Governmentalities, Tertiary Desistance and the Responsibilisation Deficit

This third guest post from Kris MacPherson continues to engage with questions about the relationship between education and desistance, but now exploring broader debates about the responsibilities of the state and of the citizen in these processes. It draws both on Kris’s studies and on his own experiences.

Foucault (1975: 9) argues that ‘punishment is the most hidden part of the penal process’ because it does not manifest itself in physicalities as such but more in ways that affect mental and emotional states. Prison education helped keep my mind occupied from the ‘prison politics’ going on around me. It shaped and moulded my emotions and mental state in a beneficial way. Attending the learning centre exposed me to teachers who had previous experiences of universities and they encouraged me to chase my ambitions. I always fancied matriculating but thought my past experiences (and behaviour) would preclude me. My teachers showed me how wrong I was, arranging interviews with two Scottish universities. Both offered me a place that was conditional upon my release by the Parole Board. As I have explained in previous posts, this group of teachers became a ‘hook-for-change’ for me in their own right.

Now I have finished my degree, I realise that my scholarly journey has only just begun. In the same way that Wacquant (2009: 107) wanted to ‘find a direct observation post inside the ghetto because the existing literature on the topic was the product of a “gaze from afar”’, I wish to utilise my embedded observation post within the Scottish carceral/criminal justice apparatus to ‘reconstruct the question of the [prison/criminalised individual] from the ground up, based on the precise observation of the everyday activities and relations of that terra [and persona] non grata and for this very reason incognita’ (Wacquant, 2009: 107).

More specifically, I want to link the Foucault’s (1975) idea of governmentalities (cited in Fergusson and Muncie, 2010) to McNeill’s (2016) notion of tertiary desistance and to concepts of responsibilisation (Scott and Flynn, 2014; Drake, 2010). While these are not necessarily linked, I would argue that there not only appears to be some overlap vis-à-vis the successful reintegration of people leaving prison but also in the role that society and the government has to play in this broader endeavour.

For me, change starts with the individual and ends with society.

I’ve written before about the importance of the shift in identity: One cannot have one foot on the wrong side of the law and the other foot on the right side. A person conducting himself in this manner by playing both sides of the fence is waiting to fail. Imprisonment is not a promising context for identity change. The magnification of individual risk may render potential desisters unwilling to commit to transformation. Continual focus on risk blinds criminal justice agents to the offenders’ potential for change. Moreover, the lack of social opportunities in the community post-release surely is an ideal breeding ground for recidivism. And even if imprisonment could be seen as providing a catalyst for change, this is more difficult than it sounds, especially if institutions (and the people in them) are not completely committed to reform or desistance.

Ripple et al. (1964) argue that three conditions must be present to support positive change: motivation to transform, the capacity to act in a different manner as well as opportunities to cement this change (cited in McNeill and Weaver, 2010: 35, emphases in original). This is interesting because it could be argued that lack of opportunities may prevent or impede the germination of motivation within the soil of the potential desister’s personality.

According to Maruna (2001), ex-offenders committed to desistance told of a ‘redemption script’ that contained three important features: (1) optimism about one’s capacity to surmount barriers; (2) enthusiasm about contributing to causes greater than oneself; and (3) belief in one’s ‘good self’ (cited in Schinkel, 2015). Since I am a ‘desister-in-progress’, I can testify to this. I have always viewed myself as a good person who has done bad things. While I would definitely not describe myself as overly optimistic, I am extremely enthusiastic about pursuing my academic studies (which I see as a cause greater than myself). Being the father of a six-year-old is also a primary motivator for me in giving up a criminal lifestyle.

During deep analytical reflection on my circumstances, I have formed the view that it is highly unlikely that I would have been involved with the criminal justice system at all had I been born into different circumstances (but I still refuse to ‘blame’ anyone for my actions; I take full responsibility). If I lack ‘optimism about [my] capacity to surmount obstacles’, perhaps that represents my reasonable apprehension and cognizance of the fact that I know I cannot do it alone. This may tie in with claims made by McNeill and Weaver (2010) that a desister can only do so much on his/her own.

Sooner or later, they will require help from other sources.

Moreover, it could be argued that lack of motivation on the desister’s part is not the issue. For example, Nugent and Schinkel (2016) cite examples of people released from prison on licence with very little possibility of ‘true’ desistance. They appear to vacillate between primary and secondary desistance; they leave behind the criminal lifestyle but are forced by societal marginalisation to continue wearing the criminal identity. This social purgatory appears to cause the person to remove himself from potential situations where he fears the possibility that an offence may occur due to factors out with his control (Nugent and Schinkel, 2016). This evidences a link between desistance and successful prisoner re-entry; or conversely, a link between a lack of transitional support and the failure to secure desistance.

Interestingly, McNeill and Schinkel (2015) pose the question “can we enable desistance through criminal sanctions, or do they tend to frustrate it?” Perhaps desistance can be both enabled through criminal sanctions but also frustrated by these same penalties. It may depend in part on the individual being penalised. For example, someone may be less likely to commit to desistance if penalised in a manner that they may see as harsh or unfair treatment. They may see no point desisting or reforming because they will ‘always be treated unfairly’, perhaps demonstrating parallels with Maruna’s (2001) ‘condemnation script’ (cited in Schinkel, 2015) in which some believed themselves to be consigned to their fate as criminals.

The multitude of (ex) offenders perhaps live in the here-and-now, dealing with seemingly intractable problems that affect their daily lives and they may not feel equipped for climbing the ‘desistance mountain’. This attitude may correlate with the psychological concepts of ‘low self-efficacy’ and/or ‘external locus of control’ (McNeill and Weaver, 2010: 18) but perhaps it is also the product of the social factors, like the cumulative effects of inequality and lack of opportunity or help.

Does this lack of successful reintegration then perhaps reveal a larger problem associated with societal attitudes which see those released from incarceration as undeserving, evil people who will commit further acts of evil at the first opportunity? Interestingly, the Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1973: 75) argued in his famous text The Gulag Archipelago that ‘…the dividing line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being’. A person I knew in a past life used to say, ‘It isn’t a crime unless they catch you!’ — his attempt at philosophy, I suppose. Reading between the lines, I now realise that perhaps he meant that everyone has committed a crime in their life, however small (or big) it may be, but only those who get caught are labelled ‘criminals’.

Perhaps crime is a general human proclivity; not limited to those deemed ‘criminal’.

Interestingly, McNeill’s (2016) notion of tertiary desistance highlights that desistance is not only the responsibility of the desister; the state and community also have their own roles to play in this drama. For example, a desister will always be impeded so long as the state and community do not recognise this transformation and take steps to reintegrate the individual into the fold of society. As McNeill (2016: 204) convincingly argues, ‘no amount of personal change can secure desistance if change is not recognised and supported by the community (social rehabilitation), by the law and by the state (judicial rehabilitation)’.

Social and judicial rehabilitation as well as moral and psychological rehabilitation (as proposed by McNeill, 2014) evidence the argument that it is not only the individual refraining from criminal behaviour who has a role to play; there are many actors in this process (whether they choose to actively participate in the journey is a different matter). Therefore, it may be said that without the initiation of the juridical and social rehabilitation processes, tertiary desistance is non-existent.

How then can we change societal and community attitudes in order to initiate the ‘responsibilisation’ not just of the individual desister but also of the judicial systems and the communities in which social rehabilitation does or does not take place? If criminalised individuals are expected to assume responsibility for their own moral and psychological reform then can we not expect the government/criminal justice system/community nexus to take responsibility for social and judicial rehabilitation? Christie (1977) famously argued that societal conflicts had become the ‘property’ of the state’s criminal justice mechanism. One wonders why in that case there is such a drastic responsibilisation deficit when it comes to state ownership of the final phase of the conflict that brought the person to their legal attention: that of successful reintegration.

Governments and nation-states, by definition, manifest their own particular ‘governmentalities’. These elucidate ways in which bureaucratic mechanisms extend into communities through the governmental infrastructures and processes that underpin them. It may therefore be logical to postulate that the state’s ‘responsibilisation deficit’ forms its own ‘penal governmentality’, manifesting itself in the ‘pains of desistance’ (Nugent and Schinkel, 2015).

If we consider the bureaucratic field of the neoliberal criminal justice function, one can see that numerous academics (Drake, 2010; Reiman and Leighton, 1979; Allen, 2013) argue that punitiveness and mass imprisonment, rather than reformation and restoration, are the key ‘symbolic ties’ of contemporary neoliberal societies (Wacquant, 2013). Perhaps this links to what Rothman (1980) termed ‘administrative convenience’ (cited in Cheliotis, 2006: 186) where reformative governmentalities have been held back by operational difficulties, such as prison overcrowding and the maintaining of carceral order.

Instead of taking responsibility themselves for reintegration, governments and political parties tend to utilise the corporate media machine as a proxy vehicle to cite the importance of responsibilising socially marginalised and economically disenfranchised citizens trapped in the ‘fissures and ditches of the dualizing metropolis’ (Wacquant, 2010b: 199). Perhaps I am barking up the wrong tree but isn’t this responsibilisation strategy a warped governmentality that blames the individual for the state’s own failings? How can those committed to desistance from crime realise this objective in the midst of the post-Keynesian ‘employment of insecurity’ where the triple intention of the penal mechanism is the disciplinary measures levelled against the fractious proletariat, coupled with carceral incapacitation of the most disorderly individuals while also reaffirming the state’s power over its subjects (Wacquant, 2001: 405).

Perhaps the overuse of the prison system is political compensation for the state’s own ‘crisis of legitimacy’ (Wacquant, 2001: 402). Wacquant (2001) argues that incarceration is now a routine function in dealing with rising social insecurity in neoliberal states characterised by mass unemployment, precarious wage work and minimised social fortifications. These bureaucratic methods lead to the impression that such neoliberal governmentalities assume responsibility for punitiveness but evade accountability for the social malaises that lead to such imprisonment in the first instance. The impoverished did not – cannot – generate their own levels of poverty.

Only the state can generate – and relieve – poverty.

While I do not necessarily agree with the view that people in my position or with my background are ‘victims’ of and unjust society, I definitely believe that certain socio-structural contexts and factors helped shaped and moulded the criminal thinking that I developed. If, according to McNeill (2014), the reform of the individual involved in offending consists of moral, psychological, judicial and social elements then it could be said that half of this process (moral/psychological) is the person’s responsibility, with the other half (social/judicial) belongs to the state and society as a whole. Such a process perhaps can only be initiated by the participant’s willingness and commitment to change, but even then s/he must be given the tools with which to do so. The individual may have to alter the moral/psychological processes that led to them committing a criminal offence in the first instance, but the state ought to focus on the social and judicial aspects in order to support and secure the transition from a criminalised lifestyle. Moreover, the individual committed to desistance cannot (at least as far as the law goes) classify him/herself as “legally rehabilitated”.

Only the law can change the law. Only communities can change communities.



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One thought on “Governmentalities, Tertiary Desistance and the Responsibilisation Deficit”

  1. This is a great piece Kris. It’s very timely, given David Lammy’s recommendation recently to introduce a process of ‘sealing’ criminal records. Tertiary desistance epitomises a lot of what Unlock’s policy and campaign work is all about – enabling people with convictions to move on positively in their lives once they’re leading law abiding lives, and for them not to be anchored to their past and be dragged down by stigma, barriers and obstacles because of their past criminal record. I’d be very keen to discuss your work more, so do get in touch if you’re interested. Cheers, Chris.


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