Rehabilitation through Education? An apotheosis of a ‘hook for change’

In his second guest post, Kris McPherson reflects further on his own experiences of rehabilitation through education, raising important questions not just about personal development in prison but also about prison regimes and social attitudes.

The evolution of behavioural and attitudinal reform is different for every person who embarks upon the desistance journey. However, a commonality appears to be that those who have the greatest success in sustaining desistance are people who utilise something termed a ‘hook-for-change’ (Giordano et al., 2002, cited in McNeill and Weaver, 2010). Succinctly, a ‘hook-for-change’ functions as a catalyst that initiates the desistance process for people who have previously been involved in offending behaviour. It is a foundation for which successful desistance is built.

My first ‘hook-for-change’ was academic education.

Fortunately, I have always been very captivated and intrigued by various forms of knowledge throughout my life. As a young boy, I voraciously read about subjects of all kinds. I studied maps, atlases and foreign language books to quench my insatiable thirst for insights into distant lands. I can name just about any capital/major city from the top of my head as well as being able to instantaneously point to places on a map as a result of poring over these maps and atlases. I used to sit and read the dictionary in class, looking for obscure words I hadn’t heard of before.

Knowledge has always been important to me.

I continued to purchase books and visit the local library during my ‘offending years’, which some thought peculiar for a person who behaved like I did (perhaps revealing their own stereotypical biases vis-à-vis the idiosyncrasies of those who offend). The irony is that people have persistently told me throughout my life that I am intelligent but ‘never used it for the right reasons’ (by which I assume they mean ‘legal reasons’). In fact, my nearest library was located within the stomping ground of a rival gang and yet I risked my physical safety in order to feed my over-active and deeply analytical brain. I am unsure whether this says something about my recklessness or more about my insatiable desire for knowledge. I also ended up forming a relationship with a girl from this same area, further complicating matters.

My Dad died suddenly as I was about to turn fourteen, resulting in me becoming deeply immersed in offending behaviour. I never spoke of his death with anyone (even family members) and now wonder if my offending behaviour was my own way of speaking about it? In other words, I suspect that the suppressed, unexpressed rage and emotional damage in relation to my Dad’s death mutated into a pathology that found expression through criminal acts. The commission of criminal actions achieved applause and reverence from my peers, which only fed my desire to appear powerful and indestructible when, in reality, I was the complete opposite – powerless and concealing a fractured heart and a psychically damaged soul. Looking back in reflection, I wonder if my raison d’être at that time (gang-focused offending and reputation building) was fuelled by the projection of my subconscious, latent rage and anguish vis-à-vis my Dad’s death on to those people from rival areas who conducted themselves in a fashion similar to myself?

The beauty of hindsight… and insight.

Sadly, the degree of my criminality mushroomed to the extent that I was incarcerated for four years at the age of fifteen. My behaviour, while contained within the institutional setting, still caused concern as I continued to dig a deeper hole for myself. The way I saw it back then was that I may have been the one digging the hole but the culture around me and my limited life chances handed me the shovel. As you can imagine, I did not pursue formal education during this spell in custody but still did much reading.

I was still wading through the turbid sludge of vengeful thinking and criminality.

Upon release, I picked up where I had left off in the community vis-à-vis criminality. However, I noticed that my peers were even more deferential towards me and I relished this at the time. It was as though I had returned from the moon or a war in some far off nation, held up by my peer group as an example for others to replicate. This may illustrate ways in which some people in lower-income neighbourhoods like mine function view such behaviour. By the time I received my current prison term at the age of twenty-one, I knew I had to do something before I ended up with a life sentence or worse.

That is where my hook-for-change (education) came in.

As I was now in an adult prison, I was in a better position to pursue higher education and this is exactly what I did. The minute I landed in HMP Shotts, I asked the learning centre staff what I had to do to gain acceptance for the Open University. After passing the prerequisite courses, I was accepted to do a degree and so began my odyssey of deep, analytical reflection, questioning and critical analysis of not only who I was then but who I wanted to be and where I wanted my life to go in the future. As the desistance literature explains (see: McNeill and Weaver, 2010; McNeill, 2014, for examples), my identity gradually shifted and I ceased to see myself as a serious criminal. Instead, I viewed myself as a serious student and (one day) an aspiring academic with something to contribute to society, utilising academia as the vehicle within which to realise this.

My academic addiction grew exponentially like some tropical virus and my daily reading material went from tales of drug lords and Mafia kingpins to classical literature (Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is probably my favourite!), academic analyses of political leaders and the political mechanisms of foreign nations. I wrote a play and novel (crime-fiction) which, although not published yet, received a lot of praise from teachers and academics alike.

I continued my fascination for languages. I actually bought my first Italian dictionary at the age of twelve and sought to expand my knowledge of the language now that I had enough time to do so. I mastered the Cyrillic/Russian alphabet in two days but the Arabic alphabet took me around eight months to learn. I saw these advanced, enigmatic languages as a challenge and was fascinated by their unusual characters and symbols. However, my knowledge of Russian and Arabic are nowhere near my level of Italian.

I hope one day this will change.

I do feel fortunate that I have been able to use my prison time to study in this manner. While academic education in prison contributed to my identity shift, in other prison systems people are not so fortunate as to have their education paid for by the authorities. Wacquant (2002) cites how the American prison system prohibited inmates from pursuing academic studies (through Pell Grants subsidies) regardless of the fact that it has been proven to reduce recidivism and enhance prison stability. The reason for discontinuing higher education in American prisons was cited as the ‘illegitimate draining of public finances’ (Wacquant, 2002, p.22).

If higher education reduces recidivism, maintains prison stability and, in my own personal experience, precipitates an identity shift from ‘offender’ to (aspiring) ‘scholar’ then why withdraw funding? How could the education of uneducated people be called ‘illegitimate?’ Surely the ‘richest superpower on earth’ can afford to educate willing inmates? Uncle Sam’s message to American prisoners seems to be “I won’t invest in your ‘hook-for-change!’”

Regardless of the social impact in the future.

Now that I have only just completed my criminology degree, I am fortunate enough to have developed an extreme interest in reading academic research papers (I literally have stacks of them in my cell). These are the skills I hope to use as another ‘hook-for-change’ to extract myself from the “fissures and ditches” of what Wacquant (2010a, p.199) called the “organizational mesh of the dualizing metropolis”.

According to Wacquant (2010a, p.199), “Welfare revamped as workfare and the prison stripped of its rehabilitative pretension now form a single organizational mesh flung at the same clientele mired in the fissures and ditches of the dualizing metropolis. They work jointly to invisibilize problem populations – by forcing them off the public aid rolls, on the one hand, and holding them under lock, on the other – and eventually push them into the peripheral sectors of the booming secondary labor market”.

Perhaps this is a major hindrance to desistance?

It is clear that people like myself who choose desistance do have a major role to play. But I cannot do it all on my own. As McNeill and Weaver (2010) argue, those who commit to desistance can only do so much by themselves. Sooner or later, society 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 in order for them to transcend desistance to the extent that it is not a matter of simple desistance but true reformation.

At what point does desistance become a part of you?

While McNeill and Schinkel (2015) state that it is impossible to ascertain the moment from which any behaviour ceases permanently, one wonders whether we can use Maruna and Farrall’s (2004) ideas of ‘primary desistance’ and ‘secondary desistance’ (cited in McNeill and Schinkel, 2015) to understand the period from which offending behaviour ceases and desists. According to Maruna and Farrall (2004), primary desistance refers to a shift in the idiosyncratic pattern while secondary desistance alludes to a transformation in identity (cited in McNeill and Schinkel, 2015). Furthermore, McNeill and Schinkel (2015) put forward the notion of ‘tertiary desistance’, which involves the person’s sense of belonging within a ‘moral, social and political society’.

From a personal viewpoint, this sounds completely logical.

Furthermore, McNeill and Weaver (2010) postulate a three-step process in the desistance journey which appears to parallel the primary, secondary and tertiary steps. These include the motivation to change, the capacity to reinforce change and the opportunities to realise transformation. The first two highlight a certain degree of human agency although may be initiated by external dynamics. The third element stresses the importance of society’s role in supporting the inclusion of people who have offended. At the present time, one could argue that potential desisters are expected to conform to societal norms and regulations without participation or realisation of all the society can offer to those seeking personal, moral, social or political growth.

But how can the neoliberal ‘Leviathan’ (Wacquant, 2010a, p.201) expect the marginalised and disenfranchised people caught up in the carceral/welfare nexus to conform to the “obligations of citizenship” without conferring upon them the “rights of citizenship?” How do we initiate the ‘responsibilisation’ of those in power to accept their own role, as McNeill (2017) argues, in the desistance process?

The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) reported that 80% of prisoners were unemployed prior to their incarceration (Scottish Executive, 2015) with it being eight times more difficult for an ex-offender to obtain employment post-release. The greatest factor in someone being refused employment was given as declaration of a criminal record (Scottish Executive, 2015). If those who have returned to the community from prison cannot find legal ways to support themselves then doesn’t this spell recidivism? Isn’t successful prisoner re-entry paramount in the desistance process?

Surely the above percentage highlights the importance of ‘tertiary desistance?’

In fact, Wacquant (2010b, p.612) asks, “How could former prisoners be re-integrated when they were never integrated in the first place and when there is no viable social structure to accommodate them outside” (emphases added). This points to a much bigger context in which those who offend are marginalised to the extent that many of them can’t/won’t desist because they feel that their options are extremely constricted. Surely this is where McNeill’s (2015) idea of ‘tertiary desistance’ comes into play? Perhaps the final destination of desistance is the “promise of equal opportunity, social justice, individual freedom and citizenship rights for all” (Garland, 2001, p.67).

I would argue that this is indeed the case.

But even though I was committed to higher education in prison, I felt that the penal bureaucracy refused to believe (or were at least extremely sceptical) that I could truly change. Realising this made me question whether I would ever be given a chance to ‘turn the corner’ and I spent many hours in silent reflective analysis on this point. I felt somewhat conflicted also due to the fact that I was serious about change yet had to live by the ‘inmate code’ (at least to an extent).

When I went to HMP Low Moss in early 2012, I met the most amazing and wonderful teaching staff that I have ever met in my life. I told them how much I wanted to leave my past behind but was frustrated by obstacles at every turn such as zero prospects of employment and being marginalised by the well-earned stigma that I had created for myself as an ignorant, angry and psychically damaged young man. I told the teachers that it was my newfound ambitions to (a) matriculate into Glasgow University and (b) to volunteer to work for the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU). The VRU (incase you have never heard of them) is an organisation set up by the Scottish police in 2005 to tackle gangs/knife crime.

These teachers (some of whom have since left this particular institution) ignited my motivation, helped me see that I possessed the capacity to sustain change as well as putting in place the opportunities that would be the silver bullet required to neutralise the proverbial werewolf of my past offending activities. By positively reinforcing my motivation, my teachers made me feel like a valued person rather than an offender, which led to the realisation that I had the capacity to foster a lifestyle transplant whereas before I was hesitant about the whole process. Perhaps the real reason for my hesitation was that I had no opportunities to provide the bridge from persistence to desistance. These teachers showed me the way to that bridge. I love them for the warmth, acceptance and altruistic kindness they showed me (if any of you are reading this – you know who you are).

Before I crossed paths with these teachers, I was wrestling with much inner conflict vis-à-vis criminality and the course my life was taking. I wanted to desist but didn’t want to end up with nothing but the ‘pains of desistance’ (Nugent and Schinkel, 2015) for company. In my opinion, this would be akin to swapping one incarceration for another more subtle form of prison. I was worried of being locked in social purgatory between the criminalised world and the non-criminalised world. I definitely credit those teachers, coupled with the birth of my son in 2011, with catalysing my decision to commit to desistance as a way of life. Academic work is the tools I use to achieve this. The only thing I can compare it to is people who ‘find’ religion; I look at academia in the same way.

Academia is my religion.

These days, I do not see myself as I did all of those years ago. I feel that I am shedding the skin of my former way of life thanks to my education, coupled with the periods of deep, critical reflection. I comprehend the damage I did not only to others but also to myself. I have never admitted to or spoken of any of the stuff that I am writing here now for the simple reason that I am slightly stoic. I accept responsibility for my transgressions and see absolutely no point complaining about the mess I made.

In my opinion, refusal to accept responsibility is ‘conduct unbecoming’ of what it means to be a man. Now that I have my own son, I feel that I must be an example to him and show him how not to act – but also how to carry himself as an adult. My Dad did not show me any of these things. I had to learn them for myself – the hard way. Perhaps it is fortunate that my son came into the world in the twilight of my criminality and not during the dawn. The last thing I would ever wish for would be for him to be exposed to anything I experienced during my formative years.

After all, today’s children are tomorrow’s adults.

Now I am older and wiser, which I attribute to my deeply reflective and analytical nature. These idiosyncrasies have served me well in my academic pursuits. Rather than realising notoriety through criminality, my new raison d’être is to show the very small group of people who believe in my transformation that I am worthy of their support. Moreover, I want to form and sustain the deep and rewarding emotional attachments that all humans desire through friendships, romance and things like this. My previous experiences of such ‘relationships’ were built on rather dubious, fragile foundations where one’s friend could turn into a nemesis literally overnight. I think this has affected me to a certain degree but has definitely not rendered me misanthropic.

Rather, I have simply buried my emotions and do not find it easy to take off my mask. My pathological wrath has dissipated and my powers of empathy have significantly developed since my ‘offending days’. Back then, my inability to empathise (or rather my unwillingness to do so) sheltered the straw house I had built in my head to protect myself from the impact and lasting effects of criminality. That same straw house has been blown away, leaving me with the mental, emotional and physical scars of the past. The physical wounds have long since healed but the mental and emotional ones are stark reminders of not only the damage I have done to others but also that which I have done to myself.

In my view, the learned helplessness of my formative years, braided with a denial of powerlessness, metastasised into a lust for powerfulness vis-à-vis gang criminality. This consumed my being and fuelled the rage embedded within my subconscious that was borne of my Dad’s death and issues with my biological mother. Now that I am a Dad, I must ensure that my beautiful, innocent six-year-old son does not grow up with the same deeply fissured, scarred heart.

After all, I have only just sewn mine back together.


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. (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.

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

Wacquant, L. (2002) ‘Four Strategies to Curb Carceral Costs: On Managing Mass Imprisonment in the United States’, Studies in Political Economy, 69: 19–30.

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

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


Desistance: an inside view

This guest post comes from Kris MacPherson who has recently completed a criminology degree with the Open University and who is currently completing a sentence in a Scottish prison. If you’d like to get in touch with Kris about his post, please leave a comment with your contact details and I’ll pass them on.

One of the most frequently voiced problems in relation to desistance, according to Maruna (2012), is the difficulty in differentiating between desistance from committing crime and a pause between criminal acts. Using the example of stealing a car, Maruna asks if a person who steals a car on Friday and does not commit another offence for the rest of the day could classify as desistance. What if the car thief refrains from taking another vehicle for a month or a year? [When] Is this desistance?

Let’s break it down.

For some people, the term ‘desistance’ conjures an image of repentance and desire for atonement on the part of the ‘offender. For that person, it signifies the realisation that s/he has value and potential to be something other than a scar on the social flesh of his/her community. In this sense, the word implies a permanent and complete realisation that the previous pattern of behaviour is damaging and hurtful to not only for victims and their families but also the families of those engaged in criminal activity.  The loved ones of those who offend are often, in fact, their last victims.

As Maruna’s example (above) suggests, someone involved in criminal behaviour who then goes through a period of committing no crime at all has not necessarily desisted from crime. In fact, this person, for whatever reason, may simply be ‘winding their neck in’! Legally speaking, the place where they live (or offend) might have had an intense police presence and/or been saturated with CCTV (‘jailbait’, to use a colloquialism), or other life events such as physical incapacitation or illness may possibly have prevented the person from perpetrating further acts.  Desistance then may imply or require a particular attitude as well as a pattern of crime-free conduct.

In the academic study of serial murder, a person who commits a series of murders with gaps in between homicides has certainly not desisted in between killings. These apparently crime-free periods in between murders are referred to as time intervals or, previously, cooling off periods (Salfati et al., 2012). However, we know from the literature (Salfati et al., 2012; Douglas, 2006) that these people involved in these types of extreme offending do not desist during the ‘time interval’. They can’t be classed as desisting simply because they haven’t been caught or the police have not recorded an offence. Post-apprehension, people confess to trolling, stalking, burglaries and other behaviour in between murders (how else could they find victims?). Therefore, these time intervals are not as crime-free as one would like to think.

The idea of a ‘time interval’ could be applied to the (apparently) crime-free gaps in the careers of people involved in less extreme forms of offending. Can their ‘lulls’ only be classed as a time interval in between convictions? How else can we define a period of ‘crime-free’ behaviour? It is logical to postulate that even a ‘career criminal’ does not go through his/her life committing crimes every minute of every day. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that there are gaps in between offences, however short/long they may be.

One could argue that what makes mere time intervals different from genuine desistance is the notion that the person experiencing the time interval still retains a criminal or criminalised identity. He/she continues to associate with other people actively involved offending (whether these offences were recorded and the offender apprehended/punished is irrelevant). S/he has not seriously considered changing or intended to make a complete break with their criminal lifestyle like those who are dedicated to desistance. Those who commit crime as a way of life usually have a specific criminal forte/proclivity in the same way that people who are addicted to drugs have a particular preference for a specific substance. They still may use other substances but there is one particular drug that they ‘prefer’.  It is often much the same with those living a criminal lifestyle.

For me then, desistance actually implies that one has made a conscious decision to break from a criminogenic life pattern, lead a completely different lifestyle, and continue to do so rather than simply passing through a period of refraining from committing crime. But how does a person arrive at the realisation that crime is a destructive process, affecting their own lives as well as those of others? Do they simply wake up one morning and make a spontaneous decision to change? Or is there something more gradual and ongoing at play?  The latter seems more plausible.

My own experience with desistance came after a long, gradual period of reflection on my past and exposure to academic study while serving a rather protracted period of incarceration. This particular spell wasn’t my first time in prison as I had spent another term in a young offenders’ institute. How I chose to spend this period of incarceration as opposed to the other is very different. Could it be argued that I was ‘desisting’ from crime since I was under lock and key? I would say that incapacitation does not amount to desistance, especially if you still harbour the old pro-criminal sentiments and consider these as part of your identity. Could my behaviour in the community be classified as desisting in between committing crimes pre-sentences? I would say no because I still harboured a certain self-image in which criminality was at the core. While prison does incapacitate a person, it does not completely diminish his offending capabilities. It merely hinders them.

For example, a person can still assault another person in prison. S/he can still use/sell drugs and even attempt to escape – all of which are still judged criminal offences in the eyes of the legal system. With the advent of technology like theInternet and mobile phones, the scope of prisoner-perpetrated criminality is widened if the prisoner in question has in his possession (or access to) a mobile phone. This could include intimidating court witnesses and arranging to have prohibited articles smuggled into the establishment. The prison economy is much more lucrative given that prices can increase exponentially, maximising profit. For example, an ounce of Class-A drugs could be bought in the community from anywhere between £600 and £800, depending on one’s source (referred to as ‘mates rates’). This same ounce, if broken down, could easily generate a total of £5,000 in prison, give or take. A phone purchased for £500 in the community could easily fetch between £2,000 and £3,000 inside prison.

The fact that such acts occur in prison does not make them any less criminal than if they were committed in the community. It is the fact that they are contained that may makes them seem less criminal — or it could be the fact that because they are offender-on-offender crimes that makes the public less concerned about the ramifications. Tabloid media portrayals of ‘offenders’ exacerbate the problems of those returning to the community from prisons, depicting them as undeserving and dangerous criminals for whom transformation is impossible. For a small minority, these portrayals may be accurate. However, the majority of people in prison are people with serious issues who can be helped if given the proper support and guidance.

Significant numbers of people liberated from prison are homeless, compounded by the fact they have little/no chance of employment. Unless employment is guaranteed by a family/friend willing to give a chance to someone leaving prison, a situation is created in which the person is signposted towards committing crime to sustain himself/herself because they are marginalised to the extent where they have no money or prospects. How could one even contemplate desistance in such a climate never mind practice it? If desistance is a process or a pathway then we must try to comprehend its destination (McNeill, 2015). Perhaps the final destination in the desistance process is the acknowledgement by society and state that reform has been realised or is at least possible, leading to ‘restoration of citizenship’ and reintegration into society as an all-inclusive and productive member.

Surely, this is the summit of the desistance mountain.

Some European countries have laws where an offender is classed as rehabilitated after a specific period in the community with no new convictions (Scottish Executive, 2012). An improvement to the Rehabilitation of Offenders (Scotland) Act 1974 vis-à-vis the reform of prisoners who have maintained desistance, I am sure, would go a long way. Imagine being stopped by police officers who radio base to ascertain whether you are wanted or have previous convictions (a common occurrence for some). The answer they receive states you do have convictions but are classified as rehabilitated under the amendment to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. Wouldn’t this change embedded attitudes towards ‘ex-offenders’? It is the responsibility of the person to maintain desistance but other agencies have their own roles to play. If someone takes the path of desistance but society closes all of the appropriate doors in his/her face, then where will this lead? Granted desistance is a process but it can definitely be argued that the more supports and protective factors a person has in his/her life, the less likely he/she will view crime as an appropriate response to a given situation (protective factors are individually-specific – having a child, supportive parents, making pro-social contacts, etc).

There are those for whom prison is the only alternative. However, someone who commits to desistance should be given the required support. Therefore, prisoners are not the only ones who have a role to play. We all do.

Reforming me, reforming ‘us’

This guest post comes from Alejandro Rubio Arnal, a doctoral researcher at the University of Glasgow.

The aim of this post is to summarise the autoethnographic part of my research project for the MRes Criminology at the University of Glasgow (see Rubio Arnal 2016 for full dissertation) in order to examine how and to what extent my personal experience of engaging in the Distant Voices festival music events encouraged me to reform my dispositions towards people in prison or people who have been in prison.

Distant Voices was a public festival run by Vox Liminis in collaboration with the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research. Amongst other things, the festival had the purpose of facilitating dialogue about punishment and reintegration between audience participants, artists, criminologists, people with convictions, their families and criminal justice practitioners (McNeill 2016, Vox Liminis 2014). My research was driven by the conviction that, taking into account the current state of affairs (Rock 2010), it is necessary to explore and contribute to that part of criminology that tries to go beyond academia and into the public sphere (Loader & Sparks 2010). I wanted to contribute to public criminology by studying how people experienced engaging in a public festival which explored what happens when ‘human stories, ideas and emotions’ about crime related issues are shared (Vox Liminis, no date).

Though encouraging people to reconsider their dispositions towards people in or after prison was not a direct aim of the festival, when conducting my initial analysis of the ethnographic study, I realised that the experience of engaging in the festival, had indeed encouraged me to reform my own dispositions (I use the word ‘dispositions’ to suggest something broader and deeper than just ‘attitudes’).

During the first music event, which took place on 6th November 2015, nine individuals participated in a songwriting process facilitated by Vox Liminis and led by two professional musicians. Two of the participants, who are regular collaborators in Vox events, had experience of being in prison and being released. During this event, the musicians shared five songs that had been written in prisons. We were then invited, either in groups or individually, to write a song in response, with the help of the facilitators and musicians. After we spent much of the day working on our songs, they were recorded. At the end we all listened to and talked about each of the new songs. IN and through this process, a very special atmosphere of cordiality, familiarity, trust and affection was created.

When reading my fieldnotes about that day, something became very clear to me: My experience of participating in this workshop encouraged me to reconsider my dispositions towards people in or after prison, and to reform them as a consequence. I believe that what encouraged me to do so was the discovery or reinforcement of the humanity of people in or after prison — — and the ways in which feelings of empathy towards them were nurtured.

This discovery or reinforcement of humanity and evocation of empathy took place during/through three different music-mediated dialogic episodes: (1) indirect dialogue with a person who had previously been in prison during the introductory part of the workshop, (2) in-depth reflection within myself focused on comparing a personal experience of returning home with a person’s re-entry from prison, and (3) direct dialogue with a person who had been in prison, ‘Lindsay’, during the writing process. These experiences made it apparent to me in a new way that people in or after prison are people who may have hope and may be positive about their future (during the first episode), that they had a life before being in prison (during the second episode) and that they have people outside prison who they miss (first episode). This evoked feelings of sympathy and empathy in me towards them, made me realize that they are not different from me, and encouraged me to feel admiration for their courage in facing situations that seem difficult to me. The most important episode of my participation in this event, and probably of the whole festival was meeting Lindsay. I believe one of the main reasons for my reconsideration of my dispositions towards her in particular, and towards people who have faced imprisonment and release in general, is the type of interaction we had: talking directly, looking into her eyes, face to face.

The second music event, ‘Distant Voices: In Song’ took place at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow. During it, professional musicians played 22 songs that had been written by people in or after prison, prison officers, criminologists and criminal justice workers. Listening to those songs, and interacting with Julian, who had previously been in prison and who now collaborates with Vox, encouraged me to reconsider my dispositions because firstly it gave me the opportunity to discover more aspects of the human experience of imprisonment and release that were previously unknown to me. Secondly, it increased my level of empathy towards people with these experiences. The feeling of being part of the event, and the fact of already knowing some of the people whose songs were performed during the concert were also influential aspects.

Despite having spent seven years studying criminology and two of them researching about reintegration, participating in this festival gave me the opportunity to confront the human side of people affected by imprisonment that was, until that moment, unknown to me. That happened during/through different types of music-mediated dialogic episodes/moments. This is what made the difference, and encouraged me to reform my dispositions.

These results, which were similar for those other participants that I spoke to who had also reconsidered their dispositions, albeit on a small scale, come from one of the first research studies of art-mediated dialogue about crime related issues. They highlight the important role that music-mediated dialogue can have in encouraging people to reconsider their dispositions and the important role of empathy and other emotions during this process. Through encouraging the co-exploration of different views and meanings that people attach to the world (Escobar 2011), engaging in music-mediated dialogue seems to counter stigma by opening up new ‘knowledge’ and reducing the emotional distance that is both a consequence of stigma and key to its maintenance.

Apart from this main finding, there is a broader issue which would also require more research: According to the data (not only about my own experience but also about others’ experiences) it seems that people do not suddenly reform their dispositions. Although turning points may be needed in order to challenge certain assumptions, in order to reform their dispositions individuals go through a process of reconsideration which is characterised by being quite reflective, and in which their previous beliefs are brought into question.

You might think that this sounds a lot like a rehabilitative process; what is different is that this is about (all of) ‘us’ changing, not ‘them’ changing. Perhaps the key lessons from my experience are about how experiences of music-mediated dialogue can dissolve the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

[Alejandro can be contacted at:]


Burawoy, M. (2004) Public sociologies: Contradictions, Dilemmas, and Possibilities. Social Forces. 82(4): 1603-1618.

Escobar, O. (2011). Public Dialogue and Deliberation: A communication perspective for public engagement practitioners. (Available online at: [Accessed 29/08/2016]).

Indermaur, D., Roberts, L., Spiranovic, C., Mackenzie, G., & Gelb, K. (2012). A Matter of Judgement: The effect of information and deliberation on public attitudes to punishment. Punishment & Society. 14(2): 147-165.

Loader, I., & Sparks, R. (2010). What is to be Done with Public Criminology? Criminology & Public Policy. 9(4): 771-781.

McNeill, F. (2016). Distant Voices: Coming Home — Creativity, Reflexivity and Research. 2016. European Social Work Research Association Annual Conference. (Available online at: [Accessed 29/08/2016]).

Rock, P. (2010). Comment on “Public Criminologies”. Criminology & Public Policy. 9(4): 751-767.

Rubio Arnal, A. (2016). Listening to Distant Voices. (Available online at: [Accessed 11/01/2017])

Vox Liminis (2014). Vox Liminis Annual Report 2013-2014. (Available online at: [Accessed 29/08/2016])

Vox Liminis (No date). Distant Voices. (Available online at:[Accessed 29/08/2016])

We Are All Criminals

This guest post comes from Emily Baxter, the genius (we would suggest!) behind a website in the USA which has found an innovative and engaging way to challenge the ‘othering’ of people with convictions…

waac2 waac1

One in four people in the United States has a criminal record. Due to deep and undeniable race and class disparities that permeate every stage of our criminal and juvenile justice systems, people of color, indigenous people, and poor people are more likely to carry that burden than their white, affluent counterparts. Records can stymie housing, employment, licensure, travel, civic participation and more. Permanently and publicly labeled ‘criminals,’ millions of already marginalized Americans find themselves locked out of countless opportunities to move on and move up.

One in four people has a criminal record; four in four have a criminal history.

I created a multi-media-based project that contends just that: We Are All Criminals uses first-person storytelling and compelling photography to call out the concepts of criminality, privilege, and punishment that have dominated our public discourse and private thought for decades.

WAAC is a storybank of people who have gotten away with crimes—predominately white and affluent ‘upstanding citizens’—who consider what life would be like had they been caught. These stories are juxtaposed with stories of people who were caught engaging in the same behavior, but who, tethered to their pasts, don’t have the luxury to forget.

I share these stories with the people that need to hear them most: lawyers, peace officers, policymakers, service providers, employers, and more—people who sit in judgement of others—and students of those disciplines. My hope is that once people can acknowledge a shared criminality, they can better appreciate a common humanity.

While WAAC touches upon many sociological themes, the ability to contextualize one’s own behavior is one of my favorites. When crime is a private memory rather than a public record, it’s easy to justify the behavior. I was young; I was drunk; I was stupid; I was in a bad relationship; no one got hurt; I gave it back anyway; it wasn’t my idea.


When sharing these stories, I ask audiences to recognize the context they allow their private memories, and understand that the same context may have existed for someone who was caught. I stress, time and again, that crime is an event in a life course: it’s something someone does, not who someone is.

That is, I have committed theft, but I am not forever a thief.

Or, in the words of WAAC’s participants:



We did it for the moment, for the thrill. But I never thought I’m a bad guy. If you come to think of yourself as criminal, you’ve passed a threshold. You get onto a trajectory that’s a bad path. Thankfully, I wasn’t caught and I didn’t consider myself bad– nor did others.

Experimenting with delinquency is normal – and so is giving it up. How many kids get a police record, or a longer record, for the same or even fewer criminal acts my friends and I did?

I have that story. Everybody has that story. If you find someone who claims they’ve never committed a crime, either they’re lying, they have a poor memory, or they’re very abnormal.



In my growing up, the whole social attitude toward juvenile behavior was very different than it seems to be now. I mean, I’m confident that some of the stunts that we pulled as kids— if we did the same things now, we would be in the court system and probably incarcerated faster than we could blink.



Looking back, I can contextualize it. I was lost and wanted to be accepted. I lacked self-confidence and self-worth. I was easily influenced by people around me. that person who tipped the porta potty, that wasn’t me, but I didn’t know that then.



You know what’s interesting? These were transferable skills.

The plotting, attention to detail, execution, delayed gratification, and, hey, even an interest in criminology. Maybe it’s no surprise that we are now police chiefs, college professors, coaches, nurses, and victims’ advocates.



You know, if I’d been caught, I’d just be getting out. I wouldn’t have this job now. I would not have met my husband. Everything that I have in life, it’s been since then. What if that were taken away from me? What if I never had it?



It’s crazy. I’m having trouble remembering things that I did that were illegal, I just don’t think about it.

You know, with the college mindset, you do these things that in the morning are a funny story—nothing you think of as illegal.

Overall, I suppose I’ve done some pretty stupid things—but none of it defines who I am.



This story isn’t about bad things I got away with; it’s about being a kid and the presumption of innocence that a lot of people don’t ever get.

Once there’s a record, every youthful misadventure adds further proof that you need more punishment.

To read these stories in full, find more, and perhaps share your own, head to If you’re interested in learning more about the project or hosting a WAAC talk, send me an email at I’d love to hear from you.

Migration, Offending and Desistance

My name is Melinda Bajo. I am a Doctoral Researcher at Kingston University in London. The research that I am carrying out for my PhD aims to explore experiences of offending and desistance for people who have migrated to the UK (and are now living in England or Wales). Basically, my study examines the impact of being a migrant on the journey from offending towards a life without a crime.

I aim to interview 30 participants in England and Wales, who are adult men and who have experienced both migration and offending. I am keen to talk to people who are foreign nationals with strong ties in the UK and/or were born overseas and finished their secondary education in their country of origin. I want to include people who have committed various kinds of different offences. The aim is to allow people with these experiences to articulate their thoughts and experiences of offending and stopping offending in order to develop a broader picture of the issues affecting ‘migrant ex-offenders’ in England and Wales.

The length of the interviews is expected to be between 1-2 hours. All interviews will be anonymous and treated confidentially. I will use pseudonyms for participants to protect their identities. The interviews will be taped and transcribed (typed up). If an interview takes place in a language other than English, all data will be translated by me into English. The data will be stored on my PC until the completion of my PhD. I will encrypt all folders with password protection and I will be the only person that can access this data.

My hope is that the study will help us to develop a better understanding of migrants’ experiences during their offending and their process of ending offending. Furthermore, it might help us to find out possible ways to develop the helpful sorts of support for people in this situation.

If you have experience of migration to the UK and offending, and would like to discuss taking part in the research, please contact me via e-mail: or at the following address:

c/o Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Kingston University, Penrhyn Road, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey KT1 2EE

The research us being supervised by Associate Professor Marisa Silvestri and Dr.Francis Dodsworth and has been approved by Kingston University’s research ethics committee.

Criminal Research: Writing wrongs in the creative arts in prisons — 22nd June 2016

This post comes from Ella Simpson at Bath Spa University 

Creative and autobiographical writing have existed in the modern prison since as early as Oscar Wilde’s penning of De Profundis and contemporary literature has more than a few shelves given over to the ‘nick lit’ of a more recent prison population.

The value of writing in prison is supported by a number of prisoners who have become professional writers and a number of professional writers who have facilitated prisoners’ creativity. This anecdotal evidence, however, is often lost in academic research that aims to evaluate the impact of the arts through ‘scientific’ measurement.

This day of workshops and discussions aims to bring together an array of academics from the humanities, social sciences and the arts with some of the most experienced prison writing practitioners in the UK and criminal justice professionals in a bid to move beyond the binary of reconviction studies and unearth the foundations of an alternative, writer-led approach to prison arts research.

Sessions will include:

The Art of Psychopathy – an exploration of the fact and fiction of the mentally disordered offender.

The Art of Empathy – the relational dimensions of creative arts in prisons.

The Art of Release – how probation might inform art and art, probation.

Prisoners’ Stories – Writers in Prison Foundation present a reading of writing by prisoners.

Confirmed speakers include:

Sharon Clarke (Literary Producer, Bristol Old Vic)

Michael Crowley (WIPF and Lecturer in Creative Writing, Sheffield Hallam University)

Clive Hopwood (Co-Director, Writers in Prisons Foundation)

Dr Alison Lee (Neuropsychologist, Coordinator of Graduate Studies in Psychology, BSU)

Dr Catherine Morgan (Course Leader, BSc Criminology, BSU)

Dr Agata Vitale (Senior Lecturer in Abnormal and Clinical Psychology, BSU)

This is a free, pre-conference event leading into this year’s Captivating Criminality Conference at  Bath Spa University’s Corsham Court campus.

Details on how to Book here

For further details contact Ella Simpson –

Distant Voices: Coming Home

I had the honour this morning of giving a talk at the European Social Work Research Association Annual Conference in Lisbon (yes, the sun is shining). My title was ‘Distant Voices: Coming Home — Creativity, Reflexivity and Research’. People were very kind about the talk and asked me to make it available, so here is the audio recording and the PowerPoint (which has 2 songs embedded within it).

Distant Voices: Coming Home (PowerPoint)

The talk (and the songs) may be of interest to readers of this blog, since they both emerge from a new (and developing) project that is a legacy of the Desistance Knowledge Exchange (and of this blog). One of the key messages of the workshops that we reported on this site a couple of years ago was that we needed to find ways to engage communities in rehabilitation, and to challenge public attitudes about punishment and reintegration.

The big question was: ‘How?’

The partial answer that I’ve been working on, with a host of collaborators, is through creative practices. That’s why I supported Alison Urie to set up Vox Liminis; a new Scottish charity that aims to bring creative practice to criminal justice and its reform. The research centre where I am based (SCCJR) has formed a collaboration with Vox around a project called Distant Voices. The presentation explains something of the genesis and development of Distant Voices since 2014. In particular it draws on the knowledge of Jo Collinson-Scott (aka Jo Mango) about popular music and participatory music-making, and on the knowledge of Oliver Escobar about participative and deliberative democracy, as well as on my own learning (and that of the whole Vox team) from the project so far.

In essence, we are trying to use the making and sharing of music to explore, practice and enable reintegration (or homecoming). Turning conventional understandings of rehabilitation on their head, we are interested in how and why citizens and communities meet returning citizens (people leaving prison or community punishment) with hospitality or hostility.

As well as exploring the evidence base for and rationale of our approach, the talk includes two songs written in related workshops. One of them (Pixellated Pictures) is performed by Jo (and others); it was written in a workshop in a women’s prison and recorded and released last year on an EP called ‘Distant Voices – Silent Seconds’ by Vox Liminis (you can download it through all the usual services). The other (Blackface) was co-written by ‘TJ’ and me in a workshop reflecting on people’s experiences of being supervised. You can find out more about that workshop and hear all of the songs produced here: Seen and Heard. The version in the presentation was (home) recorded yesterday by Louis Abbott, who also led the workshop (thanks Louis!).

I’d love to hear your thoughts, so comment away…!

P.S. I also made mention of Beth Weaver’s excellent book Offending and Desistance and of an important new article by Briege Nugent and Marguerite Schinkel: The pains of desistance. You really don’t want to miss these…

Research encounters: You, me and home

“Would you like to write a blogpost?”, Professor Fergus McNeill asked me. It could not be a better moment. I think that December 2015 has been, by far, the most inspirational period of my life. Oh sorry, I forgot to introduce myself. I am Sofie Van Roeyen, a Belgian researcher conducting a PhD at Ghent University under the supervision of Professor Freya Vander Laenen. My PhD is about desistance in mentally ill offenders. I conduct qualitative research in which mentally ill offenders are central and the focus lies on the strengths and capacities of mentally ill offenders.

With the purpose of elaborating the conceptual part of my PhD, I thought it would be a good idea to go on a research visit to the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research in December. A wee month is very short, but it was perfectly intense. Meeting professor Fergus McNeill seemingly had a big influence on my thinking about desistance, and reinforced me to keep doing research the way I was doing it.

There are many things I would like to share with you, but I choose a topic that I am not used to writing about and that is quite personal: the connection between my respondents and me. Not me merely as a researcher, but me personally, as a human being. As the stories of mentally ill offenders themselves are the focal point of my research, I got the opportunity to talk with mentally ill offenders. As a researcher you are supposed to listen to your respondents and let them talk about their experiences. Approaching respondents as such sounds very respectful and is very respectful, but at the same time creates a feeling of imbalance. They share their deepest feelings with you, and in the end of the interview you thank them for their time and say goodbye. As a researcher, this is not the end because you start transcribing and analyzing the stories they share with you, to enable yourself to retell their integrated stories in an article and/or book. In contrast, as a person, this is the only moment you get so close to your respondents. In respect to all my respondents, and the imbalanced feeling I personally get, I am writing this blogpost. This is, I guess, a way to give something back to them.

People tend to differentiate themselves from people who offend or from people suffering a mental illness. In my opinion, this differentiation is not well-founded at all. Listening to the life stories of my respondents, it appeared not hard for me at all to understand their experiences. We all tend to experience the same kind of changes and desire the same things in life. One of my main findings is that my respondents do not want to win the lottery, but they just want a normal life. Their happiness lies in small, surmountable things. They try to construct a new narrative that gives meaning to their lives.

The best way to describe the similarities between my respondents’ stories and my own story, could probably be built around the metaphor of ‘home’. Home not as a static space which consists of four walls and a roof, but a dynamic concept, which ensures a secure feeling and where you experience feelings not tangible anywhere else. Hearing the talk of Sam King about identity and narratives in desistance in Lisbon (Portugal) at the ‘International Seminar – Juvenile Delinquency: Desistance Process, Identity and Social Bonds’ (10-11 December 2015), this idea got strengthened. Purely coincidental, he touched upon ‘home’ in his talk. For desisters, ‘home’ might relate to finding a sense of self and a sense of achievement and empowerment.

In 2015 I have gone through changes in different life domains. This personal journey made me realize the similarities between my respondents’ stories and my own story. I was on my way to find new meaning in life, a purpose to live. I felt valleys and peaks, and respectively felt sadness and happiness. I found myself for a long time in a liminal space, between unsuccessfully returning home and successfully finding my new home, searching for my security. The same spot where many of my respondents find themselves. At the same time, I think a lot of my social network members also identify themselves as being somewhere in this liminal space. Anyway, I am convinced that at some point in time everyone will be facing this insecure change process. The use of the metaphor ‘home’ as the similarity between my respondents’ stories and my own, is rooted in the beginning of November: new love. I was inspired by this change in my life to get to an in depth understanding of ‘home’. After all kinds of important life changes, I managed to find my home, and since then, it is the first time I really feel at home.

I think the key is to open yourself for the idea that we are all experiencing the same journey, which makes it easier for everyone to understand ‘the other’. In the end, we all want to find our home. To go through your own insecure change process, I guess, the start is to accept that such periods do exist on your journey. Happy New Year and good luck in finding your home in 2016!


Writing ourselves into reentry?

It’s been a long time since the last post on this blog. Since I’m on route to a(nother) desistance conference (once again aiming to explore how research about desistance and about effective practice might interact), I thought I’d write something… But, picking up on Sarah Anderson’s post back in July, here’s something a bit different.

Sarah offered some reflections on a songwriting workshop organized by a charity called Vox Liminis in HMP Castle Huntly (Scotland’s open prison) in June on the theme of ‘reentry’. I was one of the criminologists that took part in the workshop. The challenge from the facilitators was for all of us to take part not as prisoners, prison staff or criminologists but just as people with some experience of some kind of reentry… and to write a song about that.

As Sarah’s post suggests, it was a fascinating and rich experience, in which people in quite different situations and with quite different histories nonetheless found resonance in sharing some aspect of their lives and experiences. I think I had some of the deepest (and most challenging) conversations about reentry in those three days that I have ever had. By making us reflect on our own experiences at the same time as hearing others’, a more affecting, emotionally-engaged dialogue was created. More than that, relationships were developed that have endured as many of us have continued to think about reentry (and many other issues and questions) together — and to take action in certain ways (more of which later).

So, putting my money where my mouth is, here are the lyrics of my song — and then a little more about the background to it and what it might reveal about leaving home and going home.

Johnny Blue’s Well

The gate latch metal slaps behind us

Creosote air, the breeze in our hair, blowing

Carefully packed

Rages intact

We are never, never going back


The long hill, heat spills on Tarmac

Burnt feet, sweat beads, soul aching

Come on now John

The job’s nearly done

We are never, never going back


The chocolate melt rung bells of summer

Plastic cheese pieces ripen… sour

Tupperware smells

At Johnny Blue’s well

We are never, never going back


Wings whirr, sick stirs inside me

The tickled neck of black cleg plugging me

Drawing my blood

Jesus, this sucks

Come on John, I think I’m going back

The song was based on a childhood memory of running away around the age of about 8. As I recall it, my best friend John and I used to sometimes grow frustrated with the (doubtless trivial) injustices of family life. Sharing those frustrations, we’d conspire to run away to a life free from the tyranny of parents and elder siblings.

Rather than packing our bags and sneaking off, John and I would share our plans with our mums — aiming, I suppose, to punish them with the knowledge that they had driven us away. Looking back, I guess they too must have conspired (more amused than concerned?) since, in our separate houses, they provided packed lunches and helped us pack our bags. This was not, I should stress, because they were callous. Rather, it was because they knew full well that we’d be home in time for tea, much the better for exhausting our grievances through our adventures. The pattern became so familiar that these outings came to be referred to as our ‘run away for a day’ scheme.

The verses of the song reflect the typical narrative arc of our adventures. We left energized by whatever new slight we had suffered and excited by the prospect of an open road and an uncertain, undetermined, unsupervised future. But the route was immediately uphill — into the hilly farmlands that bordered our 1960s housing estate. In my memories, the sun is always shining warmly. So, we’d get sweaty and tire quickly but not so quickly that we didn’t get to our usual destinations; the darkest corners of Arthurlie Park, the summit of the Craigie, or, as in this song, Johnny Blue’s Well (more of which below).

In verse 2, I seem to cast John as the more reluctant runaway, but I suspect that’s just an echo of my 8-year-old ego: I tended to see him as the Little John to my Robin Hood.

The third and fourth verses reflect our predictable sense of unease and disenchantment as our resolve melted like chocolate or soured like the plastic cheese ‘pieces’ (meaning sandwiches) in their Tupperware boxes. By the time we had eaten our lunches, freedom was already weighing too heavily on our hands. We never had a plan for the next step: where to go, what to do, where the next meal might come from, where we might sleep that night?

And then came the buzzing cleg (Scots for ‘horsefly’) and its painful bite, sucking away the last of the poisonous rage in my blood and making me want my mum and all that she represented: comfort, security, love, home — and the promise of meat and two veg.

Some time after writing the song, I googled ‘Johnny Blue’s Well’, curious to know the origin of the name. Local legend has it that Johnny was a worker in one of the cloth-dyeing works in nearby Neilston. He stopped at the well every day to wash away the blue dye stains before heading home to his sweetheart.

Johnny lost his stain; John and me walked off our rage — and all of us found our way home. I suppose we did that through being released from the confinements of work or family. Our rages and Johnny Blue’s stains were trivial, so our reentries were as swift and easy as our exits had been. We were welcomed with ‘open homes, open arms’ (to quote another Vox-produced song).

So, my reentry was not the same as ‘prisoner reentry’ — it was nothing like it, in many respects — except maybe that it reflects somehow on some of the things that drive us away; some of the mixed feelings associated with being away; and some of the things that draw us home, if we can get there.

One other important thing about this experience, and this process: I think that academic researchers (and in a different way as practitioners) tend to study other people’s lives and (admittedly to varying degrees) to leave ourselves out of the picture, or on its margins. Even when our intentions are good in research or practice — when we aim to be appreciative and respectful in our descriptions and analyses of the lives of others — there is something ‘othering’ about the process. The way the Vox works seems to require us all to write ourselves into the story; ideally a shared or collective story.

Maybe I should challenge you to write yourself in. What would your reentry song be about?

Desistance, Reentry and Songwriting

This guest post comes from Sarah Anderson, a doctoral researcher at the University of Glasgow.

Working in the criminal justice field, I have met some inspiring professionals. Yet over time, a niggling feeling has grown in the back of my mind that if the relationships currently on offer with these professionals are ‘the answer’ to people’s problems, then the system has seriously misunderstood the question. With their ‘boundaries’, intimate questioning that only goes one way, tick box forms, and never-ending assessments which restrict the terms of engagement to ‘need’ or ‘risk’, professional-client ‘relationships’ tend to dehumanize not rehumanise the people subject(ed) to them. This is true of and problematic for those trying to change their own lives, but it is also true for the professionals who want to support them.

Research into desistance from offending suggests that the desistance process may involve a transformation in one’s self-story that is facilitated and reinforced through relationships[1]. In a context that dehumanises both parties, it is hard to see how a relationship could ever develop that is capable of providing the mechanism for such a transformation to take place. As this niggling has become more and more uncomfortable, I have become interested in settings and activities that might enable the types of interaction where all parties are humanized, where shared insights are sparked and where balanced relationships might be nurtured.

The creative arts seem a good candidate for this, so I was excited to be invited along to a song-writing workshop at Castle Huntly open prison to explore the theme of reentry. Part of the Distant Voices project, a partnership between Vox Liminis and the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, the workshop was intended to bring together serving prisoners, people who had left prison, Scottish Prison Service staff, academics and musicians to share their collective experiences and write them into songs.

Early on a Monday morning in June I found myself in a car on route to Dundee: kept awake by coffee and growing nerves at the prospect of writing songs. Unlike my other trips to prisons, I was not observing, interviewing, advising or ‘helping’ the prisoners but rather taking part in something on an equal footing. And I was bricking it.

The workshop was spread over three days and facilitated by three wonderful musicians: Louis Abbott (of Admiral Fallow), Donna Maciocia and Findlay Napier – with support on the second day from Emma Pollock and on the third from Sandy Butler (whose main duties were as photographer but whose musical gifts also quickly became obvious). The workshop was attended by three criminologists, one prison officer, three Vox Liminis staff and – by my rough count – at least ten people with experience of imprisonment, past or present. Most of the Castle Huntly residents involved stayed throughout the three day period (though some came and went in part due to the prison context, where work or home visits may take priority).

The first day was most closely focused on the theme of reentry and involved working in groups to create songs using metaphor. This involved collaboration in a way that few of us were accustomed to, trying to reconcile different ideas about what a ‘reentry’ song might be about and to find a metaphor that worked in everyone’s different frames of reference. Most of the groups found this challenging, so much so that the working subtitle for one of the songs was ‘Deeply Dissatisfied’!

In my group, we had a discussion about re-entry as return to a ‘trusted safe space’. This was suggested by some of the people in my group who were still in prison, and it didn’t reflect my professional and research experience of re-entry as being expelled into a hostile environment. After some fits and starts we hit upon the metaphor of a ‘gangy’ (a gang hut or den) that had been subject to an attack by a rival gang. This allowed us to explore themes of a safe space, but a fragile one that needed carefully and continuous reconstructing.

At some points we found ourselves so immersed in our ‘gangy’ metaphor that we lost sight of the underlying theme. To be honest, I am not sure whether the final product is a song about re-entry or a song about a gang hut. But during that morning two things happened. Firstly I was presented with an alternative view of what the prospect of re-entry (if not re-entry itself) might feel like. Secondly, over several hours I shared experiences of our respective childhood hide-outs with two men whose lives – on the surface at least – had been very different to mine. In two years of working in a prison, I never had a conversation like it.

On the second day, people worked individually to create songs and at this point there was a noticeable divergence away from the theme of reentry. At first I found this frustrating. Wasn’t the point to generate collective knowledge about reentry that we could take away and share with others? Maybe. But it was apparent that for the men in Castle Huntly, this was not always what inspired them to write. Instead, most wished to write songs dedicated to partners or family members.

I have reflected on this a lot since the workshop and have come to three tentative ‘conclusions’. Firstly, perhaps this is not such a divergence from the theme of ‘reentry’ as I had initially thought. Thinking about the question, ‘reentry into what?’, the songs overwhelmingly suggest that reentry from prison is about reentering relationships (the trusted safe space that the ‘gangy’ represents). On one level these have been paused in time, but on another critical level these have been sustained as a source of strength and support. If they provide the very meaning of reentry for many prisoners, then a criminal justice system that supports desistance on release must find ways to nurture, and not obstruct, these relationships as a priority.

Secondly, and more pragmatically, relationships are reciprocal, but there are very few opportunities in prison to ‘give back’ to those supporters on the outside. Perhaps a song dedication offers a much-needed way to say thank you. If this is the case, then creative activities within prison might offer one small way to sustain and strengthen these sources of support.

Thirdly, and simply, prisoners are people. Prison, reentry and the justice system is only one aspect of their lives, perhaps not the most important one – and probably not the most inspiring one. In Marguerite Schinkel’s doctoral research she found that prison provides a ‘transformation narrative’ for only some of those who are imprisoned; not everyone needs or can credibly adopt this self-story.[2] But, I would suggest, relationships are important to almost everyone. Just like the men from Castle Huntly, I also found myself swept along and writing about family, sharing experiences that I had never intended to divulge. Similarly, I listened to the Castle Huntly residents talking to Emma Pollock, awed by her imminent album release and listening to her share the personal family experiences that had inspired the songs on that album.

The evidence-base is still building around how the creative arts can support desistance efforts. The evidence library developed by the National Alliance for Arts in the Criminal Justice System for England and Wales is a good place to start; see also the special issue of Scottish Justice Matters on arts and justice. But as far as my search for ‘humanising settings and activities’ goes, my experience at Castle Huntly is testimony to the power of song-writing to humanise both ‘prisoners’ and ‘professionals’ and offer a unique way for both to come together as people.

[1] Anderson, S. and McNeill, F. (forthcoming) ‘Cognitive Transformations in Desistance’, in L. Kazemian (ed) The Oxford Handbook of Developmental and Lifecourse Criminology. Oxford: Oxford University Press

[2] Schinkel, M. (2014) Being Imprisoned: Punishment, Adaptation and Desistance. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan