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 http://www.sccjr.ac.uk/documents/Report%202010_03%20-%20Changing%20Lives.pdf

Mortimer, C. (2018) ‘Refugees Could Be Given Right to Vote in Scotland’, The Independent, 6th January 2018 [online]. Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/refugees-vote-scotland-elections-parliament 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  http://www.sccjr.ac.uk/documents/Report%202010_03%20-%20Changing%20Lives.pdf
  • 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: https://sccjrblog.wordpress.com/2017/11/14/prisoners-disenfranchisement-and-sleeping-citizenship/
  • 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 http://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/nov/02/up-to-100-prisoners-on-short-sentences-to-be-given-right-to-vote. 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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Butt, T. (2004) ‘Personality Theories 1: Trait, Biological and Cognitive’ in Understanding People, Palgrave MacMillan: Basingstoke/New York.

Cheliotis, L.K. (2006) ‘Demystifying Risk Management: A Process Evaluation of Prisoners’ Home Leave Scheme in Greece’, Criminology & Criminal Justice, Volume 6(2): 163–195.

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

Daniels, G. (2013) ‘Restorative Justice: Changing the Paradigm’, Probation Journal, Volume 60(3): 302–315.

Drake, D. (2010) ‘Punitiveness and Cultures of Control’, in Drake, D., Muncie, J. and Westmarland, L. (eds.) Criminal Justice: Local and Global, Cullompton, Willan Publishing/Milton Keynes, The Open University: 38–69.

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: 71–104

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Garland, D. (2001) The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McNeill, F. and Weaver, B. (2010) ‘Changing Lives? Desistance Research and Offender Management’, Glasgow: Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research. Available online at: http://www.sccjr.ac.uk/documents/Report%202010_03%20-%20Changing%20Lives.pdf

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, Routledge: London.

McNeill, F. (2017) ‘Punishment, Rehabilitation and Reintegration’, British Criminology Plenary Address, Sheffield Hallam University, 8th July 2017.

Nugent, B. and Schinkel, M. (2016) The Pains of Desistance’, Criminology and Criminal Justice, Volume 16(5): 568–564.

Schinkel, M. (2015) ‘Hook for Change or Shaky Peg? Imprisonment, Narratives and Desistance’, European Journal of Probation, Volume 7(1): 5–20.

Scott, D. and Flynn, N. (2014) Prisons & Punishment: The Essentials (2nd edition), SAGE Publications: London.

Scottish Executive (2015) ‘Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974’, Scottish Executive, 20th May 2015 [online]. Available at: http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2015/05/5592/2 Accessed 10th April 2017.

Solzhenitsyn, A. (1973) Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956, Translated by Thomas P. Whitney and Harry Willets, Harvill Press/HarperCollins: London.

Reiman, J. and Leighton, P. (1979) The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class and Criminal Justice (10th edition), Routledge Publishing, New York. (this edition 2013).

Vidmar, N. and Miller, D.T. (1980) ‘Social Psychological Processes Underlying Attitudes Toward Legal Punishment’, Law and Society Review, Volume 14(3): 565–602.

Wacquant, L. (2001) ‘The Penalisation of Poverty and the Rise of Neoliberalism’, European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research, Volume 9: 401–412.

Wacquant, L. (2009) ‘The Body, The Ghetto and the Penal State’, Qualitative Sociology, Volume 32: 101–129.

Wacquant, L. (2010a) ‘Class, Race & Hyperincarceration in Revanchist America’, Daedalus, Volume 139(3): 74–90.

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

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

Wacquant, L. (2013) ‘Symbolic Power and Group-Making: On Pierre Bourdieu’s Reframing of Class’, Journal of Classical Sociology, Volume 13(2): 274–291.

Wacquant, L. (2015) ‘Bourdieu, Foucault and the Penal State’ in Zamora, D. and Behrent, M.C. (eds.) Foucault and Neoliberalism, Polity: Cambridge: 115–133.

Desistance in Norway — Panel at Eurocrim 2018

This guest post comes from John Todd, a doctoral researcher at the University of Oslo.

This quick post is to let those heading to the European Society of Criminology conference in Cardiff know that there will be a panel on ongoing desistance research in Norway. The panel is entitled ‘Desistance and penal welfarism: desistance from crime in Norway’ and will be on Friday 15th September at 15.45. There will be three speakers and  Fergus has kindly agreed to act as discussant, giving some comments on each of the presentations.

With the exceptional state of penality in Scandinavia under debate, the panel seeks to outline some key aspects of desistance in the Norwegian context. Do the low imprisonment rates, the humane approach to prisons and probation and the egalitarian culture and social structure observed by John Pratt almost a decade ago create the perfect environment for desistance? Or are the challenges of desistance in Norway similar to those in other states?

The individual papers are as follows:

Welfare, hope and desistance – the interplay of external and internal factors in the early phases of desistance: Emma Villman (University of Oslo)

Much of the research on desistance from crime has focused on either social factors or more subjective causes for change. This dichotomy between the external and the internal has long been criticized, and several attempts to integrate insights from both perspectives have been made. How such an interplay of social and subjective factors initiates and shapes the desistance process is, however, still in need of further conceptualization and theorization.

Using data from a survey on living conditions among prisoners in Norway (N=264), the necessity of an integrated understanding of external and internal factors in the desistance process is stressed. When studying anticipated desistance among Norwegian prisoners, one may find that both subjective and structural factors play a central part in the earliest phases of desistance; not separately, but intertwined in a complex interplay. In contrast to earlier attempts of finding out ”what comes first” in the desistance process, these results indicate that such attempts might give us a somewhat misguided focus. What if it is the interplay itself that initiates the change towards desistance?

Adolescent Desistance: Thomas Anton Sandøy (Norwegian Institute of Public Health)

While much research on desistance focuses on processes of change for repeat offenders during and after imprisonment, this paper analyzes the desistance narratives of young offenders outside the traditional justice system. In Norway, increasing numbers of adolescent drug users have been diverted to alternative justice systems over the last decade. Based on in-depth interviews with adolescents enrolled in programs to refrain from drug use and the workers administering these programs, the paper seeks to identify narrative ‘turning-points’ implicated in the desistance process. The analysis show how the adolescents enter into moral conversations about what ‘truly matters’ in life and how their relationships with family and friends have been affected by their drug use and criminality. The administrators, on the other hand, place a stronger emphasis on the impact of wider societal factors on desistance. Taken together, the narratives display the interplay between subjective commitments (agency), and the role of interventions and social factors (structure) in adolescent desistance.

Talking good: a psychosocial analysis of Norwegian desistance narratives: John Todd (University of Oslo)

This paper seeks to employ insights from psychosocial criminology in order to analyse the narratives of a group of Norwegian desisters. The desistance process is of course complex and each individual’s story will be unique. But desistance also occurs in a social and structural context, with Norway labelled by some observers as one of the last bastions of penal welfarism. It is thus important to analyse how structural, relational and individual factors are narrated as enabling or frustrating change. Narrative analysis of this kind can help us avoid the extremes of structural (‘he came from a broken home’) and psychological (‘she suffers from low self-control’) determinism. This presentation seeks therefore to analyse a set of biographical narrative interviews in order to better understand how the desistance process in Norway is shaped both by the inner, psychic world and the external, social world of those doing the desisting.

Punishment, Rehabilitation and Reintegration

This is the text of my closing plenary address at the British Criminology Conference at Sheffield Hallam University on 8th July 2017.


I want to thank the conference organisers for inviting me to talk to you today; I’ve been at several BSC conferences over the years – and once endured the joys and pains of organising one – so I very much appreciate their efforts and their hospitality. This one has been a lot of fun – and full of stimulation. I haven’t missed a session and I haven’t been at a disappointing one, and that’s a first. It feels as if British criminology is at an important moment and it looks like, for once in my life, I might get the last word. So, no pressure then.

Before I start, I also want to say how delighted I am to find myself following Beth. Indeed, when I was one of her PhD supervisors, I spent a lot of my time, trying to keep up with her. It’s not easy. She has remarkable reserves of energy, intellect and commitment – to which you have just borne witness. I’m very proud to have played even a tiny part in supporting her development. And, in similar vein, I want to take the opportunity to acknowledge and thank my other colleagues – past and present — at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research and in Scottish criminology more generally. I say ‘Scottish’, but as I prepared this talk, I realise that, even if I limit myself just to SCCJR’s Glasgow branch,

I’m going to be drawing today on recent conversations with colleagues at all career stages and from places including Chile, England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Singapore, Spain, Sweden and the USA. That’s Scottish criminology for you; nothing if not cosmopolitan.

Critiques of Desistance

I’ll start where Beth [Weaver] left off — with desistance theory and research, but, with this audience, I’m going to assume a degree of familiarity with the literature and skip the usual discussions of definitions and explanations. I want to jump straight into emerging critiques of desistance research, before looking beyond desistance and towards dystopia and utopia. So, buckle up your belts…

Recently, Pat Carlen – perhaps surprisingly — invited me to contribute a chapter on desistance to her co-edited collection with Leandro Ayres Franca on ‘Alternative Criminologies’. The book has just been published in Portuguese [and now, the English version is out: see https://www.routledge.com/Alternative-Criminologies/Carlen-Ayres-Franca/p/book/9781138067431].

Hannah Graham (who is another Scottish criminologist – though this time from Tasmania) kindly agreed to write this chapter with me; and we agreed that it would be appropriate in a collection of this sort to try to engage constructively with critical criminological perspectives on desistance. Another Scottish colleague, Alejandro, this time from Spain, would say that what we try to do in that chapter is to enter into a dialogue rather than a debate.

Some critics have begun to suggest that desistance scholars offer a reductionist account of crime and its cessation; one which de-contextualises offending behaviour and, worse, responsibilises individuals for their own desistance and reintegration. In essence, desistance research is seen by some as being ‘too agentic’ — too heavily predicated on individualistic notions of rational actors exercising human agency. Eileen Baldry and Phil Scraton are among the esteemed and respected colleagues who have made these points. To de-contextualise and de-politicise both crime and criminalisation is to belie their construction in and through an unjust social order; thus neglecting and perpetuating the inequalities that drive social injustice.

Hannah and I agree that there are aspects of and applications of desistance research that, if emphasised to the exclusion of other things, risk co-optation with responsibilising and reductionist approaches to punishment and rehabilitation. As desistance scholars, we are painfully aware of the increasingly repetitious use of the catch-cry ‘supporting desistance’, often as though this can be delimited to a set of prescriptions for how criminal justice workers can better support individuals to change or secure their own recovery, rather than looking beyond the individual both for the causes and the solutions of crime and criminalisation related problems.

The ‘too individualistic/too agentic’ critique does usefully highlight a tendency within desistance research to focus on individuals as the primary ‘unit of analysis’, although as Beth’s work demonstrates, there are desistance researchers taking different approaches. That said, there are some good reasons for focusing on the experiences of individuals. Any body of research which decentres or discounts the lived experiences of people in criminal justice processes, while making claims about them – even on their behalf — would lack legitimacy, both methodologically and politically. Instead, the question is how and by whom individual, relational and collective experiences are best to be gathered, represented, understood and explained, with critical emphasis on the reciprocal influences of structure and agency.

In fact, despite the criticisms I have just mentioned, very few desistance scholars advocate rational choice theorisations of desistance. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that most (in the UK at least) routinely reject and challenge reductionist and responsibilising approaches to rehabilitation (as should be obvious from Beth’s talk); that is often one of the reasons why we got into desistance research in the first place. In the UK, desistance research gained momentum as a counter-narrative to ‘what works’ research and related approaches to authoritarian, correctional rehabilitation. Desistance scholars have put considerable intellectual effort into developing sophisticated analyses of the relational, institutional and social contexts of desistance – Stephen Farrall’s work is an excellent example. In this sort of work, understandings of changes in people’s offending are not divorced from but rather linked to changes in life chances and social conditions. Even those commonly identified as identity theorists and sometimes accused of offering accounts that are supposedly ‘too agentic’, like Shadd Maruna or Peggy Giordano, in fact tend to take a social interactionist approach; hence, for example, the importance for Shadd of both labelling and de-labelling processes.

Some feminist critical criminologists have challenged the validity and utility of desistance scholarship on the grounds of its capacity to recognise and respond to diversity and discrimination. Their criticisms centre on the argument that desistance scholarship has ignored gendered differences in processes of crime, criminalisation and desistance from crime – and the patriarchal contexts of these processes. Carlton and Baldry (2013) explain their abolitionist stance in rejecting liberal-reformist discourses of women’s ‘pathways’ in terms of imprisonment and desistance as follows:

Desistance, however, does not escape the criticism we bring to other criminal justice policies and programmes – that they are male centric. All the original desistance studies were conducted with men in the United States and the United Kingdom, so that the framework was built around men’s experiences. At its heart, the desistance approach is male centric, individualistic and ignores the interlocking structural contexts of class, race and gender (Carlton and Baldry, 2013: 65).

Pollack (2012: 107) similarly sees liberal reformist gender-responsive ‘pathways’ approaches as complicit in the ‘hegemonic logic’ of correctionalism which imposes expert notions upon… criminalised women.’ Pollack (2012) argues this is a form of ‘epistemic violence’ which subjugates women’s narratives and identities, and de-politicises the social-structural roots of crime as a social problem using the ideological tools of evidence-based practices to compel these women’s reform, as if they cannot know themselves what they want and need.

While these are important challenges for desistance scholars, I think there are some inaccuracies in these critiques, which perhaps reflect a lack of serious or sustained engagement with the desistance literature and the debates within it. It is true – and it is both important and problematic – that most desistance research, like most criminology, started with and has privileged men’s experiences. But, in contrast to the critics’ claims, the international literature on desistance increasingly highlights issues of diversity, especially in relation to the gendered and racialised structural contexts of crime, criminalisation and desistance. Indeed, even a cursory reading of some of the key desistance studies reveals the inclusion of girls and women as research participants (see Liebrich, 1993; Graham and Bowling, 1995; Maruna, 2001; Giordano et al., 2002; Blokland and Nieuwbeerta, 2005; Smith and McVie, 2003; McAra and McVie, 2009; Farrall, 2002; Farrall and Calverley, 2006; Farrall et al., 2014).

And, also contrary to these critics’ claims, there has in fact been a proliferation of scholarship on gender in critically understanding both desistance and re/integration (for example, Sommers, Baskin and Fagan, 1994; Uggen and Kruttschnitt, 1998; McIvor, Murray and Jamieson, 2004; Rumgay, 2004; Leverentz, 2006, 2014; King et al., 2007; Søgaard et al., 2015).

Others, have used intersectionality, critical race and post-colonial theories to explore relationships between ethnicity, racialisation and desistance (for example, Calverley, 2013; Glynn 2013, 2015), including in relation to indigenous people’s experience of criminal justice in Canada (Deane, Bracken and Morrissette, 2007) and Australia (Marchetti and Daly, 2016; Halsey and Deegan, 2016).

More generally – and somewhat ironically — the critics sometimes write as if desistance is a singular approach – as opposed to a body of work full of internal conflict. Worse still, they confuse desistance theories and research with a particular criminal justice policy or programme of reform. Policies and programmes can be desistance-oriented in that they can be (1) pointed to that purpose and/or (2) informed by desistance theories and research. However, most desistance scholars think of desistance as a process that belongs to the people going through it, irrespective of which criminal justice professional(s) they interact with or which sanction is imposed upon them, if any. To say this, however, is not to support individualisation and responsibilisation. Indeed, it is intended to hold states, civil societies, justice systems and practices to account for their roles in supporting or frustrating, allowing or denying these processes – both in material and in symbolic terms. It is to these responsibilities that I now want to turn.

Beyond Desistance?

The critiques that I have just mentioned – whatever their limitations — represent a useful challenge to aspects of desistance research and of its criminal justice applications. However, I think that desistance research itself may have begun to do a better job of exposing its own limitations and contradictions, initially by beginning to confront the question of what, if anything, lies beyond desistance from crime? If, as is often argued, desistance is a process of development, what is it supposed to lead to? What kind of human flourishing lies beyond desistance from crime?

We need to look no further than this city to grasp the importance of these questions; the Sheffield Desistance Study highlights them in a particularly bleak and powerful way. Tony Bottoms (2013) has argued that, in that study, some people desisted through a form of extreme ‘situational self-binding’ which amounts effectively to the self-imposed incarceration of social isolation. Although Bottoms (2013) notes that this was a rare phenomenon in the Sheffield study, evidence from other studies suggests that it is not so unusual for those whose desistance processes lack personal and social support.

Adam Calverley’s (2009) exploration of ethnicity and desistance, for example, suggests that Black and Dual Heritage men in one London borough faced the greatest structural and cultural obstacles to desistance — and that they too tended to desist through self-isolation.

Two recent Scottish studies of very different populations have produced even clearer accounts of what we might perhaps call ‘dystopian desistance’. Marguerite Schinkel is a Scottish criminologist from the Netherlands, Her study focussed on people who were serving or had served long prison sentences. Briege Nugent is a Scottish criminologist from the north of Ireland. Her study of marginalised young people exiting an intensive support service — also found common ‘pains of desistance’ linked to social isolation and the failure to secure work, connection and belonging. These findings certainly paint a depressing and dystopian picture of life after desistance, at least for some people. In a sense, they expose the taken-for-grantedness of the assumption that ending offending is a ‘good’ outcome. Not offending may be a good outcome in the sense that it means less harm for society and for potential victims, but if it entails increases in the suffering of the person desisting (and perhaps of those closest to her or him) then, even on a cold utilitarian logic, the value of this outcome remains uncertain.

Sarah Anderson’s ongoing doctoral research at Glasgow makes an important and novel contribution to this line of argument. Her PhD explores the life histories of men who have experienced repeated trauma, offending and criminalisation and who are struggling to make some kind of recovery. Sarah’s painstaking analysis is beginning to show how the structural and symbolic violence of repeated criminalisation contributes to a cumulative traumatisation which undermines their fragile efforts to desist and, more generally, to build better lives for themselves and those they care most about. And in relation to these loved ones, other important work in Scotland by Cara Jardine, Rebecca Foster and Kirsty Deacon has exposed and is exposing how this structural and symbolic violence reverberates in their lives too.

Ultimately, this leads Sarah to ask whether desistance from crime is really the central issue at stake in these narratives – it is certainly not central to the way many of the men relate their stories. Their struggles are as much struggles for recovery from criminalisation and penalisation as struggles to stop offending. For others – despite histories of offending and criminalisation — both are marginal issues in their day-to-day fight for survival. There may well be things about these men themselves – long-established habits and patterns of thought and behaviour – that they need and want to change; but what they need most is change in long established habits and patterns of criminal justice thought and behaviour; and, perhaps even more importantly, change in the ways that we think and behave as a society.

For me, this is the most significant current challenge to and critique of desistance research – and it emerges from within it, from honestly following the data where it leads, and from examining the process as it is related by people living it. The irremediable problem with talking about desistance is that it accepts offending as the main issue at stake; sometimes forgetting those lessons from Criminology 101 about the way that social structures shape who and what gets criminalised – and in whose interests. I think I am perhaps still enough of a ‘left realist’ to accept that offending is an important issue and that striving to reduce it is a good thing. But it seems that desistance research is itself telling us that the real problems are – fittingly for a conference about ‘Forging Social Justice’, hosted in a post-industrial city – problems of social inequality and social injustice as refracted and amplified through criminalisation and penalisation. In other words, it seems that it is we – the criminalisers, the penalisers, the punishers, the excluders – that need to desist. But how?

Rethinking Rehabilitation

How are we to be supported in our desistance; how are we to be rehabilitated? Critical criminologists have also – again quite rightly – challenged criminology’s and criminal justice’s pre-occupation with these ‘re-words’.

Re-formation. Re-habilitation. Re-integration. Re-settlement. Re-entry. In French, Re-insertion. In German, Re-socialisation. The common arguments are, first, that these words spring from the (philosophically) liberal assumption that there is a just order in which the ‘offender’ was once habilitated, integrated and settled and, secondly, by implication, that the challenge is replacing him or her in that social order; making him or her fit back in. To put this more figuratively – we focus on reshaping the ‘offender’ and/or on reshaping the gap, but we don’t see the bigger picture of the structures that shape both the square peg and the round hole.

A third – and again related — critique – which we’ve been discussing of late in the SCCJR – concerns the ways in which these terms themselves represent a form of symbolic domination through language; one which has material consequences for those who are its objects. This is not their language or the language of their experiences; it is the self-justifying rhetoric of the system that ensnares them.

How might we respond? We could abandon these terms – but I think that risks both surrendering these terms to others within the criminal justice system and marginalising ourselves in public dialogue and debate. My preference – and my approach – has been to interrogate and seek to redefine these terms; to challenge not the words themselves but the ways in which they are understood and employed. Indeed, drawing on desistance research, I have argued that we need to develop models, policies and practices that attend not so much to ‘correctional’ understandings of rehabilitation aimed at individual transformation, as to mutual moral reparation, to judicial rehabilitation linked to restored civil rights and status, and to social integration too.

As well as reframing the meanings of these terms, a second response to the problem of symbolic domination may be – as already suggested – to flip the lens and apply these terms to the power-holders and the privileged – or better still, to all of us. To borrow from one of John Braithwaite’s memorable criminological contributions – but maybe applying it more to Valerie Braithwaite’s usual targets – a process of reintegrative shaming might be overdue for institutions, systems, practices and people who are the perpetrators of the injustices that uneven criminalisation and penalisation and enduring exclusion exacerbates. Perhaps we all need to confronted and shamed by our differing degrees of complicity in and responsibility for these systemic ‘crimes’, before we can be dissociated from our offences and reintegrated.

To teach us about that process, I look to the work of another colleague at the University of Glasgow – Professor Alison Phipps, holder of a recently established UNESCO Chair in Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts. Alison is what she calls a new Scot, having migrated from England herself. Her conception of refugee integration in avowedly ‘multilateral’; I cannot integrate you and you cannot integrate me. A guest does not integrate a host, nor a host a guest. We integrate together or not at all; as Beth might put it, and as her work so beautifully demonstrates, we have to accept, embody and practice mutual responsibility for creating community through solidarity and subsidiarity. In this sense, my rehabilitation is your rehabilitation and yours is mine. Either we figure out how to live together or we live apart.

When I shared this talk with Hannah a few days ago, she pointed me to this quote from Zygmunt Bauman, offered during one of his last interviews at age 90 last year:

“Divisions and conflicts between people are as old as humanity. There was always an intermixing process of integration and separation. Separation was always the guiding instrument of the integrating effort. If you wanted to integrate people, you have to point to their joint enemy, joint other… The stranger who is against ourselves that we need to watch and be vigilant and to defend ourselves [against]. For the first time we are in a situation where we have to commit to the next step on the road to integration without separation. The next step is a step towards people who are in a cosmopolitan situation. There are no remaining enemies against whom we will integrate. It’s a new situation that is unpracticed and untested so far. That’s what makes our present moment… on the one side, so terrifying, and on the other, so exciting.” [Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.za/koketso-marishane/a-tribute-to-eus-greatest-scholar-professor-zygmunt-bauman_a_21714411/]

How is this work of integration without separation to be done? It is no accident that Alison Phipps’ academic background is in anthropology and linguistics as well as education; and it is no accident that she has come to recognise the value of the arts as common languages through which integration is enabled, practised and represented.

In the abstract that I provided months ago and which, inconveniently, made its way into the conference programme, I promised at this point to discuss a new project called ‘Distant Voices: Coming Home’, recently funded by the ESRC and AHRC – but I fear that time will defeat me if I allow myself start to talk about this exciting partnership with Vox Liminis (a third sector organisation) and with Jo Collinson Scott (a musicologist from the University of the West of Scotland) and Oliver Escobar (a political scientist from the University of Edinburgh). Suffice it to say that this 3-year project, which has just begun, seeks to blur the boundaries between creative practice, community development, research and knowledge exchange. Its focus is on re/integration, but not the reintegration of individuals who have been punished; rather we aim to explore and influence whether, how and to what extent, a wide range of different actors – ourselves included – can build or rebuild community both during and after state punishment.


 As I said earlier, Carlen and Franca’s collection is concerned with ‘Alternatives Criminologies’. In a conference on Forging Social Justice, it seems fitting that I finish in this utopian vein. At the end of his challenging talk yesterday, Simon Winlow did ask us for a bit of criminological vision yesterday. This is all I’ve got so far.

Lately, both in Scottish sociology (for example in the work of another Glasgow colleague, Matt Dawson) and in Scottish criminology (in the work of Lynne Copson, Margaret Malloch and Bill Munro), there has been a resurgence of interest in utopia not just as critique but also as method. The work of Ruth Levitas has been one important inspiration in these debates. Levitas defines utopia as ‘the expression of the desire for a better way of being or of living’ (Levitas 2013: xii). She argues that visions of utopias can be developed as compensation for an unjust status quo (as in some religious utopias); as critique of how things are (by contrast with how they might be); and as more or less clearly articulated programmes of change (Levitas, 2000; see Dawson, 2016). Levitas’ (2013) work on utopia also argues the need for an archaeology — one that excavates the vision of the good society implicit in any given utopia; for an ontology — one that explores the utopia’s assumptions about human nature; and for an architecture of how the utopia is to be built in practice.

In the assessment that Hannah and I offer in our book chapter, despite the variety of views it encompasses, research on desistance and rehabilitation often shares a common implicit ontology; it asserts and it evidences the positive potential of human subjects and sees them as fundamentally social beings that are capable of growth and development, in the right circumstances. As such it undermines criminal justice responses (and social attitudes) that seek to define and to ‘other’ people with reference to their offending behaviour.

To a certain extent, desistance research and rehabilitation research have also offered ‘architectures’ of reform. But these designs, as I have said, vary greatly and are highly disputed both within and between the two literatures; they are even more disparate in the sometimes diverse and contradictory programmes of policy practice reform they have spawned. For some, like Beth and me, I think, the architecture of desistance has arguably moved beyond (and even away from) a focus on criminal justice policy and practice reform to include the development of a much more expansive — but still very young and under-developed — social movement.

What desistance and rehabilitation theories both perhaps lack, however, is a well-developed ‘archaeology’. So long as they begin with the assumed problems of offending and of ending offending rather than with what lies before, behind and beyond these problems and their construction, they will lack a well-articulated vision of the good society. But having said that, as I hope this session has illustrated, by exploring how people build better lives together, desistance research, like much of criminology, eventually forces us — through careful theoretical, empirical and normative work — to explore how we can build better communities and better societies. Increasingly, it makes clear that these questions cannot, should not and must not be separated.

And that’s the challenge, I think for contemporary criminology. It’s not just that we have to escape an uncritical focus on a narrow range of currently criminalized social harms, as the zemiologists argue. It is also that we need, I think, to offer much more than critique; we need to contribute constructively to imagining the architecture of a just social order. That may be a job for Simon Winlow’s radical economists and for political philosophers but, as criminologists, perhaps our unique contribution can be to articulate how a just social order might respond to wrongdoing (of all sorts) in ways that provide more than mere harm reduction. We need to offer responses that create and are constitutive of the conditions under which individual and collective human flourishing are made more possible, rather than constituting and exacerbating the conditions under which many people, families, groups, communities and societies suffer and decay.

We need a manifesto for the many, not the few, as someone said recently.

Rehabilitation through Education? An apotheosis of a ‘hook for change’

In his second guest post, Kris McPherson reflects further on his own experiences of rehabilitation through education, raising important questions not just about personal development in prison but also about prison regimes and social attitudes.

The evolution of behavioural and attitudinal reform is different for every person who embarks upon the desistance journey. However, a commonality appears to be that those who have the greatest success in sustaining desistance are people who utilise something termed a ‘hook-for-change’ (Giordano et al., 2002, cited in McNeill and Weaver, 2010). Succinctly, a ‘hook-for-change’ functions as a catalyst that initiates the desistance process for people who have previously been involved in offending behaviour. It is a foundation for which successful desistance is built.

My first ‘hook-for-change’ was academic education.

Fortunately, I have always been very captivated and intrigued by various forms of knowledge throughout my life. As a young boy, I voraciously read about subjects of all kinds. I studied maps, atlases and foreign language books to quench my insatiable thirst for insights into distant lands. I can name just about any capital/major city from the top of my head as well as being able to instantaneously point to places on a map as a result of poring over these maps and atlases. I used to sit and read the dictionary in class, looking for obscure words I hadn’t heard of before.

Knowledge has always been important to me.

I continued to purchase books and visit the local library during my ‘offending years’, which some thought peculiar for a person who behaved like I did (perhaps revealing their own stereotypical biases vis-à-vis the idiosyncrasies of those who offend). The irony is that people have persistently told me throughout my life that I am intelligent but ‘never used it for the right reasons’ (by which I assume they mean ‘legal reasons’). In fact, my nearest library was located within the stomping ground of a rival gang and yet I risked my physical safety in order to feed my over-active and deeply analytical brain. I am unsure whether this says something about my recklessness or more about my insatiable desire for knowledge. I also ended up forming a relationship with a girl from this same area, further complicating matters.

My Dad died suddenly as I was about to turn fourteen, resulting in me becoming deeply immersed in offending behaviour. I never spoke of his death with anyone (even family members) and now wonder if my offending behaviour was my own way of speaking about it? In other words, I suspect that the suppressed, unexpressed rage and emotional damage in relation to my Dad’s death mutated into a pathology that found expression through criminal acts. The commission of criminal actions achieved applause and reverence from my peers, which only fed my desire to appear powerful and indestructible when, in reality, I was the complete opposite – powerless and concealing a fractured heart and a psychically damaged soul. Looking back in reflection, I wonder if my raison d’être at that time (gang-focused offending and reputation building) was fuelled by the projection of my subconscious, latent rage and anguish vis-à-vis my Dad’s death on to those people from rival areas who conducted themselves in a fashion similar to myself?

The beauty of hindsight… and insight.

Sadly, the degree of my criminality mushroomed to the extent that I was incarcerated for four years at the age of fifteen. My behaviour, while contained within the institutional setting, still caused concern as I continued to dig a deeper hole for myself. The way I saw it back then was that I may have been the one digging the hole but the culture around me and my limited life chances handed me the shovel. As you can imagine, I did not pursue formal education during this spell in custody but still did much reading.

I was still wading through the turbid sludge of vengeful thinking and criminality.

Upon release, I picked up where I had left off in the community vis-à-vis criminality. However, I noticed that my peers were even more deferential towards me and I relished this at the time. It was as though I had returned from the moon or a war in some far off nation, held up by my peer group as an example for others to replicate. This may illustrate ways in which some people in lower-income neighbourhoods like mine function view such behaviour. By the time I received my current prison term at the age of twenty-one, I knew I had to do something before I ended up with a life sentence or worse.

That is where my hook-for-change (education) came in.

As I was now in an adult prison, I was in a better position to pursue higher education and this is exactly what I did. The minute I landed in HMP Shotts, I asked the learning centre staff what I had to do to gain acceptance for the Open University. After passing the prerequisite courses, I was accepted to do a degree and so began my odyssey of deep, analytical reflection, questioning and critical analysis of not only who I was then but who I wanted to be and where I wanted my life to go in the future. As the desistance literature explains (see: McNeill and Weaver, 2010; McNeill, 2014, for examples), my identity gradually shifted and I ceased to see myself as a serious criminal. Instead, I viewed myself as a serious student and (one day) an aspiring academic with something to contribute to society, utilising academia as the vehicle within which to realise this.

My academic addiction grew exponentially like some tropical virus and my daily reading material went from tales of drug lords and Mafia kingpins to classical literature (Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is probably my favourite!), academic analyses of political leaders and the political mechanisms of foreign nations. I wrote a play and novel (crime-fiction) which, although not published yet, received a lot of praise from teachers and academics alike.

I continued my fascination for languages. I actually bought my first Italian dictionary at the age of twelve and sought to expand my knowledge of the language now that I had enough time to do so. I mastered the Cyrillic/Russian alphabet in two days but the Arabic alphabet took me around eight months to learn. I saw these advanced, enigmatic languages as a challenge and was fascinated by their unusual characters and symbols. However, my knowledge of Russian and Arabic are nowhere near my level of Italian.

I hope one day this will change.

I do feel fortunate that I have been able to use my prison time to study in this manner. While academic education in prison contributed to my identity shift, in other prison systems people are not so fortunate as to have their education paid for by the authorities. Wacquant (2002) cites how the American prison system prohibited inmates from pursuing academic studies (through Pell Grants subsidies) regardless of the fact that it has been proven to reduce recidivism and enhance prison stability. The reason for discontinuing higher education in American prisons was cited as the ‘illegitimate draining of public finances’ (Wacquant, 2002, p.22).

If higher education reduces recidivism, maintains prison stability and, in my own personal experience, precipitates an identity shift from ‘offender’ to (aspiring) ‘scholar’ then why withdraw funding? How could the education of uneducated people be called ‘illegitimate?’ Surely the ‘richest superpower on earth’ can afford to educate willing inmates? Uncle Sam’s message to American prisoners seems to be “I won’t invest in your ‘hook-for-change!’”

Regardless of the social impact in the future.

Now that I have only just completed my criminology degree, I am fortunate enough to have developed an extreme interest in reading academic research papers (I literally have stacks of them in my cell). These are the skills I hope to use as another ‘hook-for-change’ to extract myself from the “fissures and ditches” of what Wacquant (2010a, p.199) called the “organizational mesh of the dualizing metropolis”.

According to Wacquant (2010a, p.199), “Welfare revamped as workfare and the prison stripped of its rehabilitative pretension now form a single organizational mesh flung at the same clientele mired in the fissures and ditches of the dualizing metropolis. They work jointly to invisibilize problem populations – by forcing them off the public aid rolls, on the one hand, and holding them under lock, on the other – and eventually push them into the peripheral sectors of the booming secondary labor market”.

Perhaps this is a major hindrance to desistance?

It is clear that people like myself who choose desistance do have a major role to play. But I cannot do it all on my own. As McNeill and Weaver (2010) argue, those who commit to desistance can only do so much by themselves. Sooner or later, society 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 in order for them to transcend desistance to the extent that it is not a matter of simple desistance but true reformation.

At what point does desistance become a part of you?

While McNeill and Schinkel (2015) state that it is impossible to ascertain the moment from which any behaviour ceases permanently, one wonders whether we can use Maruna and Farrall’s (2004) ideas of ‘primary desistance’ and ‘secondary desistance’ (cited in McNeill and Schinkel, 2015) to understand the period from which offending behaviour ceases and desists. According to Maruna and Farrall (2004), primary desistance refers to a shift in the idiosyncratic pattern while secondary desistance alludes to a transformation in identity (cited in McNeill and Schinkel, 2015). Furthermore, McNeill and Schinkel (2015) put forward the notion of ‘tertiary desistance’, which involves the person’s sense of belonging within a ‘moral, social and political society’.

From a personal viewpoint, this sounds completely logical.

Furthermore, McNeill and Weaver (2010) postulate a three-step process in the desistance journey which appears to parallel the primary, secondary and tertiary steps. These include the motivation to change, the capacity to reinforce change and the opportunities to realise transformation. The first two highlight a certain degree of human agency although may be initiated by external dynamics. The third element stresses the importance of society’s role in supporting the inclusion of people who have offended. At the present time, one could argue that potential desisters are expected to conform to societal norms and regulations without participation or realisation of all the society can offer to those seeking personal, moral, social or political growth.

But how can the neoliberal ‘Leviathan’ (Wacquant, 2010a, p.201) expect the marginalised and disenfranchised people caught up in the carceral/welfare nexus to conform to the “obligations of citizenship” without conferring upon them the “rights of citizenship?” How do we initiate the ‘responsibilisation’ of those in power to accept their own role, as McNeill (2017) argues, in the desistance process?

The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) reported that 80% of prisoners were unemployed prior to their incarceration (Scottish Executive, 2015) with it being eight times more difficult for an ex-offender to obtain employment post-release. The greatest factor in someone being refused employment was given as declaration of a criminal record (Scottish Executive, 2015). If those who have returned to the community from prison cannot find legal ways to support themselves then doesn’t this spell recidivism? Isn’t successful prisoner re-entry paramount in the desistance process?

Surely the above percentage highlights the importance of ‘tertiary desistance?’

In fact, Wacquant (2010b, p.612) asks, “How could former prisoners be re-integrated when they were never integrated in the first place and when there is no viable social structure to accommodate them outside” (emphases added). This points to a much bigger context in which those who offend are marginalised to the extent that many of them can’t/won’t desist because they feel that their options are extremely constricted. Surely this is where McNeill’s (2015) idea of ‘tertiary desistance’ comes into play? Perhaps the final destination of desistance is the “promise of equal opportunity, social justice, individual freedom and citizenship rights for all” (Garland, 2001, p.67).

I would argue that this is indeed the case.

But even though I was committed to higher education in prison, I felt that the penal bureaucracy refused to believe (or were at least extremely sceptical) that I could truly change. Realising this made me question whether I would ever be given a chance to ‘turn the corner’ and I spent many hours in silent reflective analysis on this point. I felt somewhat conflicted also due to the fact that I was serious about change yet had to live by the ‘inmate code’ (at least to an extent).

When I went to HMP Low Moss in early 2012, I met the most amazing and wonderful teaching staff that I have ever met in my life. I told them how much I wanted to leave my past behind but was frustrated by obstacles at every turn such as zero prospects of employment and being marginalised by the well-earned stigma that I had created for myself as an ignorant, angry and psychically damaged young man. I told the teachers that it was my newfound ambitions to (a) matriculate into Glasgow University and (b) to volunteer to work for the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU). The VRU (incase you have never heard of them) is an organisation set up by the Scottish police in 2005 to tackle gangs/knife crime.

These teachers (some of whom have since left this particular institution) ignited my motivation, helped me see that I possessed the capacity to sustain change as well as putting in place the opportunities that would be the silver bullet required to neutralise the proverbial werewolf of my past offending activities. By positively reinforcing my motivation, my teachers made me feel like a valued person rather than an offender, which led to the realisation that I had the capacity to foster a lifestyle transplant whereas before I was hesitant about the whole process. Perhaps the real reason for my hesitation was that I had no opportunities to provide the bridge from persistence to desistance. These teachers showed me the way to that bridge. I love them for the warmth, acceptance and altruistic kindness they showed me (if any of you are reading this – you know who you are).

Before I crossed paths with these teachers, I was wrestling with much inner conflict vis-à-vis criminality and the course my life was taking. I wanted to desist but didn’t want to end up with nothing but the ‘pains of desistance’ (Nugent and Schinkel, 2015) for company. In my opinion, this would be akin to swapping one incarceration for another more subtle form of prison. I was worried of being locked in social purgatory between the criminalised world and the non-criminalised world. I definitely credit those teachers, coupled with the birth of my son in 2011, with catalysing my decision to commit to desistance as a way of life. Academic work is the tools I use to achieve this. The only thing I can compare it to is people who ‘find’ religion; I look at academia in the same way.

Academia is my religion.

These days, I do not see myself as I did all of those years ago. I feel that I am shedding the skin of my former way of life thanks to my education, coupled with the periods of deep, critical reflection. I comprehend the damage I did not only to others but also to myself. I have never admitted to or spoken of any of the stuff that I am writing here now for the simple reason that I am slightly stoic. I accept responsibility for my transgressions and see absolutely no point complaining about the mess I made.

In my opinion, refusal to accept responsibility is ‘conduct unbecoming’ of what it means to be a man. Now that I have my own son, I feel that I must be an example to him and show him how not to act – but also how to carry himself as an adult. My Dad did not show me any of these things. I had to learn them for myself – the hard way. Perhaps it is fortunate that my son came into the world in the twilight of my criminality and not during the dawn. The last thing I would ever wish for would be for him to be exposed to anything I experienced during my formative years.

After all, today’s children are tomorrow’s adults.

Now I am older and wiser, which I attribute to my deeply reflective and analytical nature. These idiosyncrasies have served me well in my academic pursuits. Rather than realising notoriety through criminality, my new raison d’être is to show the very small group of people who believe in my transformation that I am worthy of their support. Moreover, I want to form and sustain the deep and rewarding emotional attachments that all humans desire through friendships, romance and things like this. My previous experiences of such ‘relationships’ were built on rather dubious, fragile foundations where one’s friend could turn into a nemesis literally overnight. I think this has affected me to a certain degree but has definitely not rendered me misanthropic.

Rather, I have simply buried my emotions and do not find it easy to take off my mask. My pathological wrath has dissipated and my powers of empathy have significantly developed since my ‘offending days’. Back then, my inability to empathise (or rather my unwillingness to do so) sheltered the straw house I had built in my head to protect myself from the impact and lasting effects of criminality. That same straw house has been blown away, leaving me with the mental, emotional and physical scars of the past. The physical wounds have long since healed but the mental and emotional ones are stark reminders of not only the damage I have done to others but also that which I have done to myself.

In my view, the learned helplessness of my formative years, braided with a denial of powerlessness, metastasised into a lust for powerfulness vis-à-vis gang criminality. This consumed my being and fuelled the rage embedded within my subconscious that was borne of my Dad’s death and issues with my biological mother. Now that I am a Dad, I must ensure that my beautiful, innocent six-year-old son does not grow up with the same deeply fissured, scarred heart.

After all, I have only just sewn mine back together.


Garland, D. (2001) The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McNeill, F. and Weaver, B. (2010) ‘Changing Lives? Desistance Research and Offender Management’, Glasgow: Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research. Available online at:  http://www.sccjr.ac.uk/documents/Report%202010_03%20-%20Changing%20Lives.pdf 

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. (2017) ‘Punishment, Rehabilitation and Reintegration’, British Criminology Plenary Address, Sheffield Hallam University, 8th July 2017.

Nugent, B. and Schinkel, M. (2016) The Pains of Desistance’, Criminology and Criminal Justice, Volume 16(5): 568–564.

Scottish Executive (2015) ‘Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974’, Scottish Executive, 20th May 2015 [online]. Available at: http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2015/05/5592/2 Accessed 10th April 2017.

Wacquant, L. (2002) ‘Four Strategies to Curb Carceral Costs: On Managing Mass Imprisonment in the United States’, Studies in Political Economy, 69: 19–30.

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

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


Desistance: an inside view

This guest post comes from Kris MacPherson who has recently completed a criminology degree with the Open University and who is currently completing a sentence in a Scottish prison. If you’d like to get in touch with Kris about his post, please leave a comment with your contact details and I’ll pass them on.

One of the most frequently voiced problems in relation to desistance, according to Maruna (2012), is the difficulty in differentiating between desistance from committing crime and a pause between criminal acts. Using the example of stealing a car, Maruna asks if a person who steals a car on Friday and does not commit another offence for the rest of the day could classify as desistance. What if the car thief refrains from taking another vehicle for a month or a year? [When] Is this desistance?

Let’s break it down.

For some people, the term ‘desistance’ conjures an image of repentance and desire for atonement on the part of the ‘offender. For that person, it signifies the realisation that s/he has value and potential to be something other than a scar on the social flesh of his/her community. In this sense, the word implies a permanent and complete realisation that the previous pattern of behaviour is damaging and hurtful to not only for victims and their families but also the families of those engaged in criminal activity.  The loved ones of those who offend are often, in fact, their last victims.

As Maruna’s example (above) suggests, someone involved in criminal behaviour who then goes through a period of committing no crime at all has not necessarily desisted from crime. In fact, this person, for whatever reason, may simply be ‘winding their neck in’! Legally speaking, the place where they live (or offend) might have had an intense police presence and/or been saturated with CCTV (‘jailbait’, to use a colloquialism), or other life events such as physical incapacitation or illness may possibly have prevented the person from perpetrating further acts.  Desistance then may imply or require a particular attitude as well as a pattern of crime-free conduct.

In the academic study of serial murder, a person who commits a series of murders with gaps in between homicides has certainly not desisted in between killings. These apparently crime-free periods in between murders are referred to as time intervals or, previously, cooling off periods (Salfati et al., 2012). However, we know from the literature (Salfati et al., 2012; Douglas, 2006) that these people involved in these types of extreme offending do not desist during the ‘time interval’. They can’t be classed as desisting simply because they haven’t been caught or the police have not recorded an offence. Post-apprehension, people confess to trolling, stalking, burglaries and other behaviour in between murders (how else could they find victims?). Therefore, these time intervals are not as crime-free as one would like to think.

The idea of a ‘time interval’ could be applied to the (apparently) crime-free gaps in the careers of people involved in less extreme forms of offending. Can their ‘lulls’ only be classed as a time interval in between convictions? How else can we define a period of ‘crime-free’ behaviour? It is logical to postulate that even a ‘career criminal’ does not go through his/her life committing crimes every minute of every day. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that there are gaps in between offences, however short/long they may be.

One could argue that what makes mere time intervals different from genuine desistance is the notion that the person experiencing the time interval still retains a criminal or criminalised identity. He/she continues to associate with other people actively involved offending (whether these offences were recorded and the offender apprehended/punished is irrelevant). S/he has not seriously considered changing or intended to make a complete break with their criminal lifestyle like those who are dedicated to desistance. Those who commit crime as a way of life usually have a specific criminal forte/proclivity in the same way that people who are addicted to drugs have a particular preference for a specific substance. They still may use other substances but there is one particular drug that they ‘prefer’.  It is often much the same with those living a criminal lifestyle.

For me then, desistance actually implies that one has made a conscious decision to break from a criminogenic life pattern, lead a completely different lifestyle, and continue to do so rather than simply passing through a period of refraining from committing crime. But how does a person arrive at the realisation that crime is a destructive process, affecting their own lives as well as those of others? Do they simply wake up one morning and make a spontaneous decision to change? Or is there something more gradual and ongoing at play?  The latter seems more plausible.

My own experience with desistance came after a long, gradual period of reflection on my past and exposure to academic study while serving a rather protracted period of incarceration. This particular spell wasn’t my first time in prison as I had spent another term in a young offenders’ institute. How I chose to spend this period of incarceration as opposed to the other is very different. Could it be argued that I was ‘desisting’ from crime since I was under lock and key? I would say that incapacitation does not amount to desistance, especially if you still harbour the old pro-criminal sentiments and consider these as part of your identity. Could my behaviour in the community be classified as desisting in between committing crimes pre-sentences? I would say no because I still harboured a certain self-image in which criminality was at the core. While prison does incapacitate a person, it does not completely diminish his offending capabilities. It merely hinders them.

For example, a person can still assault another person in prison. S/he can still use/sell drugs and even attempt to escape – all of which are still judged criminal offences in the eyes of the legal system. With the advent of technology like theInternet and mobile phones, the scope of prisoner-perpetrated criminality is widened if the prisoner in question has in his possession (or access to) a mobile phone. This could include intimidating court witnesses and arranging to have prohibited articles smuggled into the establishment. The prison economy is much more lucrative given that prices can increase exponentially, maximising profit. For example, an ounce of Class-A drugs could be bought in the community from anywhere between £600 and £800, depending on one’s source (referred to as ‘mates rates’). This same ounce, if broken down, could easily generate a total of £5,000 in prison, give or take. A phone purchased for £500 in the community could easily fetch between £2,000 and £3,000 inside prison.

The fact that such acts occur in prison does not make them any less criminal than if they were committed in the community. It is the fact that they are contained that may makes them seem less criminal — or it could be the fact that because they are offender-on-offender crimes that makes the public less concerned about the ramifications. Tabloid media portrayals of ‘offenders’ exacerbate the problems of those returning to the community from prisons, depicting them as undeserving and dangerous criminals for whom transformation is impossible. For a small minority, these portrayals may be accurate. However, the majority of people in prison are people with serious issues who can be helped if given the proper support and guidance.

Significant numbers of people liberated from prison are homeless, compounded by the fact they have little/no chance of employment. Unless employment is guaranteed by a family/friend willing to give a chance to someone leaving prison, a situation is created in which the person is signposted towards committing crime to sustain himself/herself because they are marginalised to the extent where they have no money or prospects. How could one even contemplate desistance in such a climate never mind practice it? If desistance is a process or a pathway then we must try to comprehend its destination (McNeill, 2015). Perhaps the final destination in the desistance process is the acknowledgement by society and state that reform has been realised or is at least possible, leading to ‘restoration of citizenship’ and reintegration into society as an all-inclusive and productive member.

Surely, this is the summit of the desistance mountain.

Some European countries have laws where an offender is classed as rehabilitated after a specific period in the community with no new convictions (Scottish Executive, 2012). An improvement to the Rehabilitation of Offenders (Scotland) Act 1974 vis-à-vis the reform of prisoners who have maintained desistance, I am sure, would go a long way. Imagine being stopped by police officers who radio base to ascertain whether you are wanted or have previous convictions (a common occurrence for some). The answer they receive states you do have convictions but are classified as rehabilitated under the amendment to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. Wouldn’t this change embedded attitudes towards ‘ex-offenders’? It is the responsibility of the person to maintain desistance but other agencies have their own roles to play. If someone takes the path of desistance but society closes all of the appropriate doors in his/her face, then where will this lead? Granted desistance is a process but it can definitely be argued that the more supports and protective factors a person has in his/her life, the less likely he/she will view crime as an appropriate response to a given situation (protective factors are individually-specific – having a child, supportive parents, making pro-social contacts, etc).

There are those for whom prison is the only alternative. However, someone who commits to desistance should be given the required support. Therefore, prisoners are not the only ones who have a role to play. We all do.