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

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