.

The research team spent at least four sessions with each of the projects observing the activities and interviewing participants, arts practitioners and prison staff as part of an in-depth qualitative methodology.  The team also used participants’ written work and evaluations, and examples of the work produced in the arts activities.  This data was analysed using a thematic, content analysis approach.

A total of 30 individuals in contact with the criminal justice system participated in this research, alongside project facilitators and criminal justice staff. Twelve of the participants were female and 18 were male. Ages ranged from 15 years to age 50+. Eleven adult males were incarcerated within a high-secure prison, seven adult males within an open prison, eight adult females within a women’s prison, and four young people (three male, one female) were subject to community sentences or bail conditions.

The findings

This piece of research demonstrates a clear link between taking part in arts-based activities and the movement towards secondary desistance.  It identifies the importance of arts practice for the participants and shows what types of outcomes successful projects should be producing.  The research also highlights the importance of collecting qualitative as well as quantitative data on projects and their participants when measuring changes.

Analysis of the data across all five projects highlighted the following key findings.

The status of arts practitioners as professional artists is highly significant in the success of projects and their potential impact upon participants. The value of this should not be underestimated by agencies of the criminal justice system when considering utilising external organisations. The importance of practitioners’ status as professionals in their ability to gain respect has been noted elsewhere in the research literature (Caulfield, 2011).

I feel privileged to be working with a professional (Participant)

They’re the most professional and worthwhile music project.  [They] are positive role models.  They are clear about achievements.  Quick to engage the prisoners.  They bring different music backgrounds…so that it’s not just rap that glorifies crime… (Learning and skills manager)

The role of practitioners’ professionalism leads to the finding that arts projects are responsive to participant’s individual needs. The practitioners are able to identify the areas that the participants need to work on and tailor their practice to this, while still working within a ‘highly disciplined structure’ (arts practitioner).  Current policy documentation on commissioning services to meet offenders’ needs highlights the importance of responsiveness in meeting diverse needs.  Arts projects are considered by the people who run them as being safe spaces to achieve for people who often had never experienced or expressed a sense of accomplishment before.

Art provides the safe space to explore challenging questions and to make work which allows prisoners to discover that they have a creative eloquence and confidence not seen before. (Practitioner)

We take people out of their normal groove and expose them to a fresh learning experience…in which they succeed in incremental steps…(Practitioner)

This was also felt by the participants, who celebrated their successes and commented on the positive feelings that producing something gave to them.

I feel I went on a journey with [the painting], but in the end I felt a kind of peace of mind, a sense of achievement. (Participant)

Arts projects can have a positive impact on how people manage themselves during their sentence, particularly to cooperate with others – including other participants and staff. This correlates with increased self-control and better problem solving skills.

You share paint, glue.  It sounds stupid, but you know what it’s like in here… (Participant)

I had never been involved in a group piece before; being part of something, making something, being profound from found objects. (Participant)

The projects also facilitate high levels of engagement. This is significant because many individuals in contact with the criminal justice system have struggled to engage with productive activities in the past. Participants must engage in order to be able to redefine themselves. Engagement in arts projects has also been shown to lead to greater participation in education and work related activities.

Art helps engage with other things too, like the courses [I] had to do in order to move on. (Participant)

I would be lost without art. Back in the system… (Participant)

Participation in arts activities enables individuals to begin to redefine themselves, an important factor in desistance from crime.

I’m heading towards that ‘new horizon’, more positive, happy and with a more hopeful expectation for my future. (Participant)

Even the YOT worker agrees, gone from being depressed to happy.  Big change.  Think I’ve grown up. (Participant)

At Christmas I can get the kids crafty things to do and do with them.  It’s about my family… (Participant)

For some participants arts interventions help them manage their identity while serving long sentences, and for others they are able to think about the life through the gate or outside criminal justice agencies.

The findings from this research clearly indicate that arts projects can contribute to an individual’s journey to desistance. They highlight key outcomes for participants and the importance of the relationships with project facilitators. However, there is a need for longitudinal research, combining both qualitative and quantitative methods, to assess how far the findings presented here are sustained in the long-term.

The report was launched at the Arts Alliance annual Anne Peaker event, which aims to promote discussion and debate in this field. Last year, Prof Fergus McNeill presented a lecture Is desistance art?

The full report is available at

A full write up of this year’s event will be available soon on the Arts Alliance website:

New developments in ‘Evidence-based Corrections’

The post that follows comes from Prof Jim Byrne at Griffith University in Brisbane. Jim was a participant in one of the Glasgow ‘Discovering Desistance’ workshops and was also the organiser of a similar event in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he was based until his recent move to Griffith. The post reproduces an editorial in a journal he edits called ‘Victims and Offenders’ and concerns an important new initiative that prompted his move from the USA to Australia…

Editor’s Introduction: Global Perspectives on Victims, Offenders, and Communities

I think many readers of Victims and Offenders will be interested in a very recent development: the creation of the Global Centre for Evidence-based Corrections and Sentencing (GCECS) at Griffith University. As the Director of the Centre, I encourage you to visit our webpage and find out more about our plans in the three key areas we emphasize : research, policy, and practice. I have included a brief description of the centre here, and I urge you to contact me if you would like to join our global research consortium ( ).

The Global Centre For Evidence-based Corrections and Sentencing

Our centre will provide researchers, policymakers, and practitioners a new global forum for knowledge exchange regarding evidence-based corrections and sentencing strategies, based on an expanded and more inclusive definition of what constitutes research evidence. Although the term evidence-based has been defined narrowly in many circles to only include the results of high quality program evaluations, we will take a broader view of what constitutes evidence, one that recognizes the importance of personal narratives, community  context, and non-programmatic  assessments. We plan to include the results of both quantitative and qualitative research in the area of corrections and sentencing in our evidence-based reviews. It is our view that evaluation research—even the few well-designed research studies currently available for review — can only reveal part of the story about what works and doesn’t work with our global offender population. To understand the problem and offer informed policy and practice recommendations, we need to move beyond a focus on programs and  also consider the individual and community context of both crime commission and desistance from crime.

The Centre’s aim is to become the globally recognised leader in the area of evidence-based corrections and sentencing, and the primary source of information on how to integrate both individual and community level change strategies into effective corrections/sentencing policies and practices. Our goal is to develop an international knowledge exchange and collaborative research network, which will be directed through Griffith University and will engage researchers, policymakers, and practitioners from each global region interested in corrections and sentencing issues. The centre will emphasize the need to study the social ecology of corrections, in recognition of the importance of understanding how both individual-level and community-level factors influence our attitudes and behaviours throughout the life course. However, other theoretically informed assessments of corrections and sentencing reform will also be encouraged, along with research that examines particular corrections and sentencing problems (e.g. over-representation of minorities/ indigenous populations) in their full historical context.

The Centre’s View of Individual and Community Change

The centre will be designed based on a simple premise: you cannot change offenders without also changing the communities where offenders reside. While our institutional and community corrections system has multiple aims– including retribution/punishment, community safety and protection, offender rehabilitation and reintegration, and restorative outcomes–corrections agencies spend considerable time and resources on developing programs to change offenders into non-offenders. To date, these efforts have only had, at best, a marginal impact, in large part because their focus has been on the individual, while ignoring the influence of community context (e.g. community attitudes, values, resources, and structure). Community context can be incorporated into institutional and community corrections policies and practices in a wide range of areas (e.g. restorative sentencing, risk assessment, treatment programming, re-entry planning, culturally responsive interventions, desistance-focused community supervision, location-specific community resource development, and justice reinvestment). Our plan is to conduct high quality research with consortium partners on the impact of these strategies, and to provide opportunities for a global discussion of the implications of this emerging body of research for corrections and sentencing policies and practices.

Description of Centre Activities

The Centre will work collaboratively with local, state, national, and international policymakers on the development of evidence-based corrections programs and sentencing policies and practices that maximize public safety. Of particular importance is the goal of helping policymakers develop and implement successful, evidence-based individual, organizational and community change strategies. Towards this goal, the new Centre will conduct original research in partnership with corrections organizations, beginning initially with the Queensland Department of Corrective Services, and then expanding throughout Australia. We will also develop formal collaborative research partnerships—and comparative research projects– with a global consortium of research centres that focus on corrections and sentencing issues, in order to maximize the quality, outreach, and visibility of the Centre’s global research and evidence-based corrections policy and practice efforts. With the help of our global consortium partners, we plan to develop a series of global knowledge exchange seminars, and produce systematic, evidence-based reviews of the available research on key corrections and sentencing policy issues.

The Griffith University Global Centre for Evidence-based Corrections and Sentencing will begin with the following three initiatives:

1) High Quality Corrections and Sentencing Research Agenda– the Centre will develop research projects focusing on evaluating the impact of current corrections and sentencing strategies( adult/juvenile) in Queensland, throughout Australia, and internationally. We will also develop comparative corrections and sentencing research studies ( qualitative and quantitative) in partnership with our consortium centre partners;

(2) Knowledge Exchange Seminars and Systematic, Evidence -based Policy Reviews — To translate research into practice, the Centre will develop a series of executive session seminars and workshops highlighting corrections and sentencing issues in each global region; in conjunction with the executive seminars, the Centre will publish a series of objective, independent reviews of the available research on key corrections and sentencing policy issues, which will inform policymakers, both in Australia and in the international community;

(3) Global Evidence-based Corrections and Sentencing Network Development: The Centre will develop a global network of researchers, policymakers and practitioners interested in conducting high quality corrections research, and using this research base to improve the performance of the adult and juvenile corrections and sentencing system in their respective jurisdictions; in the process, the Centre—through the Centre’s state of the art website– will become a global clearinghouse for high quality, evidence-based corrections research, and a primary source of information on global corrections performance, and innovative corrections and sentencing policies and practices.

Location and Global Collaboration

The Centre will be located at Griffith University’s Mt. Gravatt campus, and housed administratively within Griffith University’s Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance. The Centre will include academic colleagues from the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice who have research expertise and interests in corrections and sentencing issues, as well as an interdisciplinary mix of researchers interested in these topics from across the university.

The initial response from the global research community has been excellent. A preliminary listing of our global consortium members is included below:

GCECS Consortium Members by Global Region


  1. Spencer De Li, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology, University of Macau
  2. Hiroshi Tsutomi, Professor, Faculty of International Relations, University of Shizuoka


  1. Stuart Ross, Director, Melbourne Centre for Criminological Research and Evaluation, University of Melbourne
  2. Adam Tomison, Director, Australian Institute of Criminology
  3. Stuart Kinner, Associate Professor, School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne
  4. Jesse Cale, Lecturer, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of New South Wales
  5. Hilde Tubex, Professor, Future Fellow, the Crime Research Centre, University of Western Australia
  6. Sharan Kraemer, Lecturer, School of Law and Justice, Edith Cowan University
  7. Natalie Gately, Lecturer, School of Law and Justice, Edith Cowan University
  8. Frank Morgan, Director, Crime Research Centre, Faculty of Law, University of Western Australia
  9. Chris Trotter, Professor, Department of Social Work, Monash University
  10. Andrew Day, Professor, School of Psychology, Deakin University
  11. Richard Harding, Emeritus Professor, Crime Research Centre, Faculty of Law, University of Western Australia
  12. Glenn Ross, Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Law and Justice, Edith Cowan University ‘
  13. Mark Halsey, Professor, Law School, Flinders University
  14. Garry Coventry, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Arts, Education & Social Sciences, James Cook University

Australian Policy and Practice Participants:

  1. Marlene Morrison,  Former Commissioner, Queensland Corrective Services, Department of Community Safety
  2. Mark Rallings, Deputy Director, Queensland Corrective Services, Department of Community Safety
  3. Mary McKinnon, Director, Statutory and Forensic Services Design Branch, Department of Human Services (Victoria)
  4. Peter Severin, Commissioner, Corrective Services NSW
  5. Julie Harcourt, Director, Strategic Policy and Research, Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian (Qld)
  6. Barry Salmon, Acting Commissioner and Child Guardian, Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian

Griffith University Faculty and Staff:

  1. John Rynne, Senior Lecturer, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
  2. Ross Homel, Professor, Director, Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice & Governance
  3. Paul Mazerolle, Professor, Pro Vice Chancellor
  4. Melissa Bull, Associate Director, Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security
  5. Samantha Jefferies, Senior Lecturer, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
  6. Stephen Smallbone, Professor  and Director, Griffith Youth Forensic Service
  7. William Wood, Research Associate, GCECS Centre, Lecturer, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
  8. Mark Kebbell, Professor, Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security
  9. Christine Bond, Senior Lecturer, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
  10. Myesa Knox-Mahoney, Associate Lecturer, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
  11. 33.       Anna Macklin, Senior Research Fellow, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
  12. 34.       Kate Smith, Senior Lecturer, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
  13. 35.       Rebecca Wallis, Lecturer, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
  14. 36.       Danielle Reynald, Lecturer, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
  15. 37.       Shannon Sprigg, Mentors in Violence Prevention, Violence Research and Prevention


  1. Candace Kruttschnitt, Professor, Faculty of Sociology, University of Toronto
  2. Raymond Corrado, Professor, British Columbia Centre for Social Responsibility, Simon Fraser University


  1. Asha Degannes, Acting Director, Eastern Caribbean Centre, University of the US Virgin Isles


  1. Santiago Redondo Illescas, Professor, Criminology and Psychology, University of Barcelona
  2. Kristel Beyens, Professor, Penology, Criminology Department Research Group, Crime and Society, Vrije University Belgium
  3. Paul Nieuwbeerta, Professor, Faculty of Criminal Law and Criminology, University of Leiden
  4. Anja Dirkzwager, Senior Researcher, Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement (NSCR)
  5. Sonja Snacken, Professor, Faculty of Law and Criminology, Vrije University Brussels
  6. Peter van der Laan, Professor, Faculty of Law, Vrije University, Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement (NSCR)
  7. Ioan Durnescu, Lecturer, Faculty of Sociology and Social Work, University of Bucharest

Central and South America:

  1. 48.       Carlos J. Vilalta, Professor/Researcher ,Center for Economic Research and Education (CIDE), Mexico City

United Kingdom:

  1. Richard Wortley, Director, Jill Dando Institute for Security & Crime, University of Central London
  2. Alison Liebling, Director, Prison Research Centre & Professor, Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Cambridge
  3. Shadd Maruna, Professor, School of Law, Queens University Belfast
  4. Kevin Wong, Deputy Director, Hallam Centre for Community Justice, Sheffield Hallam University
  5. Michele Burman, Professor, University of Glasgow, Co-Director, SCCJR
  6. Richard Sparks, Professor, University of Edinburgh, Co-Director, SCCJR
  7. Fergus McNeil, Professor, University of Glasgow, Director, CREDOS
  8. Bill Whyte, Professor of Social Work, University of Edinburgh
  9. Cyrus Tata, Professor, Law School, Strathclyde University

United Kingdom Policy and Practice Participants:

  1. Brian Heath, Director, Jersey Probation (Advisory Board)
  2. Alec Spencer, Director of Rehabilitation and Care, Scottish Prison Service (Retired), Independent Consultant (Advisory Board)

United States:

  1. Jim Finckenauer, Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University, (Advisory Board)
  2. Faye Taxman, Director, Criminology, law and Society Program & ACE (Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence), George Mason University (Advisory Board)
  3. William Bales, Director, Centre for Criminology and Public Policy Research, Florida State University
  4. Tom Blomberg, Dean , School of Criminal Justice, Florida State University
  5. Susan Turner, Director, Center for Evidence-based Corrections & Professor, Department of Criminology, Law and Society, University of California, Irvine
  6. Cassia Spohn, Professor, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Arizona State University
  7. Pamela Lattimore, Director, Crime, Justice Policy, and Behavior Program,   Research Triangle Institute (RTI) International
  8. Doris MacKenzie, Director and Professor, Justice Center for Research, Department of Sociology and Criminology, Penn State University
  9. Alex Piquero, Professor, Criminology, School of Economic, Political, and Policy Science  (EPPS), University of Texas
  10. Paula Smith, Deputy Director, Corrections Institute, University of Cincinnati
  11. Edward Latessa, Director, Corrections Institute, University of Cincinnati (Advisory Board)
  12. Chet Britt, Dean, College of Criminal Justice, Northeastern University
  13. Michael Osterman, Associate Professor and Director, Evidence-based Institute for Justice Policy Research, Rutgers University
  14. Andres Rengifo, Associate Professor, School of Criminology, Rutgers University
  15. Todd Clear, Dean School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University (Advisory Board)
  16. Andrew Harris, Associate Professor, Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, University of Massachusetts, Lowell
  17. April Pattavina, Associate Professor, Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, University of Massachusetts, Lowell
  18. Arthur J. Lurigio, Professor, Faculty Scholar/Master Researcher, Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Loyola University, Chicago
  19. Aaron Kupchtick, Professor, Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, University of Delaware
  20. Frank Cullen, Professor, Center for Criminal Justice Research, University of Cincinnati
  21. Johnna Christian, Associate Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University

United States Policy and Practice Participants

  1. Ron Corbett, Commissioner of Probation, Massachusetts, USA (retired) (Advisory Board)
  2. Carl Wickland, Executive Director, American Probation and Parole Association (APPA) ( Advisory Board)
  3. Carol O’Brien, Assistant Superintendent, Middlesex Sheriff’s Office, Massachusetts (Advisory Board)
  4. Phylis Shultze, Librarian, Don M. Gottfredson Library of Criminal Justice, Rutgers School of Law, Newark

Corrections and Sentencing Research Agenda

The Centre will develop research projects in the area of corrections and sentencing that reflect the Centre’s focus on understanding person-environment interactions, and on designing, implementing, and evaluating intervention/ desistance strategies that emphasize the need for both individual and community change. We will also be looking toward the development and dissemination of global corrections and sentencing performance measures. A third area of research inquiry will focus on collaborative and comparative research projects with consortium members (e.g. justice reinvestment in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia).

The centre will develop research projects evaluating the impact of current corrections and sentencing strategies (adult/juvenile) in  Queensland, throughout Australia, and internationally. To support our global research activities, we plan to initiate a visiting corrections scholars program, where researchers from each region come to the Centre for short and longer term stays, in order to collaborate on Centre-based research and/or present their research to our faculty and students. We will pursue an active policy research agenda in conjunction with our consortium partners.

Corrections and Sentencing Policy Agenda

One of the primary functions of our Centre will be to provide opportunities for corrections and sentencing knowledge exchange that spans typical regional boundaries, linking policymakers, practitioners and researchers from each global region. To support these efforts, the Centre will prepare a series of white papers and rapid evidence assessments (REAs) in key sentencing and corrections policies under government review in Australia, and in other countries across the globe. While our corrections and sentencing policy briefs and REAs will be developed for a global audience, we recognize the need to initially focus on issues currently under discussion and review in Australia (e.g. privatization, boot camps, justice reinvestment, and over-representation of indigenous populations in corrections).

In addition to our policy briefs and REAs, we will also develop workshops on specific evidence-based corrections and sentencing policy and practice initiatives for corrections and sentencing staff/management, government officials, and/or the community.

Corrections and Sentencing Evidence-based Best Practices Agenda

The Centre will provide global corrections conferences and training programs on what works in corrections and sentencing that we anticipate will be attended by policy makers, government officials, and corrections managers from Australia and internationally. We have also developed an online resource clearinghouse for evidence-based research, policy, and practice in sentencing and corrections, providing one-stop shopping for corrections and sentencing online resources, self-assessments, and performance measures. Finally, we plan to utilize webinars, social media, and online workshops to reach a global audience interested in best practices in corrections and sentencing, based on our expanded view of what constitutes evidence in evidence-based reviews.

Meaningful work and desistance: Peer support in prisons

This post is from Christian Perrin, a PhD Researcher at Nottingham Trent University, UK. Christian undertook the research outlined below in 2012 as part of a Psychology MSc at Nottingham Trent.

A growing body of research argues that in order to enhance offenders’ chances of successfully re-joining society and desisting from offending, prison should be less punitive and more focussed on rehabilitation. Indeed, substantial evidence suggests that punitive prison environments may actually increase recidivism (see Gendreau, 2012; Raphael, 2009). Such studies emphasise the need for ‘purposeful activity’ in prisons, and schemes that enable offenders to positively contribute towards their own rehabilitation (Herbert & Garnier, 2008). A recent report from the Ministry of Justice has emphasised the importance of ‘meaningful prison work’ and ‘active citizenship’ (Secretary of State for Justice, 2010). Recently a growing body of research has begun to explore what might constitute ‘meaningful work’ in prisons. Such research generally encourages constructive prison settings where offenders can form strong social bonds and meaningful relationships (Edgar, Jacobson & Biggar, 2011; Stevens, 2012). Peer-support schemes appear to represent a source for such positivity (Dhaliwal &Harrower, 2009; Perrin & Blagden, 2013).

Researching the Impact of Peer-Support in Prisons

The research project summarised here investigated one peer-support scheme, the Samaritans Prison Listener scheme, which operates in prisons across the UK. The research was inspired by my personal experience of volunteering with Samaritans. I experienced such deep realisations and attitude changes through listening to people’s innermost thoughts and feelings. This prompted my curiosity about how such experiences might impact on prisoners.

Offending is often associated with decreased empathy, communication skills deficits, and difficulties both in establishing strong social ties, and  in regulating emotions (Lohrlr, Farrington and Justice, 1998; Ward and Gannon, 2007). As such, it is plausible that participating in a scheme centred on principles of empathy and emotional wellbeing could have a magnified effect on offending populations. This assumption informed the main aim of the project: to explore the impact of ‘being’ a prison listener.

In 1991, the Prison Service, in collaboration with Samaritans, established the Listener scheme to help tackle suicide. Via the scheme, prisoners suffering distress, despair and suicidal feelings are able to call on Listeners and talk face-to-face about their feelings anonymously and without judgement. Prisoners wishing to become volunteer Listeners go through several weeks of training. Once fully trained, the Listeners may be called out several times a day to provide emotional support to those in need. As well as listening, members of the scheme also meet weekly to discuss issues relating to ‘caller care’ and the general running of the scheme (Foster and Magee, 2011).

The Listener scheme is currently the foremost peer support scheme in operation in UK prisons (Samaritans, 2012). However, research is limited; a significant gap in knowledge exists relating to how Listeners conceive their roles. Only one study has explicitly addressed what listening actually means to prisoners (Dhaliwal & Harrower, 2009). In that study, participants demonstrated elevated self-confidence, personal growth, greater empathy, and respect for prison staff as a result of Listener roles. Although being a Listener appears to elicit positive change within prisoners, there is a paucity of research specifically exploring what it is about listening that prompts change and what this change means to Listeners. The aim of the present research was to bridge this gap.

To this end, six male prisoners were interviewed. Transcripts were analysed using interpretive phenomenological analysis. Analysis revealed two super-ordinate themes (‘personal transformation’ and ‘countering negative prison emotions’) and several subordinate themes. Whilst it is only possible to provide a sample of the analysis here, the report can be viewed in full via:


Super-ordinate Themes Subordinate Themes
Personal Transformation 



Countering Negative Prison Emotions


New MeDeveloping a Positive Self-image

Desire to Give Something Back


Gaining Perspective

Distraction / Channelling Energy

Development of Meaning and Purpose

‘New Me’  

All participants appeared to experience their listening role as a method of evidencing and understanding change. Theorists propose that desistance requires personal maturity, new social bonds and a personal subjective narrative shifts which offenders build around these changes (Farrall et al, 2011). Research surrounding offenders’ experiences of desistance highlights how they tend to create and internalise a self-narrative which helps them understand the changes they experience and why offending no longer ‘fits’ into their life story (Vaughan, 2007). This self-narrative assists the development of a ‘new me’ but, crucially, needs to be combined with a key ‘turning point’ (Sampson & Laub, 2005). Listening appeared to constitute a turning point for participants:

If you’re out through life causing destruction and distress to people and yourself, you can quite quickly fill your bank up with negative ways of thinking and negative thoughts… It’s like having a big tub of dirty water, that’s negative. And then someone gives you a positive drip, and eventually, with more drips, the water gets less murky, overflows, and then it’s just nice and clean. That’s what happens basically. It’s learning to accept that positive (‘Steve’).

My whole concept now is to help rather than hinder, and that’s because of the scheme, and I’m not just saying that. That is genuine… I didn’t give a shit before I was a listener. I would argue with staff. I was a right so and so… Even my probation, he’d go “oh I feel so agitated when I talk to you”. And then in one of his reports, when I had joined the listeners, he said “Cliff is now approachable, he’s mellowed out, and we can talk”. I think it was because I’d learned respect (‘Cliff’).

Desire to Give Back  

Along with the establishment of ‘new selves’ and positive self-images, participants also demonstrated a desire to ‘give something back’. In exploring crime desistance, Maruna (2001) posits that offenders who are ‘going straight’ construct a ‘redemption script’. This  is typified by a desire to ‘give something back’ and an acceptance that although they cannot change the past, they can contribute positively in the future. These propositions have been linked with successful reintegration (Marsh, 2011). During every interview, participants gave descriptions of how they thought they had given something back. These thoughts provided them with deep satisfaction:

You could see someone was upset or whatever, and after you speak to them they’ve perked up a bit… they start relaxing a bit and they say “yeah, I’m ready to go back out to the prison”… and when you see it happen it makes you feel good because you’ve done something good and given something back. I’m not saying it makes up for the crime you’ve committed, but you are giving something back and you’re turning something into a positive. Even if it’s just for that hour or that day, you know you’ve tried (‘Andy’) 

Development of Meaning and Purpose

Every participant expressed that their Listener role provided meaning and purpose in prison. In 2010, the Prison Reform Trust asserted that ‘prisons should not allow offenders to simply mark their time in a purposeless fashion. Rather, prisons should be seen as places where prisoners are engaged in challenging and meaningful work’ (Edgar, Jacobson & Biggar, 2011). The Listener role certainly appears to help prisoners establish meaning and build purposeful lives in prison. Self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) is useful in explaining why having meaning is so crucial for prisoners. The theory holds that humans naturally seek autonomy, connectedness and have an intrinsic desire to effect the environment around them, not just exist within it. When these needs are not met, individuals construct illegitimate substitute strategies. However, when these needs are met, individuals become motivated to reflect and realise change (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Through Listener roles, participants were able to generate meaning and purpose. The following extracts highlight how participants moulded themselves important roles and gained a feeling of being needed.

It’s meant the world to me and I’m not gonna lie. And I think that’s come across, and it has meant the world to me cos it’s helped me a great deal. But I’d hope that I’ve helped other people, so it’s worked dual. (Ben)

These people have spilled their heart out to you. And you’ve got that, in a little box, just there, never to be revealed. So he’s put his life (pause)… He’s took everything and he’s put it in this basket here (hand gestures a box and passes the box to the researcher). “Please look after it” (whispers). That’s what it’s like. Like, don’t let no one see it. You’ve gotta protect that. (Kyle)

Conclusions and Implications

Broadly, this research furthers existing understandings of how change can occur through peer support schemes. More specifically, this research has helped bridge the gap in knowledge surrounding the Listener scheme and the effects on the Listeners themselves. Through listening, prisoners benefit from purposeful activity during their time in prison, a chance to acquire new skills, earning respect from others, building positive self-concepts, and an opportunity to give something back. Each of these benefits has the potential to encourage desistance, be it via the ‘knifing off’ of unwanted pasts (Sampson and Laub, 2005), the reversal of negative thinking cycles (Maruna, 2004), the satisfaction of desires through prosocial means (Ward, 2002), or via other psychological mechanisms. Although the Listener role cannot claim responsibility for reduced offending, becoming a Listener in prison appears to encourage desistance by surfacing the ‘good’ in individuals and allowing them to positively ‘re-story’ their lives. These implications may hold true for other peer-support schemes, and the concept of prison peer-support in general.

Fundamentally, adopting a Listener role in prison seems to help equip prisoners with the tools required for a productive prison life and a potentially successful societal re-entry. It seems necessary to present the Listener scheme (and other peer-led programmes) as a resource HM Prison Service should  encourage. Furthermore, there may be significant value in understanding the benefits of listening in terms of therapeutic applications. Although this research does not claim that Listener (and other peer-support) schemes produce and sustain desistance, they certainly represent one avenue to catalyse change.  

Questions and comments are welcome ( A full version of Christian’s project report is available electronically at:


Giving Back, Moving Forward: Do Community Service Activities Assist Prisoners’ Desistance?

This post is from Steve Graham, a Reintegration & Transition Consultant, Tasmania Prison Service, in Australia. Steve undertook the research summarised here in 2012 as part of his Masters of Criminology with the University of Tasmania, while concurrently working in the prison.

There has been a tendency in Australian corrections (and elsewhere) for community service to take the form of an involuntary and time-limited court ordered punishment, where there is little emphasis on the potential for ‘earned redemption’ (Bazemore, 1998) or other possible benefits of reparation for the offender. This type of ‘low level’ community service usually involves menial and laborious tasks, with little or no matching with an offender’s skills and interests. Mandated menial activities can be ineffective in promoting desistance as they do not necessarily build the motivation, social capital, human capital, citizenship rights and opportunities that are needed. In certain circumstances, they instead risk humiliating offenders and building contempt and alienation.

Researching the Impact of Community Service Activities with Prisoners

The research investigates the use and impact of community service activities with minimum security rated prisoners in Tasmania, Australia. The inspiration for this research started when I was speaking with a minimum security enclosed prisoner about the potato crop in the prison community garden. I spoke with him about the benefits of generative ‘paying back’ in the process of reintegration and desistance from crime, which he certainly understood but he wasn’t as familiar with those terms. I explained that the local community (a disadvantaged area next to the prison) were the recipients of the vegetables he was growing, particularly seniors, sole parents and the unemployed. The next day, I visited him again and we were standing in rows of freshly planted seed potatoes. He mentioned he had spoken to his adult children about what he was doing as part of giving back to the community. The emotional response from his children were that they were “really, really proud” of what he was doing, despite his serious crime, and in telling me it was obvious from the tears in his eyes that he was very proud as well. Since then, he seems to be a changed man, freely speaking with journalists and researchers who visit the initiative about giving back and desistance. I wanted to understand more about this change, and how we might better use different activities to effectively support desistance in prison. In this study, the primary research question is: can community service activities assist the desistance and community reintegration of prisoners?

The community service activities that Tasmanian prisoners may participate in are different from the typical community service orders that probationers may be sentenced to. Eligible prisoners can volunteer to participate in community service activities that are meaningful, flexible and which try to capitalise on existing skills and help build new ones. A range of 14 community service activities being offered in partnership with non-government organisations were included in this research. These include: a multi-site community garden where prisoners grow fruit and vegetables for distribution to neighbourhood centres and people in disadvantaged communities; coastcare and environmental restoration; building crafted stone bridges and walls; gardening and maintenance at the Royal Botanical Gardens and Government House; animal foster care and training assistance dogs for people with disabilities; re-furbishing computers for community use; ‘Artists with Conviction’ prisoner art exhibitions; setting up large tourism and community festival events; volunteering as cricket and football umpires at community matches; and prisoners conducting prison tours to educate visiting college students. Minimum security rated prisoner participants may be in the reintegration phase of their sentence (actively preparing for release within 3-6 months), or may have many years yet to serve.

Qualitative research methods were used to collect the data, including literature review, semi-structured practitioner interviews, a stakeholder focus group, field notes and participant observation. The themes and findings of this study broadly resonate with those of others in the field, in particular Maruna (2001), Bazemore & Erbe (2004), McIvor (2010) and Halsey and Harris (2011).

Giving More Than Required: Generativity, Generosity and Reciprocity

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a number of themes in the study highlight the importance and benefits of allowing prisoners to take on meaningful, dignified and socially valued roles. Two elements stand out as motivating factors for prisoner generativity and generosity: the moderate levels of engagement, ownership and agency that prisoners are allowed to display in these activities, and the reciprocity and respect they receive from community members and practitioners in return. In discussions of generativity and ‘giving back’, some research participants spoke extensively about how prisoners in these initiatives are known to ‘go the extra mile’:

“Our crew does more every day; they always try to give that bit extra.”

“They don’t want to be seen in a negative light, and they go beyond the call of duty to do a job so as not to be judged as this ‘bad person’.”

“They get more things done, they can make decisions and get more things achieved outside the [prison] fence than inside the fence.”

A few participants commented that some prisoners see themselves as carrying the corporate or personal honour of the prison, choosing to do extra work and consistently delivering positive results so as not to let the community partner agency down.

In several instances, the bridging capital and social bonds forged in the course of the community service activities have lasted and been of mutual benefit post-release.

“It’s about building those positive relationships. A couple of them got paroled, but still come back. They feel like they are doing something out in the community. They organised getting the 10 tons of firewood out into the community.”

“They are accepted by the neighbourhood centre and our community.”

“If you can make some social connections outside of where your crim connections used to be, that’s got to be a better start than going back to where you were.”

In my discussion and analysis (available in the full version at the link below), I identify reasons for why some types of community service activities are better at assisting desistance than others. The challenges and obstacles in supporting the desistance of prisoners are also outlined. Yet it is interesting that, in this study at least, identity transformation, self-respect and pride from ‘giving back’ and making a difference are evident even in cases where the activities give to beneficiaries who the prisoners may never meet (for example, children who play on playgrounds and adventure equipment they built, or low income recipients of the food from the prison community garden).

Overall, the feedback from the agencies and practitioners in this study is positive. They have invested in building a connection to the prisoners as a group while emphasising the connection to the community that the activity creates. This advocacy by agencies is an example of the community reaching into the prison. Giving more than is required seems to a reciprocal process, yielding promising results for those directly and indirectly involved.

Findings and Implications

Community services activities are not a universal remedy for assisting desistance, and they do not mitigate against institutional issues or individual ‘pains of imprisonment.’ Proponents of desistance argue that prisons should be used sparingly and as a last resort for good reasons (see Weaver & McNeill, 2008; McNeill et al., 2012). However, where people are incarcerated, supporting desistance can and should begin in prison.

This research challenges the notion of allowing prisoners to contribute to broad categories of community service without first measuring the potential value and quality of the relationships gained, the type of capital (social, human, economic, bridging) invested and enabled, the ability for the prisoner to find and explore a new pro-social identity and agency within the activity, as well as the capacity to continue in newfound roles and relationships post-release.

Non-government agencies can bridge the gap between the prison and the community. The community service activities themselves are simply the vehicle for relationships and opportunities which enable new social connections and identity, but in the capacity of giving rather than taking. Prisons have the opportunity to partner and collaborate with these agencies to engage prisoners as citizens in a local context, to connect them with people who know they are prisoners and yet choose to see and relate to them differently. The findings of this study, although preliminary and small in scope, are encouraging, affirming the notion that, for a significant number, giving back offers a way of moving forward.

Any questions and comments welcome. A full version of the study in the form of Steve’s Masters thesis is available electronically at:

Some poetry …

With the changes in the probation service starting to loom more heavily, I thought that some poetry may help sustain spirits. This is Invictus which Nelson Mandela is reported to have taken comfort from during his years in prison.




Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley (1849–1903)

With best wishes for whatever the future holds.


Do you know someone who could contribute to research on desistance amongst sexual offenders?


Do you know someone who could contribute to research on desistance amongst sexual offenders?

ESRC funded PhD research at the University of Sheffield aims to explore what stops men who have previously committed sexual offence/s against children from reoffending

The research involves informal interviews of around 2 hours with individuals who have previously received a prison sentence of 30 months or more for this type of offence, and have been released for at least 2 years

If you know someone who may be able to help, or for more information, please contact

Joanne Hulley :

0752 8391827

School of Law, University of Sheffield, Bartolome House, Winter Street, Sheffield, S3 7ND