Sublime and ridiculous

I’m on the train home from London after another jam-packed day yesterday… but, for present purposes, the best place to start is at the end.

I caught up with Allan and the crew for dinner last night in Chelsea. They had spent the day filming, first with Liz Dixon and Nick Paul of London Probation Trust, and then with Mark Johnson of User Voice. It was a long day for everyone involved, but a brilliant day for the project. These interviews (and today’s with folks from Unlock) are critical to the third part of the film — the part that concerns me most — which is where we aim to open up debates about what we need to do differently in probation (and criminal justice more generally) if we are to better support desistance. Having seen my first sight of the footage last night — not just from yesterday’s filming but from the earlier shoots — I am more convinced than ever about the importance and value of this project. Both the raw content and the visual impact of the footage is stunning; in fact, I’d go so far as to say it is beautiful in several senses of the word (not a word often associated with Mr Weaver, but there you go…). Allan and the crew are doing a brilliant job.

Of course, we’re still facing a huge editing dilemma, but might be edging towards a solution; to work as a 50 minute film, the film needs to have a clear narrative and its characters need sufficient presence — which means time on screen. It’s going to be classic struggle over clarity versus subtlety. We’re bound to lose some of the latter, but the 14 or 15 hours of footage that we have filmed so far are so rich that we need to find other ways to use them. The emerging solution may be a set of DVD extras where people can dip into longer versions of particular interviews on particular issues. That way, we get not just the film but a set of really rich learning resources.

So much for the sublime, what about the ridiculous? Well, as the team were away filming I managed three presentations in 5 hours — one to people in NOMS involved in commissioning, one to CLINKS, and one to London Probation Trust. The first two tried to think through some of the possible implications of desistance research for commissioning. These were interesting discussions, and too complex for (half) a hasty blog post, but one message came out clearly, for me at least: If we take a desistance-based perspective seriously it means we have to recognise that neither NOMS nor any provider of services can command, control or compel reductions in reoffending, for the simple reasons that (a) desistance belongs to the people involved and (b) integration of ex-offenders belongs to communities (though the state, civil society and public services have duties here too). In other words, neither the commissioners not the deliverers of services in fact ‘own’ desistance and social integration; these things are not the outcomes of their work — they are human and social processes that depend on people and communities finding ways to resolve their conflicts, tackle their issues, realise their potential, accept and support their fellow citizens.

High quality services can play a big part in helping people and communities achieve these things, but they don’t make them happen in any straightforward way, and its ridiculous to imagine that they do. I suggested there are two main implications for commissioning: (1) commissioners should focus as much on commissioning quality as on outcomes (since quality is deliverable and can and should be promised) (2) users need to be much more involved in helping to define quality and in shaping commissioning decisions (since it is their change process that quality services exist to support).

If anyone is interested, I’ll try posting the powerpoint presentation on this stuff later.

3-4th November


Back in the office after a day’s filming in the Manchester area (3/11); we started by grabbing a taxi and asking the driver to take us somewhere “with a bit of gritty realism” – he drove us straight towards Beswick (as I’d expected he might). There we filmed Allan taking to Raymond Lunn (who, as someone born and bred in Leeds, was pretending he didn’t mind hauling himself across the Peninnes to Manchester) and got several good sequences along a canal bank. The crew had to be talked out of murdering one of the local ducks who went “quack quack quack” throughout much of the filming, before we headed off for lunch at a local chippie (no duck on the menu, only fish).

After lunch, and without Raymond who had had to go (there is only so long someone from Leeds is allowed/can bear to spend in Manchester on any one day, of course), Allan and I chatted on a nearby by park bench whilst a) the crew filmed us and b) various drug deals took place behind us. After a break to dry out (ahem – the weather in Manchester lived up to typecast, if not forecast), we headed to Stockport to meet two guys who now work in drugs counselling, but who had both experienced several years of offending and drug use. This was, for me at least, one of the most rewarding experiences of the day, as Allan chatted away to Daran and Charlie about the experiences they had all endured and the possible ways for us to improve the working of the CJS. Even if not all of it makes into the final edit, there was a 20-25min segment which flowed seemless, with no interruptions, so we’ll see if there is a way we can make that section available as a whole – it really was enlightening. Filming over, I headed home and left Allan and the crew to “track down that duck” and head off to China Town for an evening meal … (duck firmly on the menu I suspected).

Filming next week is in London with Fergus along side the crew, so watch this space for updates …






What a week…

Well, the cameras are rolling and the whole team is very, very busy. Our film crew came over from Belfast to Scotland early on Tuesday morning and set straight to work — a 14 hour day of filming with some of our key characters in a windy west coast town. The development of the script (more of a schedule for each conversation really) carried on right up to (and past) the last minute… and we’ve all been emailing, texting and phoning around to think about what we are getting, what we’re not, what we need to focus on, how we can do it.

Our colleagues in the Scottish Prison Service did us a great service on Wednesday, allowing the crew access to Barlinnie where we continued the filming and had the chance to talk to and film both staff and prisoners, as well as some stunning visual images, of course. Thursday and Friday were spent back on the west coast capturing more visuals and adding some further interviews, before the film crew headed for home this afternoon. Next week, they head south to work with Steve and Raymond, as well as several others; the week after I’ll be working with them in London where we hope to connect with User Voice and Unlock, as well as some frontline probation practitioners. Then Shadd (always one for the more glamorous jobs) and the crew head off for the States, where we’ll be filming in DC and Baltimore.

It is very exciting but also, for crusty academics more used to the challenges of finding time to write, and to seeing that as our main mode of communication, it’s a big challenge to try to start thinking about how to make a film that can communicate what it needs to. What’s the right balance between dramatic versus mundane material? Between communicating complexity and clarity? Between what makes a compelling film and what makes a compelling argument?

Basically, it’s good fun, but it’s hard work.

Exciting day

Wow. Things are really starting to roll. Our director (Eamonn) is reworking the ‘script’ we sent him a couple of weeks back – i.e. thinking in more depth about what each segment of the film will try to ‘do’ and the message we’re trying to get out of it. We’re comfirming filming a various places and have a really interesting group of people lined up. I think we’re looking good …



Turning Crap into Gold

So, we in Belfast woke up to a hearty laugh this morning with the following headline in the Belfast Telegraph: Man who tried to turn his faeces into gold is jailed

Apparently the judge in the case said: “It was an interesting experiment to fulfil the alchemist’s dream, but wasn’t going to succeed.”

That, sadly, is true and the results were admittedly catastrophic. I wonder, though, whether the man’s plan was any more delusional or dangerous than thinking that sending someone like this to prison for 3 months will somehow bring “justice” to this situation? Will somehow protect communities, deter other would-be alchemists, or turn this clearly troubled life around?

Maybe the laugh is really on us.

Inspiring Desistance: What role for the arts?

A while back I posted about an article that was coming out which draws on a literature review and some recent evaluation evidence connecting arts programmes in prisons with the desistance literature. That paper has now been published (in Dutch) so I am allowed to share the English version with you. I’ll put it on the resources page (once I have figured out how), but in the meantime, here’s the conclusion:

“This limited and brief account of some of our findings raises a number of issues in the light of the three literatures reviewed above. As we noted at the outset, given the complexities and difficulties of the desistance process, particularly for those involved in persistent offending who tend to have a wide range of background needs and to face significant resettlement problems, it would be unrealistic to expect relatively brief involvement in an arts project in and of itself to somehow ‘produce’ desistance. Indeed, the much broader project of trying to develop a desistance-supporting form of sentence planning (or offender management) within (and beyond) prisons is highly challenging, although several jurisdictions are now confronting exactly this challenge. The nature of imprisonment itself seems to run against the grain of desistance by limiting agency and responsibility, delaying maturation, damaging social ties (and sometimes building anti-social ones) and cementing criminalised identities. Although this would tend to suggest that the first principle must be to use prisons as sparingly as possible, where imprisonment is necessary the challenge is to create whole regimes (not just formal offender management or resettlement processes) that foster hope, motivation and responsibility, that maintain and develop positive social ties (and that enhance offenders’ personal capacities to sustain positive roles and relationships, for example as parents), and that help to build new pro-social identities and social networks and contexts in which these new identities can be embedded, nurtured and sustained.

The literatures reviewed in the first section of this paper suggest several ways in which arts-based interventions might usefully play a key part in this process. As we have seen, such interventions can help to build better relationships between prisoners and between prisoners and staff, they can engage prisoners in educational and personal development processes, they can help prisoners to recognise and develop their existing strengths and their positive potential (rather than focusing on ‘deficits’), they can build self-esteem and self-confidence, they can both use and encourage peer support and team or group work, and they can encourage participation in other forms of learning.

Putting this in the terminology of desistance theory and research, arts-based interventions offer more than ‘just’ the development of the skills of offenders; they may enable them to at least begin to think differently about themselves, their families, their relationships with their peers, and their relationships to the prison regime and the opportunities it offers. More generally, they may help prisoners to ‘imagine’ different possible futures, different social networks, different identities and different lifestyles. In and of themselves, arts-based interventions are unlikely to deliver the concrete, realisable sentence and resettlement plans which many prisoners will need to tackle the full range of needs, issues and challenges that they face; but they may help to foster and to reinforce motivation for and commitment to the change processes that these formal interventions and processes exist to support. They may also play a part in bringing positive social contacts and networks into the prison-based process.

In the end, to measure arts-based interventions and accredited offending behaviour programmes by the same yardstick may be to miss the point. Arts-based activities and interventions are not intended or designed to directly address specific ‘criminogenic needs’. For prisoners, just as for everyone else, they are first and foremost an opportunity to engage with our own humanity and with our potential for growth and development. In this sense, access to artistic expression in prison is, in some senses, as much a human rights issue as a pragmatic or instrumental one about best how to engage people in changing their lives for the better.  Nonetheless, our analysis of the literature and of our own data suggests that, whilst arts-based interventions may be neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for supporting desistance in and after prison, they can play a vital role in enabling prisoners to imagine and to embark on that journey.”

On the road, again.

Actually, I’m back home this week, but had a really interesting week last week visiting Probation Trusts in Wiltshire, West Yorks and South Yorks. It was sitting in the first event listening to the Chief’s intro that I started mentally joining a few dots about where debates about desistance fit in with current developments within probation down south. Maybe people are starting to engage partly because of anxieties and demands (and even excitement) created by the reform agenda there. Even if I accepted a cynical reading of the new emphasis on professional autonomy and professional judgement (i.e. it’s all about de-regulating an emerging market), and I’m NOT saying that I do accept that reading, this new emphasis on autonomy is making people re-engage with some thorny questions about the nature of professionalism in probation.

Two classic attributes of professions are the (sole) possession of a distinctive body of knowledge (i.e. that which confers the basis of an exclusive right to practice) and of a distinctive code of ethics (i.e. that which represents and distills the perspective and values of the profession). By coincidence rather than design my two talks at these various events were about ‘Supporting Desistance: Reconfiguring Probation’ — i.e. a kind of contribution to the knowledge base for practice — and ‘Morality and Quality in Probation Work’ — i.e. a kind of contribution to re-emerging debates about probation’s values and the practice ‘virtues’ that seem likely to support change.

Of course, desistance perspectives also create some pretty profound challenges for professionals. Where they put the emphasis on the process belonging to the individual, and on the importance of discovering agency (or the ability to govern one’s one life) in the process, they seem to rub up against professional power — or attempts to put professional practices at the centre of the change process. As Shadd once put it (I think — correct me if I am wrong, Shadd) — the professionalisation of intervention threatens to steal the change process from the individual, just as Nils Christie once argued that the institutionalisation of criminal justice steals the crime conflict from the victim and the offender — rendering both as passive sources of evidence.

For me, this implies the need to rethink what professionalism really means… maybe that’s another challenge for this project to engage with…

‘Populating’ the film script


One of the things that we (that is Shadd, Fergus and I) have needed to do these past few weeks is to identify some of the people who we might want to speak to during the production of the film. The film, just to recap, is the first stage of the project, and will be shown to those working in the criminal justice system, voluntary sector, service users, families of those wanting to break away from crime.

With this in mind I spoke to a couple of people from the tracking project (the long term follow-up of probationers I’ve been running since the late 1990s) last night about their potential involvement. Both agreed, I’m delighted to say. It was really nice to speak to both of these guys and to find out briefly how their lives had moved on in the 15 or so months since I’d seen them last. Both are working in drugs rehabiliation and one of them whose employment was temporary last time we spoke was now working full time – a great turn of events for someone who spent the best part of 20 years as a service user.

But it also struck me that those following these blogs may wish to put themselves forward for the second stage of our project; the involvement in the discussions following the screening of the film. We’d like to hear from ‘ex-offenders’ (horrible term, my apologies), current service users (of, say, probation or drugs rehabilitation services) and those working in the criminal justice system interested in the desistance perspective. We’re also hoping to involvement family members in the discussions.

So, if you know anyone who fits the above – or if you fit the above yourself – please do drop one of us a line! We’re not limiting ourselves to just the UK, so please do let as many people as possible know about the project. Thanks!

Script off to the production company next week, so a very exciting time all round!

All the best,



A Great Face for Radio

I can’t keep up with Fergus’s travels and don’t have his (probably fake) Glaswegian accent (see podcast in the blog below), but I too was on the ‘air’ recently on blog radio yesterday. I hadn’t even realised there was such a thing as blog-radio but apparently there is (maybe that is the next step in all of this “knowledge exchange” stuff).

Anyhow, I was interviewed by a fascinating guy named Herb Blake who has a desistance story all of his own to tell. In fact, the interview would have been more interesting (and more natural for me, at least) if I were the one asking the questions and he was the one telling his story (which is far more interesting than mine). See: for some of this story.

His blog radio show interviews a variety of fascinating folks involved in social and criminal justice work in one way or another. I listened to a couple of the shows — the RJ legend Mark Yantze is great as is my friend Lorenn Walker from Hawaii. All are really interesting (despite the awkward commercials at the beginning).   I haven’t listened to the whole interview with me (would rather suffer a stomach flu to be honest), but he said he would edit our chat into something coherent and hopefully cut out all the usual stammering and stuttering. See (or hear) it at:


Podcast… and post-Singapore reflections

I mentioned a week or two ago that those nice folk at IRISS had locked me in a room by myself and recorded me talking to a computer about desistance for an hour. The result has just been published here:  Supporting Desistance from Crime: Reconfiguring Penal Practice

I had a bad cold that day, so you’ll need to excuse the sniffles….

Supporting Desistance from Crime: from iriss on Vimeo.

The talk was an earlier version of the one I gave at the ICPA (International Corrections and Prisons Association) conference last week in Singapore. It was a really interesting event — my first chance to talk to ‘corrections’ people from Asia and Africa. Desistance research has certainly reached Asia — indeed, the Singapore Prison Service is already (much like this project) trying to work out how to adapt its practices in the light of what we know about the process and how to support it. There was also an interesting presentation from a Hong Kong based professor (T. Wing Lo of City University) about his work research on desistance from gangs.

More generally, Singapore itself was a real surprise. Though Singapore retains what looks to Scottish eyes like a Draconian approach to punishment (most notably, Singapore retains the death penalty and, I think, executes more people per capita than any country except China), it also has a remarkable approach to reintegration. Last Wednesday was Singapore’s ‘Yellow Ribbon Day’, when the government encourages people to wear a yellow ribbon to signify support for and acceptance of the returning ex-prisoner (find out more at:

The real surprise for me on Wednesday was to hear a talk from Mohamad Osman MP (admittedly an unusual one, being an ex-social worker and grassroots community activist) explaining how he personally writes to every constituent who is imprisoned offering volunteer support to the prisoner and his or her family. He also runs tele-visiting clinics from his constituency office and supports ex-prisoners into work post-release. Out of the 51 cases he has tracked so far, only 6 have re-offended — not a scientific study but a pretty promising result.

Now, it would be easy to be cynical here and say that populist punitivenss isn’t such a problem in a one-party state, but this was clearly a committed and values-driven individual taking a chance on supporting some of the most marginalised people in society. I wonder how many UK-based MPs would consider running such a scheme…?