Space, reentry and alienation

On Monday, I was an invited participant at a forum organised by the Chaplaincy of the Scottish Prison Service, entitled ‘Creating Space for Change’. I was a member of a panel with three senior clerics and the Chief Executive of the SPS. You can find the papers here: Creating Space for Change, but my paper is reproduced below:

Space-related metaphors are ten-a-penny in criminal justice. For me, the one that immediately springs to mind relates not to the ‘places and spaces’ that might concern the architects or urban planners of community safety, but rather to ‘outer-space’. Some years ago, as the USA began to confront the social consequences of its ill-fated experiment with mass incarceration, the term ‘prisoner reentry’ emerged. I’m not sure who first coined the phrase, but it is most associated with Prof Jeremy Travis of John Jay College in New York. Prof Travis has recently acted as Chair of a high-powered National Academies of Sciences report on ‘The Growth of Incarceration in the USA: Its Causes and Consequences’ (see: It is a sobering read. Travis’s work on re-entry has done a great deal to challenge America’s political establishment and its civil society institutions to think seriously about how a nation can handle millions of people returning from prisons year after year – and about whether it really makes sense to send them away in the first place.

What is most striking about the term ‘re-entry’ is its astronautical association. It is the same term used for space-craft returning to the Earth’s atmosphere. To survive re-entry, such craft need skilful piloting and navigation, all sorts of technologically innovative design and engineering… and a soft landing place. Trajectory, speed and final destination need to be controlled, and the craft has to be able to handle exceptional pressures that cause less robust objects to explode. To avoid that sort of calamity, billions of dollars (and other currencies) have been spent on these craft and on their pilots.

In these respects, the metaphor is perhaps helpful; it shows the importance and costs of investing in a safe return. But, of course, it is also a problematic metaphor, at least insofar as it might imply that people in prison or returning from prison are not really ‘of this world’. By contrast, when sociologists discuss processes of ‘alienation’, they they are usually describing the disillusion, disaffection or disintegration of people within society but who feel removed from it as a result of the ways in which our world is ordered – often unfairly. That sort of ‘alienation’ might well be a common experience of people who find their way into prison; it might even be a cause of or influence upon their offending. But punishment – at least in many of its forms – is also itself alienating. Imprisonment is a kind of deliberately inflicted disintegration; a form of banishment that creates its own problems of safe return. And, as Jeremy Travis and others have long pointed out, these are problems as much for the excluding society as for the individuals and families directly involved. Whether we like it or not, the expelling society is also the receiving society.

To speak of an ‘alien-nation’ might invoke a still more worrying kind of ‘othering’ of people who go to prison; one that contrives to construct them as an alien species. The sci-fi language makes this sound like a modern development, but again as sociologists (and anthropologists) remind us, human beings have been sorting themselves into and out of social groups for millennia, and in myriad ways. In the context of a faith communities’ initiative like this one, it might be a bit provocative to single out one religious forms of ‘othering’, but I wonder if one of the less attractive legacies of Calvinism – one that Scotland and the USA might share to some degree — is the sort of ‘deep othering’ implicit in notions of the Elect and the Damned? Indeed, some sociologists of punishment have begun to explore the extent to which different cultural heritages (linked to different theologies) might help us explain markedly different approaches to punishment in near-neighbour countries.

Whatever progress this sort of analysis produces in terms of how we might understand ‘othering’, the more urgent question has to be ‘How do we resist it?’. That question might be answered on a number of levels – from the political to the personal – but it seems to me that story-telling must be a key part of it. Although as a criminologist and a social scientist I want the sorts of evidence that my colleagues and I produce to guide us towards a more progressive, less alienating and smaller penal system, the evidence itself points me towards the importance of other kinds of narratives. Change can’t be produced merely by academic appeals to our heads when punishment is very much a matter of the heart – and of the gut.

I can think of two obvious emotionally-engaged ways to refuse or resist the creation of the alienating gap between the self and the other; between ‘them’ and ‘us’. One is to reject or even just unsettle the distinction between the ‘respectable’ self and the criminal other. There is a brilliant US website called ‘We Are All Criminals’ ( that does this simply by asking ‘respectable’ people, in confidence, to relate crimes that they have committed but for which they have never faced sanction. If that strategy unsettles assumptions about non-offending ‘selves’, then the second, related approach is to support and share narratives that unsettle ‘our’ assumptions about the offending ‘other’. In the Scottish context, both ‘Positive Prisons, Positive Futures…’ ( and Vox Liminis ( have both been doing an excellent and important job in this second task. In somewhat different ways, these organisations (and others) create and construct people with convictions as the contributing, creative, committed citizens we should all aspire to be.

We all face choices between making and sharing stories that divide us and create enemies (alien, foreign or domestic), or making and sharing stories that unite us and create friends. I’m not suggesting that there is nothing to fear, although it is worth noting that we often misplace our fears; most of us are most hurt by those closest and most similar to us, rather than by those most distant and most different. I am suggesting that, ironically, ‘othering’ is self-defeating and we need to be vigilant about it and against it. If we can learn to resist the ‘othering’ impulse, maybe that will help us create the space for change that we all need, if we are to flourish as individuals, as communities and as a nation.

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