This guest post comes from Alexandra Cox, formerly a doctoral researcher at the Institute of Criminology in Cambridge, and now Assistant Professor of Sociology at SUNY-New Paltz (firstname.lastname@example.org). Here, she summarises some key findings from her PhD. A full draft version of the paper from which this post is drawn is included in our ‘Useful Resources’ page or can be accessed here: Doing Programme or Doing Me.
Discovering the processes of desistance for young people charged with crimes and incarcerated in residential treatment facilities can be complex: in these institutions, ‘treatment’ and ‘punishment’ are often two sides of the same coin. In an ethnographic research study I conducted over the course of one year in an American state’s juvenile justice system, I sought to understand how young people attempt to grow up, get out, and stay out of custody. I focused my research on the experiences of 39 young people who were serving sentences in residential facilities. These facilities employed a mix of cognitive behavioral change treatment modalities, token economies, and physical restraints to both ‘punish’ and ‘treat’ the young people in their care.
Over the course of my research, I observed young people adopt the treatment program language, behaviors, and philosophies of the residential facilities in ways that helped them to alleviate the pains of confinement while also assisting them in managing their relationships and status with their peers. Thus, for many young men in particular, ‘doing good program,’ which would involve exhibiting deference to authorities, self-control, and the display of a quiet and respectful demeanor, would help them to accrue benefits within the program but also amongst their peers, with whom they gained respect for their abilities to demonstrate qualities highly prized in the world of the streets—those of restraint and quiet power.
In this research, I was concerned with whether a young person’s compliance with the treatment and behavioral change program inside custody actually facilitated their desistance process. To be clear: this was not an evaluation study, but rather a qualitative examination of some of the ways that young people coped with treatment, in an attempt to find out what this may reveal about their ability to desist from offending, based on what knowledge we have about desistance.
What I found, and continue to find, is that the programs of behavioral changed I studied –particularly those aimed at young people and which are comprised of an uneasy mix of paternalistic and liberal aims – may actually constrain young people’s development. The programs require that young people exhibit forms of self-control and responsibility in order to advance through the behavioral stages of the facility, but these forms of self-control and responsibility are highly deferential and circumscribed, and allow little room for kids to express the messiness of young adulthood. The programs are highly individualized in their focus on young people’s abilities to comply with the program mandates, but they are actually limited in their ability to allow young people to demonstrate their individuality. Thus, I argue that rather than allowing teenagers to individuate and to develop themselves as young adults with identities outside of their families and peer groups, to build generative relationships with others, and to cope with disappointment and difficulty, these programs may instead force young people to comport with the program’s expectations in order to gain the small rewards that exist in confinement, such as more commissary money, or even less staff surveillance.
I explore some of these issues in an article I wrote for a special issue of Punishment and Society on the pains of imprisonment. The published article can be found here: http://pun.sagepub.com/content/13/5/592.abstract.