Closing the Gates of Janus: The pains of parole

Once again, this guest post comes from Kris McPherson.

It’s that time of year again. The parole season ‘tis upon us. As I am serving what is known in Scotland as an extended sentence, I can apply for parole every twelve months until my release date. This year is my eighth and, thankfully, final time applying for early release. Applying for parole normally brings with it a tide of stress and anxiety not only about the entire process itself but also apprehension surrounding daily life upon re-entry into society. The irony about this whole scenario is that never before have I worried or even bothered thinking about these issues. This is because I have never expected parole (except in 2017 where I had so many things stacked in my favour and was still unsuccessful).

In the not so distant past, I saw myself as someone incapable of ‘going straight’. I felt that no matter how hard I tried to convince people I had changed, nobody would believe it. In this way, my philosophy shifted from ‘no quarter!’ to ‘you can’t swim against the tide!’ In those days of pre-academic darkness, the problems that came with ‘going straight’ belonged to others. Coincidentally, prisoner re-entry and employing people with previous convictions featured in the news recently (after I had been reading up on these issues). According to the BBC (2018) report, a new organisation, Release Scotland, consists of companies, charities and government agencies seeking to get those who have previous convictions into meaningful employment. The narrative stated that 75% of businesses in the UK would not consider employing someone who had previously been convicted (BBC, 2018).

Ironically, this article was published on the same day as another news piece that claimed a third of Scottish men have a criminal conviction, according to researchers at the University of Glasgow (Marland, 2018). Does that indicate that 75% of companies in the UK would not even consider employing a third of Scottish men? Wouldn’t it be more financially and socially beneficial for society to employ people leaving prison instead of marginalising them? Isn’t it possible that this marginalisation compounds the likelihood of recidivism? Doesn’t a third of Scottish men constitute a potentially valuable source of labour? Wouldn’t employing this portion of men aid their integration and resettlement back into society?

According to Ager and Strang (2004: 5), an individual can be classified as integrated when they access and benefit from “public outcomes within employment, housing, education, health etc, which are equivalent to those achieved within the wider host communities [and] to confidently engage in that society in a manner consistent with the shared notions of nationhood and citizenship” (cited in Kirkwood and McNeill, 2015: 9). Moreover, Kazemian (2007: 22) points out that “desistance is likely to be maximized when intervention efforts integrate both rehabilitation and reintegration dimensions”. Isn’t it logical to postulate that employing those with criminal records would indicate both ‘rehabilitation and ‘reintegration dimensions’, which, in turn, would ‘maximise desistance?’

Encouragingly, Sir Richard Branson called upon more employers to take on ex-offenders in an interview with UK-wide prison newspaper Inside Time(James, 2016). “People with convictions need the dignity of work”, Sir Richard told the editor, Erwin James. He explained how a training programme in Virgin Trains has culminated in employment for a woman with several previous convictions for violence. In fact, BBC News (2018) cites that Virgin Trains is one of the employers that collaborate with Release Scotland to provide work for those with convictions. Then-Justice Minister Michael Gove also explained how the three main factors that stopped people re-offending are: employment, a secure home and strong family bonds (James, 2016). When an individual with previous convictions has something important to lose (their livelihood), I imagine recidivism is a much less appealing option.

While employment, housing and health apply to all of us, I wonder if education is individually specific? For example, I can construct an essay but couldn’t change a tire on a car. I guess what I am saying is that intelligence comes in many forms. Even though all of the above indicate bureaucratic notions of inclusivity, I wonder where larger society fits into this picture.  For this reason, I recently wondered whether Restorative Justice (RJ) could play some role in prisoner re-entry and desistance. In fact, wouldn’t RJ help realise McNeill’s (2014) notions of social rehabilitation, where the individual is fully reintegrated of society and becomes a productive member? Moreover, I feel that McNeill and Schinkel’s (2015) notion of ‘tertiary desistance’ and RJ share interconnecting similarities in as much as absorbing ‘offenders’ back into mainstream society once they have ‘made good’. According to Marshall (1999: 6), the fundamental characteristics of RJ are:

  • Fully attending to victims needs
  • Preventing recidivism by re-integrating offenders
  • Enabling offenders to assume responsibility for their actions
  • Creating a working community that supports the rehabilitation of offenders
  • Providing a means of avoiding the escalation of criminal justice measures (cited in Cunneen, 2015: 384).

In this way, we can see that both ‘offenders’ and ‘victims’ are at the centre of this debate. However, the criminal justice process presents itself as a ‘vertical model of justice’ (Yazzie, 1994, cited in Fergusson and Muncie, 2010) where external hierarchies of power are utilised to resolve conflicts between individuals or groups in society. In this way, Yazzie (1994: 29–30) argues, “Parties to a dispute have limited power and control over the process […] When outsiders intervene in a dispute, they impose moral codes upon people who have moral codes of their own. The subjects of adjudication have no power, little or no say about the outcome of a case, and their feelings do not matter” (cited in Fergusson and Muncie, 2010: 74). In fact, Christie (1977) argued that the conflict between individuals and/or groups is their ‘property’; property that is subsequently taken over by the state in its role as ultimate ‘arbitrator’.

One could therefore postulate that conventional, vertical modes of criminal justice form a triangular shape, with the judge at the pinnacle and the ‘offender’ and ‘victim’ at opposite ends of the base. However, ‘horizontal models’ of dispensation in the RJ sphere are more circular in form where “…no person is above the other. A graphic model often used by Indians to portray this thought is a circle. In a circle, there is no right or left, no beginning or end. Every point (or person) on the line on a circle looks to the same center as the focus. A circle is a symbol of Navajo justice because it is perfect, unbroken, and a simile of unity and oneness” (Yazzie, 1994: 29–30, cited in Fergusson and Muncie, 2010).

In this way, shouldn’t an all-inclusive circle represent our own dispute processes in society? “In addition to tangible compensation, restorative justice advocates rebuilding the relationship between the victim and offender. In sharp contrast to the traditional model of justice, restorative justice aims to resolve conflict and restore dialogue between the parties where possible” (Gaudreault, 2005: 6). Personally, I feel that it takes a lotof courage on the part of the ‘victim’ and ‘offender’ to participate in the RJ mediation process.

In fact, I recall watching one of the many TV programmes about the American penal system that showed a face-to-face mediation between a prisoner and victim’s mother. I was surprised by how nervous the prisoner appeared but I was even more amazed when the victim’s mother told the prisoner (who was serving life imprisonment for killing her son) that she had forgiven him. The powerful act of humanity and compassion gave me goose bumps, prompting me to wonder why RJ is non-existent in Scottish prisons. Couldn’t this catalyse desistance? Wouldn’t such meetings between prisoner and victim not only allow the victim to heal but also to allow the prisoner to appreciate the magnitude of his/her actions? British MP Jeremy Wright (2012) commented that “Restorative Justice has the potential to break the destructive pattern of behaviour of those that offend by forcing them to confront the full extent of the emotional and physical damage they have caused to their victims” (cited in MoJ, 2012: 1).

While I feel that ‘forcing [offenders]’ is the wrong terminology to use, he still manages to get his point across. I say this because it is easy to read about your mistakes in a bureaucratic report; I imagine it would be a lot harder to look into the eyes of those who were hurt by your actions, especially if they said “I forgive you!” Therein lies the irony – I find myself secretly yearning to be part of such humanity yet am oddly frightened by it at the same time. Intriguingly, Shapland et al. (2011) state that “…restorative justice conferencing may provide a platform upon which intending desisters can set out, in front of their supporters and victims, that they do take responsibility for the offence, that they wish to change their lives, and that they are sorry for the harm the offence has caused [to victims and supporters]” (cited in Shapland and Bottoms, 2017: 762).

Instead of utilising RJ practices to bridge gaps between prisoners and wider society, individuals in prison appear to be fending for themselves vis-à-vis rehabilitation. According to McNeill and Weaver (2010: 8), “It is not enough to have opportunities, ‘opportunities’ need to be read as opportunities by the offenders themselves”. However, where are those ‘opportunities?’ Is the period of incarceration itself the opportunity? Furthermore, it has been argued that sending people to prison “slows maturation, damages family ties, cements criminal identities and establishes criminal associations and networks” (McNeill and Weaver, 2010: 13). In this way, one could argue that incarceration allows those individuals already criminally disposed to develop and nurture ‘criminal capital’, compounding the likelihood of recidivism (Bayer et al. 2009, cited in Drago and Galbiati, 2012). Shockingly, Labour MP David Lammy (2017) cites the cost of recidivism to the British taxpayer as somewhere between £9.5 and £13 billion per year. Imagine how much social inequality the state could eradicate with that amount of money.

In fact, Lammy (2017) argues that people trying to ‘go straight’ should be allowed to present their case before a court with the ultimate aim of sealing their criminal records if they can convince the court of their transformation. In this way, sealing criminal records of those who have demonstrated change will allow individuals to re-integrate into society instead of “trapping offenders in their past, denying dependents an income, and costing the tax payer money” (Lammy, 2017: 64). Lammy’s (2017) notion comes in response to a law in the state of Massachusetts where an individual’s criminal record can be sealed through judicial process if that person can demonstrate to the court that transformation has been achieved. In fact, couldn’t one argue that the state of Massachusetts will extend ‘judicial rehabilitation’ (McNeill, 2014) to convicted people if they can prove ‘moral’ and ‘psychological rehabilitation’ (McNeill, 2014)? Shouldn’t Scotland/UK follow suit?

According to Shapland and Bottoms (2017), the width of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (1974) was extended in 2014 vis-à-vis the possibility of sealing criminal records in England and Wales although it is unclear what this entails. The sad fact is that it is the very existence of individual criminal records that impacts upon the re-entry and, in turn, potential desistance of people leaving prison. Employers can’t be forced or coerced to provide jobs to ex-offenders. Doesn’t this reluctance to provide employment to those with criminal records arguably indicate the apparent belief that ‘rehabilitation is dead?’ In fact, Healy (2016) argues that “…in economic hard times, even those offenders trying to desist are likely to fail because employers will look elsewhere in the pool of unemployed labour” (cited in Shapland and Bottoms, 2017: 762). I hope that Release Scotland will bridge this gap in the Scottish context.

Interestingly, Weaver (2018) cites how “people with convictions appear to be the only group excluded from the Equality Act 2010’s anti-discrimination protections and so one implication might be that people with convictions should be legally recognised as a disadvantaged group entitled to special employment protection”. Doesn’t this only further marginalise people who have been convicted, making desistance from crime appear as a fantasy rather than helping it become a reality? Hopefully the juxtaposition of businesses under the Release Scotland umbrella will go some way to rectifying this anomaly.

As I near my own release, my mind swirls with these issues. I feel as though I am one of the people at the heart of these problems because, like it or not, most (if not all) of them affect my life in some way. Prisoner re-entry affects me because I am about to leave prison and return to society likely within the next year. Restorative justice could theoretically apply although I feel that, in my own case, it should be the victims’ choice whether they feel the process would benefit them. In fact, I am of the view that if those who I have hurt in the past wished to pursue this course of action, then it is my duty to participate whether I want to or not (but that is my personal opinion).

The most applicable issue to my own case, I feel, is desistance. The closer I come to my final parole hearing, the more I think about the big unknown. Will the societal marginalisation and disenfranchisement remain at the prison gates as I exit the institution? Is it possible that I will finally be able to shed my criminal identity in the eyes of the criminal justice apparatus and wider society and, in turn, adopt a freshly constructed academic persona? If the primary purpose of incarceration is ‘rehabilitation’ then I wonder why the parole board think my past outweighs my transformation.

In fact, Weaver et al. (2012: 94) postulate that the “seriousness of the current offence and criminal career are unrelated to parole board decision making. Decisions tend to be made based on current (at the time of the parole application) propensity to change and to reduced criminogenic need”. Personally, I feel that my own situation demonstrates that this is not always the case. My criminogenic need has been reduced through the utilisation of standard risk assessment tools and I have participated in all programmes that were recommended by psychologists in the past. I was recalled to custody in 2011 for two charges of breach of the peace but have been held for seven years (with fourteen months left to serve).

Unfortunately, the parole board has refused to grant my release every year since my recall to custody. I feel that there is nothing more I can do to convince them (or anyone else for that matter) that I am serious about change. However, I think that the much-coveted academic future that potentially awaits me out with these grey walls will render all of the parole rejections insignificant. In other words, I transformed myself in the face of overwhelming adversity and pointlessness while it seemed that the parole function (in my mind, at least) reinforced the negativity of my incarceration. I sometimes wonder if I would have embraced my previous criminal identity had I not met the people who championed me or participated in academic study in prison.

Although many people return to prison, transformation is possible for even those (seemingly) incapable of change. However, I feel that I am simply fortunate that I met the people I did when I did. Maybe transformation was in my life script from day one? Sadly, this may not the case for many of the people who share my current living space. In this way, Travis and Petersilia (2001: 299) ominously state that “No matter what punishment philosophy sends prisoners to prison, no matter how their release is determined, with few exceptions they all come back. It is hard to find a coherent re-entry philosophy in the current state of affairs”.

While I feel that this statement could apply to all of those that have been incarcerated, one could argue that winning the battle within oneself vis-à-vis criminality is the first step towards winning the war that sees ‘offenders’ marginalised and disenfranchised in societies across the globe. In this way, they appear to be held prisoners of their own pasts. I feel that I have won the inner battle that helped deconstruct my criminal identity through higher education. But there is no denying that relapse could occur if I received zero help or support from others. I would like to say that it doesn’t bear thinking about but anything is possible. However, I have my new persona and mentality (and my son) going in my favour, which are undoubtedly protective factors.

Despite the fact that I have fought a mental, emotional and spiritual war within my own heart, mind and soul, I realise that I am still human and, therefore, fallible like everyone else. I realise I have crossed legal, social and moral boundaries in the past. But I want to make it right somehow. Undoubtedly, criminality causes individuals to cross the threshold separating mainstream society from its dark underbelly. In fact, the Russian word for ‘crime’ (prestupleniye) denotes the crossing of a boundary, from one dimension to another. This brings me to my title-related metaphor. In Roman times, there was a spirit called Janus who was a symbol of archways and doorways. In fact, these gates were left open in times of war and closed during periods of peace and tranquillity. I like this metaphor because doorways and archways symbolise the crossing of a threshold, from one dimension to another. My own individual Gates of Janus opened, in my opinion, when my Dad died.

Hopefully they will close as the prison gates slam shut behind me.


BBC News (2018) ‘New Body Aims to Get Ex-Prisoners Back into Work’, BBC News [online]. Available at: 28th May 2018).

Christie, N. (1977) ‘Conflicts as Property’, The British Journal of Criminology, Volume 17(1): 1–14.

Cunneen, C. (2015) ‘Restorative Justice’, in McLaughlin, E. and Muncie, J. (eds.) The SAGE Dictionary of Criminology (3rdedition), London: SAGE Publications (this edition 2015).

Drago, F. and Galbiati, R. (2012) ‘Indirect Effects of a Policy Altering Criminal Behavior: Evidence from the Italian Prison Experiment’, American Journal of Applied Economics.

Fergusson, R. and Muncie, J. (2010) ‘Conflict Resolution, Restoration and Informal Justice’, in Drake, D., Muncie, J. and Westmarland, L. (eds.) Criminal Justice: Local and Global, Willan Publishing/The Open University: Milton Keynes (pp.71–104).

Gaudreault, A. (2005) ‘The Limits of Restorative Justice’, Symposium of the École Nationale de la Magistrature, Paris: Édition Dalloz.

James, E. (2016) ‘People with Convictions Need the Dignity of Work’, Inside Time, August 2016, issue no. 206. ISSN 1743-7342.

Kazemian, L. (2007) ‘Desistance From Crime: Theoretical, Empirical, Methodological and Policy Considerations’, Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, Volume 23(1): 5–27.

Kirkwood, S. and McNeill, F. (2015) ‘Integration and Reintegration: Comparing pathways to citizenship through asylum and criminal justice’, Criminology and Criminal Justice, Volume 15(5): 511–526.

Lammy, D. (2017) ‘The Lammy Review: An Independent Review into the Treatment of, and Outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Individuals in the Criminal Justice System’, Available at:

Marland, I. (2018) ‘Do a Third of Scots Men Really Have a Criminal Conviction?’ BBC News [online]. Available at: 23rd May 2018).

McNeill, F. and Weaver, B. (2010) ‘Changing Lives? Desistance Research and Offender Management’,Glasgow: Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research. Available online at:

McNeill, F. (2014) ‘Punishment as Rehabilitation’, in Bruinsma, G. and Weisburd, D. (eds.) Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Springer, New York: 4195–4206.

Shapland, J. and Bottoms, A. (2017) ‘Desistance from Crime and Implications for Offender Rehabilitation’, in Liebling, A., Maruna, S. and McAra, L. (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Criminology(6thedition), Oxford: Oxford University Press (pp. 744–766).

Travis, J. and Petersilia, J. (2001) ‘Re-entry Reconsidered: A New Look at an Old Question’, Crime & Delinquency, Volume 47(3): 291–313.

Weaver, B., Tata, C.,   Munro, M. and Barry, M. (2012) ‘The Failure of Recall to Prison: Front-Door and Back-Door Sentencing and the Revolving Door of Prison in Scotland’, European Journal of Probation, Volume 4(1): 85–98.

Weaver, B. (2018) ‘Are Current Reforms on Criminal Disclosure Going Far Enough?’, Inside Time, May 2018, Issue No. 227, ISSN 1743–7342.

Wright, J. (2012) ‘Ministerial Foreword’, in Restorative Justice Action Plan for the Criminal Justice System, London: Ministry of Justice.

Paulo Freire’s Revolutionary Pedagogy: A framework for desistance?

Another post from the prolific Kris MacPherson…

The work of the Brazilian academic Paulo Freire was completely unfamiliar to me until someone referred to him in a response to one of my previous blog posts:

The Colony of ‘Civic Sleepers’

I sourced a copy of a paper by Arnett (2002) which outlines how Freire devised an education project in his native Brazil to teach literacy skills utilising metaphors embedded in stories and narratives. At that historical moment, Brazil suffered from high levels of illiteracy and Freire sought to use literacy education as a springboard to political participation for ‘the Other’ (Arnett, 2002: 489). Interestingly, Freire, who had previously served time in prison during the advent of the Brazilian neoliberal experiment manufactured by the United States, proposed a ‘communication ethic that invited learning under hostile conditions’ using a ‘communication ethic that meets powerful political and social structures with a call to learn’ (Arnett, 2002: 490). One could argue that it is this ‘call to learn’ that functions as the ‘keys to freedom’.

Freedom from poverty; freedom from oppression.

According to Freire (1970/1974), teaching marginalised populations necessitated schooling those excluded from conventional power mechanisms in what he labelled the ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ (cited in Arnett, 2002). Freire’s techniques taught his student’s ways in which they could break free from their invisible chains (held together by malign social forces like poverty) and exert more human agency across their lives. In this way, people would be able to challenge the very institutions that oppressed them by participating in civic life. ‘Where there is literacy, agency is possible, and where there is agency, there is hope for historical change’ (Arnett, 2002: 492). Freire argues ‘the first step towards power and influence is in the classroom’ (Arnett, 2002: 491). Even more crucially, Arnett (2002: 491) states that ‘to counter bad ideas, one must discern what is and possess the skill to offer an alternative’.

Couldn’t this apply to desistance?

Arnett’s (2002) paper made me ponder whether desistance could be taught within prisons. Can we assist the successful reintegration back into the community of those who have spent time in prison by using desistance theory and research as a vehicle for teaching? Could prisons educate inmates about desistance from crime? What if prisoners were taught, say, ‘hooks-for-change’ (Giordano et al., 2002) or the ‘four steps of cognitive transformation’ (Giordano et al., 2002) as a foundation to challenge their life-scripts? What if prisoners became ‘desistance-literate’ leading to ‘pro-social agency’ that, in turn, precipitated the elusive change so long sought after by courts, prisons, criminal justice practitioners and academics? Can we teach prisoners (especially those serving long-term sentences) the mechanics of desistance in the same way that Freire taught his fellow citizens literacy skills through specifically tailored methods designed to help them overcome personal deficits and capitalise on assets?

If, according to Freire, one ‘must learn to read to enter institutional places of power and influence’ (Arnett, 2002: 490), shouldn’t those who have been to prison have a chance to learn desistance from crime in order to truly embrace the rehabilitative process? Wouldn’t it be more advantageous to teach prisoners the foundations of desistance rather than utilising offender behaviour courses which persistently focus on the deficits that landed such people in prison in the first place? ‘How do we see the future development of the offender? What would be the best way of rehabilitating him?’ (Foucault, 1977[1975]: 19).

This is the million-dollar question.

According to the Corporate Plan 2014–2017, the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) proposes ‘developing a person-centred, asset-based approach’ in which staff recognise that those entering custody have their own ‘asset-base’ that they can utilise to promote personal growth (SPS, 2014). This sounds similar to Giordano et al’s. (2002) ‘hooks-for-change’. It also echoes ‘anthropocentric’ rather than ‘authoritarian’ rehabilitative methodology, as alluded to by Rotman (1990, cited in McNeill and Velasquez, 2017). Furthermore, the SPS (2014) states that it will ’embed an asset and desistance-based approach at the heart of purposeful activity’ (SPS, 2014: 22, emphasis added).

If criminal behaviour is a ‘bad idea’ and desistance is the ‘alternative’ (to use Freire’s words) and the SPS purports to use a desistance-based approach then how come just about every prisoner I talk to inside prison has never heard of desistance? Why is there no desistance at ‘the heart of purposeful activity’? I would like to point out that Fergus told me that a desistance narrative in relation to the Scottish prison system does exist (and I don’t doubt him for a second) but I wonder why four years after this document’s publication there is no ‘desistance visibility’ on the ground?

Lodged in the bureaucratic pipeline, perhaps?

While the desistance literature I have read up until now focuses on the assets of the ‘offender’ (see McNeill and Weaver, 2010; McNeill, 2014; McNeill and Schinkel, 2015; McNeill, 2016 for some examples), the carceral process appears more concerned with the individual’s deficits. For example, I have sat through several offending behaviour programmes and cannot recall one that focused on my strengths (or anyone else’s on the same courses). All that was discussed was past offending, emotional responses, drug use and other deficits exhibited by the people on the course. Persistently raking over historical offences and negative childhood experiences keeps it fresh in everyone’s minds. Who is this helping?

Intriguingly, Hollin et al. (2004) argues that recidivism rates were higher for those who participated in some behaviour programmes in prison compared to prisoners who did not (cited in McNeill and Weaver, 2010). Why, then, are these courses still used religiously? Could it be argued that people in Scottish prisons are oppressed? To say that I am ‘oppressed’ or even make any comparisons between my situation (or others’ situations) in Scottish prisons and that of the people who suffered during the neo-liberal ‘shock therapy’ (Klein, 2007) applied in Brazil and other South American countries seems facetious, at least in my subjective opinion.

We are hardly living in Stalinist Russia or Mao’s China.

I chose to live this way; nobody forced me commit criminal offences. That being said, I wonder if the histories of the lives of people in prison exert influence over future actions and outcomes in the same way that Freire postulated that historicity exerted influence over one’s learning? Intriguingly, Arnett (202: 498) alludes to how Paulo Freire ‘addresses oppressing structures, discerning ways to invite liberation. From such a commitment, one finds an implicit communication ethic that if understood as a story and not as a technique, offers guidance for people in settings other than education’.

Guidance for those in a desistance setting?

Whether ‘oppressed’ or not, people in prison must accept responsibility for their actions. I would further argue that I must accept my own culpability for what I have done in the past and will do in the future. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that I should keep paying for my offending behaviour for the rest of my life, especially if I have done everything I can to initiate change. That being said, ‘If it is borne, I shall bear it’, to quote Dmitri Nekhlyudov in Leo Tolstoy’s (2014[1899]: 238) novel Resurrection. However, I do not feel I have the ‘right’ to describe myself as ‘oppressed’.

Even if I ‘suffered’ from an impoverished background, I ceased to be a ‘victim’ of these cultural and social circumstances the second I crossed the Rubicon from civilian (or ‘straight-peg’, as people in prison say) to convicted person. That is also just my personal view. That being said, one could argue that many people in prison were ‘oppressed’ (and after prison are oppressed) while at liberty through the prisms of poverty, lack of meaningful and fulfilling lives and little/no chance of employment or advancement within our neoliberal society, reinforced by the stigma of having served time in prison. Interestingly, Arnett (2002: 492) states that Freire ‘understood that in the First World, there is a Third World, and in the Third World, there is a First World’.

In this way, I wonder if oppression is contextually and culturally relative?

It could be argued that there are aspects of the ‘Leviathan’ state (Wacquant 2010a; Bell, 2014) that hinder the progress of potential desisters from crime and those returning to society from incarceration. For example, the demonisation of those who have been to prison by the corporate media machine should be a central issue in the debates surrounding prisoner re-entry. The ‘agenda-setting’ (Jewkes, 2004) of elite media corporations and, by extension, their sources serves no function other than to paint the picture of offenders as unworthy of trust or aid, arguably reinforcing their criminal scripts and impeding their potential to desist from crime.

However, it is not only those who have served prison time who are subjected to this media demonisation. In the United Kingdom, daily television staples with lurid titles such as Benefits: 26 Kids and Counting, Benefits Beauty Queens, Benefits: Life on the Dole, Benefits: Breadline Britain, On Benefits: 30 stone and Claiming, On Benefits: Famous and Claiming, 18 Kids & Claiming Benefits and Benefits By the Sea serve as the fuel with which media conglomerates pour onto the temperaments of those in society who feel that people on welfare are feckless and undeserving of assistance.

As if to say, ‘Look where your hard-earned taxes are being spent!’

Ironically, the banking system arguably precipitated the financial crash of 2008 (see: Kotz, 2009; Board, 2010; Mishkin, 2011 for examples) rather than the welfare state. Therefore, wouldn’t it be more apt for television stations to air programmes entitled Fat-Cat Bankers: £1 Million Bonus and Counting? In this way, it could be argued that such welfare-focused television programmes were aired in Britain in the post-2008 credit crunch era to demonise the poor.

This ‘theatricalisation of poverty’ (to draw parallels with Wacquant’s [2010a] ‘theatricalisation of penality’) draws attention away from those within the government and corporate sectors whose questionable practices arguably perpetuates poverty and other social issues by focusing a spotlight on those at the mercy of this neoliberal ‘Leviathan’ (Wacquant, 2010a; Bell, 2014). It could be argued that media saturation of these issues are ‘moral panics orchestrated by a media machine running out of control’ (Wacquant, 2003: 198). Alarmingly, we appear to be ‘heading towards a society increasingly dominated by a 24/7 news media obsessed with headline-grabbing stories which are more likely to demonise than analyse and seek to understand offenders’ (Bell, 2014: 491).

In the same way that lack of literacy excluded Brazilian citizens from social and political inclusion, one could argue that lack of ‘desistance literacy’ of people in prison and lack of ‘political literacy’ on the part of the marginalised and disenfranchised underclass (many of whom are also prisoners/ex-prisoners) serves to oppress such groups and reinforce the cycle of recidivism and deprivation. If Wacquant’s (2010b) assertion that there is no available social structure to support prisoners returning to society is accurate then is it any wonder prisons are bursting at the seams? Perhaps this is the way the elite want it? God forbid we begin to question! Instead, the government seeks to over-regulate the lives of those on the bottom rung of society as though they were at fault for their own poverty. Everything in this neoliberal monstrosity seems regulated except the main function in need of regulation.

That is the free-market.

Funnily enough, I didn’t set out to study desistance from crime. I wanted to study criminal profiling and the patterns and motives of serial offending until I stumbled across McNeill and Weaver’s (2010) ‘Changing Lives? Desistance Research and Offender Management’ report during the Honours year of my criminology degree. This report acted as an epiphany or moment of clarity and I knew I had discovered a framework to utilise for my own desistance.

When I read it, I could not believe that there were such people within the criminal justice system who really wanted to help those who have been incarcerated. This report is a veritable academic Aladdin’s Cave for any desister trying to ‘go straight’. It single-handedly triggered an obsession with reading academic research articles which, in turn, led me to where I am now: researching desistance (amongst other topics), cultivating pro-social contacts and writing blog articles until I am released next year.

I hope that this is when things will really fall into place.

I feel I have built enough ‘social capital’ (McNeill and Weaver, 2010) to demonstrate to others that I am serious about change and maintaining desistance. Nevertheless, I admit that I harbour deeply embedded subliminal anxiety about whether I will receive the appropriate help and support from others. I have never admitted that until now (maybe that is an indication that I am slowly but surely shedding my old script where admitting/showing weaknesses or fears was anathema).

In the past, I would never have entertained the idea of admitting weakness. Nevertheless, I am well aware of the fact that I can’t do all of this on my own. I don’t want to live a life without opportunities or pro-social friendships, which, in my view, reinforces desistance. Having such contacts would cement a pro-social mentality and lifestyle in the same way that an anti-social mentality and criminal lifestyle reinforces criminal behaviour. ‘Like everyone else, offenders are most influenced to change (or not to change) by those whose advice they respect and whose support they value. Personal and professional relationships are key to change’ (McNeill and Weaver, 2010: 6).

I second that motion.

It is so encouraging to see professionals who understand those who are fighting to ‘go straight’. Understanding and humanity goes a long way in life. In fact, people used to say to me that I didn’t know how to receive compliments due to my visible uneasy response. I told them that the reason I didn’t know how to react is because I am unfamiliar with such humanity. I only knew how to deal with those who were unkind to me.

Now I am becoming acquainted with many people who will help me get to the final destination of desistance. The fact that their job descriptions includes assisting people such as myself only goes to show that there is help available but I have as much a role to play as anyone, perhaps even more so. Such people inspire me to keep running this ‘penal marathon’ even when I feel like everything is pointless. The best way to thank all of them would be to show them that I will make it to the ‘finish line’ and leave all of this behind.





Arnett, R.C. (2002) ‘Paulo Freire’s Revolutinary Pedagogy: From a Story-Centred to a Narrative-Centred Communication Ethic’, Qualitative Inquiry, Volume 8(4): 489–510.

Bell, E. (2014) ‘There is an alternative: Challenging the logic of neoliberal penality’, Theoretical Criminology, Volume 18(4): 489–505.

Board, D. (2010) ‘Leadership: the ghost at the trillion dollar crash?’ European Management Journal, Volume 28(4): 269–277.

Foucault, M. (1977[1975]) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan Sheridan, London: Penguin/Allen Lane.

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.

Jewkes, Y. (2004) Media and Crime: Key Approaches to Criminology (3rd edition), London: SAGE Publications (this edition 2015).

Klein, M. (2007) The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, London: Penguin/Allen Lane.

Kotz, D.M. (2009) ‘The Financial and Economic Crisis of 2008: A Systemic Crisis of Neoliberal Capitalism’, Review of Radical Political Economics, Volume 41(3): 305–317.

McNeill, F. and Weaver, B. (2010) ‘Changing Lives? Desistance Research and Offender Management’, Glasgow: Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research. Available online at: 

McNeill, F. (2014) ‘Punishment as Rehabilitation’, in Bruinsma, G. and Weisburd, D. (eds.) Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Springer, New York: 4195–4206.

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.

McNeill, F. and Velasquez, J. (2017) ‘Prisoners, Disenfranchisement and Sleeping Citizenship’, see:

Mishkin, F. (2011) ‘Over the Cliff: From the Subprime to the Global Financial Crisis’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Volume 25(1): 49–70.

Tolstoy, L. (2014[1899]) Resurrection, translated by Louise Maude, Ware, Herts: Wordsworth Classics edition.

Wacquant, L. (2003) ‘Toward a Dictatorship Over the Poor? Notes on the Penalization of Poverty in Brazil’, Punishment & Society, Volume 5(2): 197–205.

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

Wacquant, L. (2010b) ‘Prisoner Re-entry as Myth and Ceremony’, Dialectical Anthropology, Volume 34: 605–620.

Punishment and ‘the horizon of reintegration’

This guest post comes from Javier Velasquez Valenzuela who is a doctoral research in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research where he is studying the culture and practice of sentencing in Scottish courts. Javier previously worked as a prosecutor in the Chilean criminal courts. In this post, he reflects on the implications of some fascinating and challenging remarks made by Pope Francis during a visit to a women’s prison in Chile, as part of his recent visit. The post is a translated and adapted version of an article published in a Spanish language Chilean digital newspaper, which can be found here:

Earlier this year Pope Francis, during his pastoral activities in Chile (my home country), he visited Chile’s largest prison for women. In his speech to the women, he said:

“A prison sentence without a future is not a human sentence, it is torture. Every sentence being lived out to pay a debt to society must have a perspective, that is, it must have the horizon of reintegration and preparation for being reintegrated. This is something you must demand of society”.

I want to explore the implications of these thoughts within the Chilean context — and for how we think about punishment and reintegration more generally. This requires an examination the meaning and the purposes of prison sentences, not least in Chile.

I will start by advancing my conclusion: In Chile prison produces nihilistic suffering, that is, suffering which lacks meaning or purpose. The practical reality of the conditions in the Chilean prisons are inhuman and should not leave anyone indifferent. In fact, at this point no one could claim ignorance of this situation. Not only are there various reports and new stories that have informed us about the miserable conditions caused by prison overcrowding or about the violence that is experienced inside the prisons and which the prison staff cannot control. If reports on the violation of human rights of the inmates were not enough to alert us to this reality, the San Miguel’s prison fire – where 81 prisoners died – gave a human face to this reality.

This is why the recent reflections offered by the Pope should make us consider the contradictions in our ways of thinking about punishment. Because Francis is right — a “sentence without a future is not a human punishment, it is a torture”. And the way in which we have tried to do justice is mainly through the imposition of a nihilistic punishment, which is just a manifestation of power; power that dehumanises individuals we seem to believe undeserving of being treated as human beings. It is difficult to pretend that any punishment suffered in this way may be able to teach ‘offenders’ anything about morality or citizenship. Critically, the fact that Chileans acknowledge the misery of imprisonment, and knowingly allow it, shows that we accept it. Whatever religion you profess and whatever your political preferences, it is not acceptable in a democracy to tolerate a punishment that has become a de facto form of torture; a punishment that denies individuals, who have committed crimes, their humanity.

The ethical-moral argument that asks us for consistency in respect of human rights is not the only consideration that compels us to reflect on the urgent need for reform of the prison system. Recently, a press release reported that the cost to the Chilean State of maintaining a prisoner is £868 per month. However, and this is critically important, anyone who has visited any Chilean prison may have asked where that money goes because the conditions do not reflect the amount of money that is spent. During the last few years, the Chilean Prison Service annual budget has been on average around £540,000,000. However, such a significant amount of funding has not been able to end the violence inside the prisons — the homicides and other violent crimes; nor has it been able to prevent drug dealing orchestrated within the prison walls through the illegal use of mobile phones. Moreover, we also need to consider the prison’s in/ability to reduce reoffending. Several studies carried out in Chile with adult and juvenile populations found that after three years at least half of those released had committed a new offence or offences. These findings are broadly consistent with the comparative literature on the effects of custodial sentences and their relation to recidivism. Custodial sentences which not allow people to access to treatment, education, rehabilitation or work programmes; that do not prepare people for re-entry, fail to reduce recidivism.

Perhaps the most fundamental problem of our punitive nihilism is that it means imposing degrading punishments that mean not only a level of suffering which is incompatible with modern democracies – since we deny them humane and dignified treatment – but that these degradations so obviously and inevitably fail to rehabilitate or reintegrate. If they produce anything, it is purposeless pain, dehumanization and violence. Moreover, most of the people that are subjected to imprisonment are going to be released within ten, five or two years. How can society expect that, whenever they regain their freedom, they will have -magically- learned a moral lesson about good and evil, about human rights, about compassion? They are expected to be reintegrated, but, again, in most cases, no support is given for it, or that which is provided is not enough.

The challenge we have as a society — which is the same in Chile as in Scotland (where I currently work) and around the world — is that we must confront our duty as humans to rethink the horizon of punishment — to understand that we cannot continue allowing this nihilistic punishment that ultimately degrades our fellow citizens, wastes our collective resources and fails to solve the problem of recidivism. We have find our way towards more constructive response to crime which communicate to the person who has offended the consequences of their crime and at the same time provide tools so that reintegration can be achieved in a way that benefits both the individual and society. And this purpose, as the Pope posits, must include the possibility for anyone who has offended to build a dignified future beyond crime in a society that will offer them real opportunities for reintegration.

Penal cultures and female desistance

Dr Linnéa Österman who is a Lecturer in Criminology in the Department of Law and The Centre for Criminology at the University of Greenwich ( the recent ‘Desistance, Structures, Agency and Policy’ conference in Sheffield. If you follow the link below, you’ll find a blogpost in which she reflects on the conference, focusing in particular on gender, as well as providing some summary comments on her own presentation

‘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: 

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.

Political Immaturity: ‘Civic Sleepers’ Revisited

In this post, our regular correspondent Kris McPherson returns to the issue of prisoner voting in light of recent discussions about the extending the franchise in Scotland… The views he expresses are, of course, his own.

An intriguing story on Russia Today (aired 8/1/18) captured my interest as I sat in my cell (or my ‘think tank’, as I prefer to call it) pondering my next ‘chess move’. The story reported that the Scottish Government was considering allowing refugees and non-EU citizens resident in Scotland the right to vote in local/national elections in the country. Not wishing to suffer accusations of relying on sources that supposedly peddle ‘fake news’, I sought other information in order to revisit a previous blog article posted in December 2017 vis-à-vis the issue of prisoner voting in Scotland.

A reporter for the Independent newspaper, Caroline Mortimer, stated in her article on the issue of permitting non-Scottish citizens the right to vote in local/national Scottish elections that the Scottish Government is eager to initiate changes that will “set it apart from the rest of the UK” (Mortimer, 2018). This is intriguing, for several reasons.

Firstly, I wonder if this new proposal is a political tactic that is (1) designed to deflect attention from the issue of allowing prisoners the right to vote in elections in Scotland; and (2) to give the tacit impression of an acquiescent olive branch-of-sorts to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), who argue that Scotland’s blanket ban on prisoner voting breaches Article 3 of The Convention (Evans, 2017). I would like to make it clear that I am not against our government (can I even say ‘our’ government?) extending voting rights to non-EU citizens or those who flee wars in their own countries to save their lives or a better life (wars that ‘our’ own government sometimes help propagate). Extending voting participation seems, to me, a very small brick in a very big edifice.

Nevertheless, I suppose it is a start in the right direction.

One of the interesting comments made by Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is that Scotland should extend “a welcoming hand and an open heart to those seeking a better life or wanting to make a contribution [in Scotland]” (Mortimer, 2018). Nicola Sturgeon argues that the population of Scotland is expected to decline over the next 25 years if there is “low net migration”, indicating that our nation will suffer from a diminished labour pool that will result in further damage to social and economic institutions (Mortimer, 2018). But what about extending a “welcoming hand” to (ex) offenders who want to ‘open their own hearts’ and ‘seek a better life’ for themselves and their loved ones, thereby contributing something other than rising crime rates to Scottish society?

Doesn’t this refusal to acknowledge prisoner voting spell political immaturity?

Almond and Verba ([1963]1989: 13) argue that the political culture of a nation is ascertained by measuring the thoughts and feelings of the people in relation to the political system (cited in Clark et al., 2013: 218). They postulated that it was possible to study a given culture by conducting surveys and asking the people about their own feelings vis-à-vis political structures, agents and mechanisms (cited in Clark et al., 2013: 218). Wouldn’t an “open country” ask the population their own personal views on the issue of prisoner voting? If Scotland is so “open” then why would the issue of prisoner voting be absent from public discussion? If we are such a ‘democracy’ then why doesn’t the Scottish Government ask the public what they think of prisoners (or the majority of prisoners) being allowed to vote in Scottish elections?

Furthermore, Almond and Verba ([1963]1989) postulate that although economic development is essential for the development of democracy, they argue that “only culture could provide the ‘psychological basis of democratisation’”, without which the prospects for the endurance of democracy is thin (cited in Clark et al., 2013: 217). I would offer the opinion that it is the country’s population that contributes collectively to and produces the culture of a nation. That being said, I wouldn’t say that I have ‘contributed to the culture’ because I have lived my life as part of my own particular culture, apart from mainstream society.

I can totally understand the desire of some to disqualify convicted people from voting. Why should we simply be ‘handed’ the right to vote while still incarcerated? Society must figure this conundrum out on its own, without government hyperbole or interference. The government should not be able to make society’s decision unilaterally or capitalise on victims’ pain. That is what autocratic states do, not democratic ones. The issue of whether prisoners should be allowed to participate in Scottish elections must be put forward to the Scottish public and nobody else. This could be done through public consultation and possibly by referendum. That being said, the government does have the right to take its own position and legislate on these issues (such is the nature of governance). Ironically, a consultation paper has been published by the Scottish Government (2017) in which several questions have been put to the public in relation to electoral reform. However, there is scant mention of extending the franchise to prisoners and the public is not asked for their opinion on the matter.

I do agree with the fact that victims of crime should be totally included in any/all matters relating to this issue, as stated in Evans (2017: 15). I do wonder whether the government wants to try and make a real attempt at rehabilitation, desistance and societal inclusivity or just wants to continue paying lip service? One thing I do not like is someone who does not live by his/her own standards. Rather, they want everyone else to conform to them. I am old enough to see this.

Old school; not play school!

Interestingly, Barry et al. (2016) conducted a study into the usefulness of so-called ‘User Voice Councils’ in which (ex) prisoners can dialogue with agencies and address issues which focus on the strengths of the individual rather than persistently targeting his/her personal deficits. The aim of User Voice is to “foster dialogue between service providers and users that is mutually beneficial and results in better and more cost-effective services” (User Voice, 2012, cited in Barry et al., 2016: 1). Findings in this study conducted in six English prisons indicated that such mechanisms enhanced the efficacy and success of the rehabilitative atmosphere both inside and outside prisons. I realise that this is early days but why aren’t such councils being piloted within Scotland’s penal estate? Wouldn’t this be an ideal way to politically educate people who are in prison or have done so in the past?

Perhaps User Voice Councils could act as the bridge between prison and politics?

I would like to ask Nicola Sturgeon how she expects people in prison to conduct themselves in society when her government blatantly cherry-picks which rules to follow? What sort of example does this set if our nation’s leader sends a tacit message that rules are relative? I wonder if the prisoner voting issue is a way of gaining votes from those who thinks our country is too soft on criminals? Nicola Sturgeon should put this to the citizens through public consultation rather than ignoring the issue. The noted Scottish actor Brian Cox said in an interview (aired 11/1/18) with (Nicola Sturgeon’s mentor) Alex Salmond that, “when you ignore the populace, ignorance builds up!”

What builds up when you ignore prisoners?

If you asked a prison/police officer or criminal justice practitioner who dealt with me during my ‘offending years’ if I possessed the capacity to change, the consensus would undoubtedly be unanimous: no way! But if ‘someone like me’ can change through the utilisation of academic study as a ‘hook-for-change’ (Giordano et al., 2002, cited in McNeill and Weaver, 2010), braided with the belief shown in me and the humane understanding extended to me from academics and prison teachers then surely it is entirely possible that there are other ‘dormant desisters’ out there waiting to be discovered? Wouldn’t extending the franchise to prisoners, regardless of whether they choose to participate in elections, be a step towards this civic inclusivity? I asked several people incarcerated in my part of the prison why they do not vote and whether they felt they should be allowed to vote while incarcerated. I received some interesting replies. Some said that no matter whether they were outside or inside, the prisons would still be the same; others said they didn’t pay taxes so voting didn’t apply to them.

How do we combat such thinking?

If the Republic of Ireland and Wales permit prisoners the right to vote, as cited by Evans (2017), then why are Scottish prisoners completely politically silenced? Doesn’t this demonstrate how politically immature our nation is? I believe I may know one reason why our government is reluctant to allow prisoners to vote. A while back, a prisoner won a financial claim against the Scottish Prison Service, claiming the antiquated practice of ‘slopping-out’ (urinating/defecating in pots) breached his human rights. He was awarded financial damages that resulted in a tsunami of similar financial claims from prisoners across Scotland, many of which were successful.

I personally know of a prisoner who has a similar claim pending vis-à-vis the right to vote. I wonder if the government feels that allowing us to vote will produce a similar seismic shock if such claims were successful and they had to pay out? On the other hand, it could be further argued that the government could allow prisoners to vote to stem such financial claims. However, if this were the case, wouldn’t it have happened by now? Well I can only speak for myself and tell you I am not in this for reward.

Ironically, I am in this for the sake of right and wrong.

I think if our country wished to be part of Europe then we have to act as though we are part of Europe. Surely, we cannot expect to gain all of the benefits of being part of this institution without sharing in its ‘drawbacks?’ I can’t speak for others but I don’t think I ought to be handed the right to vote just for the sake of it. If Europe says one thing and the Scottish Government says another then I think it ought to be put to the Scottish public through consultation and, possibly, a referendum. If the public voted through the democratic process to deny people like me from voting (or even in favour of it) then it is case closed.

Isn’t that what democracies are supposed to do?


Barry, M., Weaver, B., Liddle, M., Schmidt, B., Maruna, S., Meek, R. and Renshaw, J. (2016) ‘Evaluation of the User Voice Prison and Community Councils: Final Report’, University of Strathclyde: Glasgow.

Clark, W.R., Golder, M. and Golder, S.N. (2013) Principles of Comparative Politics (2nd edition), SAGE Publications: London.

Evans, A. (2017) ‘Prisoner Voting in Scotland: a short summary’, SPICe Briefing Paper, The Scottish Parliament: Edinburgh.

McNeill, F. and Weaver, B. (2010) ‘Changing Lives? Desistance Research and Offender Management’, Glasgow: Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research. Available online at

Mortimer, C. (2018) ‘Refugees Could Be Given Right to Vote in Scotland’, The Independent, 6th January 2018 [online]. Available at Accessed 11th January 2018.

Russia Today (2018) ‘Refugees Could Be Allowed to Vote in Scottish Elections’, Russia Today News Channel, aired 8th January 2018.

Russia Today (2018) ‘The Alex Salmond Show’, Russia Today News Channel, aired 11th January 2018.

Scottish Government (2017) ‘Consultation Paper on Electoral Reform’, Scottish Government: Edinburgh.

The Colony of ‘Civic Sleepers’

In this latest post from Kris MacPherson, he explores the issue of political disenfranchisement within and beyond prisons.

I recently read a blog post by McNeill and Velasquez (2017) concerning the political neutralisation of prisoners in Chile and their right to vote while still incarcerated. The Chilean government prohibits those citizens sentenced to three years (or more) from participation in elections (McNeill and Velasquez, 2017). Moreover, anyone remanded pending trial for offences that could result in a prison term of three (or more) years is also banned from voting.

Interestingly, McNeill and Velasquez (2017) point out that anybody serving a prison term of less than three years retains the right to vote in Chilean elections. However, the government has not provided these people with the means of utilising their collective political voice. Clearly, the Chilean government are not in any rush to cull votes from those found guilty of crimes in court.

Sound familiar?

Back in Scotland/Britain, we live in a democracy that holds itself up as a beacon for other nations to emulate. The Greek word demokratia translates as “rule by the demos”; with demos being the Greek term for “common people – those people with little or no economic independence who are politically uneducated” (Clark, Golder and Golder, 2013: 45). Intriguingly, the Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that ‘good’ political functions (an aristocracy, for example) can become corrupted and that democracy is the result of this damaged politeia or polity (Clark, Golder and Golder, 2013).

But in what way can a polity become corrupted? Why is democracy a result of this corruption? Is it possible that there are parallels between the ‘corrupted individual’ and the ‘corrupted polity?’ In other words, is it possible that the ‘offender’ is a microcosm of a corrupted polity and the corrupted polity a macrocosm of the spoiled individual? Is it possible that a person is signposted towards criminal behaviour by external social dynamics in the same way that the polity is pointed towards democracy through corruption? In what way does political disenfranchisement impact and influence people in Scotland/UK who are currently incarcerated or have served time in the past?

For starters, I would like to point out that I have never voted in any election (most of my family members have never voted either). Back in my ‘offending days’, I viewed politics as something that did not affect (or apply to) me. Moreover, I saw voting as another way for the police (or someone with more sinister intentions) to obtain my address from the voters roll. To me, most politicians were manipulative, mendacious individuals who would promise a voter the sun, moon and stars but renege the second they assumed office. I didn’t need more individuals like this in my life.

I had enough of them in day-to-day life in the schemes.

In this way, one could very well argue that I was a ‘sleeping citizen’ (McNeill and Velasquez, 2017). Succinctly, a ‘sleeping citizen’ is someone who has been politically neutralised or silenced because of the fact they have served time in prison. Their denial of voting rights, in turn, avoids discussion or open dialogue on rehabilitation and the prison conditions of the country (McNeill and Velasquez, 2017). Here is a better definition:

“Whereas medieval punishment imposed civil death on some prisoners (rendering them non-persons), disenfranchisement (only) during imprisonment might be better described as a kind of civil anesthesia; the errant citizen is ‘put to sleep’ while some ‘correction’ takes place that might allow the rehabilitation of citizenship. At the end of this process, released prisoners are expected to have somehow readied themselves for civic revivification” (McNeill and Velasquez, 2017).

In Section three of the UK Representation of the People Act 1983, all prisoners serving prison sentences are prohibited from voting in British elections, irrespective of the length of incarceration (Evans, 2017). However, the Scottish Parliament has only recently been issued authority to legislate on prisoner voting. It refuses to give prisoners the vote. The blanket ban on prisoner voting was challenged more than a decade ago in Hirst v United Kingdom (No.2) in which the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that banning prisoners from voting breached Article 3 of Protocol No.1 of the European Convention of Human Rights (The Convention).

Muižnieks (2013) argues that “the indiscriminate ban on voting rights for prisoners should be repealed” (cited in Evans, 2017: 5). The Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon commented that a fundamental part of prison is that the inmate loses certain rights (Evans, 2017). The irony is that Scotland wants to remain in the Eurozone with all the benefits that this entails yet does not wish to utilise the Devolution Settlement (Scotland Act 1998) to strike down Acts of the Scottish Parliament that breach the Convention.

Talk about having your cake and eating it.

The Scottish Government put forward a consultation in which they wished to ascertain from the citizenry the sorts of electoral reforms they would like to see but this did not apply to prisoner voting (Evans, 2017). There are several other European nations that permit prisoners to vote with no restrictions, such as Sweden, Spain, Norway, Croatia and Switzerland. I think it would be interesting to take a look at the crime rates and desistance processes of such nations. Evans (2017) points out that the only countries with blanket bans on prisoner voting are Russia, Hungary, Georgia, Estonia, Bulgaria and Armenia (all former USSR/Soviet Bloc nations). I wonder if this has anything to do with Alex Salmond’s new chat show on RT?

Just kidding!

Not only are people in Scottish prisons prohibited from political participation but the prison experience, in many cases, renders people more ‘criminally-challenged’ than before. This is known as ‘dehabilitation’ (Scott and Flynn, 2014). It is the idea that prison suppresses rehabilitative conditions to the extent where prisoners evolve to become better criminals. The prisons abstention from direction/intervention enables inmates to develop their criminal repertoire and establish contacts they can utilise in the community to perpetrate new illegal ventures, increasing the likelihood of recidivism post-release.

Friedman (1993) states that no amount of new prisons or new laws can stop the crime problem. He argues it is a cultural issue that “is part of us, our evil twin, our shadow; our own society produced it” (cited in Gilligan, 2000: 14). If it is a cultural issue, is voter disenfranchisement amongst prisoners part of this process? How do we re-integrate those who have served time in prison when “they were never integrated in the first place” (Wacquant, 2010: 612)? Rotman (1990) argues that the issue with rehabilitating ‘sleepers’ is that the supposed rehabilitative process is more ‘authoritarian’ rather than ‘anthropocentric’ (cited in McNeill and Velasquez, 2017).

Authoritarian rehabilitation entails the exercise of power while anthropocentric rehabilitation outlines individualised model of state/citizen dialogue. This link with McNeill and Schinkel’s (2015) notion of ‘tertiary desistance’ where the individual is restored to an inclusive position in society. The stages of ‘primary desistance’ (behaviour) and ‘secondary desistance’ (identity) precede the tertiary desistance stage (McNeill and Schinkel, 2015).

However, I would like to offer the view that authoritarian rehabilitation will never work. Many people in prison have come through a lot of childhood trauma and lived life in a way that would scare, sicken or shock much of society. Nevertheless, many are still people with real emotions, hopes and dreams. Many are proud people who have suffered big knocks and still dusted themselves off. For someone to dictate to them how they should live or view life is not going to amount to much. The fact that many of the prison staff are younger than some inmates and little/no ‘life experience’ only compounds the issue.

How are you supposed to open up to someone who can’t relate to you?

Since prison disrupts and (in many cases) destroys family/social bonds, how can we as a society expect the carceral experience to reinforce desistance? McNeill and Velasquez (2017) argue that “those excluded from making the laws (and from the benefits and protections of laws) lose commitment to compliance with them”. I would agree with this statement, although I would offer that political disenfranchisement is one part of a bigger whole. Many prisoners and ex-offenders feel left out of society and not just the political arena. In fact, I asked several people in my wing about their opinions on politics and voting. All gave me similar cynical responses, which, I am sure, is only reinforced by our government subverting the very mechanism it wished to remain part of.

The ‘rejection of the rejecters’, as Scott and Flynn (2014) would say.

As McNeill and Weaver (2010) argue, those committed to desistance from crime can only do so much by themselves. Sooner or later, the social order has to step up to the plate and absorb people back into the fold of daily life through employment and other forms of social participation. When people show understanding and compassion for many of the psychically fractured and damaged individuals incarcerated in our prisons will society see results. Many prisoners I have came across on my travels have hearts; I always find that there is something human in the majority. Granted that there are dangerous individuals in our prisons and I will be the first to say that there is no rehabilitation for certain offences (the Bin Ladens and Fred Wests of the world).

A blanket ban should be applied in such cases.

Wouldn’t our prisons be better served if politicians in whose constituency specific prisons were located visited the institution on a quarterly basis, providing inmates with a voice and a platform to (a) raise issues and concerns, and (b) become more politically aware? Are we truly a progressive, democratic nation who wishes to include everyone or are we simply a cultural and social wolf in sheep’s clothing? A single vote on its own is next-to-worthless; it is in their collective pool that they become powerful. If Wales and the Republic of Ireland allow prisoners the right to vote (Evans, 2017), why can’t Scotland do the same?

I myself am only recently becoming politically aware and feel that one cannot challenge a subject on which one knows nothing about. The only way that people in prison can challenge these issues is if they become more politically aware. Perhaps I am the first brick in the wall of a (re)awakening of ‘civic sleepers?’ That would not be possible without the small (but growing) number of people who believe in my behavioural, mental and emotional metamorphosis. Such people should be held up as a collective microcosm of how a government ought to act. Yet Travis (2017) points out how the Westminster government, in response to the Hirst case, will permit ‘up to 100 inmates serving short sentences’ to vote while on temporary release. What sort of ‘consolation’ is that?

Absolutely no consolation.

Such vindictive practices despatch prisoners out into an unforgiving society where they are subjugated and herded into a hidden world that is criminogenic in its cause and solution. It is in this world of ‘Neo-Darwinism’ (Wacquant, 2008) where many of those masses shunned by mainstream society inhabit a criminal mirror image of the widely worshipped ruling function of the neoliberal universe (the free market). What a wonderful way to keep the criminal heart beating.

Crime that the government supposedly wishes to eradicate.



Clark, W.R., Golder, M. and Golder, S.N. (2013) Principles of Comparative Politics (2nd edition), SAGE Publications: London.

Evans, A. (2017) ‘Prisoner Voting in Scotland: a short summary’, SPICe Briefing Paper, The Scottish Parliament: Edinburgh.

Gilligan, J. (2000) ‘Punishment and violence: is the criminal law based on one huge mistake?’, Social Research, Volume 67(3): 745–112.

McNeill, F. and Weaver, B. (2010) ‘Changing Lives? Desistance Research and Offender Management’, Glasgow: Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research. Available online at

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

McNeill, F. and Velasquez, J. (2017) ‘Prisoners, Disenfranchisement and Sleeping Citizenship’, see:

Scott, D. and Flynn, N. (2014) Prisons & Punishment: The Essentials (2nd edition), SAGE Publications: London.

Travis, A. (2017) ‘Up to 100 Prisoners on Short Sentences to be Given the Right to Vote’, The Guardian, 2nd  November 2017 [online]. Available at Accessed Wednesday 13th December 2017.

Wacquant, L. (2008) ‘Ordering Insecurity: Social Polarization and the Punitive Upsurge’, Radical Philosophy Review, Volume 11(1): 9–27.

Wacquant, L. (2010b) ‘Prisoner Re-entry as Myth and Ceremony’, Dialectical Anthropology, Volume 34: 605–620.The Colony of ‘Civic

Governmentalities, Tertiary Desistance and the Responsibilisation Deficit

This third guest post from Kris MacPherson continues to engage with questions about the relationship between education and desistance, but now exploring broader debates about the responsibilities of the state and of the citizen in these processes. It draws both on Kris’s studies and on his own experiences.

Foucault (1975: 9) argues that ‘punishment is the most hidden part of the penal process’ because it does not manifest itself in physicalities as such but more in ways that affect mental and emotional states. Prison education helped keep my mind occupied from the ‘prison politics’ going on around me. It shaped and moulded my emotions and mental state in a beneficial way. Attending the learning centre exposed me to teachers who had previous experiences of universities and they encouraged me to chase my ambitions. I always fancied matriculating but thought my past experiences (and behaviour) would preclude me. My teachers showed me how wrong I was, arranging interviews with two Scottish universities. Both offered me a place that was conditional upon my release by the Parole Board. As I have explained in previous posts, this group of teachers became a ‘hook-for-change’ for me in their own right.

Now I have finished my degree, I realise that my scholarly journey has only just begun. In the same way that Wacquant (2009: 107) wanted to ‘find a direct observation post inside the ghetto because the existing literature on the topic was the product of a “gaze from afar”’, I wish to utilise my embedded observation post within the Scottish carceral/criminal justice apparatus to ‘reconstruct the question of the [prison/criminalised individual] from the ground up, based on the precise observation of the everyday activities and relations of that terra [and persona] non grata and for this very reason incognita’ (Wacquant, 2009: 107).

More specifically, I want to link the Foucault’s (1975) idea of governmentalities (cited in Fergusson and Muncie, 2010) to McNeill’s (2016) notion of tertiary desistance and to concepts of responsibilisation (Scott and Flynn, 2014; Drake, 2010). While these are not necessarily linked, I would argue that there not only appears to be some overlap vis-à-vis the successful reintegration of people leaving prison but also in the role that society and the government has to play in this broader endeavour.

For me, change starts with the individual and ends with society.

I’ve written before about the importance of the shift in identity: One cannot have one foot on the wrong side of the law and the other foot on the right side. A person conducting himself in this manner by playing both sides of the fence is waiting to fail. Imprisonment is not a promising context for identity change. The magnification of individual risk may render potential desisters unwilling to commit to transformation. Continual focus on risk blinds criminal justice agents to the offenders’ potential for change. Moreover, the lack of social opportunities in the community post-release surely is an ideal breeding ground for recidivism. And even if imprisonment could be seen as providing a catalyst for change, this is more difficult than it sounds, especially if institutions (and the people in them) are not completely committed to reform or desistance.

Ripple et al. (1964) argue that three conditions must be present to support positive change: motivation to transform, the capacity to act in a different manner as well as opportunities to cement this change (cited in McNeill and Weaver, 2010: 35, emphases in original). This is interesting because it could be argued that lack of opportunities may prevent or impede the germination of motivation within the soil of the potential desister’s personality.

According to Maruna (2001), ex-offenders committed to desistance told of a ‘redemption script’ that contained three important features: (1) optimism about one’s capacity to surmount barriers; (2) enthusiasm about contributing to causes greater than oneself; and (3) belief in one’s ‘good self’ (cited in Schinkel, 2015). Since I am a ‘desister-in-progress’, I can testify to this. I have always viewed myself as a good person who has done bad things. While I would definitely not describe myself as overly optimistic, I am extremely enthusiastic about pursuing my academic studies (which I see as a cause greater than myself). Being the father of a six-year-old is also a primary motivator for me in giving up a criminal lifestyle.

During deep analytical reflection on my circumstances, I have formed the view that it is highly unlikely that I would have been involved with the criminal justice system at all had I been born into different circumstances (but I still refuse to ‘blame’ anyone for my actions; I take full responsibility). If I lack ‘optimism about [my] capacity to surmount obstacles’, perhaps that represents my reasonable apprehension and cognizance of the fact that I know I cannot do it alone. This may tie in with claims made by McNeill and Weaver (2010) that a desister can only do so much on his/her own.

Sooner or later, they will require help from other sources.

Moreover, it could be argued that lack of motivation on the desister’s part is not the issue. For example, Nugent and Schinkel (2016) cite examples of people released from prison on licence with very little possibility of ‘true’ desistance. They appear to vacillate between primary and secondary desistance; they leave behind the criminal lifestyle but are forced by societal marginalisation to continue wearing the criminal identity. This social purgatory appears to cause the person to remove himself from potential situations where he fears the possibility that an offence may occur due to factors out with his control (Nugent and Schinkel, 2016). This evidences a link between desistance and successful prisoner re-entry; or conversely, a link between a lack of transitional support and the failure to secure desistance.

Interestingly, McNeill and Schinkel (2015) pose the question “can we enable desistance through criminal sanctions, or do they tend to frustrate it?” Perhaps desistance can be both enabled through criminal sanctions but also frustrated by these same penalties. It may depend in part on the individual being penalised. For example, someone may be less likely to commit to desistance if penalised in a manner that they may see as harsh or unfair treatment. They may see no point desisting or reforming because they will ‘always be treated unfairly’, perhaps demonstrating parallels with Maruna’s (2001) ‘condemnation script’ (cited in Schinkel, 2015) in which some believed themselves to be consigned to their fate as criminals.

The multitude of (ex) offenders perhaps live in the here-and-now, dealing with seemingly intractable problems that affect their daily lives and they may not feel equipped for climbing the ‘desistance mountain’. This attitude may correlate with the psychological concepts of ‘low self-efficacy’ and/or ‘external locus of control’ (McNeill and Weaver, 2010: 18) but perhaps it is also the product of the social factors, like the cumulative effects of inequality and lack of opportunity or help.

Does this lack of successful reintegration then perhaps reveal a larger problem associated with societal attitudes which see those released from incarceration as undeserving, evil people who will commit further acts of evil at the first opportunity? Interestingly, the Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1973: 75) argued in his famous text The Gulag Archipelago that ‘…the dividing line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being’. A person I knew in a past life used to say, ‘It isn’t a crime unless they catch you!’ — his attempt at philosophy, I suppose. Reading between the lines, I now realise that perhaps he meant that everyone has committed a crime in their life, however small (or big) it may be, but only those who get caught are labelled ‘criminals’.

Perhaps crime is a general human proclivity; not limited to those deemed ‘criminal’.

Interestingly, McNeill’s (2016) notion of tertiary desistance highlights that desistance is not only the responsibility of the desister; the state and community also have their own roles to play in this drama. For example, a desister will always be impeded so long as the state and community do not recognise this transformation and take steps to reintegrate the individual into the fold of society. As McNeill (2016: 204) convincingly argues, ‘no amount of personal change can secure desistance if change is not recognised and supported by the community (social rehabilitation), by the law and by the state (judicial rehabilitation)’.

Social and judicial rehabilitation as well as moral and psychological rehabilitation (as proposed by McNeill, 2014) evidence the argument that it is not only the individual refraining from criminal behaviour who has a role to play; there are many actors in this process (whether they choose to actively participate in the journey is a different matter). Therefore, it may be said that without the initiation of the juridical and social rehabilitation processes, tertiary desistance is non-existent.

How then can we change societal and community attitudes in order to initiate the ‘responsibilisation’ not just of the individual desister but also of the judicial systems and the communities in which social rehabilitation does or does not take place? If criminalised individuals are expected to assume responsibility for their own moral and psychological reform then can we not expect the government/criminal justice system/community nexus to take responsibility for social and judicial rehabilitation? Christie (1977) famously argued that societal conflicts had become the ‘property’ of the state’s criminal justice mechanism. One wonders why in that case there is such a drastic responsibilisation deficit when it comes to state ownership of the final phase of the conflict that brought the person to their legal attention: that of successful reintegration.

Governments and nation-states, by definition, manifest their own particular ‘governmentalities’. These elucidate ways in which bureaucratic mechanisms extend into communities through the governmental infrastructures and processes that underpin them. It may therefore be logical to postulate that the state’s ‘responsibilisation deficit’ forms its own ‘penal governmentality’, manifesting itself in the ‘pains of desistance’ (Nugent and Schinkel, 2015).

If we consider the bureaucratic field of the neoliberal criminal justice function, one can see that numerous academics (Drake, 2010; Reiman and Leighton, 1979; Allen, 2013) argue that punitiveness and mass imprisonment, rather than reformation and restoration, are the key ‘symbolic ties’ of contemporary neoliberal societies (Wacquant, 2013). Perhaps this links to what Rothman (1980) termed ‘administrative convenience’ (cited in Cheliotis, 2006: 186) where reformative governmentalities have been held back by operational difficulties, such as prison overcrowding and the maintaining of carceral order.

Instead of taking responsibility themselves for reintegration, governments and political parties tend to utilise the corporate media machine as a proxy vehicle to cite the importance of responsibilising socially marginalised and economically disenfranchised citizens trapped in the ‘fissures and ditches of the dualizing metropolis’ (Wacquant, 2010b: 199). Perhaps I am barking up the wrong tree but isn’t this responsibilisation strategy a warped governmentality that blames the individual for the state’s own failings? How can those committed to desistance from crime realise this objective in the midst of the post-Keynesian ‘employment of insecurity’ where the triple intention of the penal mechanism is the disciplinary measures levelled against the fractious proletariat, coupled with carceral incapacitation of the most disorderly individuals while also reaffirming the state’s power over its subjects (Wacquant, 2001: 405).

Perhaps the overuse of the prison system is political compensation for the state’s own ‘crisis of legitimacy’ (Wacquant, 2001: 402). Wacquant (2001) argues that incarceration is now a routine function in dealing with rising social insecurity in neoliberal states characterised by mass unemployment, precarious wage work and minimised social fortifications. These bureaucratic methods lead to the impression that such neoliberal governmentalities assume responsibility for punitiveness but evade accountability for the social malaises that lead to such imprisonment in the first instance. The impoverished did not – cannot – generate their own levels of poverty.

Only the state can generate – and relieve – poverty.

While I do not necessarily agree with the view that people in my position or with my background are ‘victims’ of and unjust society, I definitely believe that certain socio-structural contexts and factors helped shaped and moulded the criminal thinking that I developed. If, according to McNeill (2014), the reform of the individual involved in offending consists of moral, psychological, judicial and social elements then it could be said that half of this process (moral/psychological) is the person’s responsibility, with the other half (social/judicial) belongs to the state and society as a whole. Such a process perhaps can only be initiated by the participant’s willingness and commitment to change, but even then s/he must be given the tools with which to do so. The individual may have to alter the moral/psychological processes that led to them committing a criminal offence in the first instance, but the state ought to focus on the social and judicial aspects in order to support and secure the transition from a criminalised lifestyle. Moreover, the individual committed to desistance cannot (at least as far as the law goes) classify him/herself as “legally rehabilitated”.

Only the law can change the law. Only communities can change communities.



Allen, R. (2013) ‘The Use and Practice of Imprisonment: Current Trends and Future Challenges’, Prison Reform International: Vienna.

Butt, T. (2004) ‘Personality Theories 1: Trait, Biological and Cognitive’ in Understanding People, Palgrave MacMillan: Basingstoke/New York.

Cheliotis, L.K. (2006) ‘Demystifying Risk Management: A Process Evaluation of Prisoners’ Home Leave Scheme in Greece’, Criminology & Criminal Justice, Volume 6(2): 163–195.

Christie, N. (1977) ‘Conflicts as Property’, The British Journal of Criminology, Volume 17(1): 1–14.

Clark, W.R., Golder, M. and Golder, S.N. (2013) Principles of Comparative Politics (2nd edition), SAGE Publications: London.

Daniels, G. (2013) ‘Restorative Justice: Changing the Paradigm’, Probation Journal, Volume 60(3): 302–315.

Drake, D. (2010) ‘Punitiveness and Cultures of Control’, in Drake, D., Muncie, J. and Westmarland, L. (eds.) Criminal Justice: Local and Global, Cullompton, Willan Publishing/Milton Keynes, The Open University: 38–69.

Fergusson, R. and Muncie, J. (2010) ‘Conflict Resolution, Restoration and Informal Justice’ in Drake, D., Muncie, J. and Westmarland, L. (eds.) Criminal Justice: Local and Global, Willan Publishing/The Open University: Milton Keynes: 71–104

Foucault, M. (1977[1975]) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan Sheridan, Penguin Social Sciences: London.

Garland, D. (1996) ‘The Limits of the Sovereign State: Strategies of Crime Control in Contemporary Society’, The British Journal of Criminology, Volume 36(4): 445–471.

Garland, D. (2001) The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McNeill, F. and Weaver, B. (2010) ‘Changing Lives? Desistance Research and Offender Management’, Glasgow: Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research. Available online at:

McNeill, F. (2014) ‘Punishment as Rehabilitation’, in Bruinsma, G. and Weisburd, D. (eds.) Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Springer, New York: 4195–4206.

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, Routledge: London.

McNeill, F. (2017) ‘Punishment, Rehabilitation and Reintegration’, British Criminology Plenary Address, Sheffield Hallam University, 8th July 2017.

Nugent, B. and Schinkel, M. (2016) The Pains of Desistance’, Criminology and Criminal Justice, Volume 16(5): 568–564.

Schinkel, M. (2015) ‘Hook for Change or Shaky Peg? Imprisonment, Narratives and Desistance’, European Journal of Probation, Volume 7(1): 5–20.

Scott, D. and Flynn, N. (2014) Prisons & Punishment: The Essentials (2nd edition), SAGE Publications: London.

Scottish Executive (2015) ‘Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974’, Scottish Executive, 20th May 2015 [online]. Available at: Accessed 10th April 2017.

Solzhenitsyn, A. (1973) Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956, Translated by Thomas P. Whitney and Harry Willets, Harvill Press/HarperCollins: London.

Reiman, J. and Leighton, P. (1979) The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class and Criminal Justice (10th edition), Routledge Publishing, New York. (this edition 2013).

Vidmar, N. and Miller, D.T. (1980) ‘Social Psychological Processes Underlying Attitudes Toward Legal Punishment’, Law and Society Review, Volume 14(3): 565–602.

Wacquant, L. (2001) ‘The Penalisation of Poverty and the Rise of Neoliberalism’, European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research, Volume 9: 401–412.

Wacquant, L. (2009) ‘The Body, The Ghetto and the Penal State’, Qualitative Sociology, Volume 32: 101–129.

Wacquant, L. (2010a) ‘Class, Race & Hyperincarceration in Revanchist America’, Daedalus, Volume 139(3): 74–90.

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

Wacquant, L. (2010c) ‘Prisoner Re-entry as Myth and Ceremony’, Dialectical Anthropology, Volume 34: 605–620.

Wacquant, L. (2013) ‘Symbolic Power and Group-Making: On Pierre Bourdieu’s Reframing of Class’, Journal of Classical Sociology, Volume 13(2): 274–291.

Wacquant, L. (2015) ‘Bourdieu, Foucault and the Penal State’ in Zamora, D. and Behrent, M.C. (eds.) Foucault and Neoliberalism, Polity: Cambridge: 115–133.

Desistance in Norway — Panel at Eurocrim 2018

This guest post comes from John Todd, a doctoral researcher at the University of Oslo.

This quick post is to let those heading to the European Society of Criminology conference in Cardiff know that there will be a panel on ongoing desistance research in Norway. The panel is entitled ‘Desistance and penal welfarism: desistance from crime in Norway’ and will be on Friday 15th September at 15.45. There will be three speakers and  Fergus has kindly agreed to act as discussant, giving some comments on each of the presentations.

With the exceptional state of penality in Scandinavia under debate, the panel seeks to outline some key aspects of desistance in the Norwegian context. Do the low imprisonment rates, the humane approach to prisons and probation and the egalitarian culture and social structure observed by John Pratt almost a decade ago create the perfect environment for desistance? Or are the challenges of desistance in Norway similar to those in other states?

The individual papers are as follows:

Welfare, hope and desistance – the interplay of external and internal factors in the early phases of desistance: Emma Villman (University of Oslo)

Much of the research on desistance from crime has focused on either social factors or more subjective causes for change. This dichotomy between the external and the internal has long been criticized, and several attempts to integrate insights from both perspectives have been made. How such an interplay of social and subjective factors initiates and shapes the desistance process is, however, still in need of further conceptualization and theorization.

Using data from a survey on living conditions among prisoners in Norway (N=264), the necessity of an integrated understanding of external and internal factors in the desistance process is stressed. When studying anticipated desistance among Norwegian prisoners, one may find that both subjective and structural factors play a central part in the earliest phases of desistance; not separately, but intertwined in a complex interplay. In contrast to earlier attempts of finding out ”what comes first” in the desistance process, these results indicate that such attempts might give us a somewhat misguided focus. What if it is the interplay itself that initiates the change towards desistance?

Adolescent Desistance: Thomas Anton Sandøy (Norwegian Institute of Public Health)

While much research on desistance focuses on processes of change for repeat offenders during and after imprisonment, this paper analyzes the desistance narratives of young offenders outside the traditional justice system. In Norway, increasing numbers of adolescent drug users have been diverted to alternative justice systems over the last decade. Based on in-depth interviews with adolescents enrolled in programs to refrain from drug use and the workers administering these programs, the paper seeks to identify narrative ‘turning-points’ implicated in the desistance process. The analysis show how the adolescents enter into moral conversations about what ‘truly matters’ in life and how their relationships with family and friends have been affected by their drug use and criminality. The administrators, on the other hand, place a stronger emphasis on the impact of wider societal factors on desistance. Taken together, the narratives display the interplay between subjective commitments (agency), and the role of interventions and social factors (structure) in adolescent desistance.

Talking good: a psychosocial analysis of Norwegian desistance narratives: John Todd (University of Oslo)

This paper seeks to employ insights from psychosocial criminology in order to analyse the narratives of a group of Norwegian desisters. The desistance process is of course complex and each individual’s story will be unique. But desistance also occurs in a social and structural context, with Norway labelled by some observers as one of the last bastions of penal welfarism. It is thus important to analyse how structural, relational and individual factors are narrated as enabling or frustrating change. Narrative analysis of this kind can help us avoid the extremes of structural (‘he came from a broken home’) and psychological (‘she suffers from low self-control’) determinism. This presentation seeks therefore to analyse a set of biographical narrative interviews in order to better understand how the desistance process in Norway is shaped both by the inner, psychic world and the external, social world of those doing the desisting.

Punishment, Rehabilitation and Reintegration

This is the text of my closing plenary address at the British Criminology Conference at Sheffield Hallam University on 8th July 2017.


I want to thank the conference organisers for inviting me to talk to you today; I’ve been at several BSC conferences over the years – and once endured the joys and pains of organising one – so I very much appreciate their efforts and their hospitality. This one has been a lot of fun – and full of stimulation. I haven’t missed a session and I haven’t been at a disappointing one, and that’s a first. It feels as if British criminology is at an important moment and it looks like, for once in my life, I might get the last word. So, no pressure then.

Before I start, I also want to say how delighted I am to find myself following Beth. Indeed, when I was one of her PhD supervisors, I spent a lot of my time, trying to keep up with her. It’s not easy. She has remarkable reserves of energy, intellect and commitment – to which you have just borne witness. I’m very proud to have played even a tiny part in supporting her development. And, in similar vein, I want to take the opportunity to acknowledge and thank my other colleagues – past and present — at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research and in Scottish criminology more generally. I say ‘Scottish’, but as I prepared this talk, I realise that, even if I limit myself just to SCCJR’s Glasgow branch,

I’m going to be drawing today on recent conversations with colleagues at all career stages and from places including Chile, England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Singapore, Spain, Sweden and the USA. That’s Scottish criminology for you; nothing if not cosmopolitan.

Critiques of Desistance

I’ll start where Beth [Weaver] left off — with desistance theory and research, but, with this audience, I’m going to assume a degree of familiarity with the literature and skip the usual discussions of definitions and explanations. I want to jump straight into emerging critiques of desistance research, before looking beyond desistance and towards dystopia and utopia. So, buckle up your belts…

Recently, Pat Carlen – perhaps surprisingly — invited me to contribute a chapter on desistance to her co-edited collection with Leandro Ayres Franca on ‘Alternative Criminologies’. The book has just been published in Portuguese [and now, the English version is out: see].

Hannah Graham (who is another Scottish criminologist – though this time from Tasmania) kindly agreed to write this chapter with me; and we agreed that it would be appropriate in a collection of this sort to try to engage constructively with critical criminological perspectives on desistance. Another Scottish colleague, Alejandro, this time from Spain, would say that what we try to do in that chapter is to enter into a dialogue rather than a debate.

Some critics have begun to suggest that desistance scholars offer a reductionist account of crime and its cessation; one which de-contextualises offending behaviour and, worse, responsibilises individuals for their own desistance and reintegration. In essence, desistance research is seen by some as being ‘too agentic’ — too heavily predicated on individualistic notions of rational actors exercising human agency. Eileen Baldry and Phil Scraton are among the esteemed and respected colleagues who have made these points. To de-contextualise and de-politicise both crime and criminalisation is to belie their construction in and through an unjust social order; thus neglecting and perpetuating the inequalities that drive social injustice.

Hannah and I agree that there are aspects of and applications of desistance research that, if emphasised to the exclusion of other things, risk co-optation with responsibilising and reductionist approaches to punishment and rehabilitation. As desistance scholars, we are painfully aware of the increasingly repetitious use of the catch-cry ‘supporting desistance’, often as though this can be delimited to a set of prescriptions for how criminal justice workers can better support individuals to change or secure their own recovery, rather than looking beyond the individual both for the causes and the solutions of crime and criminalisation related problems.

The ‘too individualistic/too agentic’ critique does usefully highlight a tendency within desistance research to focus on individuals as the primary ‘unit of analysis’, although as Beth’s work demonstrates, there are desistance researchers taking different approaches. That said, there are some good reasons for focusing on the experiences of individuals. Any body of research which decentres or discounts the lived experiences of people in criminal justice processes, while making claims about them – even on their behalf — would lack legitimacy, both methodologically and politically. Instead, the question is how and by whom individual, relational and collective experiences are best to be gathered, represented, understood and explained, with critical emphasis on the reciprocal influences of structure and agency.

In fact, despite the criticisms I have just mentioned, very few desistance scholars advocate rational choice theorisations of desistance. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that most (in the UK at least) routinely reject and challenge reductionist and responsibilising approaches to rehabilitation (as should be obvious from Beth’s talk); that is often one of the reasons why we got into desistance research in the first place. In the UK, desistance research gained momentum as a counter-narrative to ‘what works’ research and related approaches to authoritarian, correctional rehabilitation. Desistance scholars have put considerable intellectual effort into developing sophisticated analyses of the relational, institutional and social contexts of desistance – Stephen Farrall’s work is an excellent example. In this sort of work, understandings of changes in people’s offending are not divorced from but rather linked to changes in life chances and social conditions. Even those commonly identified as identity theorists and sometimes accused of offering accounts that are supposedly ‘too agentic’, like Shadd Maruna or Peggy Giordano, in fact tend to take a social interactionist approach; hence, for example, the importance for Shadd of both labelling and de-labelling processes.

Some feminist critical criminologists have challenged the validity and utility of desistance scholarship on the grounds of its capacity to recognise and respond to diversity and discrimination. Their criticisms centre on the argument that desistance scholarship has ignored gendered differences in processes of crime, criminalisation and desistance from crime – and the patriarchal contexts of these processes. Carlton and Baldry (2013) explain their abolitionist stance in rejecting liberal-reformist discourses of women’s ‘pathways’ in terms of imprisonment and desistance as follows:

Desistance, however, does not escape the criticism we bring to other criminal justice policies and programmes – that they are male centric. All the original desistance studies were conducted with men in the United States and the United Kingdom, so that the framework was built around men’s experiences. At its heart, the desistance approach is male centric, individualistic and ignores the interlocking structural contexts of class, race and gender (Carlton and Baldry, 2013: 65).

Pollack (2012: 107) similarly sees liberal reformist gender-responsive ‘pathways’ approaches as complicit in the ‘hegemonic logic’ of correctionalism which imposes expert notions upon… criminalised women.’ Pollack (2012) argues this is a form of ‘epistemic violence’ which subjugates women’s narratives and identities, and de-politicises the social-structural roots of crime as a social problem using the ideological tools of evidence-based practices to compel these women’s reform, as if they cannot know themselves what they want and need.

While these are important challenges for desistance scholars, I think there are some inaccuracies in these critiques, which perhaps reflect a lack of serious or sustained engagement with the desistance literature and the debates within it. It is true – and it is both important and problematic – that most desistance research, like most criminology, started with and has privileged men’s experiences. But, in contrast to the critics’ claims, the international literature on desistance increasingly highlights issues of diversity, especially in relation to the gendered and racialised structural contexts of crime, criminalisation and desistance. Indeed, even a cursory reading of some of the key desistance studies reveals the inclusion of girls and women as research participants (see Liebrich, 1993; Graham and Bowling, 1995; Maruna, 2001; Giordano et al., 2002; Blokland and Nieuwbeerta, 2005; Smith and McVie, 2003; McAra and McVie, 2009; Farrall, 2002; Farrall and Calverley, 2006; Farrall et al., 2014).

And, also contrary to these critics’ claims, there has in fact been a proliferation of scholarship on gender in critically understanding both desistance and re/integration (for example, Sommers, Baskin and Fagan, 1994; Uggen and Kruttschnitt, 1998; McIvor, Murray and Jamieson, 2004; Rumgay, 2004; Leverentz, 2006, 2014; King et al., 2007; Søgaard et al., 2015).

Others, have used intersectionality, critical race and post-colonial theories to explore relationships between ethnicity, racialisation and desistance (for example, Calverley, 2013; Glynn 2013, 2015), including in relation to indigenous people’s experience of criminal justice in Canada (Deane, Bracken and Morrissette, 2007) and Australia (Marchetti and Daly, 2016; Halsey and Deegan, 2016).

More generally – and somewhat ironically — the critics sometimes write as if desistance is a singular approach – as opposed to a body of work full of internal conflict. Worse still, they confuse desistance theories and research with a particular criminal justice policy or programme of reform. Policies and programmes can be desistance-oriented in that they can be (1) pointed to that purpose and/or (2) informed by desistance theories and research. However, most desistance scholars think of desistance as a process that belongs to the people going through it, irrespective of which criminal justice professional(s) they interact with or which sanction is imposed upon them, if any. To say this, however, is not to support individualisation and responsibilisation. Indeed, it is intended to hold states, civil societies, justice systems and practices to account for their roles in supporting or frustrating, allowing or denying these processes – both in material and in symbolic terms. It is to these responsibilities that I now want to turn.

Beyond Desistance?

The critiques that I have just mentioned – whatever their limitations — represent a useful challenge to aspects of desistance research and of its criminal justice applications. However, I think that desistance research itself may have begun to do a better job of exposing its own limitations and contradictions, initially by beginning to confront the question of what, if anything, lies beyond desistance from crime? If, as is often argued, desistance is a process of development, what is it supposed to lead to? What kind of human flourishing lies beyond desistance from crime?

We need to look no further than this city to grasp the importance of these questions; the Sheffield Desistance Study highlights them in a particularly bleak and powerful way. Tony Bottoms (2013) has argued that, in that study, some people desisted through a form of extreme ‘situational self-binding’ which amounts effectively to the self-imposed incarceration of social isolation. Although Bottoms (2013) notes that this was a rare phenomenon in the Sheffield study, evidence from other studies suggests that it is not so unusual for those whose desistance processes lack personal and social support.

Adam Calverley’s (2009) exploration of ethnicity and desistance, for example, suggests that Black and Dual Heritage men in one London borough faced the greatest structural and cultural obstacles to desistance — and that they too tended to desist through self-isolation.

Two recent Scottish studies of very different populations have produced even clearer accounts of what we might perhaps call ‘dystopian desistance’. Marguerite Schinkel is a Scottish criminologist from the Netherlands, Her study focussed on people who were serving or had served long prison sentences. Briege Nugent is a Scottish criminologist from the north of Ireland. Her study of marginalised young people exiting an intensive support service — also found common ‘pains of desistance’ linked to social isolation and the failure to secure work, connection and belonging. These findings certainly paint a depressing and dystopian picture of life after desistance, at least for some people. In a sense, they expose the taken-for-grantedness of the assumption that ending offending is a ‘good’ outcome. Not offending may be a good outcome in the sense that it means less harm for society and for potential victims, but if it entails increases in the suffering of the person desisting (and perhaps of those closest to her or him) then, even on a cold utilitarian logic, the value of this outcome remains uncertain.

Sarah Anderson’s ongoing doctoral research at Glasgow makes an important and novel contribution to this line of argument. Her PhD explores the life histories of men who have experienced repeated trauma, offending and criminalisation and who are struggling to make some kind of recovery. Sarah’s painstaking analysis is beginning to show how the structural and symbolic violence of repeated criminalisation contributes to a cumulative traumatisation which undermines their fragile efforts to desist and, more generally, to build better lives for themselves and those they care most about. And in relation to these loved ones, other important work in Scotland by Cara Jardine, Rebecca Foster and Kirsty Deacon has exposed and is exposing how this structural and symbolic violence reverberates in their lives too.

Ultimately, this leads Sarah to ask whether desistance from crime is really the central issue at stake in these narratives – it is certainly not central to the way many of the men relate their stories. Their struggles are as much struggles for recovery from criminalisation and penalisation as struggles to stop offending. For others – despite histories of offending and criminalisation — both are marginal issues in their day-to-day fight for survival. There may well be things about these men themselves – long-established habits and patterns of thought and behaviour – that they need and want to change; but what they need most is change in long established habits and patterns of criminal justice thought and behaviour; and, perhaps even more importantly, change in the ways that we think and behave as a society.

For me, this is the most significant current challenge to and critique of desistance research – and it emerges from within it, from honestly following the data where it leads, and from examining the process as it is related by people living it. The irremediable problem with talking about desistance is that it accepts offending as the main issue at stake; sometimes forgetting those lessons from Criminology 101 about the way that social structures shape who and what gets criminalised – and in whose interests. I think I am perhaps still enough of a ‘left realist’ to accept that offending is an important issue and that striving to reduce it is a good thing. But it seems that desistance research is itself telling us that the real problems are – fittingly for a conference about ‘Forging Social Justice’, hosted in a post-industrial city – problems of social inequality and social injustice as refracted and amplified through criminalisation and penalisation. In other words, it seems that it is we – the criminalisers, the penalisers, the punishers, the excluders – that need to desist. But how?

Rethinking Rehabilitation

How are we to be supported in our desistance; how are we to be rehabilitated? Critical criminologists have also – again quite rightly – challenged criminology’s and criminal justice’s pre-occupation with these ‘re-words’.

Re-formation. Re-habilitation. Re-integration. Re-settlement. Re-entry. In French, Re-insertion. In German, Re-socialisation. The common arguments are, first, that these words spring from the (philosophically) liberal assumption that there is a just order in which the ‘offender’ was once habilitated, integrated and settled and, secondly, by implication, that the challenge is replacing him or her in that social order; making him or her fit back in. To put this more figuratively – we focus on reshaping the ‘offender’ and/or on reshaping the gap, but we don’t see the bigger picture of the structures that shape both the square peg and the round hole.

A third – and again related — critique – which we’ve been discussing of late in the SCCJR – concerns the ways in which these terms themselves represent a form of symbolic domination through language; one which has material consequences for those who are its objects. This is not their language or the language of their experiences; it is the self-justifying rhetoric of the system that ensnares them.

How might we respond? We could abandon these terms – but I think that risks both surrendering these terms to others within the criminal justice system and marginalising ourselves in public dialogue and debate. My preference – and my approach – has been to interrogate and seek to redefine these terms; to challenge not the words themselves but the ways in which they are understood and employed. Indeed, drawing on desistance research, I have argued that we need to develop models, policies and practices that attend not so much to ‘correctional’ understandings of rehabilitation aimed at individual transformation, as to mutual moral reparation, to judicial rehabilitation linked to restored civil rights and status, and to social integration too.

As well as reframing the meanings of these terms, a second response to the problem of symbolic domination may be – as already suggested – to flip the lens and apply these terms to the power-holders and the privileged – or better still, to all of us. To borrow from one of John Braithwaite’s memorable criminological contributions – but maybe applying it more to Valerie Braithwaite’s usual targets – a process of reintegrative shaming might be overdue for institutions, systems, practices and people who are the perpetrators of the injustices that uneven criminalisation and penalisation and enduring exclusion exacerbates. Perhaps we all need to confronted and shamed by our differing degrees of complicity in and responsibility for these systemic ‘crimes’, before we can be dissociated from our offences and reintegrated.

To teach us about that process, I look to the work of another colleague at the University of Glasgow – Professor Alison Phipps, holder of a recently established UNESCO Chair in Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts. Alison is what she calls a new Scot, having migrated from England herself. Her conception of refugee integration in avowedly ‘multilateral’; I cannot integrate you and you cannot integrate me. A guest does not integrate a host, nor a host a guest. We integrate together or not at all; as Beth might put it, and as her work so beautifully demonstrates, we have to accept, embody and practice mutual responsibility for creating community through solidarity and subsidiarity. In this sense, my rehabilitation is your rehabilitation and yours is mine. Either we figure out how to live together or we live apart.

When I shared this talk with Hannah a few days ago, she pointed me to this quote from Zygmunt Bauman, offered during one of his last interviews at age 90 last year:

“Divisions and conflicts between people are as old as humanity. There was always an intermixing process of integration and separation. Separation was always the guiding instrument of the integrating effort. If you wanted to integrate people, you have to point to their joint enemy, joint other… The stranger who is against ourselves that we need to watch and be vigilant and to defend ourselves [against]. For the first time we are in a situation where we have to commit to the next step on the road to integration without separation. The next step is a step towards people who are in a cosmopolitan situation. There are no remaining enemies against whom we will integrate. It’s a new situation that is unpracticed and untested so far. That’s what makes our present moment… on the one side, so terrifying, and on the other, so exciting.” [Source:]

How is this work of integration without separation to be done? It is no accident that Alison Phipps’ academic background is in anthropology and linguistics as well as education; and it is no accident that she has come to recognise the value of the arts as common languages through which integration is enabled, practised and represented.

In the abstract that I provided months ago and which, inconveniently, made its way into the conference programme, I promised at this point to discuss a new project called ‘Distant Voices: Coming Home’, recently funded by the ESRC and AHRC – but I fear that time will defeat me if I allow myself start to talk about this exciting partnership with Vox Liminis (a third sector organisation) and with Jo Collinson Scott (a musicologist from the University of the West of Scotland) and Oliver Escobar (a political scientist from the University of Edinburgh). Suffice it to say that this 3-year project, which has just begun, seeks to blur the boundaries between creative practice, community development, research and knowledge exchange. Its focus is on re/integration, but not the reintegration of individuals who have been punished; rather we aim to explore and influence whether, how and to what extent, a wide range of different actors – ourselves included – can build or rebuild community both during and after state punishment.


 As I said earlier, Carlen and Franca’s collection is concerned with ‘Alternatives Criminologies’. In a conference on Forging Social Justice, it seems fitting that I finish in this utopian vein. At the end of his challenging talk yesterday, Simon Winlow did ask us for a bit of criminological vision yesterday. This is all I’ve got so far.

Lately, both in Scottish sociology (for example in the work of another Glasgow colleague, Matt Dawson) and in Scottish criminology (in the work of Lynne Copson, Margaret Malloch and Bill Munro), there has been a resurgence of interest in utopia not just as critique but also as method. The work of Ruth Levitas has been one important inspiration in these debates. Levitas defines utopia as ‘the expression of the desire for a better way of being or of living’ (Levitas 2013: xii). She argues that visions of utopias can be developed as compensation for an unjust status quo (as in some religious utopias); as critique of how things are (by contrast with how they might be); and as more or less clearly articulated programmes of change (Levitas, 2000; see Dawson, 2016). Levitas’ (2013) work on utopia also argues the need for an archaeology — one that excavates the vision of the good society implicit in any given utopia; for an ontology — one that explores the utopia’s assumptions about human nature; and for an architecture of how the utopia is to be built in practice.

In the assessment that Hannah and I offer in our book chapter, despite the variety of views it encompasses, research on desistance and rehabilitation often shares a common implicit ontology; it asserts and it evidences the positive potential of human subjects and sees them as fundamentally social beings that are capable of growth and development, in the right circumstances. As such it undermines criminal justice responses (and social attitudes) that seek to define and to ‘other’ people with reference to their offending behaviour.

To a certain extent, desistance research and rehabilitation research have also offered ‘architectures’ of reform. But these designs, as I have said, vary greatly and are highly disputed both within and between the two literatures; they are even more disparate in the sometimes diverse and contradictory programmes of policy practice reform they have spawned. For some, like Beth and me, I think, the architecture of desistance has arguably moved beyond (and even away from) a focus on criminal justice policy and practice reform to include the development of a much more expansive — but still very young and under-developed — social movement.

What desistance and rehabilitation theories both perhaps lack, however, is a well-developed ‘archaeology’. So long as they begin with the assumed problems of offending and of ending offending rather than with what lies before, behind and beyond these problems and their construction, they will lack a well-articulated vision of the good society. But having said that, as I hope this session has illustrated, by exploring how people build better lives together, desistance research, like much of criminology, eventually forces us — through careful theoretical, empirical and normative work — to explore how we can build better communities and better societies. Increasingly, it makes clear that these questions cannot, should not and must not be separated.

And that’s the challenge, I think for contemporary criminology. It’s not just that we have to escape an uncritical focus on a narrow range of currently criminalized social harms, as the zemiologists argue. It is also that we need, I think, to offer much more than critique; we need to contribute constructively to imagining the architecture of a just social order. That may be a job for Simon Winlow’s radical economists and for political philosophers but, as criminologists, perhaps our unique contribution can be to articulate how a just social order might respond to wrongdoing (of all sorts) in ways that provide more than mere harm reduction. We need to offer responses that create and are constitutive of the conditions under which individual and collective human flourishing are made more possible, rather than constituting and exacerbating the conditions under which many people, families, groups, communities and societies suffer and decay.

We need a manifesto for the many, not the few, as someone said recently.