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: http://www.sccjr.ac.uk/documents/Report%202010_03%20-%20Changing%20Lives.pdf
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: http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2015/05/5592/2 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.