Reforming Attitudes to People who have been in Prison: The Importance of Emotions

We begin 2015 with a guest post from Alejandro Rubio Arnal, who recently graduated with an MSc in Criminology & Criminal Justice. His research project explored the impact of viewing and discussing ‘The Road from Crime’ on attitudes to former prisoners. The results were fascinating…

As a consequence of the boom in incarceration that began in the late 1970s, more people than ever are being released from prison. This, added to high recidivism rates, has meant that since the beginning of the 21st century interest in the re-entry of former prisoners has increased amongst policymakers, academics and (to some extent) amongst the general public in many jurisdictions. Desistance research has highlighted the importance of social reaction in enabling or frustrating the process. Nevertheless, relatively little is known about what shapes attitudes towards former prisoners and even less is known about the process by which these attitudes change. The aim of this post is to present the main results of my research project for the MSc of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Glasgow (Rubio Arnal 2014), the purpose of which was to begin to address the gap in our knowledge about how to change attitudes towards crime related matters.
My study was an attempt to try to explore the importance of emotive (as opposed to cognitive) messages in changing attitudes towards crime related issues; it complements the only study of changing attitudes towards former prisoners that has used multivariate analysis (Hirschfield and Piquero, 2010.) Nonetheless my research had limitations that affected its validity, reliability and generalizability due to factors such as the sample size, the research techniques that were used, the researcher and time constraints (see Rubio Arnal 2014).

The research was conducted with the purpose of answering two questions: 1) How did the film ‘The Road From Crime’ (2012) (which contains emotive as well as cognitive messages) affect religious people’s attitudes towards former prisoners? 2) Why and how did those attitudes changed? To answer these questions, both quantitative and qualitative techniques were used. Two sessions were conducted in two different churches in two different Glasgow neighbourhoods. 10 participants assisted to the session in Church A whereas in the session in Church B there were 11. A purposive, snowball self-selective sampling strategy was used. Respondents initially completed a questionnaire that measured attitudes towards former prisoners (Negative Attitudes Towards Former Prisoners scale: NATP-scale) and other variables that could be considered potential predictors of those attitudes. After watching the documentary participants were asked to re-read all of the questions of the same questionnaire, and if they wanted to they could change their answers. Afterwards a focus group was conducted.

In order to better analyse the results, quantitative and qualitative data were integrated. The analysis of both focus group transcripts and questionnaire answers showed that the session as a whole altered the attitudes of participants towards former prisoners, or at least it reinforced more positive attitudes.

With regards to the questionnaires, there were two ways of measuring if participants changed attitudes towards former prisoners: (1) the NATP scale (a scale composed by 5 items), and (2) two questions that directly asked participants if they thought their attitudes towards former prisoners had changed as a result of the session. When looking at the NATP scale, 47% of the participants changed their views towards former prisoners after the session: 90% of them after viewing the film (and before the focus group discussion). When looking at the other two questions, 86% of the participants thought that the session as a whole changed their views toward former prisoners and 57% of all the participants thought that the documentary changed their attitudes towards former prisoners, while 80% of the participants in the focus groups thought they were useful too.

By examining quantitative and qualitative data, the changes in attitudes seem best explained with reference to empathy as an emotional response: a variable that has rarely been examined in criminological research. Two thirds of the participants who changed their attitudes felt more empathy towards former prisoners after watching the documentary. Of the other three participants, one had already scored the maximum (for empathy) before watching the film. During the focus groups, participants of Church A, who originally held more positive attitudes towards former prisoners than those of Church B, also expressed themselves in a more compassionate way. My results match with those obtained by Batson and colleagues (1997): that inducing empathy towards a person convicted of murder improved attitudes towards him and others with similar convictions.

Maruna and King (2009) have argued that, in order to decrease punitiveness, providing examples of success to increase belief in redeemability might be helpful. The results of my research support this idea: both belief in redeemability and punitiveness changed: more than the 50% of the participants believed more in redeemability after watching the documentary, and eight out of 21 of the participants became less punitive too. All the participants whose belief in redeemability increased also changed in their wider attitudes towards former prisoners. Apart from this, the session also made participants realize: (1) that former prisoners had to face greater problems than they had expected, and( 2) that social reaction was more important than they thought in the process of desistance and in the rehabilitation of offenders.

Therefore my research, albeit on a small scale, has confirmed the importance of emotive or affective messages in changing attitudes towards former prisoners, and in particular, the importance of empathy as an emotional response in the process of reshaping attitudes towards former prisoners.

If you would like to contact Alejandro, feel free to email him at:


Batson, C. D., Polycarpou, M. P., Harmon-Jones, E., Imhoff, H. J., Mitchener, E. C., Bednar, L. L. & Highberger, L. (1997). Empathy and attitudes: Can feeling for a member of a stigmatized group improve feelings toward the group?. Journal of personality and social psychology. 72(1):105- 118.

Hirschfield, P. J., & Piquero, A. R. (2010). Normalization and legitimation: Modeling stigmatizing attitudes toward ex-offenders. Criminology. 48(1): 27-55.

Maruna, S. & King, A. (2009). Once a Criminal, Always a Criminal?: ‘Redeemability’and the Psychology of Punitive Public Attitudes. European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research. 15:7–24.

Rubio Arnal, A. (2014). Changing Attitudes: a Research on Attitudes of Religious Groups Towards Former Prisoners Reentry. (Available online at [Accessed 03/01/2015].

Reforming narratives: Is there life after punishment?

Recently, I was invited to give a public lecture for the Sutherland Trust, a Scottish charity that exists to promote and debate psychodynamic ideas and their usefulness in health,  social care and education.

My title was the one above — and I had a little help in the lecture from my friends in Vox Liminis — another Scottish charity, recently created to bring creative practices to the criminal justice system. In the lecture, Louis Abbot (of the excellent band Admiral Fallow) performed two hauntingly beautiful songs which served to illustrate aspects of the talk. The first song, ‘Breathe life’, was written by Louis with a person in prison, and the second, ‘What if my best isn’t good enough?’, was written by another excellent musician — Andrew Howie — with a person quite recently released from prison.

That second song was one of five commissioned by Vox to explore a fictionalised crime, punishment and reintegration scenario, and was used to great effect in a recent public event to stimulate a sort of deliberative dialogue about those issues. Those five songs and a little information about that process can be found at this link: Distant Voices. There is even a CD you can buy for a small donation: The perfect Christmas gift!

The Sutherland Trust lecture can be listened to on IRISS FM here: Reforming Narratives

The accompanying slides can be downloaded here: McNeill (Sutherland Pics) 281014

Let me know what you think…


DocFest 2014

Last June, I was part of a panel which discussed the making of the Road from Crime and which looked at both documentary-making in general and the documentary I and colleagues are currently making (which is about Thatcherism and crime). The Docfest session might be of interest to those making documentaries.

The DocFest2014 session is here:

Details about the new film can be found here:


Two short films about mentoring and desistance

Ruth Armstrong of the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge Univ has recently made these two films (see below). The first is about how Josh and Jody’s mentoring relationship aids desistance, and the second is a series of reflections of practitioners and researchers who watched the film and were asked for their comments. probably best watched in the order the links are given below:


Please do forward on the links to others you think may be interested.

With best wishes,


Finding desistance based practices in Canada?

Helen Collins is currently travelling in Canada and the US on a Winston Churchill Fellowship. Her fellowship is following-up some research done with the Durham Tees Valley Probation Trust into desistance based approaches in community settings. She is visiting a large number of projects broadly conceived as ‘desistance based’ in their methodology and she is interested particularly in those where service-user involvement is part of the ethos.

Helen is writing through the  fellowship using hert blog to document these visits and to discuss other aspects of desistance. I’m sure this will be of interest to readers of this blog; it  can be found at

New book on desistance and probation supervision out


Oxford Univ Press have just published a book which updates the effects of probation supervision on the lives of the men and women in the Tracking Project.

To recap, in the first book (Farrall, 2002), few thought that probation had helped them desist. In the second book (Farrall and Calverley, 2006) a few were prepared to say that probation had helped. In this installment far, far more now credit probation supervision with a role in their desistance.

A link to the book is here:


The book also deals with the spatial dynamics of desistance (ie how the places which people spend their time in and how they interpret those places change as they desist), victimisation and desistance, the emotional trajecory of desistance and citizenship and desistance.

As ever, I’d be really interested in hearing what practitioners who work with people in prisons and in the community make of the study and its findings. My take, for what it is worth, is that probation equips people with tools which are used when social and personal changes emerge which make desistane desirable and/or possible. So what is said to people is ‘stored up’ and used selectively as and when circumstances encourage desistance.

With best wishes,



Farrall, S. (2002) Rethinking What Works With Offenders, Willan Publishing, Cullompton, Devon.

Farrall, S. and Calverley, A. (2006) Understanding Desistance from Crime, Crime and Justice Series, Open University Press, London.


Working with young adults in supporting processes of desistance

This guest post comes from Pete Judd, Probation Service Officer, for the National Probation Service Court and Offender Management Team, Portsmouth (email:, Twitter: @pete_judd).

I have recently completed my work based learning project as part of the probation qualification framework. The project was based on my experiences as an offender manager (OM), working with two young adult offenders (YAOs) (aged 18-24) in supporting the process of desistance. I have worked within Probation for nine years, and chose this topic due to my experience of working with this offender group and my interest in the desistance paradigm, which has developed over the last few years of academic study. I have decided to write this blog to give readers some insight into some of the challenges OMs face in supporting processes of desistance.

Bottoms and Shapland (2011, p.43) highlight the challenge of successful desistance amongst YAOs through consideration of the ‘age-crime curve’. Evidence suggests in England and Wales that between the age of 17-19 for males, and 14-18 for females, criminal convictions peak before there is a decline (sharper for males) (Farrall, 2002, p.5). It should be noted that not all individuals follow the same trajectory over their lifetime, although such a curve suggests that the criminal justice system (CJS) could be influential in helping or hindering the movement towards desistance for YAOs (Shapland, Bottoms and Muir, 2012, p.128) in different ways over the course of their lives. McNeill (2003, p.160) states that being desistance focused within probation practice requires an understanding of three key areas; maturational reform (levels of maturity), social bonds (personal history and current social circumstances) and narrative theory (subjective narratives around change, motivation, views and attitudes). Maturational reform is the explanation offered for having stopped offending in relation to age and level of maturity (McIvor, Murray and Jamieson, 2004, p.187). The concept of maturity is currently not assessed within probation practice, and the probation offender assessment tool OASys only has the partial means of assessing maturity in offenders. The assessment of YAOs is therefore largely based on professional judgement, which brings about issues of subjectivity and inconsistency (Prior et al., 2011, pp.30-31). In 2013, the Taking Account of Maturity: A Guide for Probation Practioners (T2A, 2013, p.3) was issued within my local probation trust and offered guidance on how maturity impacts at different stages of the criminal justice process. By understanding how maturity impacts on offending behaviour it is hoped that the service can respond more effectively in facilitating the design of individually tailored assessments and interventions. The current Risk Need and Responsivity (RNR) framework of offender assessment requires the sentence plan to be formulated to address the legal requirements of the order and to address risk. Ward and Brown (2004, p.245) argue that the RNR approach to treatment goals focuses on the negative, rather than promoting pro-social and personally more satisfying goals. I have found that by giving YAOs positive future objectives helps motivate them to engage with the other sentence plan objectives and having future goals is one way of promoting positive futures with YAOs (T2A, 2012, p.6).

McNeill (2003, pp.156-157) also highlights the importance of personal histories and how current social circumstances can aid desistance. This is inherently difficult to achieve within current probation practice, due to targets in relation to the completion of initial assessments. Initial assessments for offenders assessed as medium or low risk of serious harm need to be completed in ‘sufficient time’ within the Practice Framework – National Standards for the Management of Offenders for England and Wales (NOMS, 2011, p.21). The term ‘sufficient time’ is open to interpretation, however the probation trust I work for introduced guidance stating that assessments needed to be completed within twenty working days (HPT, 2011). I have often found that the twenty day target is problematic as offenders often live disorderly lives which they struggle to make sense of (Maruna, 2001, p.7). This then makes it difficult to fully understand what may have led to particular behaviours which are important in understanding how an individual’s previous experiences have helped to shape later life decisions (Laub and Sampson, 2003, p.58).

An offender’s narrative around change, motivation, views and attitudes is important in the assessment phase (McNeill, 2003, pp.157-158). Motivation is pivotal to desistance (Farrall, 2002, p.99), as it is important in determining the structure and content of interventions. However, it is one element within OASys that is only briefly assessed (Lancaster and Lumb, 2006, p.286). To address this, motivation within probation practice is widely assessed using Prochaska and Di Clemente’s (1982) ‘Cycle of Change’. Being able to identify where an individual is on the cycle of change enables OMs to be able to use appropriate skills to take interventions forward (Fuller and Taylor, 2003, p.15). If an offender is assessed as being in the ‘pre-contemplation stage’ or “contemplation stage” of change they may be less likely to complete offending behaviour programmes. For me, to recognise this initially, work needs to be done to build a positive working relationship in order to deal with the more practical obstacles that were present and resolve ambivalence around his offending behaviour. By using a motivational approach and listening to the barriers to change, the offender may gain the confidence to change and move forward to the action stage of the cycle in time, with perseverance.

Once an offender has moved to the ‘action stage’ of the cycle, evidence from ‘What Works’ suggests that structured programmes based on cognitive behaviourism have a greater effect on reducing recidivism amongst YAOs (Losel, 2012, p.88) and help build ‘human capital’ amongst individuals. I often find that cognitive behavioural programmes focus on the negatives aspects of an offender’s lives and McNeill (2009, p.34) highlights the importance of expressing optimism rather than focusing on the negatives. In order to achieve this in practice, I focus on the positive aspects of skills practice from work undertaken such as self talk, time out and safe negotiating, in order to build the confidence of those I work with. For an individual who may have suffered rejection as a child, it is hoped that building confidence in using these skills would develop encouragement and optimism for the future and help reduce the risk of further offending. Throughout the course of the programme there was an improvement in insight into previous behaviour and a more optimistic outlook on a future self. Thinking behaviour and a desire to change may not be sufficient if social problems are overwhelming or excessive (LeBel, Burnett, Maruna and Bushway, 2008, p.154). It is vital that attention is given to improving employment opportunities and family formation to significantly impact on desistance process (Farrall, 2002, p.145).

Evidence within desistance research suggests that the mobilization of social capital (Burnett and McNeill, 2005, p.237), around ties to family, employment and education are significant in explaining change in criminal behaviour (Weaver and McNeill, 2007, p.5). Funding cuts to education training and employment (ETE) budgets have impacted on resources available within my local probation trust. Funding is available for offenders who are subject to unpaid work requirements because ETE contracts for this particular offender group have been contracted out to external companies. At this particular time I was aware of Pompey in the community (the charity arm of Portsmouth Football Club) operating ‘the respect programme’ that was aimed at young people and crime (Pilmoor, 2013). The initiative helped one of my case studies secure the required certificates to secure work in the demolition industry that had been a goal of his for a period of time, although I believe the way resources are allocated is problematic as this offers opportunities to certain offenders based the type sentence they have received rather than targeted at offenders who are motivated to address social difficulties. This situation highlighted to me that I need to be more aware of different initiatives available to me in the local community, particularly as the future brings a host of services that operate and run in different ways.

Moving forward, the introduction of a maturity assessment tool, a relaxation in local policies in relation to timeliness targets, along with alterations to OASys, to focus more on motivation and strengths would assist OMs in creating desistance focussed assessments and collaborative sentence plans. This would then lead to more accurate, individually tailored interventions that focus more on what the YAO has to offer going forward rather than focussing on the negatives of the past.


Bottoms, A. and Shapland, J. (2011). Steps towards desistance among male young adult recidivists. In S. Farrall, M. Hough, S. Maruna & R.Sparks (Eds.), Escape Routes: Contemporary Perspectives on Life After Punishment (pp.43-80). Oxon: Routledge.

Burnett, R. & McNeill, F. (2005). The place of the officer-offender relationship in assisting offenders to desist from crime. Probation Journal, 52(3), 221-242. DOI: 10.1177/0264550505055112

Farrall, S. (2002). Rethinking What Works with Offenders: Probation, Social Context and Desistance from Crime. Cullompton: Willan Publishing.

Fuller, C. and Taylor, P. (2003). Toolkit of Motivational Skills. London: National Probation Directorate.

Hampshire Probation Trust (HPT) (2011b). Practice Framework: National Standards for the Management of Offenders 2011, Aide Memoir 1. Unpublished intranet document.

Lancaster, E. and Lumb, J. (2006). The assessment of Risk in the National Probation Service of England and Wales, Journal of Social Work, Vol. 6 No. 3, pp.275-291. DOI: 10.1177/1468017306071176

Laub, J.H. & Sampson, R.J. (2003). Sharing Beginnings, Divergent Lives: Delinquent Boys to Age 70. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

LeBel, T.P., Burnett, R., Maruna, S. & Bushway, S. (2008). The ‘Chicken and Egg’ Subjective and Social Factors in Desistance from Crime. European Journal of Criminology, 5(2), 131-159. DOI: 10.1177/1477370807087640

Losel, F. (2012). What works in correctional treatment and rehabilitation for young adults? In F. Lösel, A. Bottoms & D.P. Farrington (Eds.), Young Adult Offenders Lost in Transition? (pp.74-112). Oxon: Routledge.

Prior, D., Farrow, K., Hughes, N., Kelly, G., Manders, G., White, S. & Wilkinson, B. (2011). Maturity, young adults and criminal justice: A literature review. Birmingham: University of Birmingham. Retrieved from:

Maruna, S. (2001). Making Good: How ex-convicts reform and rebuild their lives. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

McIvor, G., Murray, C. & Jamieson, J. (2004). Desistance from crime: is it different for women and girls. In S. Maruna and R. Immarigeon (Eds.) After Crime and Punishment: Pathways to offender reintegration, (pp.181-200). Cullompton: Willan Publishing.

McNeill, F. (2003). Desistance-Focused Probation Practice. In W.H. Chui & M. Nellis (Eds.), Moving Probation Forward. Evidence, Arguments and Practice. (pp.146-162). Essex: Pearson Longman.

McNeill, F. (2009). Towards Effective Practice in Offender Supervision (Report 01/09). Retrieved from the SCCJR website:

National Offender Management Service (NOMS) (2011). Practice Framework: National Standards for the Management of Offenders: For England and Wales. London: Ministry of Justice.

Pilmoor, E. (2013, June 01). New project aims to warn about the dangers of drugs and crime. The News. Retrieved from

Shapland, J. Bottoms, A. & Muir, G. (2012). Perceptions of the criminal justice system among young adult desisters. In F. Lösel, A. Bottoms & D.P. Farrington (Eds.), Young Adult Offenders Lost in Transition? (pp.128-145). Oxon: Routledge.

Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance (2012). Transition to Adulthood Alliance response to ‘Breaking the Cycle’: Effective punishment, rehabilitation and sentencing of offenders’. Retrieved from:

Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance (2013). Taking Account of Maturity A Guide for Probation Practitioner., London: T2A Alliance.

Ward, T. & Brown, M. (2004). The Good Lives Model and Conceptual Issues in Offender Rehabilitation. Psychology, Crime & Law, 10(3), 243-257.

Weaver, B. & McNeill, F. (2007b). Giving Up Crime: Directions for Policy. Retrieved from the SCCJR website:

Prison-based higher level distance learning and its role in life after prison

Anne Pike of the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University (email:, Twitter: @annepike2) discusses her PhD findings about higher level distance learning in prison. She reports that such learning gives prisoners a positive student identity, resilience and high hope for a better, crime-free life on release. These qualities help them to tackle the immense challenges facing ex-prisoners on release. If they are also able to continue studying after release then they are better placed to fully integrate into society.


Higher level education in prisons is offered mostly through distance learning. There are thought to be approximately 4000 prisoners studying through distance learning (Schüller, 2009) although the actual numbers are unknown. Prison-based Higher level Distance Learning (PHDL) is offered in most prisons in England and Wales but it is outside the funded Offender Learning and Skills Service education process. Applications to study PHDL involve a complex screening procedure and self-funding or funding through charitable trusts such as the Prisoners Education Trust (or, since 2013, a government loan). The Open University is the largest provider of PHDL, with approximately 1600 students across most prisons in the UK (in 2011) and funding for an initial Access course is partially subsidized by the Government.

Previous research (Forster, 1976, 1996; Hughes, 2012; Pike and Adams, 2012) has highlighted many barriers to studying PHDL in England and Wales. There is no internet in prison so prisoners cannot access their study material in the normal way. The education department has good computers but distance learners do not get easy access. The prison library tends to cater for those prisoners with less developed reading tastes so accessing intellectual books is difficult. Despite the problems, it was found that student-prisoners were empowered by their learning and developed aspirations for a better life, free from crime. However, these studies had not followed the prisoners out into the community after release so the longer term effects of the learning were not known and there was very little understanding of how PHDL might actually make a difference to them on release.


This research was an ethnographic and longitudinal investigation into how PHDL was transformative (Mezirow, 1997), how the student-prisoner was changed, whether it equipped them with the skills and qualities required to manage life after prison and how it related to their integration into society. The research was led by qualitative data, primarily from in-depth semi-structured interviews with prisoners before and after release. Data was collected between April 2011 and September 2013. Initially 10 ex-prisoners (including one woman) were interviewed as a pilot. They had studied PHDL in prison and had already successfully integrated into society. Then 51 prisoners (40 men and 11 women with sentences of between 2 and 20 years), who were due for release, were interviewed across 8 prisons in England and Wales. Approximately 25% had not engaged with their studies and formed a comparison group. Field-notes from observations and informal conversations with educators, prison and probation staff, family and peers provided background data. More than half of the original participants were traced after release and some were re-interviewed up to 5 times during their first year after release, providing unique longitudinal data in this field. All data was thematically analysed (Braun and Clark, 2006).


Prisons varied widely in their support for PHDL. The majority of prisons were ‘working’ prisons with fragmented organizational structures and insufficient space or time for deep, critically reflective learning. The physical structures meant that unlike the classroom-based students of Crewe et al (2014), who attended the ‘emotional zone’ of the education department to do their studies, the distance learners did most of their study in their cells, in the ‘reality’ of prison, with mostly cramped, noisy and inappropriate learning spaces. Support for PHDL came from dedicated individuals who worked against the system. Some participants fell by the wayside. They felt isolated and if they could not find work which allowed them access to a learning space with a computer, they struggled to complete their assignments. More importantly, some lacked the necessary skills or mind-set to be able to study alone. Poor assessment and guidance at induction and a lack of classroom-based education above a basic level led to some participants attempting distance learning without adequate cognitive ability or preparation. Also, many participants were anxious about how to continue their studies post-release and this posed significant problems for them later. In the better ‘learning’ prisons, participants were provided with a dedicated space for independent learning, creating a learning community where participants felt valued and a peer mentoring scheme encouraged participants to take responsible positions as teaching assistants which improved their social capital. However, across all prisons, those participants who persevered with their learning built resilience by reflecting on the barriers overcome to successfully study in prison. They developed a strong positive student identity and high hope (see Burnett and Maruna, 2004) for a better future on release. These were the main qualities which equipped the learners to manage life after prison.

In the post-release environment there were immense physical, infrastructural and organisation barriers which were mediated by a few social support factors. Life was chaotic for all the participants in the early weeks and months after release. Figure 1 is a model of the participants’ journey from prison to integration into society. Much of the accommodation, such as bed and breakfast or probation hostels, was unstable and inappropriate for learning. Some participants were unable to cope with the instability and returned to prison quickly. For those who had families, there was often more stability but there were broken relationships to mend. Most participants found the whole process of looking for work extremely demoralizing and far harder than they had anticipated. The work they found was mostly menial and very far from the employment or college places they had anticipated. Most planned college places had not materialized and, although there was no proof, it was thought that the reasons were related to the participants’ criminal past. Self-esteem dropped sharply.

Information, communication and technology problems such as old computers which refused to start and forgotten email passwords, caused a lot of frustration. Most participants only had ‘pay as you go’, text-only, mobile phones which made communication with large organisations impossible. Lack of information, such as who, or how, to contact the distance learning provider for continued study was a fundamental problem. It caused significant hardship for released participants and was a major cause of course abandonment or failure (see failure point B in figure 1).

The probation trusts, the distance learning providers as well as colleges, universities and banks had obstructive and discriminatory policies and procedures. Consistent with Farrall et al (2010), participants were labelled as ‘druggies’ or ‘ex-offenders’, causing them to feel worthless and providing significant barriers to continued study or suitable employment. For example, Nina was in university before incarceration and hoped to return for her final year on release but the University had rejected her and the bank had stopped her student loan. She said,

“I actually don’t see myself as a student anymore because other people have taken that title away from me, basically, like the bank, the University and so I feel like, basically, an ex-convict that’s a waste to society”.

Many participants made long journeys to probation offices only to find their offender manager unavailable. This caused communication problems and at least one participant was recalled back to prison on a ‘technicality’ (see failure point C in figure 1). Distance learning providers were also unresponsive to the released students’ needs. They worked on the mistaken principle that students could and would notify them post-release to continue their studies. Online access to course material was a long and poorly organised procedure. Participants felt neglected and powerless which reduced self-esteem still further and many participants failed to continue their studies (see failure point D in figure 1). There was very little support offered as a matter of policy so, apart from participants’ own resilience, the majority of social support offered to mitigate these structural barriers was individual staff who worked against the system, family or carefully selected friends, since many old friends were to be avoided as they were negative criminal influences. The final failure, point E on figure 1, was recall (to prison) due to re-offence which occurred for a few participants who had not engaged with PHDL.

The few participants who were able to continue learning after release maintained their student identity, benefitted from belonging to a learning community and integrated more successfully into society. See Doug’s comments,

It made me feel like I was part of society. It was a new circle of people, I wasn’t mixing with villains I was mixing with students and I was part of society, with other students and it was just a completely different institution with a different attitude and conversation.

In conclusion, this research has found that the positive student identity was fundamental to transformative higher level distance learning in prison. That student identity, together with resilience and high hope were the main qualities which enabled participants to face the huge post-release structural barriers. Continuing study and belonging to a learning community was a powerful force for improved integration into society. Policies and practices which nurture the positive student identity and develop a learning community in prison and post-release should therefore be a priority for all concerned.

Relating these findings to the desistance literature, I would suggest that the positive student identity change could be the “shift in identity and self-concept” consistent withsecondary desistance. Similarly, perhaps continuing study post-release and belonging to the learning community could be the “shifts in one’s sense of belonging to a (moral) community” consistent with tertiary desistance (McNeill, 2014).


Braun, V. and Clarke, V. (2006) Using thematic analysis in psychology, Qualitative research in psychology, 3 (2): 77-101

Burnett, R. and S. Maruna (2004) So Prison Works, Does It? The Criminal Careers of 130 Men Released from Prison under Home Secretary, Michael Howard, Howard Journal 33(4): 390–404

Crewe, B., Warr, J., Bennett, P., Smith, A. (2014), The emotional geography of prison life, Theoretical Criminology, Vol. 18, pp 56-74.

Farrall, S. Bottoms, A. and Shapland, J. (2010) Social structures and desistance from crime, European Journal of Criminology, Vol. 7 pp 546-569

Forster, W. (1976) The higher education of prisoners, Vaughan papers in adult education, No. 21, Leicester, Leicester University.

Forster, W. (1996) England and Wales: the state of prison education, Journal of correctional education, Vol 47, No. 2.

Hughes, E. (2012) Education in Prison: Studying through distance learning. Farnham, Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

McNeill, F. (2014) Three aspects of desistance, blog-post based ona short paper prepared for a University of Sheffield Centre for Criminological Research Knowledge Exchange Seminar at the British Academy in London on 15th May 2014, online at

Mezirow (1997), Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice, New directions for adult and continuing education, No. 74, San Fransisco, Jossey-Bass.

Pike, A. and Adams, A. (2012) Digital exclusion or learning exclusion, an ethnographic study of adult male learners in English prisons, Research in Learning Technology, 20(4): 363-374. Online at

Schüller, T. (2009), Inquiry into the future for lifelong learning, Thematic Paper 5: Crime and Lifelong Learning, Leicester, NIACE.


Building probation relationships that support change

This guest post comes from Sarah Lewis, Senior Lecturer in Criminal Psychology at the University of Portsmouth (

It has been consistently recognised within the literature that a ‘positive’ working relationship can be seen as a vehicle for change and can support processes that encourage an individual to move away from crime (King, 2013; Rex, 1999). Whilst importance has been attributed to such relationships, my doctoral work focused upon considering how probation practitioners and probationers themselves see these relationships, especially where they promote such change (referred to as therapeutic correctional relationships). It also considered those instances when the relationship becomes problematic and challenging. Within a psychotherapeutic context, it is not simply the case that relationships are developed in a linear fashion; rather, there is a recognition that ‘set- backs’ or ‘ruptures’ can temporarily threaten or tear a therapeutic relationship and so that repairing such tears provides opportunities for learning and growth (see Safran & Muran, 2006).

In response to this, I became interested in how the research within psychotherapy might be applied to correctional relationships and in the differences that may exist between therapeutic relationships and relationships within probation. This led me to develop a growing curiosity about processes that underlie therapeutic correctional relationships and the impact that these relationships may have on an offender.

In previous research, my findings had reaffirmed that, for probationers, working with someone who possessed a genuine belief in an individual and their capacity to change was an important ingredient to a therapeutic correctional relationship (Lewis, 2014). However, I also found that the longer a practitioner worked in the field of probation, the more this belief slowly diminished over time (Lewis, in press). For me, it was therefore essential that a greater insight into how practitioners can ensure that they preserve their belief in change through what Maruna (2012) calls ‘injections of hope’.

The concept of belief was revisited during a research project that developed some of my key ideas. Probationers described how honest, respectful, accepting, empathic and supportive practitioners enabled positive working relationship (Lewis, 2014). This research echoed findings from Farrall (2002) and McCulloch (2005) and furthered their work by discussing how the relationship impacted upon the probationer’s life, both at the time of the relationship and after the relationship had ceased. Probationers described how they grew as individuals both in terms of their skills, abilities, confidence and attainment of goals. They shared their experiences of feeling more comfortable and engaging more with probation as a result of these relationships, recognising the value in probation and the work that was being carried out. The research also highlighted that a lack of these characteristics contributed to a negative relationship that was experienced by probationers as destructive. Some probationers described how they sometimes offended in spite of their probation practitioner as well as ‘letting out’ their anxieties and frustrations on those close to them.

The research highlighted that more attention needs to be paid to processes that underlie the correctional relationship in order to provide guidance and knowledge to front line practitioners. With the Skills for Effective Engagement and Development (SEEDS) initiative that have been piloted and launched across the majority of Probation Trusts, practitioners have been given more opportunities to reflect upon these very relationships that can be used as a tool to promote offender transformation.

My doctoral research has aimed to deconstruct the working relationship further, exploring how practitioners (from the perspective of the probationer and practitioner) have developed, maintained and ended relationships effectively within probation practice. The results highlighted a number of similarities from the research relating to therapeutic relationships within the psychoanalytical field. Firstly, I found that a decision is made within the first one or two sessions as to whether a relationship will be established or not. Probationers were optimistic that relationships that start off ‘on the wrong foot’ for whatever reason, can be retrieved at an early stage if practitioners are willing to discuss the problems associated around the relationship and engage in discussions about their relationship.

My research also uncovered a number of ruptures that can occur within a correctional context that can shake the relationship and increase the likelihood of disengagement and non-compliance. These ruptures were typically deemed by probationers as resulting from duplicity or deception by officers and included, for example, planned arrests at probation offices and negative reports that were concealed from the probationer prior to court. Unhealthy power games were also discussed honestly by practitioners as they shared practices that increased the likelihood of ruptures. This included dismissive and exclusionary actions (blocking), baiting the probationer to react negatively and participating in arguments (battling) that led to probationer disengagement. Whilst ruptures are recognised as regular and normal within practice, it is important to focus upon how ruptures can be repaired within practice through collaborative and exclusionary practice that focuses upon talking about relationships and relational problems.

It is hoped that a greater insight into such practices can lead to developments in practice that will promote an engaged practitioner that is mindful of their values and actions on a relational level. By doing this, I argue that practitioners could develop individual relational theories that support processes of desistance in the future and create sustainable relationships that promote learning for both individuals involved.


Farrall, S. (2002). Rethinking what works with offenders: Probation, social context and assistance from crime. Cullompton, UK: Willan.

King, S. (2013). Assisted desistance and experiences of probation supervision. Probation Journal, 60 (2) 163-151.

Lewis, (2014) Learning from success and failure: Deconstructing the working relationship within Probation practice and exploring its impact upon probationers, using a collaborative approach. Probation Journal. DOI: 10.1177/0264550514523816

Lewis, (in press). Who works? Exploring positive working relationships in light of the aims of probation, using a collaborative approach. Probation Journal.

Maruna, S. (2012) Elements of Successful Signalling, Criminology & Public Policy, 11 (1), 73-86.

McCulloch, T. (2005). Probation, social context and desistance: Retracing the relationship. Probation Journal, 52 (1), 8-22.

Work based on ‘The Road from Crime’ wins ESRC Impact Award


A quick little post, just to say last week Shadd, Fergus and I were at an awards ceremony organised by the ESRC (the funder of the Discovering Desistance project) at which we were named as one of the winners of a prize for impact (that is the academic term for ‘making the world a better place’). Our prize was for impact in public policy.

More about the award and the project can be found here on the ESRC’s webpage:

Obviously, we’re delighted to have won!