‘Cognitive transformations’ and desistance

Another post from the ever-prolific Kris MacPherson… Though this is focused on ‘cognitive  transformations’, drawing on the work of Peggy Giordano and her colleagues, just like their work, it also highlights how much cognitive changes relate to social contexts of and reactions to people trying to change.

I have written posts before about ‘hooks-for-change’ (Giordano et al., 2002) but only ever read about hooks-for-change second hand — through articles other than the original study that coined this term. I eventually got my hands on the original study by Giordano et al. (2002) and found extremely intriguing claims contained within it in relation to the cognitive transformations of someone in the desistance process. Since I feel that most of these ideas are personally applicable, I want to break them down and analyse them in order to demonstrate their ‘perfect’ fit (or not). Since academic education was my hook-for-change, I want to explore cognitive transformations related to education in a carceral context.

The prison term I am currently completing amounted to a sixteen-year term, of which there are eighteen months left to serve in total. I knew when I got this sentence, I was almost finished, legally speaking. If my life was a game of criminal chess, then the law had just put me in check. Any criminal move I made from here on out would surely result in checkmate and I wasn’t about to allow the government to take complete and total control over my life and body for the rest of my life. I consciously realised that I had to do something to resurrect my future from the ashes. It was now or never and I had been handed more than enough prison time to achieve this.

How to do it, though?

The funny thing is that I did not even remotely know how to go about trying to achieve my aims, or even what my aims were at that point. As I’ve explained before, I have always been deeply interested in different educational subjects, such as languages and social sciences. When I landed in HMP Shotts in July 2004, I went straight to the learning centre and asked what I had to do in order to be able to study for a degree. I jumped through every academic hoop required until I was accepted to study for a BSc. (Hons) Psychology with the Open University. Later, I changed my degree to a BSc. (Hons) Criminology with Psychological Studies because I felt that psychology focused too much on individuals whereas criminology not only took into account individual processes but also the sociological factors that influenced them.

Giordano et al. (2002) argue that there are four specific types of cognitive transformation in the desistance process: (1) openness to change; (2) exposure to (potential) hooks-for-change; (3) shift in how one sees oneself; and (4) shift in how one views deviant behaviour. However, is this a consecutive process or can more than one of these cognitive developments occur concurrently? Is openness to change required before exposing a potential desister to hooks-for-change? Must a shift in how one sees oneself take place before a person’s views on criminal behaviour shift? I would argue that these processes can occur in tandem rather than in a set sequence.

Oddly, in my own personal experience, these cognitive transformations actually occurred in reverse. For example, I began noticing a slow, subtle shift in how I viewed criminal behaviour around the age of twenty/twenty-one. Due to external circumstances taking place in my environment, I ceased ‘offering myself up front’ and began ‘pulling back’ vis-à-vis deviant behaviour. This, in turn, made me question the way I had been living my life up until that point and how I wanted to live the rest of my life. The problem was that I was stuck in a social habitat with no (potential) hooks-for-change, compounded by the fact that there was nothing but vendettas and grudges swirling all around me. Such deviance reinforces itself. Strangely, I felt deeply worried about the fact that my views on both criminal behaviour and my criminalised identity were subtly shifting from one polarity to another. I feared I was ‘losing heart’ but I wasn’t losing anything.

I was becoming.

In this way, I harboured a ‘basic openness to change’ (Giordano et al., 2002) but did not know how to realise change or put my evolving identity shift into practice. I cannot doubt that the educational opportunities provided within the carceral environment were instrumental in precipitating certain shifts which, in turn, signposted me towards commitment to a life of desistance. This is the same carceral environment that has shifted from aiming to reform prisoners under the banner of ‘rehabilitation’ to neutralising inmates through warehousing them while maintaining ‘rehabilitative pretensions’ (Wacquant, 2010). I find this deeply paradoxical: how I could attempt to ‘rehabilitate’ myself when ‘rehabilitation’ seems all but dead in the spaces I inhabit.

Although I was deeply immersed in academic education during the punishment part of my sentence (2003–2010), I was completely unaware of desistance, hooks-for-change or anything else that could point me in the right direction on how to break free from crime. It wasn’t until I was recalled to prison in 2011 that things really began to fall into place. Like I have stated before, the education centre in HMP Low Moss was staffed with a constellation of stellar teachers who nurtured the ‘good’ side of me, subtly demonstrating to me that life without crime was possible if I was serious enough about desisting. The irony is that HMP Low Moss was probably the most hostile prison I have ever served time in and I was faced with many obstacles outwith the learning centre that tested my commitment to desistance to the limits and back.

These ‘obstacles’ precipitated my mental/emotional vacillation from a (criminal) persistence perspective to a (criminal) desistance standpoint, making me question whether (1) I was truly capable of ‘going straight’ and (2) whether I would come out the other end in one piece. McNeill and Schinkel (2015) argue that no amount of personal transformation is realistic without the recognition of such change by the community, the law and, ultimately, the state. I submit that my own personal change was recognised by those very teachers who ‘helped carry hope for me when I became too tired to carry hope on my own’, to quote McNeill and Weaver (2010).

Even though I was given such a lengthy prison term, I could still feel my identity shifting from ‘career criminal’ to someone who hoped to resurrect their life through the vehicle of academic study. What did the shift feel like, I can almost hear you asking? Well, for starters, I knew I had to get my deep-seated wrath on a very tight leash. How to do this, especially in a prison setting? I ceased responding to situations with aggression and had many long, deep periods of reflective analysis about my life and the bad choices I have made in the past. Easier said than done, especially in an environment where violence is respected and tacitly applauded by one’s peer group. When I watched the news on television reporting stories of crimes committed, I studied the faces of victims and imagined that the person concerned was someone I loved who’d been hurt or maimed just like them or their relatives, causing deep emotional pangs as I realised I’d made people feel like that in the past. What if that were my Gran, Grandpa, brother or son?

Not a nice feeling.

The ironic thing is that for the most part, one does not have to behave in an aggressive fashion in prison; people do so because they think they will ‘lose face’ by not doing so and respond accordingly. I knew if I stopped seeing myself in a criminalised light then I would possibly be able to reconstruct my identity through academic pursuits, thus helping me ‘shed’ my previous image. Being away from my old stomping ground helped me take stock of my life and I lost interest in old enemies and past grudges. What was the point to it all?

In short, there wasn’t one.

Surely the abstinence from aggressive behaviour in the prison environment would help deconstruct the individual’s criminalised identity and build ‘social capital’ (McNeill, 2016) with those who wish to extend compassion, understanding and, ultimately, a chance to ‘prove’ oneself when liberated from prison?  “The environment can thus provide a kind of scaffolding that makes possible the construction of significant life changes. Nonetheless, individuals themselves must attend to these new possibilities, discard old habits, and begin the process of crafting a different way of life. At the point of change, this new lifestyle will necessarily be ‘at a distance’ or a ‘faint’ possibility” (Giordano et al., 2002: 1000). This claim is definitely applicable to my education experiences within the prison environment; I hope it will be the same when I am released in 2019.

My ‘exposure to hooks-for-change’ (Giordano et al., 2002) was actually there in front of me all along. I have been deeply engrossed in academic subjects even before I began committing crimes and sustained those interests during my ‘offending years’. However, I was unaware that I could utilise these skills to extract myself from a mess of my own making. I ‘looked but didn’t see’, until I landed in HMP Low Moss and the great teachers there made me see that I really could use education as a conduit with which to turn my back on crime and lead a new life in the community. They helped me see that I could use my books as tools for personal growth, thereby enhancing the critical periods of reflective analysis of my past and criminalised identity. In this way, I could deconstruct my criminalised identity and reconstruct a new identity through academic studies. To quote Mead (1964, cited in Giordano et al., 2002: 1000), I was ‘opening the door’ to specific stimuli (pro-social conduct/education) while ‘closing it to others’ (anti-social conduct/pro-criminal sentiments).

While many academic studies (for example, Laub, Nagin and Sampson, 1998; Laub and Sampson, 1993; and Sampson and Laub 1993, cited in Giordano et al., 2002) place emphasis on marriage as a key factor in the desistance process, I cannot attest to this. However, I can confirm Giordano et al’s (2002: 1001) assertion that “the actor must not only regard the new environmental situation as a positive development (e.g., experience high attachment to a spouse), but must also define the new state of affairs as fundamentally incompatible with continued deviation”. Ironically, people around me in the community told me that I offended less when I was in a romantic relationship. I would tend to agree with that. That being said, relationships are bound to deteriorate during one’s prison sentence and I am no exception to this rule. I am now in the process of building new social relationships with a small but growing number of academics and pro-social individuals who undoubtedly help me define my current situation and desired destinations as ‘incompatible with continued deviation’. These relationships are not only inspirational but help to reinforce the ‘good side’ of my personality to the extent that the ‘bad side’ is ‘locked in the cupboard’, for want of a better metaphor.

Indeed, McNeill and Weaver (2010: 8) assert that desistance could be “supported by a kind of ‘virtuous circle’ where hope and hopefulness is realised through opportunities that in turn vindicate and reinforce hope and hopefulness”. I feel that my new academic and pro-social connections are bricks in the foundations laid by those teachers from Low Moss who helped me believe that I am capable of change and that change is possible. Even those of you that leave encouraging comments on my blog posts are reinforcing my commitment to desistance and my desire to lead a polar opposite life from the one I led before. I cannot thank any of you enough for your help.

I feel that I am transforming into something Coelho (2002[1997]) termed a ‘Warrior of Light’ where I can ‘live my [academic] dream’ and strive to ‘achieve my own unique destiny’. According to Coelho (2002[1997]: 3) a “Warrior of Light knows that he has much to be grateful for. He was helped in his struggle by ‘angels’; ‘celestial forces’ placed each thing in its place, thus allowing him to give his best… His gratitude, however, is not limited to the spiritual world; he never forgets his friends, for their blood mingled with his on the battlefield. A warrior does not need to be reminded of the help given him by others; he is the first to remember and makes sure to share with them any rewards he receives”.

That means all of you who are helping me now.



Coelho, P. (2002[1997]) Manual of the Warrior of Light, translation by Margaret Jull Costa, London: HarperCollins.

Giordano, P.C., Cernkovich, S.A., and Rudolph, J.L. (2002) ‘Gender, Crime and Desistance: Toward a Theory of Cognitive Transformation’, American Journal of Sociology, Volume 107(4): 990–1064.

McNeill, F. and Weaver, B. (2010) ‘Changing Lives? Desistance Research and Offender Management’, Glasgow: Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research. Available online at:  http://www.sccjr.ac.uk/documents/Report%202010_03%20-%20Changing%20Lives.pdf 

McNeill, F. and Schinkel, M. (2015) ‘Prisons and Desistance’ in Jewkes, Y. and Bennett, J. (eds.) Handbook on Prisons, Portland, Oregon: Willan.

McNeill, F. (2016) ‘Desistance and Criminal Justice in Scotland’, in Croall, H., Mooney G. and Munro, M. (eds.) Crime, Justice and Society in Scotland, London: Routledge.

Wacquant, L. (2010) ‘Crafting the Neoliberal State: Workfare, Prisonfare and Social Insecurity’, Sociological Forum, Volume 25(2): 197–220.

6 thoughts on “‘Cognitive transformations’ and desistance

  1. mmmmm interesting especially the reference to Coelho, who supported me enormously in prison with his writing. Today I was thinking, before i read your article, about what anchors new identity; more than hooks for change, and told myself I would search for some literature on that at the weekend

  2. This is really interesting Kris. I’ve been discussing this in my PhD thesis about how my participants (all ex-prisoners now academics) began their initial transformation while incarcerated. All have been successful in their journeys but prison was their catalyst for change, while education was their conduit for change. Cognitive transformation and desistance is mainly focused on post-release but as Fergus says, desistance could be applied to the prison setting. I really enjoyed reading this and I’d like to quote some of it in my thesis because it supports what I’ve been arguing. I will be submitting my thesis in a matter of weeks.

  3. It’s grest to read reflections on the desistance process by someone who is ‘walking the walk’ – you sound like you’re well on the way in your own transformation and that all you will need is an accepting community to enabling your ‘becoming’, as you suggest. I wish you well. I wonder, too, if learning about desistance theories might help others in prison (particularly those serving longish sentences) to reflect on their own lives and strengths and possibilities? I know plenty would not be ready or interested, but I imagine many would be, given these conversations often take place informally between prisoners trying to help each other. I’ve interviewed lots of men who’ve been released, some many times, and some guidance about the mechanics of the process could have been useful and embraced by many of them. Interested to know what you think.

    • Thanks Diana. I’ll pass your message and email address along to Kris.

  4. Hi Kris,
    Your cognitive transformation is commendable.
    Sharing your experience of the criminal justice system and how you have utilised such experiences through reflection, was inspiring. It prompted me to consider your self efficacy and how this was supported by the teachers whom you obviously have developed a nurturing relationship with. I work within the criminal justice system and would always consider education as a means to long term desistance however would often be faced with low or no self efficacy. Can you give me any advice in regards to my practice when working alongside individuals who clearly have potential to provide positive contributions to their communities however have no belief in their academic ability.

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