Reforming Attitudes to People who have been in Prison: The Importance of Emotions

We begin 2015 with a guest post from Alejandro Rubio Arnal, who recently graduated with an MSc in Criminology & Criminal Justice. His research project explored the impact of viewing and discussing ‘The Road from Crime’ on attitudes to former prisoners. The results were fascinating…

As a consequence of the boom in incarceration that began in the late 1970s, more people than ever are being released from prison. This, added to high recidivism rates, has meant that since the beginning of the 21st century interest in the re-entry of former prisoners has increased amongst policymakers, academics and (to some extent) amongst the general public in many jurisdictions. Desistance research has highlighted the importance of social reaction in enabling or frustrating the process. Nevertheless, relatively little is known about what shapes attitudes towards former prisoners and even less is known about the process by which these attitudes change. The aim of this post is to present the main results of my research project for the MSc of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Glasgow (Rubio Arnal 2014), the purpose of which was to begin to address the gap in our knowledge about how to change attitudes towards crime related matters.
My study was an attempt to try to explore the importance of emotive (as opposed to cognitive) messages in changing attitudes towards crime related issues; it complements the only study of changing attitudes towards former prisoners that has used multivariate analysis (Hirschfield and Piquero, 2010.) Nonetheless my research had limitations that affected its validity, reliability and generalizability due to factors such as the sample size, the research techniques that were used, the researcher and time constraints (see Rubio Arnal 2014).

The research was conducted with the purpose of answering two questions: 1) How did the film ‘The Road From Crime’ (2012) (which contains emotive as well as cognitive messages) affect religious people’s attitudes towards former prisoners? 2) Why and how did those attitudes changed? To answer these questions, both quantitative and qualitative techniques were used. Two sessions were conducted in two different churches in two different Glasgow neighbourhoods. 10 participants assisted to the session in Church A whereas in the session in Church B there were 11. A purposive, snowball self-selective sampling strategy was used. Respondents initially completed a questionnaire that measured attitudes towards former prisoners (Negative Attitudes Towards Former Prisoners scale: NATP-scale) and other variables that could be considered potential predictors of those attitudes. After watching the documentary participants were asked to re-read all of the questions of the same questionnaire, and if they wanted to they could change their answers. Afterwards a focus group was conducted.

In order to better analyse the results, quantitative and qualitative data were integrated. The analysis of both focus group transcripts and questionnaire answers showed that the session as a whole altered the attitudes of participants towards former prisoners, or at least it reinforced more positive attitudes.

With regards to the questionnaires, there were two ways of measuring if participants changed attitudes towards former prisoners: (1) the NATP scale (a scale composed by 5 items), and (2) two questions that directly asked participants if they thought their attitudes towards former prisoners had changed as a result of the session. When looking at the NATP scale, 47% of the participants changed their views towards former prisoners after the session: 90% of them after viewing the film (and before the focus group discussion). When looking at the other two questions, 86% of the participants thought that the session as a whole changed their views toward former prisoners and 57% of all the participants thought that the documentary changed their attitudes towards former prisoners, while 80% of the participants in the focus groups thought they were useful too.

By examining quantitative and qualitative data, the changes in attitudes seem best explained with reference to empathy as an emotional response: a variable that has rarely been examined in criminological research. Two thirds of the participants who changed their attitudes felt more empathy towards former prisoners after watching the documentary. Of the other three participants, one had already scored the maximum (for empathy) before watching the film. During the focus groups, participants of Church A, who originally held more positive attitudes towards former prisoners than those of Church B, also expressed themselves in a more compassionate way. My results match with those obtained by Batson and colleagues (1997): that inducing empathy towards a person convicted of murder improved attitudes towards him and others with similar convictions.

Maruna and King (2009) have argued that, in order to decrease punitiveness, providing examples of success to increase belief in redeemability might be helpful. The results of my research support this idea: both belief in redeemability and punitiveness changed: more than the 50% of the participants believed more in redeemability after watching the documentary, and eight out of 21 of the participants became less punitive too. All the participants whose belief in redeemability increased also changed in their wider attitudes towards former prisoners. Apart from this, the session also made participants realize: (1) that former prisoners had to face greater problems than they had expected, and( 2) that social reaction was more important than they thought in the process of desistance and in the rehabilitation of offenders.

Therefore my research, albeit on a small scale, has confirmed the importance of emotive or affective messages in changing attitudes towards former prisoners, and in particular, the importance of empathy as an emotional response in the process of reshaping attitudes towards former prisoners.

If you would like to contact Alejandro, feel free to email him at:


Batson, C. D., Polycarpou, M. P., Harmon-Jones, E., Imhoff, H. J., Mitchener, E. C., Bednar, L. L. & Highberger, L. (1997). Empathy and attitudes: Can feeling for a member of a stigmatized group improve feelings toward the group?. Journal of personality and social psychology. 72(1):105- 118.

Hirschfield, P. J., & Piquero, A. R. (2010). Normalization and legitimation: Modeling stigmatizing attitudes toward ex-offenders. Criminology. 48(1): 27-55.

Maruna, S. & King, A. (2009). Once a Criminal, Always a Criminal?: ‘Redeemability’and the Psychology of Punitive Public Attitudes. European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research. 15:7–24.

Rubio Arnal, A. (2014). Changing Attitudes: a Research on Attitudes of Religious Groups Towards Former Prisoners Reentry. (Available online at [Accessed 03/01/2015].

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