Film stills and practitioner voices

Regular visitors may already have noticed two developments in the blog — one is the new page entitled ‘Documentary’ which gives a brief synopsis of the film we are currently editing; the other is the new visual images which should scroll automatically when you visit the site. These are stills from the filming — the recurring character is, of course, Allan Weaver, the others include Raymond Lunn (standing with Allan by a canal), some of Allan’s old friends, some new friends in Baltimore, and John Laub, a desistance scholar and now head of the US National Institute for Justice. These images give some sense of the journey that Allan takes in the film; we hope that they’ll whet your appetite for seeing more in the New Year.

New posts will be coming soon on ‘Prisons and Desistance’ and on ‘Four forms of rehabilitation’. Meantime, we are eager to hear more from practitioners involved in supporting desistance (in any context). If you work in such a role, please drop us a line ad share some thoughts about what does and does not work, and about what matters in supporting people to change.

Desistance and Recovery II

Hannah Graham is currently finishing a PhD looking at existing and emerging ways of working with people with multiple complex needs (sometimes called ‘vulnerable populations’) in justice and health, particularly in offender management and the alcohol & other drugs sector. She also works as an associate lecturer in criminology and sociology at the University of Tasmania, Australia and is co-author of Working with Offenders: A Guide to Concepts and Practices (Willan/Routledge), co-authored with Prof. Rob White. Bren Marsh’s recent post inspired her to write:

Thanks Bren and Fergus for your thoughtful, thought-provoking posts; I can’t tell you how refreshing the advanced (but thankfully non-esoteric) perspectives in this ‘knowledge exchange’ forum are.The possible answers to your question about ‘what will motivate ex-offenders to work with/mentor released prisoners or those seeking to leave offending?’ are (to borrow from Fergus’ musings) quite complex and quite simple at the same time.

They are simple in that the things that motivate ex-offenders are the same things that motivate the rest of us: money, another reason to get up in the morning, to enjoy what you do, the chance to be part of a bigger community or organisation of diverse people with like minds and similar goals, the opportunity to give and to be acknowledged that you have something to offer others – and all the benefits for a sense of personal identity and resilience that such generativity and hard work offers.

They are complex for a number of reasons and in light of a number of risks, not the least of which is systemic and societal readiness to embrace such changes. Changes in social responses to alcohol and substance misuse have reduced stigma and boosted membership numbers of AA, NA, SMART Recovery and the like. Whether or not there is a structural and societal readiness to support ex-offenders and offenders to form a sizeable, publicly visible and sustainable community network of common interest (and the instances Bren mentioned of exchanging free favours) remains to be seen. The exponential growth and subsequent sustainability of such desistance/recovery/resilience/reintegration networks is not merely dependent on the individual agency of a few passionate reformers or leading light organisations such as UNLOCK. Broader social and structural change is needed if complexity-capable desistance networks are to achieve longevity, which raises a key question: how are these networks to be supported and funded? Convincing funding bodies, especially the state, to generously resource such peer-led networks in our election-driven, risk averse, fiscal deficit focused world is a pressing concern if these networks are to be resilient and sustainable.

Another risk is that increased incentives attract altruists and opportunists alike. The majority of mentors already working in this area are reintegration and recovery champions who use the power of their own story to immeasurable effect. Sadly I have also met (active) drug dealers seeking to access and lead recovery networks in rehabs and stand-over merchants vying for the paid peer mentor jobs at our local prison. The argument can be made that peer mentors should be remunerated and rewarded (in different ways) as a matter of respect and reciprocity, but the potential for collateral damage is a very present risk if raising the incentives attracts “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Nonetheless, this is a risk to be mindful of, not to be stopped by.

Similarly, peer contributors to a desistance network themselves deserve to be mentored and supported by training, just like any other worker or volunteer, and you aptly raise the question of what types of training, courses or placements are on offer. On the one hand, this type of specialised accredited training is doable, even pre-release. At our local prison in Tasmania, Australia, we have a prisoner peer mentor program run by the Red Cross where inmate peer supporters are paid (and rewarded in other ways) for peer mentoring while serving their own sentence, and they receive tailored in-house training as well as an externally accredited certificate (from the TAFE/polytechnic). On the other hand, while I hear and understand the need for specialised and context-specific training, it shouldn’t be considered dichotomously as mutually exclusive to mainstream qualifications and training – ex-offenders can be both service providers and service users in other spheres and institutional contexts as well. For me, an enlightening and at times confronting experience was studying criminology at university and being taught by a tutor who had been to prison for a few years for serious offences and studied while inside, before he later gained employment teaching undergraduates. In this unit, I also sat alongside students who I knew were prisoners on day release. The knowledge exchange that ensued shaped all of our thinking, particularly because our conversations weren’t constrained the language of ‘us and them’. Importantly, the prisoners and ex-offenders had the opportunity for their voices to be heard, but also to be recognised or defined by things other than their past and membership of what is (despite our best efforts) still a stigmatised peer community. It was an inclusive yet rare form of ‘consumer participation’ and applied learning. My point in this is that innovative desistance networks offer exciting opportunities for social capital and mutual aid for those seasoned in their desistance and those wanting to embark on that process, but such communities can also draw upon and seek to influence other spheres and support networks, such as those academics and practitioners are involved in, without everything needing to be defined by the insider/outsider divide.

Apologies this has turned into a tome! Thanks again for your contributions, I look forward to reading more of them in the future.

Desistance and recovery networks

Bren Marsh, who is a PhD researcher at Queen’s University Belfast, working with Shadd, provided an interesting and thoughtful response to my last post. Rather than leaving it as a ‘reply’, I thought it would make a great post in its own right. If you’d like to post something — maybe a few hundred words on what you think about the process of desistance, or how services could better support it, feel free to email me:  

“Imagine that ex-prisoners helped to design, deliver and evaluate its services. Imagine that they were both service providers and service users. Sounds risky? Sounds expensive? Perhaps… but maybe less risky and less expensive than the alternatives”

Sounds like a great idea, and of course already happens to a certain extent if we consider that many prisoners are addicts, and many service providers in the addiction industry are former addicts.

I often reflect on the rich social capital that comes from membership of 12 step fellowships, even (or especially) for those still actively using drugs. In these fellowships there is always someone who knows someone who knows someone… who can get you what you need. From getting access to detox, in-paitent and out-patient rehab services, housing, health care, good legal advice, help with social welfare, filling out forms… to accessing a good plasterer, or a tutor, or whatever one needs. This social capital that comes through the extensive network that runs within and between different fellowships is crucial for successful addiction recovery and covers a very diverse range of needs. For example, I have given many literacy lessons to members over the years, or tuition to members returning to education. Most offer their particular area of strength free of charge (within reason of course). In addition I have witnessed many service providers using these informal networks to support service users.

The big question I suppose is how to create some similar netwroks for non-addicted prisoners and offenders, and for those who have no desire to attend 12 step felowships. An even bigger question is: is it possible to replicate, or produce something similar to, the 12 step networks? What would incentivise ex-offenders to build a network of ex-offenders, or to attend a support group? Why should they bother? What could it offer them?

Inherent in the 12 step ideology is the belief that relapse is always possible and maintaining active membership of the fellowship (i.e. the generative work with new members coming through) is essential for continued abstinence/sobriety. This generative ideology inspires many to go into work in the addiction services, and other helping professions like youth work, social work, etc.

So at the risk of blabbing on… what will motivate ex offenders to work with/mentor released prisoners or those seeking to leave offending? Of course it happens in some cases and there are great organisations out there (like UNLOCK) but can we encourage it to happen on a larger scale? Are there college courses/training courses/skills based placements that can help ex offenders to train for the specific work they will do? (thats a question, I dont know the answer).

Just some thoughts on this Irish budget day when services to the most vulnerable have once again been slashed…


Too complex; too simple

Last week I attended a roundtable event at which lots of policy and practice people (and a couple of academics, but no ex-prisoners) were trying to grapple with some of the challenges of resettlement and reintegration — and what would need to change in terms of structures and practices to better support ex-prisoners in their efforts to desist from crime.

It was an interesting conversation — lots of pioneering projects were represented, and lots of practical problems were identified. We all recognised some pretty obvious ways in which we set up people to fail — like short term prisoners who often lose their tenancies whilst in custody (and sometimes lose furniture and belongings), leave prison with a tiny discharge grant and then wait weeks for benefits and months for suitable accommodation, while struggling to access health services perhaps having been de-registered by their GPs when inside, and who are unable to secure work because of their criminal records. Even where we do provide services to them, we tend to expect them, just having navigated the disruption of incarceration, to then steer their way through a maze of different services, usually offered 9-5, Monday to Friday, usually expecting to offer an office-based service, usually expecting the ‘client’ to make all the running.

Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but one person at the meeting tellingly lamented the fact that ex-prisoners’ needs are so ‘complex’ (referring particularly to women). Well, yes and no, I think. Yes, prisoners may have plenty of human needs, and those may have been unmet for a very long time, leading to all sorts of related problems and difficulties. But ‘no’ in the sense that they are the same human needs that pre-occupy everyone else.

It’s certainly complicated to try to meet ex-prisoners’ needs adequately so as to support their (re)integration into society, but maybe the problem is not that the needs are too complex but that the services are too simple. In a quite different meeting today, I had the chance to listen to a former senior civil servant who lamented and tried to tackle the way that government departments tend to develop silo mentalities. A bit like professions, or like academic disciplines, they naturally develop expertise in and become pre-occupied with their part of the business of government (or public service, or social science). The consequence is the all-too-familiar failure to deliver joined up government, or multi-disciplinary working, or interdisciplinary research. In resettlement practice that becomes the failure to meet people’s needs as they find them, to tackle their problems with them, as and when and how they experience them, to support them to find their own ways to flourish not just in terms of health, or wellbeing, or recovery, or desistance, or human development, or in family life, or as citizens, or as political actors, but in all of these senses simultaneously.

Most of us don’t live tidy lives, neatly packaged into discrete components that individual service providers can, well, service. We are a bit more complex than that… and we need access to and support from services than can meet us as and where we are, and as and when we need them. But have we the wit, the will and pockets deep enough to develop resettlement services that can function in that way? Imagine a 24-7-365, one-stop shop providing a multi-professional ‘transitions’ service for ex-prisoners. Imagine that ex-prisoners helped to design, deliver and evaluate its services. Imagine that they were both service providers and service users. Sounds risky? Sounds expensive? Perhaps… but maybe less risky and less expensive than the alternatives.



… and now we wait …

Filming over, Shadd, Fergus and Allan and I now find ourselves waiting anxiously whilst the film production crew edit and re-edit the material filmed. (It is a bit like being an expectant father, but with less swearing from your loved one and none of those green face masks).  

Still, this gives us time to start thinking about the next steps, which will be holding a series of seminars at which the film is shown and the audience (made up of services users, CJS staff, family members and so on) given a chance to discuss what they took from it and how we can better intergrate the insights from desistance into the criminal justice system.

And this is where you come in …

We’re looking to hold these seminars in a number of locations (most likely Belfast, Glasgow or Edinburgh and Sheffield – but we’re also hoping that we might be able to squeeze that budget so tight it pops out another seminar in London too – we are good at squeezing things, it transpires). We’d like people to start thinking about which of these locations is best for them. Dates are likely to be during the March to May time (we hope).

So, do drop us a line if you think you’d like to participate in the next phase; we’re all really hoping that as many people as possible with insights far more sensible than our own will be able to make it along and help us start thinking about how we make the processes of desistance easier.

Watch this space … things may get a little quiet for a while but we’re beavering away, be assured.





The Hangover

Thanks for the postings Allan. I am one of those who typically sends his postcards after I return from my travels, not during them like you are supposed to. I just get too caught up in being in the moment itself, and, man, there were a lot of moments on this trip to the US. Allan has covered the highs and lows of the Discovering Desistance filming adventures brilliantly already, so I won’t repeat what he has shared. But, in addition to our intense time on Prison Row in Baltimore, our fascinating discussions in Malcolm X Park in DC, and our great interview with John Laub at the NIJ, I also had a series of other desistance-related meetings and talks in my 10 days in the States that I thought I’d blog about.

First and foremost, I also had the chance to go up to Albany to visit with my old friend and life mentor Hans Toch, originator of the idea that “everything works” in offender rehabilitation. Hans recently won the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award of the Division of Corrections and Sentencing at the American Society of Criminology. His typically humorous acceptance speech for the Award admitted that the state of US prisons at the moment is not much of a living testament to the impact of his research over the last five decades, but he dedicated the award to those criminal justice professionals who have fought against the grain and tried to make a difference in the real world. His words were touching and he was exactly right.

I also got the chance to meet with some of these types of individuals inside the system and making a real difference. For one, I had a discussion with Susan Tucker, Vincent Schiraldi and a fascinating group at NYC Probation where I learned about the highly exciting justice reinvestment work that they are doing as part of their NeON and Young Men’s Initiatives. I also had an intense and evocative conversation with a group of reentry experts, facilitated by Ann Jacobs of John Jay University’s Reentry Institute. Probably the most challenging exchanges I had were with Susan Herman, the author of the book Parallel Justice for Victims of Crime. We desistance researchers sometimes talk too glibly about bringing a “victim focus” into the desistance discussion (I know I do), so Herman’s work should be required reading – and I can strongly recommend a discussion in person with her if you get the chance as well.

My hosts in NYC were actually not from the Reentry Institute at all, though. I was at John Jay at the request of a group of scholars organized by the Center for Criminal Justice Ethics, who are interested in questions of “Character, Agency and Prisoner Reentry”. What makes this a most interesting group is that most are from the humanities – philosophy and English departments in particular. We social scientists could learn a great deal from their thinking on desistance issues as well.

Last, but not least, of course, I also had the chance to go to the American Society of Criminology meetings, this time in Washington DC. The ritual of an ASC meeting is its own acquired taste — a bit like Marmite. I crave it like an addiction, but others find themselves gagging at the thought of it. In a way, the ASC reflects America itself. It is far too big, too corporate, too blind to social justice issues and generally too in-love with itself. Yet, it is also much more diverse, professionally organized, and (I hate to say it) impressive both in scale and quality than the smaller, more human-scale criminology conferences I love so much in Europe. Going to an ASC is like trying to take a drink of water from a fire hydrant. It always takes me about a week to recover from it all (which is why I think they schedule it for right before Thanksgiving in the States).

So, yeah, it has been a busy couple weeks and if you are waiting to hear back from an email to me, I hope you will appreciate why I have maybe been out of touch and/or not contributing much to the blog.  

Cheers, Shadd


Hi Folks —  just arrived home an hour ago (4pm Monday) so I thought I’d do a quick blog before getting settled. 

Well, on the way back I couldn’t help but recall the journey over the last 5 weeks.  From a Cemetery in Kilwinning to the White House.  The schemes in Salcoats to the Houses of Parliament.  Barlinnie to Prison Row in the States.  From a sleepy village in Kent called Snodland to the notorious North Avenue in East Baltimore.  Yes, a journey indeed.  I managed to view the filming (the visuals) after each session and the guys have captured this wide geographical journey of enquiry in a stunning manner.  It won’t fail to impress. I have also conducted some 20 interviews over the last 5 weeks, again reflecting a diverse range of voices ranging from a homeless person here in Ayrshire to the Head of the National Institute for Justice in America.  

This, for me, was a fascinating experience and I’m confident that this will be edited to ensure that the viewer is able to share this experience.   Once the theme and nature of the narrative is agreed this will then pull the whole thing together and I think this is a really exciting prospect.  The unfortunate side perhaps is that it is impossible to include the range and depth of the dialogue in the film and I must also say at this point that every single interviewee (yes even Stephen Farrell) was remarkably patient, open and honest and it’s worth saying again here that the success of this part of the Project is definitely down to them (as well as Eamonn and Gerard of course, our film guys).

PS – We managed to get up early yesterday and capture some of the North Avenue neighbourhood which I felt was necessary for the States/Baltmore context.  Now going to bed as I have to get back to my real job tomorrow.


Down to the Wire: Cold Realities

From Allan:

Today (Saturday) we met with Shadd, Faye and Ron (a former Probation Officer and Administrator – who now works in Prison with Correctional Officers to try and change the Prison culture).  Prison row was indeed an experience with what just seemed like prison after prison after prison within a few block radius.  Eammon and Gerard managed to capture the whole scene wonderfully which will give the viewers a real visual insight into the place.  I interviewed both Ron and Faye separately and they provided a historical and factual context of the penal system within Baltimore whilst highlighting some current initiatives and their initial impact on offenders and their families. Some interesting stuff and some good material from the Project point of view.

In the afternoon Eammon, Gerard and I went deep into the North Avenue neighbourhood (the location of the Wire) and you really had to see this place to believe it.  On a personal note I was left feeling a bit down and deflated as I seem to have been talking non stop the last four weeks or so about change and motivation and hope and today (albeit briefly and from within the car) I saw absolutely no cause or sign of any of these things. Indeed the young men we did see, I couldn’t help but think that they will either be dead or serving long term prison sentences within the next five years. The really lucky ones will just lose their lives to a raging, long-standing drug addiction.  That for me is the cold reality of the place.  Anyway, we decided not to do any walk-throughs in that particular area for obvious reasons although we agreed to return early tomorrow morning for another try.

Sorry to be a bit more despondent than normal here but I suppose I felt the latter part of the day to be a wee bit hard hitting.

More from our American correspondent

This morning we met with Shadd, Faye, Terry and Greig.  Terry and Greig are men in their 50’s who started using Heroin around the age of 11 and 12 which, for both, was the beginning of a long journey into addictions, offending and imprisonment.  I interviewed them together and at times I had to remind myself that it was an interview format as I was getting caught up with their stories.  I felt I managed to capture it however.  Their stories were interesting and at times heartbreaking, yet a message of hope undoubtedly as they have now both been clean for a number of years and they both work to assist others still trapped in addictions within their old neighbourhoods.  Really interesting guys.

Although we never interviewed the guys in the Projects (being more of a built up commercial area) it still provided a stark contrast to the filming we did yesterday around Washington.  After the interview and following advice from Terry we decided that we would wait until we got to Baltimore to film the Projects which he thought would provide us with a more hard hitting and realistic view of this side of city life in the States.  Overall, I considered it to be another good day and although it’s the nature of the beast, I feel it’s such a pity losing some of this material [in the edit] as it’s conveyed in such a raw, open, honest and extremely interesting manner.  Well, I’m looking forward to seeing the grittier side of Baltimore tomorrow morning and I will upate you all on my return.

Allan Weaver – American correspondent reporting live from Baltimore City.

Letters from America

This just in from our US correspondent, Allan Weaver:

Hi folks – apart from the weather,  America has not disappointed.  Prior to leaving the UK,  I was going over some of John Laub’s work [For the uninitiated,JL is a major figure in US criminology and in desistance studies in particular; he was appointed by President Obama as Head of the National Institute for Justice; his participation in the film is in a personal capacity. (Ed.)] to try and familiarise myself with some of it as well as some of the comments about him and his current role and position.  Several people commented on him being really approachable and down to earth etc and I must say that this was my experience. Really nice, accommodating and obliging guy and it was good (perhaps better really) having an informal blether with him between filmed questions.  So yes the feeling was that this went well.  In the afternoon and then this morning, we focused on shots of the main monuments and the kind of walk throughs that I have become so accustomed to (I have now developed something of a gait where I seem to stop mid stride, face the sky and ponder on my life to date) – the White House, Lincoln’s Memorial, Supreme Court etc.  Should make really good footage and I think it’s safe to say that we have more than captured the States visually – although just for the record I must say that it was windy, raining and really cold.  We are meeting up with Shadd tomorrow and perhaps going to one of the Projects to interview an ex user/offender and then it’s a fast car all the way to Baltimore for the last filming session.

I will keep you all updated.