I mentioned a week or two ago that those nice folk at IRISS had locked me in a room by myself and recorded me talking to a computer about desistance for an hour. The result has just been published here: Supporting Desistance from Crime: Reconfiguring Penal Practice
I had a bad cold that day, so you’ll need to excuse the sniffles….
Supporting Desistance from Crime: from iriss on Vimeo.
The talk was an earlier version of the one I gave at the ICPA (International Corrections and Prisons Association) conference last week in Singapore. It was a really interesting event — my first chance to talk to ‘corrections’ people from Asia and Africa. Desistance research has certainly reached Asia — indeed, the Singapore Prison Service is already (much like this project) trying to work out how to adapt its practices in the light of what we know about the process and how to support it. There was also an interesting presentation from a Hong Kong based professor (T. Wing Lo of City University) about his work research on desistance from gangs.
More generally, Singapore itself was a real surprise. Though Singapore retains what looks to Scottish eyes like a Draconian approach to punishment (most notably, Singapore retains the death penalty and, I think, executes more people per capita than any country except China), it also has a remarkable approach to reintegration. Last Wednesday was Singapore’s ‘Yellow Ribbon Day’, when the government encourages people to wear a yellow ribbon to signify support for and acceptance of the returning ex-prisoner (find out more at: http://www.yellowribbon.org.sg/news-events/2011.html).
The real surprise for me on Wednesday was to hear a talk from Mohamad Osman MP (admittedly an unusual one, being an ex-social worker and grassroots community activist) explaining how he personally writes to every constituent who is imprisoned offering volunteer support to the prisoner and his or her family. He also runs tele-visiting clinics from his constituency office and supports ex-prisoners into work post-release. Out of the 51 cases he has tracked so far, only 6 have re-offended — not a scientific study but a pretty promising result.
Now, it would be easy to be cynical here and say that populist punitivenss isn’t such a problem in a one-party state, but this was clearly a committed and values-driven individual taking a chance on supporting some of the most marginalised people in society. I wonder how many UK-based MPs would consider running such a scheme…?
None of the regular readers of this blog (are there regular readers of this blog??) will have missed yesterday’s comments from Ken Clarke about the role of the criminal justice system failures in the English riots…
Among the more interesting bits was where Clarke writes:
However, reform can’t stop at our penal system alone. The general recipe for a productive member of society is no secret. It has not changed since I was inner cities minister 25 years ago. It’s about having a job, a strong family, a decent education and, beneath it all, an attitude that shares in the values of mainstream society. What is different now is that a growing minority of people in our nation lack all of those things and, indeed, have substituted an inflated sense of expectation for a commitment to hard graft.
Sounds like someone has been reading his desistance literature or having it read for him. Actually, this isn’t really a joke — the original green paper laying out the blueprint for the still unfulfilled (by a long shot) ‘rehabilitation revolution’ uses the word desist twenty six times by my count and cites some of the the recent British research along these lines in its ‘Evidence Report’:
Of course, once this moves from the Guardian into the tabloids, we can expect another abrupt U-turn (if punishment is failing, then we need to punish more, and if that fails, we have to punish even more, and if that fails, we really step it up a notch). Who needs evidence, after all, when you’ve got healthy newspaper sales.
Bumbling around the kitchen yesterday as I fixed my kids’ their supper before they went into terminal meltdown, I half heard a snippet of a radio article on the new Ant and Dec TV programme. The latest winner had a previous conviction and had spent time in prison. Predictably, everyone was up in arms! “”Bad uns” winning money?!? Never!” they screamed. This was confirmed this morning:
Interestingly, the chap in question goes on to report that he is helping his family, now working and wants to use the money to start a new life. As someone who has interviewed numerous people who have stopped offending, this all sounds very familiar – albeit that few have the fortune (no pun intended) to win £1m. But again, we can’t see past a person’s past … hopefully we’ll start to make some inroads to that.
PS: first Project Advisory Group meeting today (via video link up) so more posts later.
Day two of the project and, despite a stinking cold, it got off to a great start. I met Pete White for a coffee in town — Pete and four others are in the process of setting up an ex-offender network in Scotland (with support from the Robertson Trust). They convened a really productive meeting in Edinburgh last week (which I showed up for exactly 24 hours late, but that’s another story). After his coffee with me, Pete went off to meet with staff in the Scottish Government, who are keen to engage with service user and ex-offender perspectives in the development of their ‘Reducing Reoffending’ programme. Pete and I agreed to keep on building these links — clearly the network could bring a lot of hard-earned experience to the Discovering Desistance project.
As if that wasn’t enough, this afternoon I’m off to IRISS (the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services) to record a podcast on ‘Supporting Desistance: Rethinking Penal Practice’. The idea is that this can be an open access free resource for organisations and practitioners to use to try to engage with desistance research and its implications for how they do their work. I’ll post a link once it’s ready.
The podcast is also hopefully a way of reducing my carbon footprint!… I’ve been doing alot of inputs to probation and prisons conferences lately (and for the last few years). Though that can be productive (and a lot of fun), it can also be frustrating — I have no way of gauging whether it has any real impact. So, lately, I’ve been thinking about developing a way of moving beyond ‘talking’ and into a more active engagement. Last week I spent a day with a group of managers and practitioners from Kent Probation Trust. Once we got the input out of the way, we spent most of the time trying to think through the implications for their strategy and their practice. It seemed a much more tangibly useful way to engage in knowledge exchange — at least in that they left with a clear plan of action for their Trust.
Finally, I’m just finishing off a paper on the role of arts projects in prisons in inspiring desistance. Since this is going to be published in a Dutch journal, I’ll try to get permission to post an English version here — so watch this space.
And I’ve been reviewing what the other guys have been doing on the film script. It’s shaping up very nicely — really exciting stuff.
We’ve our first ‘real live’ meeting for the project next week, with various people meeting up in Glasgow and others of us being ‘beamed in’ from Sheffield.
I’m really keen about the project, having never done anything like this before, and am hoping that the film can start to challenge many of the negative images of ‘offenders’/’ex-offenders’ which circulate in the media. Numerous of the people I’ve interviewed as part of my own research into why people stop offending go on to take on socially useful roles (plumbing, being someone’s ‘mummy’, being a drugs or alcohol counsellour or ‘just’ “working in an office”), but all too often the media provide us with images of something like recidivism. A hopeful future never seems to get a blook in; bad news sells, I guess. Lets hope we can start to chip away at that …
The discovering desistance project team (Fergus McNeill, Shadd Maruna, Stephen Farrall and Claire Lightowler) met in Belfast on Monday to start thinking about the project and specifically explore ideas for the production of a film about how and why people desist from offending.
Central to our discussion on Monday was the notion of desistance as a journey and how the film could mirror this journey. Whilst in Belfast we met with the film company who will be working with us to make this happen. Under their guidance it became clear that the film should be based on someone’s desistance journey, and that it would work well if this person was the narrator of the film, thus leading the discovery journey as well.
We identified that by exploring their own desistance journey, our narrator could ask wider questions about the desistance process, and explore what the evidence and other people can tell us about desistance. As a result the plan is for the film to include a range of intereviews with people with different experiences and perspectives on the desistance process (so for instance, people who have and have not desisted from offending, families of those who have offended, professionals who support desistance and academics who research these issues). We are now working through more detailed plans for the film, which will be explored in our film steering group meeting, which includes a wider range of stakeholders, and which will meet in a couple of weeks.
We are very excited about the potential for this film as a mechanism for exploring and sharing knowledge and insights about desistance, and importantly for raising areas for discussion at the next stage of the project – which will be a series of workshops where people will work through some of the issues explored in the film. But more of that later…