The Feared Self and The Desired Self Revised

In his final post before release from prison, Kris MacPherson reflects on the transition he is about the face. 

Ciao a tutti! It’s been a little while since my last blog post (June 2018, to be exact) and I apologise for the hiatus. That being said, my blogless sabbatical has not been totally unproductive. For example, the International Corrections and Prisons Association (ICPA) published my first article as the lead feature in the October 2018 edition of the journal Advancing Corrections (MacPherson, 2018). I also contributed a chapter to the upcoming book Degrees of Freedom (MacPherson, 2019, in press) edited by James Mehigan and Rod Earle. This publication celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of The Open University (OU) and features students who have earned degrees while incarcerated. As I am sure you can imagine, I felt elated to be considered for such work. In fact, I like to think of these opportunities as share dividends from my long-term investment with the Bank of Desistance, metaphorically speaking.

Excitingly, my liberation date is drawing near (Thursday 19th September 2019) and the most crucial aspect of my own desistance journey is about to begin. For example, I am about to experience a momentous shift, crossing the Rubicon from an incarcerated individual who merely theorises about desistance to someone who actually practices desistance as a way-of-life. In this way, I ponder whether it is hypothetically viable to categorise these as ‘Desistance a priori’ (knowledge of desistance based on reason/logic) and ‘Desistance a posteriori’ (knowledge derived from practice/subjective experience)? In other words, we seemingly come to conclusions a priori through the notion of desistance as a theoretical construct and postulate that the information gained from such knowledge to be logical. On the other hand, we appear to comprehend desistance and its interrelated aspects at micro and macro levels a posteriori thanks to the subjective experiences and idiosyncrasies of those undergoing such journeys.

Therefore, I can apply these ideas due to the fact that I explore the theoretical depths of desistance through logic culled from studying and reflecting on the literature (as most academics do). As I have stated previously (MacPherson, 2017), I wonder whether one can be classified as a desister while still in custody if that person has achieved some measure of Maruna and Farrall’s (2004) ‘primary’ and ‘secondary desistance?’ I also wonder how much I can truly know about desistance as praxis if (a) I have no experience of desistance in the context of ‘free society’ and (b) I have yet to put theory fully into practice?

Although I have pondered such notions throughout the long years of imprisonment, it is only now beginning to seem tangible. I suppose one ‘good’ thing about prison is that it foists upon the inmate (or some at least) a physical and temporal space conducive to prolonged periods of soul-searching and reflection. Whether and how individuals can use this space as such is another matter. Intriguingly, episodes of reflection and introspection seemingly reinforce assertions by Schmid and Jones (1991) that incarcerated individuals experience a ‘heightened state of reflexive analysis’ and ‘self-dialogue’.

My own introspective process vis-à-vis desistance shifted from assessing whether ‘going straight’ was the right thing to do towards the realisation that it was the only option left open to me if I wanted to stay out of prison. Indeed, the past eight years of incarceration, combined with academic immersion, have connected the desistance dots and provided a clearer picture of my own journey and where I need to go in order to achieve some semblance of rehabilitation. As this prison term ends, I think about the way I was when I arrived and how I feel now. The strange question I am starting to ask myself is whether fate or God returned to prison in order for this final piece of transcendence to occur?

Funnily enough, Richards and Jones (2004) argue that in order to “transcend the prison experience, a person must honestly understand who he or she is and who he or she wants to be, and do the work to accomplish that change” (cited in Behan, 2014: 26). This appears to parallel Paternoster and Bushway’s (2009) notions of the ‘desired self’ and the ‘feared self’; concepts which respectively refer to the ideal person the desister wants to be and the type of individual he/she fears they might become if they do not carry out that transformation. Indeed, the significance of this cannot be overstated in the desistance journey. As Paulo Freire (who also served time in prison) might have argued:

…[Desistance] affirms [criminalised] women and men as beings who transcend themselves, who move forward and look ahead, for whom [recidivism] represents a fatal [legal/criminal] threat, for whom looking at the past must only be a means of understanding more clearly what and who they are so that they can more wisely build the future

Freire, 2005[1975]: 84 [amended by the author]

But what catalyses the ‘feared self’ and what enables imagination of the ‘desired self’ in potential desisters? Baumeister (1991) alludes to the ‘crystallization of discontent’ (cited in Paternoster and Bushway, 2009) to describe the process whereby ‘offenders’ become disillusioned with crime through linkage of negative experiences of offending and a cost/benefit “reassessment of what is important to the individual” (to paraphrase McNeill et al. [2012]). In my own personal experience, this is spot on. In the past, I viewed prison as a space where one could accumulate ‘criminal capital’, a process describing the social interactions that reinforce and sustain criminal behaviour and identities (Bayer et al., 2009). Moreover, the very fact that one has served a custodial term can accrue criminal capital amongst like-minded individuals in the offending orbit – in prison as well as the community.

In my own experience of incarceration in Scotland, people accrue this capital primarily from profit-driven schemes like drug dealing (see also: Crewe, 2006) and situational-specific acts of violence. In this context, the money begets power, which, in turn, leads to the capital required to utilise others as criminal proxies. In the past, I experienced some measure of ‘carceral desensitisation’, which, I suspect, was a by-product of the pro-criminal attitudes and values I projected at the time. However, I began to worry about where my life was heading around the time I received my current sentence.

Worryingly, my Grandmother always used to say that I would end up murdered or serving life in prison. In response, I feigned sangfroid. However, these predictions spooked me a little bit, especially since I knew people who had died violently (and had a few close calls myself). I didn’t know it at the time but this was the period when my ‘feared self’ begun to take root. My burning desire to avoid this fate at all costs powered me through the long days and nights in prison. I didn’t really have a clear picture of who I wanted to become; all I knew was that I didn’t want to fulfil my Grandmother’s prophesy. She’d gone through enough in her life.

Indeed, I had to navigate a carceral minefield fraught with hostile and emotional personalities (for example, see: Crewe et al., 2013) while also analysing my past and asking myself many hard questions. Moreover, I had to resolve the painful conflict in relation to my Dad’s death and come to terms with the fact that it fractured my psyche, which is something I had always refused to do during my ‘offending years’. Expressing emotions was completely anathema to the brick wall I had constructed around my heart. Nobody in my family adequately communicated to one another about what happened to my Dad, a fact that was exacerbated when the Coroner advised us that my Dad’s body wasn’t fit to view in the funeral home. This poured petrol on to the psychic inferno raging inside me because I couldn’t even say ‘goodbye’, which, in turn, afforded me no opportunity for closure (if that is even possible under the circumstances).

The gargantuan levels of pain and ignorance I accumulated after my Dad’s death may have catalysed my subsequent pro-criminal outlook. At that time, my desired self was to be a professional criminal while my feared self was ending up like my Dad. Ironically, the person I wanted to become back in the day is now the individual I fear I could become if I don’t get my act together. In other words, my (previous) desired self has morphed into my (present day) feared self. When I am released, I intend to implement my new desired self by initiating and sustaining pro-social networks (especially in academic circles), keeping my distance from old peers and haunts, spending a lot of time teaching and nurturing my son while searching for gainful employment to support both of us. In this way, it could be said that these aspects will collectively amount to my proposed desired self.

To be honest, I am pretty optimistic about all of the above except finding work –with good reason. I am 37-years-old and have no employment history and a short but serious criminal record. Moreover, I have not one molecule of confidence vis-à-vis presentation at job interviews; in fact, I am terrified at the whole process. This may seem irrational but I worry that I will stand out in a negative fashion, like getting things wrong on the first day or else feeling as though people know about my past. Worryingly, the Scottish Government (2015) reported that eighty per cent of people in custody were unemployed prior to arriving in prison; on the other hand, the Ministry of Justice (2018) claim that seventy-five per cent of businesses in the United Kingdom would not hire people with previous convictions. This makes my fragile confidence in relation to finding stable employment even more fraught with anxiety.

Encouragingly, it seems we could learn a thing or two from our European neighbours on this issue. For example, Morgenstern (2011) emphasises the importance of re-socialisation as a constitutional right in Germany. In Holland, the notion of re-socialisation is also embedded in the Constitution, stating that the individual should be prepared as much as possible for his/her re-entry back into society (Boone, 2011). Intriguingly, Boone further points out:

The essential aspect of the ritual [of re-entry] is the unexpected testimony of the conventional part of society, who imputes normality on the ex-offender (Maruna, 2001: 161). This ritual reinforces the offender’s necessary confidence in the desistance process and that of his direct environment and society in general.

Boone, 2011: 63

In Spain, people can challenge employers in court on discriminatory grounds if the individual was refused work on the basis of a criminal record (Larrauri, 2011). On the other hand, Herzog-Evans (2011: 8) points out how France’s highest court made a judicial ruling that “An employee had a right not to divulge his criminal past and that his being made redundant based on his lying was null and void”. Moreover, France’s legal system provides the opportunity to present one’s case to a court of law in order to be legally classified as a desister, which is granted if the court is so satisfied (Herzog-Evans, 2011). All of this gives me cause for optimism but I know there is still much to be done.

Before I sign off, I would like to acknowledge all of the people who are enabling the continuing construction of my new academic persona. In fact, I feel that I have deconstructed my criminal identity through my writings and gorging on an eclectic range of books and research papers but this wouldn’t have come to anyone’s notice had it not been for the fact that others are acknowledging my transformation and helping me put theory into practice. Perhaps more importantly, being a Dad has plugged my heart back into my empathy socket. For a long time, I believed empathy was a weakness but I now realise that it is what makes us decent human beings and connects us with the emotions of others. This is undoubtedly a protective factor against offending behaviour. That being said, I don’t believe one can truly rid oneself of the triggers of offending; rather, it seems people recognise the stimuli that induces them to offend and take subsequent steps to avoid them, at least in my own experience.

It appears that academia has opened a wormhole from which to escape the criminal justice/penal nexus and to be surrounded by like-minded people. I hope that this (as well as my son) will provide the foundation to construct my own future far removed from the lifestyle I have previously known. The last thing I want to do is let my son down; he deserves better and I know better than that. As Maya Angelou said, “When we know better, we do better!”


  • Bayer, P., Hjalmarsson, R. and Pozen, D. (2009) ‘Building Criminal Capital Behind Bars’, Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 124(1): 105–147.
  • Behan, C. (2014) ‘Learning to Escape: Prison Education, Rehabilitation and the Potential for Transformation’, Journal of Prison Education and Re-entry, Volume 1(1): 20–31.
  • Boone, M. (2011) ‘Judicial Rehabilitation in the Netherlands: Balancing Between Safety and Privacy’, European Journal of Probation, Volume 3(1): 63–78.
  • Crewe, B. (2006) ‘Prison Drug Dealing and the Ethnographic Lens’, The Howard Journal, Volume 45(4): 347–368.
  • Crewe, B., Warr, J., Bennett, P. and Smith A. (2013) ‘The Emotional Geography of Prison Life’, Theoretical Criminology, Volume 18(1): 56–74.
  • Freire, P. (2005[1975]) Pedagogy of the Oppressed (30th anniversary edition), translated by Myra Bergman Ramos, New York/London: Continuum Books.
  • Herzog-Evans, M. (2011) ‘Judicial Rehabilitation in France: Helping with the desisting process and acknowledging achieved desistance’, European Journal of Probation, Volume 3(1): 4–19.
  • Larrauri, E. (2011) ‘Conviction Records in Spain: Obstacles to Reintegration of Offenders’, European Journal of Probation, Volume 3(1): 50–62.
  • MacPherson, K. (2017a) ‘Desistance: an inside view’, see: (Accessed 2nd November 2017).
  • MacPherson, K. (2018) ‘Transformation Through Education? An Epitome of a Hook-for-Change’, Advancing Corrections (6th edition): 10–19.
  • MacPherson, K. (2019) ‘The Light to Fight the Shadows: On Education as Liberation’, in Mehigan, J. and Earle, R. (eds.) Degrees of Freedom, Polity Publishing [in press].
  • McNeill, F., Farrall, S., Lightowler, C., and Maruna, S. (2012) ‘How and why people stop offending: discovering desistance’, Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services. Available at:
  • McNeill, F. and Schinkel, M. (2015) ‘Prisons and Desistance’, in Jewkes, Y. and Bennett, J. (eds.) Handbook on Prisons, Portland, Oregon: Willan.
  • Ministry of Justice (2018) Employing Prisoners and Ex-Offenders, London: Ministry of Justice.
  • Morgenstern, C. (2011) ‘Judicial Rehabilitation in Germany: The Use of Criminal Records and the Removal of Recorded Corrections’, European Journal of Probation, Volume 3(1): 20–35.
  • Paternoster, R. and Bushway, S. (2009) ‘Desistance and the Feared Self: Toward and Identity Theory of Criminal Desistance’, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Volume 99(4): 1103–1156.
  • Schmid, T.J. and Jones, R.J. (1991) ‘Suspended Identity: Identity Transformation in a Maximum Security Prison’, Symbolic Interaction, Volume 14(4): 415–432.
  • Scottish Executive (2015) ‘Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974’, Scottish Executive, 20th May 2015 [online]. Available at: (Accessed 10th April 2017).

An essay on identity work and desistance

This guest post comes from Paul Growcoot.

Paul studied Philosophy at the University of North London and graduated in 1996. He then moved to northern Italy where he worked for 14 years as a teacher of English for foreign language students. Returning to the UK in 2009 he continued to teach academic English to oversees students at Bradford University and the University of Huddersfield until 2013 when he decided to work freelance.

Then in May 2017, after a period of mental illness and where he had struggled with addiction, he was given a 10-year prison sentence. Although he wanted to appeal the conviction, his barrister believed there were no grounds, so he wrote his own application and was granted leave to appeal in December 2017. Then in September 2018 and represented by a new barrister, his conviction was quashed, and he was subsequently released.

From January to May 2018 he studied a Desistance from Crime module under Adam Calverley at HMP Hull with the Learning Together Program. He believes that this was the single best opportunity given to him during his period of incarceration. And that it has helped him to desist from the behaviours and associations leading to the situation that got him convicted in the first place.

The following is the final essay from the module:

“In the end, for us all, the way we behave is determined by the story we find ourselves in. A person becomes what they believe.” (Steve Chalke, 2015: 46)[1]

This essay will attempt to provide an overview of the “phenomenology of desistance” (Maruna, 2001: 8). After a cursory look at the philosophical heritage of the ‘self’ we shall examine Maruna’s redemption script theory to see how desisters “develop a coherent, pro-social identity […] to account for […] their criminal pasts” (Ibid: 7). Also, by blending cognitive transition theory (Giordano et al, 2002) with Vaughan’s (2006) internal narrative theory we will begin to psychologically unpack the incremental phases in the transition from offender to desister. Simultaneously, we will look at Farrall & Calverley’s (2006) emotional trajectory of desistance to scrutinize the feelings underpinning this transition, concluding that ‘hope’ is a recurring theme throughout the process and is perhaps the single most important psychological construct for success (Martin & Stermac, 2010). Rather than treat the theories separately a synthesis is offered.

At the beginnings of Modernity John Locke (1690) explained the ‘self’ in terms of continuities of memory and consciousness.[2]However, David Hume maintained that the self was an illusion; when we search inside we find no object that we can call the ‘self’, just a rapid succession of bundled perceptions from which the fiction of identity arises (Hume, 1739-40).[3]  To save us from this potential solipsism, thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Brentano developed existentialism. They were inspired by Fichte,[4]  perhaps the first to recognise that the self only has meaning through its intentions and actions, “Not for idle contemplation of yourself are you here, not for brooding over devout sensations[5]– no, for action are you here: action, and action alone determines your worth” (Fichte, 1800; cited in Wilson, 1966: 60).

Then Nietzsche (1882) pronounced God dead[6] and mankind was condemned to freedom (Sartre, 1943); a Dasein[7]defined solely by its actions and “being-with-others”, but it is a fallen or inauthentic self (Heidegger, 1927: 225). Similarly, the self of the offender is inauthentic or in mauvaise foi[8]since they deceive themselves when they deny the consequences of their actions on others (Sartre, 1946: 33). The only way to redeem the authentic self is through ‘angst’ (Heidegger, 1927: 227). For the offender this could be through shock; being wounded through crime or given a long sentence (Cusson & Pinsonneault, 1986). It is through these flashes of authenticity that an openness to a better future begins to dawn. Hence there are two possible selves; the inauthentic or offending self, and the authentic or desisting self. There are, of course, further subtleties and nuances to this simplistic generalisation, such as the inauthentic desister, but the distinction serves our purpose here.

Similar to an addict who has hit rock bottom (Laub & Sampson, 2001; Giordano et al, 2002) the first cognitive transformation a would-be desister undergoes is “a shift in the actor’s basic openness to change” (Giordano et al, 2002:  1000). It may have been forced upon the individual by external factors but the “‘up front’ work [is] accomplished by [the] actors themselves” (Ibid: 992). This rational choice to change (Clarke & Cornish, 1985) is the initial driver in identity transition, inspired by both the dread of what one might become and the hope of a pro-social identity. Paternoster & Bushway (2009) argue that the ‘feared self’ needs to be ‘knifed off’ (Sampson & Laub, 1993; 1995) and substituted with a more positive ‘possible self’. Therefore the ‘possible self’ acts as a motivation and the ‘feared self’ a deterrent (Paternoster & Bushway, 2009: 1107-8).

This openness to change is the dawning realisation that another future self is possible. Farrall & Calverley (2006) found that hope was necessary in sustaining motivation to achieve a successful pro-social identity. Rather than doom and despair (Maruna, 2001: 7), hope has been consistently recognised as a fundamental factor for successful desistance (e.g. Burnett & Maruna, 2004; Maguire & Raynar, 2006; Martin & Stermac, 2010). This is consonant with the first phase of Vaughan’s (2006) internal narrative theory: discernment. Drawing on Archer’s (2003) notion of internal conversation, Vaughan tells us that “our emotions provide the first signals about […] that to which we are drawn or shy away from” (Vaughan, 2006: 4). Thus, the possible feared self of the ‘sad, lonely old lag’ is shunned in favour of the possible ‘respectable self’ of the good partner/parent/colleague.

This emotional debate acts as a vehicle to the second cognitive shift; a propensity to recognise and embrace “a particular hook or set of hooks for change” (Giordano et al, 2002: 1000). These hooks are usually structural in nature; e.g. the job interview, meeting the benevolent partner/mentor. In the future they are often regarded retrospectively as ‘turning points’ (Sampson & Laub, 1993; 1995), but are indicative of a rapprochement between the actor and their desire to engage with hooks as well as what those hooks mean to them. As Uggen (2000) noted in his research into an offenders’ work program, it is both the availability of the hook and the offender’s readiness to ‘bite’ that are required for a change in criminal identity to initiate. Advocates of social control theory argue that informal controls, such as the good job or partner, naturally generate pro-social behaviour (Hirschi, 1969). And although it may be true that hooks for change foster transformations, eventually the actor must make a cognitive connection, through reflection, that the hook represents a change for the better (Giordano et al, 2002: 1000).

This is the second phase of Vaughan’s narrative theory: deliberation; a “review of the pros and cons of potential courses of action” (2006: 5). This process is both rational and emotional, including considering one’s position in relation to others. Hence the construction of a pro-social identity is dependant upon how one feels about one’s current identity and how one believes others feel about it (Ibid). As Farrall & Calverley note, “the ’emotional’ aspects of desistance are part of the feelings experienced by a wider social network of people other than the desister” (2006: 129).

The true enormity of the task begins to dawn on the would-be desister. Setbacks have probably occurred, perhaps even ‘relapses’; hopes are flagging as negative emotions such as regret begin to surface. Furthermore, the obstacles to achieving the social capital necessary for a ‘normal’ life become apparent, it is too early in the process for a sense of pride or achievement and they have little or no trust in the surrounding social controls or even themselves as a desister (Ibid). This intermediate part of the process, then, is an emotional ‘no-man’s land’, where the individual is at their most fragile and vulnerable. It is when the informal control or “scaffolding that makes possible the construction of significant life changes” (Giordano et al, 2002: 1000) is most vital.

With perseverance the would-be desister arrives at the third cognitive shift; the forging of “an appealing and conventional ‘replacement self’ that can supplant the marginal one that must be left behind [… so that] it becomes inappropriate for ‘someone like me’ to do ‘something like that'” (Ibid:  1001). Maruna tells us this is a “process of freeing one’s ‘real me’ […] of ‘finding the diamond in the rough’ [which is] frequently described in terms of empowerment from some outside source”[9](2001: 95). Significant others, such as a mentor or a partner, can enable the desister with ‘positive stroking’[10]and encouragement so they can take on a ‘liminal’ identity.[11]It is often only when someone believes in them that they can begin to believe in themselves (Ibid: 96).

These informal controls provide the would-be desister with the tools to fashion a “skeleton script” (Rumgay, 2004: 409) or “cognitive blueprint” (Giordano et al, 2002: 1055) for a replacement self. According to Farrall & Calverley (2006) this liminal phase of primary desistance[12]is accompanied by the onset of shame and guilt as they begin to acquire the necessary psychological distance to confront their old, offending self. These negative emotions are negotiated and neutralized with a ‘necessary prelude’ plot device, i.e. something they had to go through to get to where they are now and “although the […] ‘knifing off’ concept remains, ‘making good’ involves more self-reconstruction than amputation” (Maruna, 2001: 87).

Also, in this phase the proto-desister is offered, and accepts, opportunities (e.g. jobs) and they begin to feel trusted. Guilt gives way to pride as they start to achieve their objectives via conventional means. This emotive process reinforces desistance and helps them avoid further criminal behaviour (Farrall & Calverley 2006). Through re-biographing, and the construction of a cognitive blueprint for the future self, the final phase of Vaughan’s personal narrative emerges: dedication. “At this stage, one decides to re-order the panoply of concerns and interests one has in order to allow a novel commitment[13]to emerge (2006: 5, my emphasis). Hence agents begin to see offending activities as incompatible with their new identity. This dedication, then, is a complementing of the social restraints provided by the mentor or partner above with “enhanced internalized control from adherence to newly found commitments” (Ibid).

This leads us to what Giordano et alcall “the capstone” of identity transition (2002: 1002). The fourth and final cognitive shift involves a change in the way the agent identifies with deviant behaviour; it becomes incongruent with their new, desisting self. In the vernacular; after ‘talking the talk’ they now begin to ‘walk the walk’ of a fully-fledged desister. They make the transition from liminal, primary desistance to concrete, secondary desistance, “assuming the role of a non-offender” (Maruna & Farrall, 2004: 175). Finally, the agent dons the vestments of a desister, acquires their ‘airs and graces’ and ‘graduates’ to the normal, moral, conventional world.

Lofland tells us that “transformed deviants tend to become not merely moral but hyper moral” (1969: 283). Once the offending identity has been discarded the struggle then becomes one of finding meaning and purpose as well as legitimacy in the eyes of others. The only way to “find ‘inner peace’ and a sense of accomplishment was [by] helping other ex-convicts change their lives” (Maruna, 2001: 102). By exchanging the role of mentee for that of mentor and emulating an individual who had been their ‘hook for change’, they take on the generative role of a ‘professional ex-‘ or ‘wounded healer’ (Ibid). This is the final piece of the redemption puzzle; they have developed “a coherent, pro-social identity for themselves” (Ibid: 7). In fact, this kind of neutralization is crucial “for the negotiation of stigma and rejection of the […] ‘offender’ label” (Hulley, 2016: 1776).

In this final stage feelings of hope begin to re-emerge but rather than the vague aspiration of a ‘better future’ their hopes become more specific (e.g. promotion, marriage, children). Regrets about the past become more pronounced but agents start to talk about their criminal identity in the past tense (Farrall & Calverley, 2006). However, this shame about their chequered past is also worn as a badge of honour as they embark on “fighting the good fight” (Maruna, 2001: 99) of the zealous proselytizer, ensuring the next generation does not follow in their deviant footsteps. Maruna asserts that the “moral hedonism of the redemption script” (2001: 105) allows desisters to brazenly dignify their crimes instead of hiding them away like a guilty secret. By finding a “silver lining” and fabricating “positive illusions” the individual is less prone to depression and better able to adjust to their new identity and maintain their motivation to desist (Ibid: 106). Acting as a ‘wounded healer’ also helps them heal themselves, positively reinforcing their desisting identity through feelings of reward and improved self-esteem.

In conclusion, rather than a sudden and schizophrenic denial of the offending identity to simply ‘become’ a new person the would-be desister undergoes a gradual metamorphosis (Maruna, 2001: 87). First there is an openness to change and a discernment between a feared and a pro-social self. This is followed by the recognition of hooks for change and a deliberation between the choices. Next a blueprint for a desisting self is identified to which the agent then commits. Finally, in a ‘transvaluation of values’ (Nietzsche, 1886) their attitude to offending shifts diametrically and they take on the generative role of a professional ex-offender.

Hence the journey is far more protracted and complex than social control theorists have postulated. However, they point out that narrative theory tends to be retrospective “which may present a distorted account of the nature of human agency in the desistance process” (King, 2014: 59). The individual tends to become the ‘star of the show’ when re-biographing occurs. Granted, the importance of structural relationships cannot be denied, and when the agent is prone to relapses during the intermediate phases of the process they can be vital in maintaining motivation.

But the desistance journey is primordially bound up with how the individual feels. The beginning is characterised by hope at a brighter future while the middle is an affective wasteland when external bonds are needed the most. In the penultimate phase shame and guilt are felt which in the final phase give way to pride, achievement and, eventually, the re-emergence of hope as the agent is reintegrated into society. It is how would-be desisters cope with this emotional trajectory that determines their success in attaining desistance (Farrall & Calverley, 2006). Hope is the single most influential feeling running through the process and the more that society fosters it in the desister the more chance they have of success.[14]In a final irony, perhaps the hardest task for the desister is not convincing society they have reformed but convincing themselves that they can.

Reference List

Archer, M.S. (2003) Structure, Agency, and the Internal Conversation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Berne, E (1961) Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy: A Systematic Individual and Social Psychiatry, New York: Grove Press.

Burnett, R. & Maruna, S. (2004) ‘So “Prison Works” — Does It? The Criminal Careers of 130 Men Released from Prison under Home Secretary Michael Howard’, in The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, Volume 43 (4): 390-404.

Chalke, S. (2015) Being Human: How to Become the Person You Were Meant to Be, London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Clarke, R.V. & Cornish, D.B. (1985) ‘Modelling Offenders’ Decisions: A Framework for Research and Policy’, in M. Tonry & N. Morris (eds.) Crime and Justice: An Annual Review of Research, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cottingham, J. (ed.) (2008) Western Philosophy: An Anthology, 2ndedition, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Cusson, M. & Pinsonneault, P. (1986) ‘The Decision to Give Up Crime’, in D.B. Cornish & R.V. Clarke (eds.) The Reasoning Criminal, New York: Springer-Verlag.

Farrall, S. & Calverley, A. (2006) Understanding Desistance from Crime: Theoretical Directions in Resettlement and Rehabilitation, Berkshire: Open University Press.

Fichte, J.G. (1800) The Vocation of Man cited in C. Wilson (1966) Beyond the Outsider, London: Pan Books.

Flynn, N. (2012) Criminal Behaviour in Context: Space Place and Desistance from Crime, Abingdon: Routledge.

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

Heidegger, M. (1927) Sein und Ziet, 7thedition, Tübingen: Neomarius Verlag. Translated from German by J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson (1962) Being and Time, New York: Harper & Row.

Hirschi, T. (1969) Causes of Delinquency, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hulley, J.L. (2016) ‘”While this does not in any way excuse my conduct…”  The role of treatment and neutralizations in desistance from sexual offending’, in International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, Volume 60 (15):  1776-1790.

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King, S. (2014) Desistance Transitions and the Impact of Probation, Oxfordshire: Routledge.

Laub, J.H. and Sampson, R.J. (2001) ‘Understanding Desistance from Crime’ in Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, Volume 28:  1-69.

Locke, J. (1690) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in the standard critical edition by P.H. Nidditch (1975) Oxford: Clarendon.

Loftland, J. (1969) Deviance and Identity, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

McAlinden, A., Farmer, M. & Maruna, S. (2017) ‘Desistance from Sexual Offending: Do the Mainstream Theories Apply?’, in Criminology & Criminal Justice, Volume 17 (3): 266-283.

Maguire, M. & Raynor, P. (2006) ‘How the Resettlement of Prisoners Promotes Desistance from Crime: Or Does It?’, in Criminology and Criminal Justice, Volume 6 (1): 19-38.

Martin, K. & Stermac, L. (2010) ‘Measuring Hope: Is Hope Related to Criminal Behaviour in Offenders?’, in International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, Volume 54 (5): 693-705.

Maruna, S. (2001) Making Good: How Ex-offenders Reform and Reclaim Their Lives, Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Books.

Maruna, S. & Farrall, S. (2004) ‘Desistance from crime: A theoretical reformulation’, in Koelner Zeitschrift fuer Soziologie und Socialpsychologie, Volume 43: 171-194.

Nellis, M. (2009) ‘The Aesthetics of Redemption: Released Prisoners in American Film and Literature’, in Theoretical Criminology, Volume 13 (1): 129-146.

Nietzsche, F. W. (1882) Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft, Chemnitz: Schmeitzner. Translated from German by J. Nauckhoff (2001) The Gay Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nietzsche, F. W. (1886) Jenseits von Gut und Böse. Translated from German by W. Kaufman (1966) Beyond Good and Evil, New York: Random House.

Paternoster, R. & Bushway, S. (2009) ‘Desistance and the “Feared Self”: Toward an Identity Theory of Criminal Desistance’, in Journal of Law & Criminology, Volume 99 (4): 1103-1156.

Rumgay, J. (2004) ‘Scripts for Safer Survival: Pathways Out of Female Crime’, in The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, Volume 43 (4): 405-419.

Sampson, R.J. & Laub, J.H. (1993) Crime in the Making: Pathways and Turning Points through Life, London: Harvard University Press.

Sampson, R.J. & Laub, J.H. (1995) ‘Understanding Variability in Lives Through Time: Contributions of Life-Course Criminology’, in Studies on Crime & Crime Prevention, Volume 4 (2): 143-158.

Sartre, J.P. (1943) L’Etre et le Néant. Translated from French by H.E. Barnes (1957), Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, New York: Philosophical Library.

Sartre, J.P. (1946) L’Existentialisme est un Humanisme, Paris: Les Editions Nagel. Translated from French by P. Mairet (1948) Existentialism and Humanism, York: Methuen & Co.

Uggen, C. (2000) ‘Work as a Turning Point in the Life Course of Criminals: A Duration Model of Age, Employment and Recidivism’, in American Sociological Review, Volume 65 (4): 529-546.

Vaughan, B. (2006) ‘The Internal Narrative of Desistance’, in British Journal of Criminology Advance Access, published October 13, 2006:  1-15.


[1]Steve Chalke was a Baptist minister before founding the Oasis Trust in 1985 which has pioneered community initiatives in the UK and around the world. The author of over 40 books, Steve was awarded an MBE for his services to social inclusion in 2004.

[2]Try telling that to Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis (Kafka, 2005). After waking in his Prague apartment to find himself newly endowed with an undulating carapace and an array of thin, spindly legs that look barely capable of supporting him he exclaims “What has happened to me?” (Ibid: 89). Also, compare this notion of the self with a trans-gender person’s process of gender reassignment, although the consciousness is the same their identity has definitely changed.

[3]David Hume is credited as the prototype Occidental Buddhist for bringing an Oriental slant to Western philosophy (Cottingham, 2008: 285).

[4]Immanuel Kant’s disciple. Interestingly, Kant’s (1785) Categorical Imperative (Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law) foreshadowed Sartre’s moral anguish; evident when Sartre writes “one ought always to ask oneself what would happen if everyone did as one is doing” (1946: 33). Through the self-deceit of saying ‘but everyone will not do it’ the criminal implies the universal truth that he denies. “By its very disguise his anguish reveals itself. This is the anguish that Kierkegaard called ‘the Anguish of Abraham”‘ (Ibid: 34).

[5]A reference to Descartes’ ‘armchair’ philosophy and also, perhaps, the fact that his mentor Kant never left his home town despite admitting that the influence of David Hume had “roused him from his ‘dogmatic slumber”‘ (Cottingham, 2008: 40).

[6]One can almost imagine Nietzsche with his white coat and stethoscope gravely looking up from his patient after failing to find a pulse.

[7]‘Being-in-the-world’ — Heidegger’s (1927) Dasien also encompasses many other forms of being and is related to how the self defines itself in its struggle for meaning; in the world, in and of itself, and in relation to others.

[8]Mauvaise foi is usually translated as ‘bad faith’ though Mairet renders it as ‘self-deception’ in his 1948 translation of Sartre’s ‘Existentialism and Humanism’.

[9] “The offender’s epiphany [comes when] a wiser and more caring person than themselves does or says something that leads them to believe that they could be better men than they have hitherto been. They may be overcome by a deep sense of personal unworthiness, but they acquire a new sense of responsibility” (Nellis, 2009: 142).

[10]C.f.Transactional Analysis theory (Berne, 1961).

[11]A ‘liminal’ identity is neither offending nor non-offending; it is seen as an interim identity. This is “the ethereal imagining of a new self and the aspirational commitment to pro-social goals but [before] the corporeal realization of this new self through the active commitment to pro-social roles” (McAlinden et al., 2017: 278, my emphasis).

[12]Flynn (2012: 15) tells us that “desistance writers are interested in why most offenders vacillate and lapse in and out of criminality (primary desistance) but eventually abandon crime for good (secondary desistance)” so that practitioners can extrapolate the psychological mechanisms at work in order to employ them in social controls. Whether this is possible in practice is a separate debate.

[13]Another important Sartrean concept is that of engagement (translated by Mairet as ‘commitment’). “When a man commits himself to anything, fully realising that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind — in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility” (Sartre, 1946: 33). This causes the state of anguish alluded to above.

[14]Particularly HMPPS which needs a root and branch overhaul of its culture if it hopes to break away from its current mendacious and misanthropic insouciance.

Closing the Gates of Janus: The pains of parole

Once again, this guest post comes from Kris McPherson.

It’s that time of year again. The parole season ‘tis upon us. As I am serving what is known in Scotland as an extended sentence, I can apply for parole every twelve months until my release date. This year is my eighth and, thankfully, final time applying for early release. Applying for parole normally brings with it a tide of stress and anxiety not only about the entire process itself but also apprehension surrounding daily life upon re-entry into society. The irony about this whole scenario is that never before have I worried or even bothered thinking about these issues. This is because I have never expected parole (except in 2017 where I had so many things stacked in my favour and was still unsuccessful).

In the not so distant past, I saw myself as someone incapable of ‘going straight’. I felt that no matter how hard I tried to convince people I had changed, nobody would believe it. In this way, my philosophy shifted from ‘no quarter!’ to ‘you can’t swim against the tide!’ In those days of pre-academic darkness, the problems that came with ‘going straight’ belonged to others. Coincidentally, prisoner re-entry and employing people with previous convictions featured in the news recently (after I had been reading up on these issues). According to the BBC (2018) report, a new organisation, Release Scotland, consists of companies, charities and government agencies seeking to get those who have previous convictions into meaningful employment. The narrative stated that 75% of businesses in the UK would not consider employing someone who had previously been convicted (BBC, 2018).

Ironically, this article was published on the same day as another news piece that claimed a third of Scottish men have a criminal conviction, according to researchers at the University of Glasgow (Marland, 2018). Does that indicate that 75% of companies in the UK would not even consider employing a third of Scottish men? Wouldn’t it be more financially and socially beneficial for society to employ people leaving prison instead of marginalising them? Isn’t it possible that this marginalisation compounds the likelihood of recidivism? Doesn’t a third of Scottish men constitute a potentially valuable source of labour? Wouldn’t employing this portion of men aid their integration and resettlement back into society?

According to Ager and Strang (2004: 5), an individual can be classified as integrated when they access and benefit from “public outcomes within employment, housing, education, health etc, which are equivalent to those achieved within the wider host communities [and] to confidently engage in that society in a manner consistent with the shared notions of nationhood and citizenship” (cited in Kirkwood and McNeill, 2015: 9). Moreover, Kazemian (2007: 22) points out that “desistance is likely to be maximized when intervention efforts integrate both rehabilitation and reintegration dimensions”. Isn’t it logical to postulate that employing those with criminal records would indicate both ‘rehabilitation and ‘reintegration dimensions’, which, in turn, would ‘maximise desistance?’

Encouragingly, Sir Richard Branson called upon more employers to take on ex-offenders in an interview with UK-wide prison newspaper Inside Time(James, 2016). “People with convictions need the dignity of work”, Sir Richard told the editor, Erwin James. He explained how a training programme in Virgin Trains has culminated in employment for a woman with several previous convictions for violence. In fact, BBC News (2018) cites that Virgin Trains is one of the employers that collaborate with Release Scotland to provide work for those with convictions. Then-Justice Minister Michael Gove also explained how the three main factors that stopped people re-offending are: employment, a secure home and strong family bonds (James, 2016). When an individual with previous convictions has something important to lose (their livelihood), I imagine recidivism is a much less appealing option.

While employment, housing and health apply to all of us, I wonder if education is individually specific? For example, I can construct an essay but couldn’t change a tire on a car. I guess what I am saying is that intelligence comes in many forms. Even though all of the above indicate bureaucratic notions of inclusivity, I wonder where larger society fits into this picture.  For this reason, I recently wondered whether Restorative Justice (RJ) could play some role in prisoner re-entry and desistance. In fact, wouldn’t RJ help realise McNeill’s (2014) notions of social rehabilitation, where the individual is fully reintegrated of society and becomes a productive member? Moreover, I feel that McNeill and Schinkel’s (2015) notion of ‘tertiary desistance’ and RJ share interconnecting similarities in as much as absorbing ‘offenders’ back into mainstream society once they have ‘made good’. According to Marshall (1999: 6), the fundamental characteristics of RJ are:

  • Fully attending to victims needs
  • Preventing recidivism by re-integrating offenders
  • Enabling offenders to assume responsibility for their actions
  • Creating a working community that supports the rehabilitation of offenders
  • Providing a means of avoiding the escalation of criminal justice measures (cited in Cunneen, 2015: 384).

In this way, we can see that both ‘offenders’ and ‘victims’ are at the centre of this debate. However, the criminal justice process presents itself as a ‘vertical model of justice’ (Yazzie, 1994, cited in Fergusson and Muncie, 2010) where external hierarchies of power are utilised to resolve conflicts between individuals or groups in society. In this way, Yazzie (1994: 29–30) argues, “Parties to a dispute have limited power and control over the process […] When outsiders intervene in a dispute, they impose moral codes upon people who have moral codes of their own. The subjects of adjudication have no power, little or no say about the outcome of a case, and their feelings do not matter” (cited in Fergusson and Muncie, 2010: 74). In fact, Christie (1977) argued that the conflict between individuals and/or groups is their ‘property’; property that is subsequently taken over by the state in its role as ultimate ‘arbitrator’.

One could therefore postulate that conventional, vertical modes of criminal justice form a triangular shape, with the judge at the pinnacle and the ‘offender’ and ‘victim’ at opposite ends of the base. However, ‘horizontal models’ of dispensation in the RJ sphere are more circular in form where “…no person is above the other. A graphic model often used by Indians to portray this thought is a circle. In a circle, there is no right or left, no beginning or end. Every point (or person) on the line on a circle looks to the same center as the focus. A circle is a symbol of Navajo justice because it is perfect, unbroken, and a simile of unity and oneness” (Yazzie, 1994: 29–30, cited in Fergusson and Muncie, 2010).

In this way, shouldn’t an all-inclusive circle represent our own dispute processes in society? “In addition to tangible compensation, restorative justice advocates rebuilding the relationship between the victim and offender. In sharp contrast to the traditional model of justice, restorative justice aims to resolve conflict and restore dialogue between the parties where possible” (Gaudreault, 2005: 6). Personally, I feel that it takes a lotof courage on the part of the ‘victim’ and ‘offender’ to participate in the RJ mediation process.

In fact, I recall watching one of the many TV programmes about the American penal system that showed a face-to-face mediation between a prisoner and victim’s mother. I was surprised by how nervous the prisoner appeared but I was even more amazed when the victim’s mother told the prisoner (who was serving life imprisonment for killing her son) that she had forgiven him. The powerful act of humanity and compassion gave me goose bumps, prompting me to wonder why RJ is non-existent in Scottish prisons. Couldn’t this catalyse desistance? Wouldn’t such meetings between prisoner and victim not only allow the victim to heal but also to allow the prisoner to appreciate the magnitude of his/her actions? British MP Jeremy Wright (2012) commented that “Restorative Justice has the potential to break the destructive pattern of behaviour of those that offend by forcing them to confront the full extent of the emotional and physical damage they have caused to their victims” (cited in MoJ, 2012: 1).

While I feel that ‘forcing [offenders]’ is the wrong terminology to use, he still manages to get his point across. I say this because it is easy to read about your mistakes in a bureaucratic report; I imagine it would be a lot harder to look into the eyes of those who were hurt by your actions, especially if they said “I forgive you!” Therein lies the irony – I find myself secretly yearning to be part of such humanity yet am oddly frightened by it at the same time. Intriguingly, Shapland et al. (2011) state that “…restorative justice conferencing may provide a platform upon which intending desisters can set out, in front of their supporters and victims, that they do take responsibility for the offence, that they wish to change their lives, and that they are sorry for the harm the offence has caused [to victims and supporters]” (cited in Shapland and Bottoms, 2017: 762).

Instead of utilising RJ practices to bridge gaps between prisoners and wider society, individuals in prison appear to be fending for themselves vis-à-vis rehabilitation. According to McNeill and Weaver (2010: 8), “It is not enough to have opportunities, ‘opportunities’ need to be read as opportunities by the offenders themselves”. However, where are those ‘opportunities?’ Is the period of incarceration itself the opportunity? Furthermore, it has been argued that sending people to prison “slows maturation, damages family ties, cements criminal identities and establishes criminal associations and networks” (McNeill and Weaver, 2010: 13). In this way, one could argue that incarceration allows those individuals already criminally disposed to develop and nurture ‘criminal capital’, compounding the likelihood of recidivism (Bayer et al. 2009, cited in Drago and Galbiati, 2012). Shockingly, Labour MP David Lammy (2017) cites the cost of recidivism to the British taxpayer as somewhere between £9.5 and £13 billion per year. Imagine how much social inequality the state could eradicate with that amount of money.

In fact, Lammy (2017) argues that people trying to ‘go straight’ should be allowed to present their case before a court with the ultimate aim of sealing their criminal records if they can convince the court of their transformation. In this way, sealing criminal records of those who have demonstrated change will allow individuals to re-integrate into society instead of “trapping offenders in their past, denying dependents an income, and costing the tax payer money” (Lammy, 2017: 64). Lammy’s (2017) notion comes in response to a law in the state of Massachusetts where an individual’s criminal record can be sealed through judicial process if that person can demonstrate to the court that transformation has been achieved. In fact, couldn’t one argue that the state of Massachusetts will extend ‘judicial rehabilitation’ (McNeill, 2014) to convicted people if they can prove ‘moral’ and ‘psychological rehabilitation’ (McNeill, 2014)? Shouldn’t Scotland/UK follow suit?

According to Shapland and Bottoms (2017), the width of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (1974) was extended in 2014 vis-à-vis the possibility of sealing criminal records in England and Wales although it is unclear what this entails. The sad fact is that it is the very existence of individual criminal records that impacts upon the re-entry and, in turn, potential desistance of people leaving prison. Employers can’t be forced or coerced to provide jobs to ex-offenders. Doesn’t this reluctance to provide employment to those with criminal records arguably indicate the apparent belief that ‘rehabilitation is dead?’ In fact, Healy (2016) argues that “…in economic hard times, even those offenders trying to desist are likely to fail because employers will look elsewhere in the pool of unemployed labour” (cited in Shapland and Bottoms, 2017: 762). I hope that Release Scotland will bridge this gap in the Scottish context.

Interestingly, Weaver (2018) cites how “people with convictions appear to be the only group excluded from the Equality Act 2010’s anti-discrimination protections and so one implication might be that people with convictions should be legally recognised as a disadvantaged group entitled to special employment protection”. Doesn’t this only further marginalise people who have been convicted, making desistance from crime appear as a fantasy rather than helping it become a reality? Hopefully the juxtaposition of businesses under the Release Scotland umbrella will go some way to rectifying this anomaly.

As I near my own release, my mind swirls with these issues. I feel as though I am one of the people at the heart of these problems because, like it or not, most (if not all) of them affect my life in some way. Prisoner re-entry affects me because I am about to leave prison and return to society likely within the next year. Restorative justice could theoretically apply although I feel that, in my own case, it should be the victims’ choice whether they feel the process would benefit them. In fact, I am of the view that if those who I have hurt in the past wished to pursue this course of action, then it is my duty to participate whether I want to or not (but that is my personal opinion).

The most applicable issue to my own case, I feel, is desistance. The closer I come to my final parole hearing, the more I think about the big unknown. Will the societal marginalisation and disenfranchisement remain at the prison gates as I exit the institution? Is it possible that I will finally be able to shed my criminal identity in the eyes of the criminal justice apparatus and wider society and, in turn, adopt a freshly constructed academic persona? If the primary purpose of incarceration is ‘rehabilitation’ then I wonder why the parole board think my past outweighs my transformation.

In fact, Weaver et al. (2012: 94) postulate that the “seriousness of the current offence and criminal career are unrelated to parole board decision making. Decisions tend to be made based on current (at the time of the parole application) propensity to change and to reduced criminogenic need”. Personally, I feel that my own situation demonstrates that this is not always the case. My criminogenic need has been reduced through the utilisation of standard risk assessment tools and I have participated in all programmes that were recommended by psychologists in the past. I was recalled to custody in 2011 for two charges of breach of the peace but have been held for seven years (with fourteen months left to serve).

Unfortunately, the parole board has refused to grant my release every year since my recall to custody. I feel that there is nothing more I can do to convince them (or anyone else for that matter) that I am serious about change. However, I think that the much-coveted academic future that potentially awaits me out with these grey walls will render all of the parole rejections insignificant. In other words, I transformed myself in the face of overwhelming adversity and pointlessness while it seemed that the parole function (in my mind, at least) reinforced the negativity of my incarceration. I sometimes wonder if I would have embraced my previous criminal identity had I not met the people who championed me or participated in academic study in prison.

Although many people return to prison, transformation is possible for even those (seemingly) incapable of change. However, I feel that I am simply fortunate that I met the people I did when I did. Maybe transformation was in my life script from day one? Sadly, this may not the case for many of the people who share my current living space. In this way, Travis and Petersilia (2001: 299) ominously state that “No matter what punishment philosophy sends prisoners to prison, no matter how their release is determined, with few exceptions they all come back. It is hard to find a coherent re-entry philosophy in the current state of affairs”.

While I feel that this statement could apply to all of those that have been incarcerated, one could argue that winning the battle within oneself vis-à-vis criminality is the first step towards winning the war that sees ‘offenders’ marginalised and disenfranchised in societies across the globe. In this way, they appear to be held prisoners of their own pasts. I feel that I have won the inner battle that helped deconstruct my criminal identity through higher education. But there is no denying that relapse could occur if I received zero help or support from others. I would like to say that it doesn’t bear thinking about but anything is possible. However, I have my new persona and mentality (and my son) going in my favour, which are undoubtedly protective factors.

Despite the fact that I have fought a mental, emotional and spiritual war within my own heart, mind and soul, I realise that I am still human and, therefore, fallible like everyone else. I realise I have crossed legal, social and moral boundaries in the past. But I want to make it right somehow. Undoubtedly, criminality causes individuals to cross the threshold separating mainstream society from its dark underbelly. In fact, the Russian word for ‘crime’ (prestupleniye) denotes the crossing of a boundary, from one dimension to another. This brings me to my title-related metaphor. In Roman times, there was a spirit called Janus who was a symbol of archways and doorways. In fact, these gates were left open in times of war and closed during periods of peace and tranquillity. I like this metaphor because doorways and archways symbolise the crossing of a threshold, from one dimension to another. My own individual Gates of Janus opened, in my opinion, when my Dad died.

Hopefully they will close as the prison gates slam shut behind me.


BBC News (2018) ‘New Body Aims to Get Ex-Prisoners Back into Work’, BBC News [online]. Available at: 28th May 2018).

Christie, N. (1977) ‘Conflicts as Property’, The British Journal of Criminology, Volume 17(1): 1–14.

Cunneen, C. (2015) ‘Restorative Justice’, in McLaughlin, E. and Muncie, J. (eds.) The SAGE Dictionary of Criminology (3rdedition), London: SAGE Publications (this edition 2015).

Drago, F. and Galbiati, R. (2012) ‘Indirect Effects of a Policy Altering Criminal Behavior: Evidence from the Italian Prison Experiment’, American Journal of Applied Economics.

Fergusson, R. and Muncie, J. (2010) ‘Conflict Resolution, Restoration and Informal Justice’, in Drake, D., Muncie, J. and Westmarland, L. (eds.) Criminal Justice: Local and Global, Willan Publishing/The Open University: Milton Keynes (pp.71–104).

Gaudreault, A. (2005) ‘The Limits of Restorative Justice’, Symposium of the École Nationale de la Magistrature, Paris: Édition Dalloz.

James, E. (2016) ‘People with Convictions Need the Dignity of Work’, Inside Time, August 2016, issue no. 206. ISSN 1743-7342.

Kazemian, L. (2007) ‘Desistance From Crime: Theoretical, Empirical, Methodological and Policy Considerations’, Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, Volume 23(1): 5–27.

Kirkwood, S. and McNeill, F. (2015) ‘Integration and Reintegration: Comparing pathways to citizenship through asylum and criminal justice’, Criminology and Criminal Justice, Volume 15(5): 511–526.

Lammy, D. (2017) ‘The Lammy Review: An Independent Review into the Treatment of, and Outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Individuals in the Criminal Justice System’, Available at:

Marland, I. (2018) ‘Do a Third of Scots Men Really Have a Criminal Conviction?’ BBC News [online]. Available at: 23rd May 2018).

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.

Shapland, J. and Bottoms, A. (2017) ‘Desistance from Crime and Implications for Offender Rehabilitation’, in Liebling, A., Maruna, S. and McAra, L. (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Criminology(6thedition), Oxford: Oxford University Press (pp. 744–766).

Travis, J. and Petersilia, J. (2001) ‘Re-entry Reconsidered: A New Look at an Old Question’, Crime & Delinquency, Volume 47(3): 291–313.

Weaver, B., Tata, C.,   Munro, M. and Barry, M. (2012) ‘The Failure of Recall to Prison: Front-Door and Back-Door Sentencing and the Revolving Door of Prison in Scotland’, European Journal of Probation, Volume 4(1): 85–98.

Weaver, B. (2018) ‘Are Current Reforms on Criminal Disclosure Going Far Enough?’, Inside Time, May 2018, Issue No. 227, ISSN 1743–7342.

Wright, J. (2012) ‘Ministerial Foreword’, in Restorative Justice Action Plan for the Criminal Justice System, London: Ministry of Justice.

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.

Punishment and ‘the horizon of reintegration’

This guest post comes from Javier Velasquez Valenzuela who is a doctoral research in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research where he is studying the culture and practice of sentencing in Scottish courts. Javier previously worked as a prosecutor in the Chilean criminal courts. In this post, he reflects on the implications of some fascinating and challenging remarks made by Pope Francis during a visit to a women’s prison in Chile, as part of his recent visit. The post is a translated and adapted version of an article published in a Spanish language Chilean digital newspaper, which can be found here:

Earlier this year Pope Francis, during his pastoral activities in Chile (my home country), he visited Chile’s largest prison for women. In his speech to the women, he said:

“A prison sentence without a future is not a human sentence, it is torture. Every sentence being lived out to pay a debt to society must have a perspective, that is, it must have the horizon of reintegration and preparation for being reintegrated. This is something you must demand of society”.

I want to explore the implications of these thoughts within the Chilean context — and for how we think about punishment and reintegration more generally. This requires an examination the meaning and the purposes of prison sentences, not least in Chile.

I will start by advancing my conclusion: In Chile prison produces nihilistic suffering, that is, suffering which lacks meaning or purpose. The practical reality of the conditions in the Chilean prisons are inhuman and should not leave anyone indifferent. In fact, at this point no one could claim ignorance of this situation. Not only are there various reports and new stories that have informed us about the miserable conditions caused by prison overcrowding or about the violence that is experienced inside the prisons and which the prison staff cannot control. If reports on the violation of human rights of the inmates were not enough to alert us to this reality, the San Miguel’s prison fire – where 81 prisoners died – gave a human face to this reality.

This is why the recent reflections offered by the Pope should make us consider the contradictions in our ways of thinking about punishment. Because Francis is right — a “sentence without a future is not a human punishment, it is a torture”. And the way in which we have tried to do justice is mainly through the imposition of a nihilistic punishment, which is just a manifestation of power; power that dehumanises individuals we seem to believe undeserving of being treated as human beings. It is difficult to pretend that any punishment suffered in this way may be able to teach ‘offenders’ anything about morality or citizenship. Critically, the fact that Chileans acknowledge the misery of imprisonment, and knowingly allow it, shows that we accept it. Whatever religion you profess and whatever your political preferences, it is not acceptable in a democracy to tolerate a punishment that has become a de facto form of torture; a punishment that denies individuals, who have committed crimes, their humanity.

The ethical-moral argument that asks us for consistency in respect of human rights is not the only consideration that compels us to reflect on the urgent need for reform of the prison system. Recently, a press release reported that the cost to the Chilean State of maintaining a prisoner is £868 per month. However, and this is critically important, anyone who has visited any Chilean prison may have asked where that money goes because the conditions do not reflect the amount of money that is spent. During the last few years, the Chilean Prison Service annual budget has been on average around £540,000,000. However, such a significant amount of funding has not been able to end the violence inside the prisons — the homicides and other violent crimes; nor has it been able to prevent drug dealing orchestrated within the prison walls through the illegal use of mobile phones. Moreover, we also need to consider the prison’s in/ability to reduce reoffending. Several studies carried out in Chile with adult and juvenile populations found that after three years at least half of those released had committed a new offence or offences. These findings are broadly consistent with the comparative literature on the effects of custodial sentences and their relation to recidivism. Custodial sentences which not allow people to access to treatment, education, rehabilitation or work programmes; that do not prepare people for re-entry, fail to reduce recidivism.

Perhaps the most fundamental problem of our punitive nihilism is that it means imposing degrading punishments that mean not only a level of suffering which is incompatible with modern democracies – since we deny them humane and dignified treatment – but that these degradations so obviously and inevitably fail to rehabilitate or reintegrate. If they produce anything, it is purposeless pain, dehumanization and violence. Moreover, most of the people that are subjected to imprisonment are going to be released within ten, five or two years. How can society expect that, whenever they regain their freedom, they will have -magically- learned a moral lesson about good and evil, about human rights, about compassion? They are expected to be reintegrated, but, again, in most cases, no support is given for it, or that which is provided is not enough.

The challenge we have as a society — which is the same in Chile as in Scotland (where I currently work) and around the world — is that we must confront our duty as humans to rethink the horizon of punishment — to understand that we cannot continue allowing this nihilistic punishment that ultimately degrades our fellow citizens, wastes our collective resources and fails to solve the problem of recidivism. We have find our way towards more constructive response to crime which communicate to the person who has offended the consequences of their crime and at the same time provide tools so that reintegration can be achieved in a way that benefits both the individual and society. And this purpose, as the Pope posits, must include the possibility for anyone who has offended to build a dignified future beyond crime in a society that will offer them real opportunities for reintegration.

Penal cultures and female desistance

Dr Linnéa Österman who is a Lecturer in Criminology in the Department of Law and The Centre for Criminology at the University of Greenwich ( the recent ‘Desistance, Structures, Agency and Policy’ conference in Sheffield. If you follow the link below, you’ll find a blogpost in which she reflects on the conference, focusing in particular on gender, as well as providing some summary comments on her own presentation

‘Cognitive transformations’ and desistance

Another post from the ever-prolific Kris MacPherson… Though this is focused on ‘cognitive  transformations’, drawing on the work of Peggy Giordano and her colleagues, just like their work, it also highlights how much cognitive changes relate to social contexts of and reactions to people trying to change.

I have written posts before about ‘hooks-for-change’ (Giordano et al., 2002) but only ever read about hooks-for-change second hand — through articles other than the original study that coined this term. I eventually got my hands on the original study by Giordano et al. (2002) and found extremely intriguing claims contained within it in relation to the cognitive transformations of someone in the desistance process. Since I feel that most of these ideas are personally applicable, I want to break them down and analyse them in order to demonstrate their ‘perfect’ fit (or not). Since academic education was my hook-for-change, I want to explore cognitive transformations related to education in a carceral context.

The prison term I am currently completing amounted to a sixteen-year term, of which there are eighteen months left to serve in total. I knew when I got this sentence, I was almost finished, legally speaking. If my life was a game of criminal chess, then the law had just put me in check. Any criminal move I made from here on out would surely result in checkmate and I wasn’t about to allow the government to take complete and total control over my life and body for the rest of my life. I consciously realised that I had to do something to resurrect my future from the ashes. It was now or never and I had been handed more than enough prison time to achieve this.

How to do it, though?

The funny thing is that I did not even remotely know how to go about trying to achieve my aims, or even what my aims were at that point. As I’ve explained before, I have always been deeply interested in different educational subjects, such as languages and social sciences. When I landed in HMP Shotts in July 2004, I went straight to the learning centre and asked what I had to do in order to be able to study for a degree. I jumped through every academic hoop required until I was accepted to study for a BSc. (Hons) Psychology with the Open University. Later, I changed my degree to a BSc. (Hons) Criminology with Psychological Studies because I felt that psychology focused too much on individuals whereas criminology not only took into account individual processes but also the sociological factors that influenced them.

Giordano et al. (2002) argue that there are four specific types of cognitive transformation in the desistance process: (1) openness to change; (2) exposure to (potential) hooks-for-change; (3) shift in how one sees oneself; and (4) shift in how one views deviant behaviour. However, is this a consecutive process or can more than one of these cognitive developments occur concurrently? Is openness to change required before exposing a potential desister to hooks-for-change? Must a shift in how one sees oneself take place before a person’s views on criminal behaviour shift? I would argue that these processes can occur in tandem rather than in a set sequence.

Oddly, in my own personal experience, these cognitive transformations actually occurred in reverse. For example, I began noticing a slow, subtle shift in how I viewed criminal behaviour around the age of twenty/twenty-one. Due to external circumstances taking place in my environment, I ceased ‘offering myself up front’ and began ‘pulling back’ vis-à-vis deviant behaviour. This, in turn, made me question the way I had been living my life up until that point and how I wanted to live the rest of my life. The problem was that I was stuck in a social habitat with no (potential) hooks-for-change, compounded by the fact that there was nothing but vendettas and grudges swirling all around me. Such deviance reinforces itself. Strangely, I felt deeply worried about the fact that my views on both criminal behaviour and my criminalised identity were subtly shifting from one polarity to another. I feared I was ‘losing heart’ but I wasn’t losing anything.

I was becoming.

In this way, I harboured a ‘basic openness to change’ (Giordano et al., 2002) but did not know how to realise change or put my evolving identity shift into practice. I cannot doubt that the educational opportunities provided within the carceral environment were instrumental in precipitating certain shifts which, in turn, signposted me towards commitment to a life of desistance. This is the same carceral environment that has shifted from aiming to reform prisoners under the banner of ‘rehabilitation’ to neutralising inmates through warehousing them while maintaining ‘rehabilitative pretensions’ (Wacquant, 2010). I find this deeply paradoxical: how I could attempt to ‘rehabilitate’ myself when ‘rehabilitation’ seems all but dead in the spaces I inhabit.

Although I was deeply immersed in academic education during the punishment part of my sentence (2003–2010), I was completely unaware of desistance, hooks-for-change or anything else that could point me in the right direction on how to break free from crime. It wasn’t until I was recalled to prison in 2011 that things really began to fall into place. Like I have stated before, the education centre in HMP Low Moss was staffed with a constellation of stellar teachers who nurtured the ‘good’ side of me, subtly demonstrating to me that life without crime was possible if I was serious enough about desisting. The irony is that HMP Low Moss was probably the most hostile prison I have ever served time in and I was faced with many obstacles outwith the learning centre that tested my commitment to desistance to the limits and back.

These ‘obstacles’ precipitated my mental/emotional vacillation from a (criminal) persistence perspective to a (criminal) desistance standpoint, making me question whether (1) I was truly capable of ‘going straight’ and (2) whether I would come out the other end in one piece. McNeill and Schinkel (2015) argue that no amount of personal transformation is realistic without the recognition of such change by the community, the law and, ultimately, the state. I submit that my own personal change was recognised by those very teachers who ‘helped carry hope for me when I became too tired to carry hope on my own’, to quote McNeill and Weaver (2010).

Even though I was given such a lengthy prison term, I could still feel my identity shifting from ‘career criminal’ to someone who hoped to resurrect their life through the vehicle of academic study. What did the shift feel like, I can almost hear you asking? Well, for starters, I knew I had to get my deep-seated wrath on a very tight leash. How to do this, especially in a prison setting? I ceased responding to situations with aggression and had many long, deep periods of reflective analysis about my life and the bad choices I have made in the past. Easier said than done, especially in an environment where violence is respected and tacitly applauded by one’s peer group. When I watched the news on television reporting stories of crimes committed, I studied the faces of victims and imagined that the person concerned was someone I loved who’d been hurt or maimed just like them or their relatives, causing deep emotional pangs as I realised I’d made people feel like that in the past. What if that were my Gran, Grandpa, brother or son?

Not a nice feeling.

The ironic thing is that for the most part, one does not have to behave in an aggressive fashion in prison; people do so because they think they will ‘lose face’ by not doing so and respond accordingly. I knew if I stopped seeing myself in a criminalised light then I would possibly be able to reconstruct my identity through academic pursuits, thus helping me ‘shed’ my previous image. Being away from my old stomping ground helped me take stock of my life and I lost interest in old enemies and past grudges. What was the point to it all?

In short, there wasn’t one.

Surely the abstinence from aggressive behaviour in the prison environment would help deconstruct the individual’s criminalised identity and build ‘social capital’ (McNeill, 2016) with those who wish to extend compassion, understanding and, ultimately, a chance to ‘prove’ oneself when liberated from prison?  “The environment can thus provide a kind of scaffolding that makes possible the construction of significant life changes. Nonetheless, individuals themselves must attend to these new possibilities, discard old habits, and begin the process of crafting a different way of life. At the point of change, this new lifestyle will necessarily be ‘at a distance’ or a ‘faint’ possibility” (Giordano et al., 2002: 1000). This claim is definitely applicable to my education experiences within the prison environment; I hope it will be the same when I am released in 2019.

My ‘exposure to hooks-for-change’ (Giordano et al., 2002) was actually there in front of me all along. I have been deeply engrossed in academic subjects even before I began committing crimes and sustained those interests during my ‘offending years’. However, I was unaware that I could utilise these skills to extract myself from a mess of my own making. I ‘looked but didn’t see’, until I landed in HMP Low Moss and the great teachers there made me see that I really could use education as a conduit with which to turn my back on crime and lead a new life in the community. They helped me see that I could use my books as tools for personal growth, thereby enhancing the critical periods of reflective analysis of my past and criminalised identity. In this way, I could deconstruct my criminalised identity and reconstruct a new identity through academic studies. To quote Mead (1964, cited in Giordano et al., 2002: 1000), I was ‘opening the door’ to specific stimuli (pro-social conduct/education) while ‘closing it to others’ (anti-social conduct/pro-criminal sentiments).

While many academic studies (for example, Laub, Nagin and Sampson, 1998; Laub and Sampson, 1993; and Sampson and Laub 1993, cited in Giordano et al., 2002) place emphasis on marriage as a key factor in the desistance process, I cannot attest to this. However, I can confirm Giordano et al’s (2002: 1001) assertion that “the actor must not only regard the new environmental situation as a positive development (e.g., experience high attachment to a spouse), but must also define the new state of affairs as fundamentally incompatible with continued deviation”. Ironically, people around me in the community told me that I offended less when I was in a romantic relationship. I would tend to agree with that. That being said, relationships are bound to deteriorate during one’s prison sentence and I am no exception to this rule. I am now in the process of building new social relationships with a small but growing number of academics and pro-social individuals who undoubtedly help me define my current situation and desired destinations as ‘incompatible with continued deviation’. These relationships are not only inspirational but help to reinforce the ‘good side’ of my personality to the extent that the ‘bad side’ is ‘locked in the cupboard’, for want of a better metaphor.

Indeed, McNeill and Weaver (2010: 8) assert that desistance could be “supported by a kind of ‘virtuous circle’ where hope and hopefulness is realised through opportunities that in turn vindicate and reinforce hope and hopefulness”. I feel that my new academic and pro-social connections are bricks in the foundations laid by those teachers from Low Moss who helped me believe that I am capable of change and that change is possible. Even those of you that leave encouraging comments on my blog posts are reinforcing my commitment to desistance and my desire to lead a polar opposite life from the one I led before. I cannot thank any of you enough for your help.

I feel that I am transforming into something Coelho (2002[1997]) termed a ‘Warrior of Light’ where I can ‘live my [academic] dream’ and strive to ‘achieve my own unique destiny’. According to Coelho (2002[1997]: 3) a “Warrior of Light knows that he has much to be grateful for. He was helped in his struggle by ‘angels’; ‘celestial forces’ placed each thing in its place, thus allowing him to give his best… His gratitude, however, is not limited to the spiritual world; he never forgets his friends, for their blood mingled with his on the battlefield. A warrior does not need to be reminded of the help given him by others; he is the first to remember and makes sure to share with them any rewards he receives”.

That means all of you who are helping me now.



Coelho, P. (2002[1997]) Manual of the Warrior of Light, translation by Margaret Jull Costa, London: HarperCollins.

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.

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. 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.

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

Political Immaturity: ‘Civic Sleepers’ Revisited

In this post, our regular correspondent Kris McPherson returns to the issue of prisoner voting in light of recent discussions about the extending the franchise in Scotland… The views he expresses are, of course, his own.

An intriguing story on Russia Today (aired 8/1/18) captured my interest as I sat in my cell (or my ‘think tank’, as I prefer to call it) pondering my next ‘chess move’. The story reported that the Scottish Government was considering allowing refugees and non-EU citizens resident in Scotland the right to vote in local/national elections in the country. Not wishing to suffer accusations of relying on sources that supposedly peddle ‘fake news’, I sought other information in order to revisit a previous blog article posted in December 2017 vis-à-vis the issue of prisoner voting in Scotland.

A reporter for the Independent newspaper, Caroline Mortimer, stated in her article on the issue of permitting non-Scottish citizens the right to vote in local/national Scottish elections that the Scottish Government is eager to initiate changes that will “set it apart from the rest of the UK” (Mortimer, 2018). This is intriguing, for several reasons.

Firstly, I wonder if this new proposal is a political tactic that is (1) designed to deflect attention from the issue of allowing prisoners the right to vote in elections in Scotland; and (2) to give the tacit impression of an acquiescent olive branch-of-sorts to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), who argue that Scotland’s blanket ban on prisoner voting breaches Article 3 of The Convention (Evans, 2017). I would like to make it clear that I am not against our government (can I even say ‘our’ government?) extending voting rights to non-EU citizens or those who flee wars in their own countries to save their lives or a better life (wars that ‘our’ own government sometimes help propagate). Extending voting participation seems, to me, a very small brick in a very big edifice.

Nevertheless, I suppose it is a start in the right direction.

One of the interesting comments made by Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is that Scotland should extend “a welcoming hand and an open heart to those seeking a better life or wanting to make a contribution [in Scotland]” (Mortimer, 2018). Nicola Sturgeon argues that the population of Scotland is expected to decline over the next 25 years if there is “low net migration”, indicating that our nation will suffer from a diminished labour pool that will result in further damage to social and economic institutions (Mortimer, 2018). But what about extending a “welcoming hand” to (ex) offenders who want to ‘open their own hearts’ and ‘seek a better life’ for themselves and their loved ones, thereby contributing something other than rising crime rates to Scottish society?

Doesn’t this refusal to acknowledge prisoner voting spell political immaturity?

Almond and Verba ([1963]1989: 13) argue that the political culture of a nation is ascertained by measuring the thoughts and feelings of the people in relation to the political system (cited in Clark et al., 2013: 218). They postulated that it was possible to study a given culture by conducting surveys and asking the people about their own feelings vis-à-vis political structures, agents and mechanisms (cited in Clark et al., 2013: 218). Wouldn’t an “open country” ask the population their own personal views on the issue of prisoner voting? If Scotland is so “open” then why would the issue of prisoner voting be absent from public discussion? If we are such a ‘democracy’ then why doesn’t the Scottish Government ask the public what they think of prisoners (or the majority of prisoners) being allowed to vote in Scottish elections?

Furthermore, Almond and Verba ([1963]1989) postulate that although economic development is essential for the development of democracy, they argue that “only culture could provide the ‘psychological basis of democratisation’”, without which the prospects for the endurance of democracy is thin (cited in Clark et al., 2013: 217). I would offer the opinion that it is the country’s population that contributes collectively to and produces the culture of a nation. That being said, I wouldn’t say that I have ‘contributed to the culture’ because I have lived my life as part of my own particular culture, apart from mainstream society.

I can totally understand the desire of some to disqualify convicted people from voting. Why should we simply be ‘handed’ the right to vote while still incarcerated? Society must figure this conundrum out on its own, without government hyperbole or interference. The government should not be able to make society’s decision unilaterally or capitalise on victims’ pain. That is what autocratic states do, not democratic ones. The issue of whether prisoners should be allowed to participate in Scottish elections must be put forward to the Scottish public and nobody else. This could be done through public consultation and possibly by referendum. That being said, the government does have the right to take its own position and legislate on these issues (such is the nature of governance). Ironically, a consultation paper has been published by the Scottish Government (2017) in which several questions have been put to the public in relation to electoral reform. However, there is scant mention of extending the franchise to prisoners and the public is not asked for their opinion on the matter.

I do agree with the fact that victims of crime should be totally included in any/all matters relating to this issue, as stated in Evans (2017: 15). I do wonder whether the government wants to try and make a real attempt at rehabilitation, desistance and societal inclusivity or just wants to continue paying lip service? One thing I do not like is someone who does not live by his/her own standards. Rather, they want everyone else to conform to them. I am old enough to see this.

Old school; not play school!

Interestingly, Barry et al. (2016) conducted a study into the usefulness of so-called ‘User Voice Councils’ in which (ex) prisoners can dialogue with agencies and address issues which focus on the strengths of the individual rather than persistently targeting his/her personal deficits. The aim of User Voice is to “foster dialogue between service providers and users that is mutually beneficial and results in better and more cost-effective services” (User Voice, 2012, cited in Barry et al., 2016: 1). Findings in this study conducted in six English prisons indicated that such mechanisms enhanced the efficacy and success of the rehabilitative atmosphere both inside and outside prisons. I realise that this is early days but why aren’t such councils being piloted within Scotland’s penal estate? Wouldn’t this be an ideal way to politically educate people who are in prison or have done so in the past?

Perhaps User Voice Councils could act as the bridge between prison and politics?

I would like to ask Nicola Sturgeon how she expects people in prison to conduct themselves in society when her government blatantly cherry-picks which rules to follow? What sort of example does this set if our nation’s leader sends a tacit message that rules are relative? I wonder if the prisoner voting issue is a way of gaining votes from those who thinks our country is too soft on criminals? Nicola Sturgeon should put this to the citizens through public consultation rather than ignoring the issue. The noted Scottish actor Brian Cox said in an interview (aired 11/1/18) with (Nicola Sturgeon’s mentor) Alex Salmond that, “when you ignore the populace, ignorance builds up!”

What builds up when you ignore prisoners?

If you asked a prison/police officer or criminal justice practitioner who dealt with me during my ‘offending years’ if I possessed the capacity to change, the consensus would undoubtedly be unanimous: no way! But if ‘someone like me’ can change through the utilisation of academic study as a ‘hook-for-change’ (Giordano et al., 2002, cited in McNeill and Weaver, 2010), braided with the belief shown in me and the humane understanding extended to me from academics and prison teachers then surely it is entirely possible that there are other ‘dormant desisters’ out there waiting to be discovered? Wouldn’t extending the franchise to prisoners, regardless of whether they choose to participate in elections, be a step towards this civic inclusivity? I asked several people incarcerated in my part of the prison why they do not vote and whether they felt they should be allowed to vote while incarcerated. I received some interesting replies. Some said that no matter whether they were outside or inside, the prisons would still be the same; others said they didn’t pay taxes so voting didn’t apply to them.

How do we combat such thinking?

If the Republic of Ireland and Wales permit prisoners the right to vote, as cited by Evans (2017), then why are Scottish prisoners completely politically silenced? Doesn’t this demonstrate how politically immature our nation is? I believe I may know one reason why our government is reluctant to allow prisoners to vote. A while back, a prisoner won a financial claim against the Scottish Prison Service, claiming the antiquated practice of ‘slopping-out’ (urinating/defecating in pots) breached his human rights. He was awarded financial damages that resulted in a tsunami of similar financial claims from prisoners across Scotland, many of which were successful.

I personally know of a prisoner who has a similar claim pending vis-à-vis the right to vote. I wonder if the government feels that allowing us to vote will produce a similar seismic shock if such claims were successful and they had to pay out? On the other hand, it could be further argued that the government could allow prisoners to vote to stem such financial claims. However, if this were the case, wouldn’t it have happened by now? Well I can only speak for myself and tell you I am not in this for reward.

Ironically, I am in this for the sake of right and wrong.

I think if our country wished to be part of Europe then we have to act as though we are part of Europe. Surely, we cannot expect to gain all of the benefits of being part of this institution without sharing in its ‘drawbacks?’ I can’t speak for others but I don’t think I ought to be handed the right to vote just for the sake of it. If Europe says one thing and the Scottish Government says another then I think it ought to be put to the Scottish public through consultation and, possibly, a referendum. If the public voted through the democratic process to deny people like me from voting (or even in favour of it) then it is case closed.

Isn’t that what democracies are supposed to do?


Barry, M., Weaver, B., Liddle, M., Schmidt, B., Maruna, S., Meek, R. and Renshaw, J. (2016) ‘Evaluation of the User Voice Prison and Community Councils: Final Report’, University of Strathclyde: Glasgow.

Clark, W.R., Golder, M. and Golder, S.N. (2013) Principles of Comparative Politics (2nd edition), SAGE Publications: London.

Evans, A. (2017) ‘Prisoner Voting in Scotland: a short summary’, SPICe Briefing Paper, The Scottish Parliament: Edinburgh.

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

Mortimer, C. (2018) ‘Refugees Could Be Given Right to Vote in Scotland’, The Independent, 6th January 2018 [online]. Available at Accessed 11th January 2018.

Russia Today (2018) ‘Refugees Could Be Allowed to Vote in Scottish Elections’, Russia Today News Channel, aired 8th January 2018.

Russia Today (2018) ‘The Alex Salmond Show’, Russia Today News Channel, aired 11th January 2018.

Scottish Government (2017) ‘Consultation Paper on Electoral Reform’, Scottish Government: Edinburgh.

The Colony of ‘Civic Sleepers’

In this latest post from Kris MacPherson, he explores the issue of political disenfranchisement within and beyond prisons.

I recently read a blog post by McNeill and Velasquez (2017) concerning the political neutralisation of prisoners in Chile and their right to vote while still incarcerated. The Chilean government prohibits those citizens sentenced to three years (or more) from participation in elections (McNeill and Velasquez, 2017). Moreover, anyone remanded pending trial for offences that could result in a prison term of three (or more) years is also banned from voting.

Interestingly, McNeill and Velasquez (2017) point out that anybody serving a prison term of less than three years retains the right to vote in Chilean elections. However, the government has not provided these people with the means of utilising their collective political voice. Clearly, the Chilean government are not in any rush to cull votes from those found guilty of crimes in court.

Sound familiar?

Back in Scotland/Britain, we live in a democracy that holds itself up as a beacon for other nations to emulate. The Greek word demokratia translates as “rule by the demos”; with demos being the Greek term for “common people – those people with little or no economic independence who are politically uneducated” (Clark, Golder and Golder, 2013: 45). Intriguingly, the Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that ‘good’ political functions (an aristocracy, for example) can become corrupted and that democracy is the result of this damaged politeia or polity (Clark, Golder and Golder, 2013).

But in what way can a polity become corrupted? Why is democracy a result of this corruption? Is it possible that there are parallels between the ‘corrupted individual’ and the ‘corrupted polity?’ In other words, is it possible that the ‘offender’ is a microcosm of a corrupted polity and the corrupted polity a macrocosm of the spoiled individual? Is it possible that a person is signposted towards criminal behaviour by external social dynamics in the same way that the polity is pointed towards democracy through corruption? In what way does political disenfranchisement impact and influence people in Scotland/UK who are currently incarcerated or have served time in the past?

For starters, I would like to point out that I have never voted in any election (most of my family members have never voted either). Back in my ‘offending days’, I viewed politics as something that did not affect (or apply to) me. Moreover, I saw voting as another way for the police (or someone with more sinister intentions) to obtain my address from the voters roll. To me, most politicians were manipulative, mendacious individuals who would promise a voter the sun, moon and stars but renege the second they assumed office. I didn’t need more individuals like this in my life.

I had enough of them in day-to-day life in the schemes.

In this way, one could very well argue that I was a ‘sleeping citizen’ (McNeill and Velasquez, 2017). Succinctly, a ‘sleeping citizen’ is someone who has been politically neutralised or silenced because of the fact they have served time in prison. Their denial of voting rights, in turn, avoids discussion or open dialogue on rehabilitation and the prison conditions of the country (McNeill and Velasquez, 2017). Here is a better definition:

“Whereas medieval punishment imposed civil death on some prisoners (rendering them non-persons), disenfranchisement (only) during imprisonment might be better described as a kind of civil anesthesia; the errant citizen is ‘put to sleep’ while some ‘correction’ takes place that might allow the rehabilitation of citizenship. At the end of this process, released prisoners are expected to have somehow readied themselves for civic revivification” (McNeill and Velasquez, 2017).

In Section three of the UK Representation of the People Act 1983, all prisoners serving prison sentences are prohibited from voting in British elections, irrespective of the length of incarceration (Evans, 2017). However, the Scottish Parliament has only recently been issued authority to legislate on prisoner voting. It refuses to give prisoners the vote. The blanket ban on prisoner voting was challenged more than a decade ago in Hirst v United Kingdom (No.2) in which the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that banning prisoners from voting breached Article 3 of Protocol No.1 of the European Convention of Human Rights (The Convention).

Muižnieks (2013) argues that “the indiscriminate ban on voting rights for prisoners should be repealed” (cited in Evans, 2017: 5). The Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon commented that a fundamental part of prison is that the inmate loses certain rights (Evans, 2017). The irony is that Scotland wants to remain in the Eurozone with all the benefits that this entails yet does not wish to utilise the Devolution Settlement (Scotland Act 1998) to strike down Acts of the Scottish Parliament that breach the Convention.

Talk about having your cake and eating it.

The Scottish Government put forward a consultation in which they wished to ascertain from the citizenry the sorts of electoral reforms they would like to see but this did not apply to prisoner voting (Evans, 2017). There are several other European nations that permit prisoners to vote with no restrictions, such as Sweden, Spain, Norway, Croatia and Switzerland. I think it would be interesting to take a look at the crime rates and desistance processes of such nations. Evans (2017) points out that the only countries with blanket bans on prisoner voting are Russia, Hungary, Georgia, Estonia, Bulgaria and Armenia (all former USSR/Soviet Bloc nations). I wonder if this has anything to do with Alex Salmond’s new chat show on RT?

Just kidding!

Not only are people in Scottish prisons prohibited from political participation but the prison experience, in many cases, renders people more ‘criminally-challenged’ than before. This is known as ‘dehabilitation’ (Scott and Flynn, 2014). It is the idea that prison suppresses rehabilitative conditions to the extent where prisoners evolve to become better criminals. The prisons abstention from direction/intervention enables inmates to develop their criminal repertoire and establish contacts they can utilise in the community to perpetrate new illegal ventures, increasing the likelihood of recidivism post-release.

Friedman (1993) states that no amount of new prisons or new laws can stop the crime problem. He argues it is a cultural issue that “is part of us, our evil twin, our shadow; our own society produced it” (cited in Gilligan, 2000: 14). If it is a cultural issue, is voter disenfranchisement amongst prisoners part of this process? How do we re-integrate those who have served time in prison when “they were never integrated in the first place” (Wacquant, 2010: 612)? Rotman (1990) argues that the issue with rehabilitating ‘sleepers’ is that the supposed rehabilitative process is more ‘authoritarian’ rather than ‘anthropocentric’ (cited in McNeill and Velasquez, 2017).

Authoritarian rehabilitation entails the exercise of power while anthropocentric rehabilitation outlines individualised model of state/citizen dialogue. This link with McNeill and Schinkel’s (2015) notion of ‘tertiary desistance’ where the individual is restored to an inclusive position in society. The stages of ‘primary desistance’ (behaviour) and ‘secondary desistance’ (identity) precede the tertiary desistance stage (McNeill and Schinkel, 2015).

However, I would like to offer the view that authoritarian rehabilitation will never work. Many people in prison have come through a lot of childhood trauma and lived life in a way that would scare, sicken or shock much of society. Nevertheless, many are still people with real emotions, hopes and dreams. Many are proud people who have suffered big knocks and still dusted themselves off. For someone to dictate to them how they should live or view life is not going to amount to much. The fact that many of the prison staff are younger than some inmates and little/no ‘life experience’ only compounds the issue.

How are you supposed to open up to someone who can’t relate to you?

Since prison disrupts and (in many cases) destroys family/social bonds, how can we as a society expect the carceral experience to reinforce desistance? McNeill and Velasquez (2017) argue that “those excluded from making the laws (and from the benefits and protections of laws) lose commitment to compliance with them”. I would agree with this statement, although I would offer that political disenfranchisement is one part of a bigger whole. Many prisoners and ex-offenders feel left out of society and not just the political arena. In fact, I asked several people in my wing about their opinions on politics and voting. All gave me similar cynical responses, which, I am sure, is only reinforced by our government subverting the very mechanism it wished to remain part of.

The ‘rejection of the rejecters’, as Scott and Flynn (2014) would say.

As McNeill and Weaver (2010) argue, those committed to desistance from crime can only do so much by themselves. Sooner or later, the social order 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. When people show understanding and compassion for many of the psychically fractured and damaged individuals incarcerated in our prisons will society see results. Many prisoners I have came across on my travels have hearts; I always find that there is something human in the majority. Granted that there are dangerous individuals in our prisons and I will be the first to say that there is no rehabilitation for certain offences (the Bin Ladens and Fred Wests of the world).

A blanket ban should be applied in such cases.

Wouldn’t our prisons be better served if politicians in whose constituency specific prisons were located visited the institution on a quarterly basis, providing inmates with a voice and a platform to (a) raise issues and concerns, and (b) become more politically aware? Are we truly a progressive, democratic nation who wishes to include everyone or are we simply a cultural and social wolf in sheep’s clothing? A single vote on its own is next-to-worthless; it is in their collective pool that they become powerful. If Wales and the Republic of Ireland allow prisoners the right to vote (Evans, 2017), why can’t Scotland do the same?

I myself am only recently becoming politically aware and feel that one cannot challenge a subject on which one knows nothing about. The only way that people in prison can challenge these issues is if they become more politically aware. Perhaps I am the first brick in the wall of a (re)awakening of ‘civic sleepers?’ That would not be possible without the small (but growing) number of people who believe in my behavioural, mental and emotional metamorphosis. Such people should be held up as a collective microcosm of how a government ought to act. Yet Travis (2017) points out how the Westminster government, in response to the Hirst case, will permit ‘up to 100 inmates serving short sentences’ to vote while on temporary release. What sort of ‘consolation’ is that?

Absolutely no consolation.

Such vindictive practices despatch prisoners out into an unforgiving society where they are subjugated and herded into a hidden world that is criminogenic in its cause and solution. It is in this world of ‘Neo-Darwinism’ (Wacquant, 2008) where many of those masses shunned by mainstream society inhabit a criminal mirror image of the widely worshipped ruling function of the neoliberal universe (the free market). What a wonderful way to keep the criminal heart beating.

Crime that the government supposedly wishes to eradicate.


  • Clark, W.R., Golder, M. and Golder, S.N. (2013) Principles of Comparative Politics (2nd edition), SAGE Publications: London.
  • Evans, A. (2017) ‘Prisoner Voting in Scotland: a short summary’, SPICe Briefing Paper, The Scottish Parliament: Edinburgh.
  • Gilligan, J. (2000) ‘Punishment and violence: is the criminal law based on one huge mistake?’, Social Research, Volume 67(3): 745–112.
  • 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. and Schinkel, M. (2015) ‘Prisons and Desistance’ in Jewkes, Y., Bennett, J. and Crewe, B. (eds.) Handbook of Prisons, Portland, Oregon: Wilton.
  • McNeill, F. and Velasquez, J. (2017) ‘Prisoners, Disenfranchisement and Sleeping Citizenship’, see:
  • Scott, D. and Flynn, N. (2014) Prisons & Punishment: The Essentials (2nd edition), SAGE Publications: London.
  • Travis, A. (2017) ‘Up to 100 Prisoners on Short Sentences to be Given the Right to Vote’, The Guardian, 2nd  November 2017 [online]. Available at Accessed Wednesday 13th December 2017.
  • Wacquant, L. (2008) ‘Ordering Insecurity: Social Polarization and the Punitive Upsurge’, Radical Philosophy Review, Volume 11(1): 9–27.
  • Wacquant, L. (2010b) ‘Prisoner Re-entry as Myth and Ceremony’, Dialectical Anthropology, Volume 34: 605–620.The Colony of ‘Civic

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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