Paulo Freire’s Revolutionary Pedagogy: A framework for desistance?

Another post from the prolific Kris MacPherson…

The work of the Brazilian academic Paulo Freire was completely unfamiliar to me until someone referred to him in a response to one of my previous blog posts:

The Colony of ‘Civic Sleepers’

I sourced a copy of a paper by Arnett (2002) which outlines how Freire devised an education project in his native Brazil to teach literacy skills utilising metaphors embedded in stories and narratives. At that historical moment, Brazil suffered from high levels of illiteracy and Freire sought to use literacy education as a springboard to political participation for ‘the Other’ (Arnett, 2002: 489). Interestingly, Freire, who had previously served time in prison during the advent of the Brazilian neoliberal experiment manufactured by the United States, proposed a ‘communication ethic that invited learning under hostile conditions’ using a ‘communication ethic that meets powerful political and social structures with a call to learn’ (Arnett, 2002: 490). One could argue that it is this ‘call to learn’ that functions as the ‘keys to freedom’.

Freedom from poverty; freedom from oppression.

According to Freire (1970/1974), teaching marginalised populations necessitated schooling those excluded from conventional power mechanisms in what he labelled the ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ (cited in Arnett, 2002). Freire’s techniques taught his student’s ways in which they could break free from their invisible chains (held together by malign social forces like poverty) and exert more human agency across their lives. In this way, people would be able to challenge the very institutions that oppressed them by participating in civic life. ‘Where there is literacy, agency is possible, and where there is agency, there is hope for historical change’ (Arnett, 2002: 492). Freire argues ‘the first step towards power and influence is in the classroom’ (Arnett, 2002: 491). Even more crucially, Arnett (2002: 491) states that ‘to counter bad ideas, one must discern what is and possess the skill to offer an alternative’.

Couldn’t this apply to desistance?

Arnett’s (2002) paper made me ponder whether desistance could be taught within prisons. Can we assist the successful reintegration back into the community of those who have spent time in prison by using desistance theory and research as a vehicle for teaching? Could prisons educate inmates about desistance from crime? What if prisoners were taught, say, ‘hooks-for-change’ (Giordano et al., 2002) or the ‘four steps of cognitive transformation’ (Giordano et al., 2002) as a foundation to challenge their life-scripts? What if prisoners became ‘desistance-literate’ leading to ‘pro-social agency’ that, in turn, precipitated the elusive change so long sought after by courts, prisons, criminal justice practitioners and academics? Can we teach prisoners (especially those serving long-term sentences) the mechanics of desistance in the same way that Freire taught his fellow citizens literacy skills through specifically tailored methods designed to help them overcome personal deficits and capitalise on assets?

If, according to Freire, one ‘must learn to read to enter institutional places of power and influence’ (Arnett, 2002: 490), shouldn’t those who have been to prison have a chance to learn desistance from crime in order to truly embrace the rehabilitative process? Wouldn’t it be more advantageous to teach prisoners the foundations of desistance rather than utilising offender behaviour courses which persistently focus on the deficits that landed such people in prison in the first place? ‘How do we see the future development of the offender? What would be the best way of rehabilitating him?’ (Foucault, 1977[1975]: 19).

This is the million-dollar question.

According to the Corporate Plan 2014–2017, the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) proposes ‘developing a person-centred, asset-based approach’ in which staff recognise that those entering custody have their own ‘asset-base’ that they can utilise to promote personal growth (SPS, 2014). This sounds similar to Giordano et al’s. (2002) ‘hooks-for-change’. It also echoes ‘anthropocentric’ rather than ‘authoritarian’ rehabilitative methodology, as alluded to by Rotman (1990, cited in McNeill and Velasquez, 2017). Furthermore, the SPS (2014) states that it will ’embed an asset and desistance-based approach at the heart of purposeful activity’ (SPS, 2014: 22, emphasis added).

If criminal behaviour is a ‘bad idea’ and desistance is the ‘alternative’ (to use Freire’s words) and the SPS purports to use a desistance-based approach then how come just about every prisoner I talk to inside prison has never heard of desistance? Why is there no desistance at ‘the heart of purposeful activity’? I would like to point out that Fergus told me that a desistance narrative in relation to the Scottish prison system does exist (and I don’t doubt him for a second) but I wonder why four years after this document’s publication there is no ‘desistance visibility’ on the ground?

Lodged in the bureaucratic pipeline, perhaps?

While the desistance literature I have read up until now focuses on the assets of the ‘offender’ (see McNeill and Weaver, 2010; McNeill, 2014; McNeill and Schinkel, 2015; McNeill, 2016 for some examples), the carceral process appears more concerned with the individual’s deficits. For example, I have sat through several offending behaviour programmes and cannot recall one that focused on my strengths (or anyone else’s on the same courses). All that was discussed was past offending, emotional responses, drug use and other deficits exhibited by the people on the course. Persistently raking over historical offences and negative childhood experiences keeps it fresh in everyone’s minds. Who is this helping?

Intriguingly, Hollin et al. (2004) argues that recidivism rates were higher for those who participated in some behaviour programmes in prison compared to prisoners who did not (cited in McNeill and Weaver, 2010). Why, then, are these courses still used religiously? Could it be argued that people in Scottish prisons are oppressed? To say that I am ‘oppressed’ or even make any comparisons between my situation (or others’ situations) in Scottish prisons and that of the people who suffered during the neo-liberal ‘shock therapy’ (Klein, 2007) applied in Brazil and other South American countries seems facetious, at least in my subjective opinion.

We are hardly living in Stalinist Russia or Mao’s China.

I chose to live this way; nobody forced me commit criminal offences. That being said, I wonder if the histories of the lives of people in prison exert influence over future actions and outcomes in the same way that Freire postulated that historicity exerted influence over one’s learning? Intriguingly, Arnett (202: 498) alludes to how Paulo Freire ‘addresses oppressing structures, discerning ways to invite liberation. From such a commitment, one finds an implicit communication ethic that if understood as a story and not as a technique, offers guidance for people in settings other than education’.

Guidance for those in a desistance setting?

Whether ‘oppressed’ or not, people in prison must accept responsibility for their actions. I would further argue that I must accept my own culpability for what I have done in the past and will do in the future. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that I should keep paying for my offending behaviour for the rest of my life, especially if I have done everything I can to initiate change. That being said, ‘If it is borne, I shall bear it’, to quote Dmitri Nekhlyudov in Leo Tolstoy’s (2014[1899]: 238) novel Resurrection. However, I do not feel I have the ‘right’ to describe myself as ‘oppressed’.

Even if I ‘suffered’ from an impoverished background, I ceased to be a ‘victim’ of these cultural and social circumstances the second I crossed the Rubicon from civilian (or ‘straight-peg’, as people in prison say) to convicted person. That is also just my personal view. That being said, one could argue that many people in prison were ‘oppressed’ (and after prison are oppressed) while at liberty through the prisms of poverty, lack of meaningful and fulfilling lives and little/no chance of employment or advancement within our neoliberal society, reinforced by the stigma of having served time in prison. Interestingly, Arnett (2002: 492) states that Freire ‘understood that in the First World, there is a Third World, and in the Third World, there is a First World’.

In this way, I wonder if oppression is contextually and culturally relative?

It could be argued that there are aspects of the ‘Leviathan’ state (Wacquant 2010a; Bell, 2014) that hinder the progress of potential desisters from crime and those returning to society from incarceration. For example, the demonisation of those who have been to prison by the corporate media machine should be a central issue in the debates surrounding prisoner re-entry. The ‘agenda-setting’ (Jewkes, 2004) of elite media corporations and, by extension, their sources serves no function other than to paint the picture of offenders as unworthy of trust or aid, arguably reinforcing their criminal scripts and impeding their potential to desist from crime.

However, it is not only those who have served prison time who are subjected to this media demonisation. In the United Kingdom, daily television staples with lurid titles such as Benefits: 26 Kids and Counting, Benefits Beauty Queens, Benefits: Life on the Dole, Benefits: Breadline Britain, On Benefits: 30 stone and Claiming, On Benefits: Famous and Claiming, 18 Kids & Claiming Benefits and Benefits By the Sea serve as the fuel with which media conglomerates pour onto the temperaments of those in society who feel that people on welfare are feckless and undeserving of assistance.

As if to say, ‘Look where your hard-earned taxes are being spent!’

Ironically, the banking system arguably precipitated the financial crash of 2008 (see: Kotz, 2009; Board, 2010; Mishkin, 2011 for examples) rather than the welfare state. Therefore, wouldn’t it be more apt for television stations to air programmes entitled Fat-Cat Bankers: £1 Million Bonus and Counting? In this way, it could be argued that such welfare-focused television programmes were aired in Britain in the post-2008 credit crunch era to demonise the poor.

This ‘theatricalisation of poverty’ (to draw parallels with Wacquant’s [2010a] ‘theatricalisation of penality’) draws attention away from those within the government and corporate sectors whose questionable practices arguably perpetuates poverty and other social issues by focusing a spotlight on those at the mercy of this neoliberal ‘Leviathan’ (Wacquant, 2010a; Bell, 2014). It could be argued that media saturation of these issues are ‘moral panics orchestrated by a media machine running out of control’ (Wacquant, 2003: 198). Alarmingly, we appear to be ‘heading towards a society increasingly dominated by a 24/7 news media obsessed with headline-grabbing stories which are more likely to demonise than analyse and seek to understand offenders’ (Bell, 2014: 491).

In the same way that lack of literacy excluded Brazilian citizens from social and political inclusion, one could argue that lack of ‘desistance literacy’ of people in prison and lack of ‘political literacy’ on the part of the marginalised and disenfranchised underclass (many of whom are also prisoners/ex-prisoners) serves to oppress such groups and reinforce the cycle of recidivism and deprivation. If Wacquant’s (2010b) assertion that there is no available social structure to support prisoners returning to society is accurate then is it any wonder prisons are bursting at the seams? Perhaps this is the way the elite want it? God forbid we begin to question! Instead, the government seeks to over-regulate the lives of those on the bottom rung of society as though they were at fault for their own poverty. Everything in this neoliberal monstrosity seems regulated except the main function in need of regulation.

That is the free-market.

Funnily enough, I didn’t set out to study desistance from crime. I wanted to study criminal profiling and the patterns and motives of serial offending until I stumbled across McNeill and Weaver’s (2010) ‘Changing Lives? Desistance Research and Offender Management’ report during the Honours year of my criminology degree. This report acted as an epiphany or moment of clarity and I knew I had discovered a framework to utilise for my own desistance.

When I read it, I could not believe that there were such people within the criminal justice system who really wanted to help those who have been incarcerated. This report is a veritable academic Aladdin’s Cave for any desister trying to ‘go straight’. It single-handedly triggered an obsession with reading academic research articles which, in turn, led me to where I am now: researching desistance (amongst other topics), cultivating pro-social contacts and writing blog articles until I am released next year.

I hope that this is when things will really fall into place.

I feel I have built enough ‘social capital’ (McNeill and Weaver, 2010) to demonstrate to others that I am serious about change and maintaining desistance. Nevertheless, I admit that I harbour deeply embedded subliminal anxiety about whether I will receive the appropriate help and support from others. I have never admitted that until now (maybe that is an indication that I am slowly but surely shedding my old script where admitting/showing weaknesses or fears was anathema).

In the past, I would never have entertained the idea of admitting weakness. Nevertheless, I am well aware of the fact that I can’t do all of this on my own. I don’t want to live a life without opportunities or pro-social friendships, which, in my view, reinforces desistance. Having such contacts would cement a pro-social mentality and lifestyle in the same way that an anti-social mentality and criminal lifestyle reinforces criminal behaviour. ‘Like everyone else, offenders are most influenced to change (or not to change) by those whose advice they respect and whose support they value. Personal and professional relationships are key to change’ (McNeill and Weaver, 2010: 6).

I second that motion.

It is so encouraging to see professionals who understand those who are fighting to ‘go straight’. Understanding and humanity goes a long way in life. In fact, people used to say to me that I didn’t know how to receive compliments due to my visible uneasy response. I told them that the reason I didn’t know how to react is because I am unfamiliar with such humanity. I only knew how to deal with those who were unkind to me.

Now I am becoming acquainted with many people who will help me get to the final destination of desistance. The fact that their job descriptions includes assisting people such as myself only goes to show that there is help available but I have as much a role to play as anyone, perhaps even more so. Such people inspire me to keep running this ‘penal marathon’ even when I feel like everything is pointless. The best way to thank all of them would be to show them that I will make it to the ‘finish line’ and leave all of this behind.





Arnett, R.C. (2002) ‘Paulo Freire’s Revolutinary Pedagogy: From a Story-Centred to a Narrative-Centred Communication Ethic’, Qualitative Inquiry, Volume 8(4): 489–510.

Bell, E. (2014) ‘There is an alternative: Challenging the logic of neoliberal penality’, Theoretical Criminology, Volume 18(4): 489–505.

Board, D. (2010) ‘Leadership: the ghost at the trillion dollar crash?’ European Management Journal, Volume 28(4): 269–277.

Foucault, M. (1977[1975]) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan Sheridan, London: Penguin/Allen Lane.

Giordano, P.C., Cernkovich, S.A., and Rudolph, J.L. (2002) ‘Gender, Crime and Desistance: Toward a Theory of Cognitive Transformation’, American Journal of Sociology, Volume 107(4): 990–1064.

Jewkes, Y. (2004) Media and Crime: Key Approaches to Criminology (3rd edition), London: SAGE Publications (this edition 2015).

Klein, M. (2007) The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, London: Penguin/Allen Lane.

Kotz, D.M. (2009) ‘The Financial and Economic Crisis of 2008: A Systemic Crisis of Neoliberal Capitalism’, Review of Radical Political Economics, Volume 41(3): 305–317.

McNeill, F. and Weaver, B. (2010) ‘Changing Lives? Desistance Research and Offender Management’, Glasgow: Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research. Available online at: 

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. (2016) ‘Desistance and Criminal Justice in Scotland’, in Croall, H., Mooney G. and Munro, M. (eds.) Crime, Justice and Society in Scotland, London: Routledge.

McNeill, F. and Velasquez, J. (2017) ‘Prisoners, Disenfranchisement and Sleeping Citizenship’, see:

Mishkin, F. (2011) ‘Over the Cliff: From the Subprime to the Global Financial Crisis’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Volume 25(1): 49–70.

Tolstoy, L. (2014[1899]) Resurrection, translated by Louise Maude, Ware, Herts: Wordsworth Classics edition.

Wacquant, L. (2003) ‘Toward a Dictatorship Over the Poor? Notes on the Penalization of Poverty in Brazil’, Punishment & Society, Volume 5(2): 197–205.

Wacquant, L. (2010a) ‘Crafting the Neoliberal State: Workfare, Prisonfare and Social Insecurity’, Sociological Forum, Volume 25(2): 197–220.

Wacquant, L. (2010b) ‘Prisoner Re-entry as Myth and Ceremony’, Dialectical Anthropology, Volume 34: 605–620.

2 thoughts on “Paulo Freire’s Revolutionary Pedagogy: A framework for desistance?”

  1. A really thoughtful piece that provokes yet more thought. I’m certain we can develop programs and pedagogies of desistance, but I’m not sure these would look very different to what really good, agentic student-centred teaching looks like. I’d like to think teaching desistance theories it could make an enormous difference to people in prison, supporting them on their way.
    As always, your work is insightful and I found this piece particularly moving. There are more people than you think/know cheering you on, with much respect, as you go forward in your journey.


  2. Hi Kris,

    I have been reading your blog posts with great interest and the latest is just another well argued thought provoking piece.

    There are some localised pockets of desistance teaching within SPS. I first learned of desistance watching the Road from Crime whilst serving a sentence in Low Moss. This triggered an interest in the topic that I followed up on release. I fully agree with you that this should be more widely applied throughout the SPS. However there are systemic barriers that you will be more than familiar with. The very nature of teaching and the transitory state of revolving door prisoners would be a difficulty that could be overcome.

    There are programmes iin the States that offer this sort of learning but it takes a willing Governor and committed academic to progress this – if one side is lacking then it will be doomed to failure…the SPS at we very good at the corporate bullshit bingo but there is a big disconnect between strategic imperative and operational implementation. However, this could be levelled at many other large organisations too.

    Perhaps your blog will be the call to action that is needed to kick start this process…


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