Prisons and desistance

In the context of serving as part of an independent Prisons Review Team in Northern Ireland, I have spent a lot of time in the last 18 months struggling with a specific and very challenging question: Can prisons promote desistance?

I suppose some people might not immediately think of the ‘desistance-supporting prison’ as a possible oxymoron; Michael Howard did reflect a certain strand of public opinion when he declared that ‘prisons work’; although if you can bear to revisit his 1993 speech to the Conservative party conference (and not many criminologists can) then you’ll find that he didn’t really define effectiveness in terms of desistance or even reducing reoffending. He had other objectives in mind.

People better acquainted with desistance theory and research will probably see the problem straight away (as will may people who work in or have been to prison). If desistance is about becoming more mature and responsible, about developing stronger social bonds and about a positive shift in identity, it’s not hard to see why prisons look like a profoundly unpromising context for desistance. They take responsibility away (and might even encourage immaturity); they break positive social ties (and enable new negative ones); and they confirm and cement criminalised identities. In important ways, the very nature of imprisonment itself is liable to frustrate desistance, and most desistance scholars agree therefore that we should use imprisonment very sparingly.

And yet, some people do change in prisons (and not just in the dramatic stories of people like Jimmy Boyle or Tookie Williams). For some people, imprisonment does become a kind of opportunity; a chance to re-assess the past and re-consider the future; a means of straightening out and connecting with services that might provide the sorts of post-release support that we discussed on the blog a week or two ago.

Some prisons seem to be better at enabling this kind of personal development than others. Looking at it in international context, for example, recidivism rates are much lower in Nordic countries (but is that just because their welfare provision is more generous?). By contrast, a few years ago I visited a prison in Romania where I found it hard to imagine how prisoners (17-20 in a cell, with minimal staff supervision or support) could think beyond how to survive the next few hours, never mind planning their longer term futures.

Perhaps less dramatically, but no less importantly, the work of Prof Alison Liebling and Dr Ben Crewe in the Prisons Research Centre at the Cambridge Institute for Criminology is revealing that in order for prisons to be places where prisoners feel able to develop themselves, five other other aspects of what she calls the ‘moral quality’ of the prison need to be right. These include:

  • Bureaucratic legitimacy: ‘the transparency and responsivity of the prison/prison system and its moral recognition of the individual’
  • Organisation and consistency: ‘the clarity, predictability and reliability of the prison’
  • Humanity: ‘an environment characterised by kind regard and concern for the person’
  • Staff professionalism: ‘staff confidence and competence in the use of authority’
  • Help and assistance: ‘support and encouragement for problems, including drugs, healthcare and progression’

These findings — as well as those of desistance research — informed the attempts of the Prison Review Team in Northern Ireland to try to elaborate what features a prison system that supports desistance would need to have. Those interested in these questions can read the team’s conclusions at:

I think there are some important insights and ideas contained in the report — and would welcome comments and discussions about them here — but my experiences working with the team, visiting prisons, talking to prison staff and prisoners, still leave me convinced that when it comes to imprisonment, less is definitely more. Trying to create and run the ‘desistance -supporting prison’ remains one of the most challenging of tasks in criminal justice: but that’s no excuse for not trying.




4 thoughts on “Prisons and desistance”

  1. Hi Fergus

    This is an interesting and important issue I think. I’ve not read your review report yet, though I will. I think most people will agree with you that less is more when it comes to prison but you are also right to illuminate that some people can take positives from their experiences of prison either as a direct or indirect or intended or unintended effect. The significant relationship between imprisonment and religious conversion testifies further to your argument that people can and do change in prison although maintaining those changes on the outside can be extremely challenging given, as you observe, the unintended and significantly disproportionately punishing effects imprisonment has on people’s relationships and lives.

    For me, a further consideration emerged from Sarah Armstrong and my Users Views of Punishment study in that many, though not all people, have repeated experiences of imprisonment and  it is  the cumulative effect of doing many sentences more than the experience of any single sentence, which generates differing impacts and effects, yet sentence impact research tends to focus on the effect of only a single sentence. This was particularly evident in not only our research but also the Prison Reform Trust’s No Winners report that people expressed different attitudes to imprisonment based on the extent of and their accumulated experience. For example, the only people who said the experience made them not want to return were the first timers. Given the frequencies of and relationship between imprisonment and recidivism, not just among our sample, but more generally (Ministry of Justice 2010; Scottish Government 2010), it should not be assumed that these articulated intentions necessarily translate into it’s realisation whether considered from either a deterrence or desistance perspective. 

    There were however two situations where people identified prison as making a positive difference, neither of which is revelatory particularly. The first is when the prison sentence was for a relatively longer period of time allowing for sustained participation in programmes as your blog itself implies. The second is the opportunity prison can present to deal with addictions. More importantly, was the relatively unpredictable means through which, if at all, prison did exert positive effect. For example one person we spoke to was in prison for only the second time and felt the prison sentence served as a wake up call that a serious addiction problem he had managed to keep hidden was now exposed and required addressing. In another case, someone had been in and out over the course of nearly 20 years before prison exerted this effect. While the fact that some people described their prison experience as a catalyst for change is important, we felt that caution should be exercised in using this revelation to inform policy. That one person has an ‘epiphany’ after two short sentences while for another it happens only after 20 years of such sentences, suggests that prison is an expensive and unpredictable technique for triggering reflection and change. The reality is that prison sentences themselves and the effects of imprisonment both in the short and long term seem to be perceived by most people most of the time as an interference to acting on this and the justice system itself becomes to be seen as part of the problem.

    Just a thought….




  2. Fergus,

    Very nice to see this post, and, as the co-investigator (with Alison Liebling) of the research you cite, I thought I would take the opportunity to add a few comments about our findings and argument. The model is statistically derived from over 1000 prisoner ‘quality of life’ surveys in seven prisons. We found that the ‘dimensions’ of prison life that you list above best explained the variance in what we call ‘personal development’ – a measure of whether the prison ‘helps prisoners with offending behavior, preparation for release and the development of their potential’. It is an imperfect measure: we still have some work to do (a) to capture this concept more precisley and accurately (b) to link it more closely to actual reductions in reoffending, which is a very complex task.

    The other really important finding in relation to personal development is simple but – we think – very significant: it appears that it is only in really good prisons – prisons that are respectful, fair, humane, safe, well-policed, professional in their use of power, well-organised, relatively ‘undistressing’, etc — that prisoners, on average, rate the environment reasonably well in terms of ‘personal development’. To put this more simply, prisons that are relatively decent are more likely to encourage prisoners to plan for their release, feel that their time in prison is a ‘chance to change’, feel optimistic about desisting from crime than those that aren’t. The converse of this is that prisons that are harsh or austere do not give prisoners the motivation or sheer ‘headspace’ to want to / feel they are able to change their lives for the better: if staff are unsupportive, or if a prisoner’s main concern is simply surviving the day and dealing with fear or resentment, then he or she is less likely to make the kinds of psychological steps that are necessary in order to change.

    Ben Crewe


    1. Thanks Ben — very helpful. Sorry about failing to credit you on the original post; have amended it now. Have a great holiday.


  3. Hi Fergus,

    interesting blog post.
    I appreciate your point about “less is more” although, as I believe you agree, we don’t want to fall in the “on-size-fits-all” situation we are now, once again.
    Desistance and prison studies have to get together, that’s the way forward and it is very much needed to “make the connection” between inside and outside of the prisons.
    I would recommend the book by Laws and Ward (2011) “Desistance from sex offending”. They integrate the Good Lives Model with desistance research. They have a very interesting approach and (in relation to the “less is more”) highlight the need to consider the importance of not jeopardizing the persons’ chances of natural desistance.

    All the best,


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