Writing ourselves into reentry?

It’s been a long time since the last post on this blog. Since I’m on route to a(nother) desistance conference (once again aiming to explore how research about desistance and about effective practice might interact), I thought I’d write something… But, picking up on Sarah Anderson’s post back in July, here’s something a bit different.

Sarah offered some reflections on a songwriting workshop organized by a charity called Vox Liminis in HMP Castle Huntly (Scotland’s open prison) in June on the theme of ‘reentry’. I was one of the criminologists that took part in the workshop. The challenge from the facilitators was for all of us to take part not as prisoners, prison staff or criminologists but just as people with some experience of some kind of reentry… and to write a song about that.

As Sarah’s post suggests, it was a fascinating and rich experience, in which people in quite different situations and with quite different histories nonetheless found resonance in sharing some aspect of their lives and experiences. I think I had some of the deepest (and most challenging) conversations about reentry in those three days that I have ever had. By making us reflect on our own experiences at the same time as hearing others’, a more affecting, emotionally-engaged dialogue was created. More than that, relationships were developed that have endured as many of us have continued to think about reentry (and many other issues and questions) together — and to take action in certain ways (more of which later).

So, putting my money where my mouth is, here are the lyrics of my song — and then a little more about the background to it and what it might reveal about leaving home and going home.

Johnny Blue’s Well

The gate latch metal slaps behind us

Creosote air, the breeze in our hair, blowing

Carefully packed

Rages intact

We are never, never going back


The long hill, heat spills on Tarmac

Burnt feet, sweat beads, soul aching

Come on now John

The job’s nearly done

We are never, never going back


The chocolate melt rung bells of summer

Plastic cheese pieces ripen… sour

Tupperware smells

At Johnny Blue’s well

We are never, never going back


Wings whirr, sick stirs inside me

The tickled neck of black cleg plugging me

Drawing my blood

Jesus, this sucks

Come on John, I think I’m going back

The song was based on a childhood memory of running away around the age of about 8. As I recall it, my best friend John and I used to sometimes grow frustrated with the (doubtless trivial) injustices of family life. Sharing those frustrations, we’d conspire to run away to a life free from the tyranny of parents and elder siblings.

Rather than packing our bags and sneaking off, John and I would share our plans with our mums — aiming, I suppose, to punish them with the knowledge that they had driven us away. Looking back, I guess they too must have conspired (more amused than concerned?) since, in our separate houses, they provided packed lunches and helped us pack our bags. This was not, I should stress, because they were callous. Rather, it was because they knew full well that we’d be home in time for tea, much the better for exhausting our grievances through our adventures. The pattern became so familiar that these outings came to be referred to as our ‘run away for a day’ scheme.

The verses of the song reflect the typical narrative arc of our adventures. We left energized by whatever new slight we had suffered and excited by the prospect of an open road and an uncertain, undetermined, unsupervised future. But the route was immediately uphill — into the hilly farmlands that bordered our 1960s housing estate. In my memories, the sun is always shining warmly. So, we’d get sweaty and tire quickly but not so quickly that we didn’t get to our usual destinations; the darkest corners of Arthurlie Park, the summit of the Craigie, or, as in this song, Johnny Blue’s Well (more of which below).

In verse 2, I seem to cast John as the more reluctant runaway, but I suspect that’s just an echo of my 8-year-old ego: I tended to see him as the Little John to my Robin Hood.

The third and fourth verses reflect our predictable sense of unease and disenchantment as our resolve melted like chocolate or soured like the plastic cheese ‘pieces’ (meaning sandwiches) in their Tupperware boxes. By the time we had eaten our lunches, freedom was already weighing too heavily on our hands. We never had a plan for the next step: where to go, what to do, where the next meal might come from, where we might sleep that night?

And then came the buzzing cleg (Scots for ‘horsefly’) and its painful bite, sucking away the last of the poisonous rage in my blood and making me want my mum and all that she represented: comfort, security, love, home — and the promise of meat and two veg.

Some time after writing the song, I googled ‘Johnny Blue’s Well’, curious to know the origin of the name. Local legend has it that Johnny was a worker in one of the cloth-dyeing works in nearby Neilston. He stopped at the well every day to wash away the blue dye stains before heading home to his sweetheart.

Johnny lost his stain; John and me walked off our rage — and all of us found our way home. I suppose we did that through being released from the confinements of work or family. Our rages and Johnny Blue’s stains were trivial, so our reentries were as swift and easy as our exits had been. We were welcomed with ‘open homes, open arms’ (to quote another Vox-produced song).

So, my reentry was not the same as ‘prisoner reentry’ — it was nothing like it, in many respects — except maybe that it reflects somehow on some of the things that drive us away; some of the mixed feelings associated with being away; and some of the things that draw us home, if we can get there.

One other important thing about this experience, and this process: I think that academic researchers (and in a different way as practitioners) tend to study other people’s lives and (admittedly to varying degrees) to leave ourselves out of the picture, or on its margins. Even when our intentions are good in research or practice — when we aim to be appreciative and respectful in our descriptions and analyses of the lives of others — there is something ‘othering’ about the process. The way the Vox works seems to require us all to write ourselves into the story; ideally a shared or collective story.

Maybe I should challenge you to write yourself in. What would your reentry song be about?

Desistance, Reentry and Songwriting

This guest post comes from Sarah Anderson, a doctoral researcher at the University of Glasgow.

Working in the criminal justice field, I have met some inspiring professionals. Yet over time, a niggling feeling has grown in the back of my mind that if the relationships currently on offer with these professionals are ‘the answer’ to people’s problems, then the system has seriously misunderstood the question. With their ‘boundaries’, intimate questioning that only goes one way, tick box forms, and never-ending assessments which restrict the terms of engagement to ‘need’ or ‘risk’, professional-client ‘relationships’ tend to dehumanize not rehumanise the people subject(ed) to them. This is true of and problematic for those trying to change their own lives, but it is also true for the professionals who want to support them.

Research into desistance from offending suggests that the desistance process may involve a transformation in one’s self-story that is facilitated and reinforced through relationships[1]. In a context that dehumanises both parties, it is hard to see how a relationship could ever develop that is capable of providing the mechanism for such a transformation to take place. As this niggling has become more and more uncomfortable, I have become interested in settings and activities that might enable the types of interaction where all parties are humanized, where shared insights are sparked and where balanced relationships might be nurtured.

The creative arts seem a good candidate for this, so I was excited to be invited along to a song-writing workshop at Castle Huntly open prison to explore the theme of reentry. Part of the Distant Voices project, a partnership between Vox Liminis and the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, the workshop was intended to bring together serving prisoners, people who had left prison, Scottish Prison Service staff, academics and musicians to share their collective experiences and write them into songs.

Early on a Monday morning in June I found myself in a car on route to Dundee: kept awake by coffee and growing nerves at the prospect of writing songs. Unlike my other trips to prisons, I was not observing, interviewing, advising or ‘helping’ the prisoners but rather taking part in something on an equal footing. And I was bricking it.

The workshop was spread over three days and facilitated by three wonderful musicians: Louis Abbott (of Admiral Fallow), Donna Maciocia and Findlay Napier – with support on the second day from Emma Pollock and on the third from Sandy Butler (whose main duties were as photographer but whose musical gifts also quickly became obvious). The workshop was attended by three criminologists, one prison officer, three Vox Liminis staff and – by my rough count – at least ten people with experience of imprisonment, past or present. Most of the Castle Huntly residents involved stayed throughout the three day period (though some came and went in part due to the prison context, where work or home visits may take priority).

The first day was most closely focused on the theme of reentry and involved working in groups to create songs using metaphor. This involved collaboration in a way that few of us were accustomed to, trying to reconcile different ideas about what a ‘reentry’ song might be about and to find a metaphor that worked in everyone’s different frames of reference. Most of the groups found this challenging, so much so that the working subtitle for one of the songs was ‘Deeply Dissatisfied’!

In my group, we had a discussion about re-entry as return to a ‘trusted safe space’. This was suggested by some of the people in my group who were still in prison, and it didn’t reflect my professional and research experience of re-entry as being expelled into a hostile environment. After some fits and starts we hit upon the metaphor of a ‘gangy’ (a gang hut or den) that had been subject to an attack by a rival gang. This allowed us to explore themes of a safe space, but a fragile one that needed carefully and continuous reconstructing.

At some points we found ourselves so immersed in our ‘gangy’ metaphor that we lost sight of the underlying theme. To be honest, I am not sure whether the final product is a song about re-entry or a song about a gang hut. But during that morning two things happened. Firstly I was presented with an alternative view of what the prospect of re-entry (if not re-entry itself) might feel like. Secondly, over several hours I shared experiences of our respective childhood hide-outs with two men whose lives – on the surface at least – had been very different to mine. In two years of working in a prison, I never had a conversation like it.

On the second day, people worked individually to create songs and at this point there was a noticeable divergence away from the theme of reentry. At first I found this frustrating. Wasn’t the point to generate collective knowledge about reentry that we could take away and share with others? Maybe. But it was apparent that for the men in Castle Huntly, this was not always what inspired them to write. Instead, most wished to write songs dedicated to partners or family members.

I have reflected on this a lot since the workshop and have come to three tentative ‘conclusions’. Firstly, perhaps this is not such a divergence from the theme of ‘reentry’ as I had initially thought. Thinking about the question, ‘reentry into what?’, the songs overwhelmingly suggest that reentry from prison is about reentering relationships (the trusted safe space that the ‘gangy’ represents). On one level these have been paused in time, but on another critical level these have been sustained as a source of strength and support. If they provide the very meaning of reentry for many prisoners, then a criminal justice system that supports desistance on release must find ways to nurture, and not obstruct, these relationships as a priority.

Secondly, and more pragmatically, relationships are reciprocal, but there are very few opportunities in prison to ‘give back’ to those supporters on the outside. Perhaps a song dedication offers a much-needed way to say thank you. If this is the case, then creative activities within prison might offer one small way to sustain and strengthen these sources of support.

Thirdly, and simply, prisoners are people. Prison, reentry and the justice system is only one aspect of their lives, perhaps not the most important one – and probably not the most inspiring one. In Marguerite Schinkel’s doctoral research she found that prison provides a ‘transformation narrative’ for only some of those who are imprisoned; not everyone needs or can credibly adopt this self-story.[2] But, I would suggest, relationships are important to almost everyone. Just like the men from Castle Huntly, I also found myself swept along and writing about family, sharing experiences that I had never intended to divulge. Similarly, I listened to the Castle Huntly residents talking to Emma Pollock, awed by her imminent album release and listening to her share the personal family experiences that had inspired the songs on that album.

The evidence-base is still building around how the creative arts can support desistance efforts. The evidence library developed by the National Alliance for Arts in the Criminal Justice System for England and Wales is a good place to start; see also the special issue of Scottish Justice Matters on arts and justice. But as far as my search for ‘humanising settings and activities’ goes, my experience at Castle Huntly is testimony to the power of song-writing to humanise both ‘prisoners’ and ‘professionals’ and offer a unique way for both to come together as people.

[1] Anderson, S. and McNeill, F. (forthcoming) ‘Cognitive Transformations in Desistance’, in L. Kazemian (ed) The Oxford Handbook of Developmental and Lifecourse Criminology. Oxford: Oxford University Press

[2] Schinkel, M. (2014) Being Imprisoned: Punishment, Adaptation and Desistance. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Exploring the transition from prisoner to university graduate

This guest post comes from David Honeywell of the University of York. You can contact him at  dmh517@York.ac.uk

Education is regarded as a significant contributor to the desistance process with a continual stream of prison education researchers focussing on the impact of prison education. However, one area that is under explored is the transition of the self that education helps to evolve. For some of those making this transition, the exchange to an educational institution will bear some resemblance to the institution they were incarcerated in such as the routine of a structured lifestyle. This is the type of thing my current study is exploring.

A prisoner’s identity is stripped away by the degrading reception process whereby their name and personal self is exchanged for a number and the new prisoner self whereby a procedure of prisonization begins to take place. During this period a prisoner will need to adapt their own routine and place within the prison population in order to deal with their incarceration and for some prisoners, discovering education can provide a much needed sense of worth and focus.

It is this continual and fluctuating transformation process that I am interested in – both positive and negative. My research particularly focuses on the transformation into higher education because higher education (specifically at university rather than by distance learning) incorporates a wide range of unique variables including cultural and structural changes, identity, and re-integration all within the higher education community. The higher education community can provide opportunities for those from a more disadvantage background than wider society offers. For those who are successful in making this transition, they become fully integrated within a culture of acceptance and opportunity.

We know from research Convict Criminologists have done that there is a growing trend of ex-prisoners wanting to and entering higher education and also studying criminology and related subjects. We currently don’t know the demographics of these individuals but my study will at least collate data from a small section of this trend.

It is expected that many will find the initial stages of post prison difficult – in particular finding the most suitable environment to reside and live as a student. Some will encounter obstacles from discriminative policies and some will lack personal support from family and friends as well as facing stigma and rejection from local communities. Some will have the resilience to overcome these obstacles and some will not.

Although I am in the early stages of this study, the general consensus from those I have already interviewed suggests that education alone did not aid their desistance but rather gave a solid platform to underpin an amalgamation of turning points. Education has played a significant role by increasing self confidence; improving career prospects; and opening doors. The themes that seem to be running through the interviews are that many of the participants showed clear signs of above average intelligence early in their lives but life events took them in a direction of self-destruct. Most were victims firstly, perpetrators secondly, and while some feel tormented by their past demeanours, all have exceeded academic expectations any student would be proud of.


Changing the way people with convictions are viewed by the law

The UK should introduce measures that allow all people with convictions to be potentially regarded as legally ‘rehabilitated’, and therefore not have to disclose their record to employers, according to a report that’s been recently published.

Christopher Stacey, Director of Unlock (a charity for people with convictions), has put forward the proposal as part of a series of recommendations he’s made as a result of research carried out with the support of a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship.

As part of the research, Christopher visited France, Spain and Sweden, where he looked at how the countries deal with criminal records, particularly in disclosing them for employment purposes. In Rehabilitation & Desistance vs Disclosure, Christopher reports on two main areas for each countries – who has access to criminal records and how they’re used, and what systems the country has in place to protect or expunge records to minimise the collateral consequences of a criminal record.

“There was much greater faith and confidence that people rehabilitate, and so there’s little need for them to have to disclose their record. This results in more progressive ‘expungement’ policies which allow people with convictions to be protected from the potential prejudice and stigma that they might otherwise face. The majority of employers in these countries didn’t use criminal record checks, recognising the shortfalls of them as a recruitment tool,”says Christopher.

In his report, Christopher outlines a number of recommendations for the UK, including:

  • Employers should only consider asking for details of criminal record when they ‘can forsee hiring’ an individual, and not asking on application forms.
  • A general prohibition against criminal record checks for recruitment. Exceptions would be granted on a case-by-case basis, where it was deemed (a) lawful and (b) necessary.
  • Individuals being able to obtain a copy of what they might have to reveal to a future employer.
  • Research needed into the effectiveness of criminal record checks and what value they provide to employers that use them.
  • Exploring the use of ‘occupational disqualifications’ as a means of regulating who can work in certain roles, allowing for more restricted access to criminal records in other roles and more expansive ‘cancelling’ systems.
  • Establishing an ‘ultimate’ form of rehabilitation which applies to all types of disclosures.

Christopher plans to feed these recommendations into his work with Unlock, challenging employment discrimination at a policy level with employers and Government.

Download the report here: Rehabilitation-Desistance-vs-Disclosure-Christopher-Stacey-WCMT-report-final

For more information on this work, click here

Making Good by Giving Back

Last year Helen Collins travelled across Canada and America to learn about projects and approaches that aim to promote integration and desistance from crime. This was a research project supported by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and Prison Reform Trust. Hugely influenced by the work of Professor Shadd Maruna, one of Helen’s main interests was the role of identity in the process of desistance and how approaches or interventions can help people involved in the criminal justice sytem shift a negative sense of self into a more positive sense of self that helps people to look forward. Lots of learning was taken from this experience but one of the main themes and something which Helen is keen to develop in the provision of rehabilitative services are opportunities for people to give back. You can access the report here:  Collins-Final Churchill Report

Pathways to re/integration

I’ve spent the last two days at a fascinating conference at Queen’s University Belfast (organised by Mark Farmer, Anne-Marie McAlinden and Shadd Maruna) on desistance from sexual offending. More of that later perhaps, but one key issue that seems to be recurring in any contemporary discussion of desistance is the question Allan Weaver poses in The Road from Crime: ‘What are we asking people to desist into?’ I’ve been struggling with that question ever since Allan raised it. Here’s an excerpt from and then a link to a new article (co-authored with Steve Kirkwood) that tries to edge towards an answer…


The development of scholarship related to particular categories of people who are subject to different forms of social control often results in subfields that become or remain isolated from each other, reinforced by artificial boundaries between professional bodies and academic disciplines. This means that advances in knowledge may not always cross from one subfield to another. As a specific example, practice and theory relating to the integration of asylum seekers and the reintegration or rehabilitation of ‘ex-offenders’ have largely developed in isolation from one another. However, in both contexts, similar processes and goals apply, and in both contexts these processes and goals relate to people who are marginalised through formal legal and informal social processes. For these reasons, we suspect there is much to gain through critically comparing these two fields. In this paper we do this by exploring the resonance of McNeill’s (2012) model of ‘Four forms of ‘offender’ rehabilitation’ with the experiences of asylum seekers and the resonance of Ager and Strang’s (2004) model of ‘Indicators of integration’, originally developed for use with refugees and asylum seekers, with the experiences of ex-offenders. Our intention is that such a cross-field comparison will help advance theory and understanding relating to both subfields and in doing so, work towards the development of a broader framework in which knowledge regarding integration and citizenship can be pooled in order to progress theory and practice in social work and related disciplines.

This article contributes to the growing body of research and theory on the intersections between criminal justice and immigration policies and practices (e.g., Aas, 2011; Bosworth & Guild, 2008; Malloch & Stanley, 2005; Pickering & Weber, 2014). Much of this research has been concerned with the criminalisation of migrants and much of it therefore brings critical criminological notions to the understanding of attempts to control migration, focusing on aspects of border control, policing and detention. The present article takes a somewhat different approach by bringing concepts from migration studies to the examination of criminological issues and by specifically engaging with issues of rehabilitation and reintegration…



We hope that this article has demonstrated the usefulness of comparing research, theory and practice across sub-fields that share similar goals and processes in relation to re/integration. While this discussion has focused specifically on the integration of asylum seekers and ‘ex-offenders’, similar comparisons might be instructive in relation to other sub-fields and groups in society, such as: those recovering from substance problems or mental health issues; people experiencing homelessness; victims of crime; people with disabilities; etc. Such work might help to develop common frameworks that allow for better synthesis of research, theory and practice across sub-fields in order to benefit understanding and service delivery. In this regard, the common thread is an interest in achieving integration or enjoying ‘citizenship’, broadly conceived, across segments of society that otherwise experience disadvantage and isolation. Hopefully this contribution emphasises the importance of looking beyond disciplinary boundaries to explore issues that have commonalities for people with quite diverse backgrounds.

We recognise that there are complex and enduring problems with the concepts of integration and citizenship. Perhaps in taking this discussion forward, for example, we would need to more clearly articulate the differences between liberal and republican versions of citizenship (Braithwaite and Pettit, 1992); the latter placing greater stress on the importance of positive liberties and social as well as political rights. Equally, we might need to engage with contemporary debates about the prospects for and desirable forms of social solidarity in late-modern, complex societies. Following Hudson (2008), we would argue for a cosmopolitan vision of justice – one that recognises the centrality of obligations of hospitality within ‘societies of strangers’; obligations rooted in the insistence upon respecting our common humanity irrespective of our origins and identities – and, in the case of ‘offenders’ even irrespective of the harms we may have caused in the past.

While it is not our intention to impose a single or simplistic goal that must be applied to all areas of social services, and certainly not for all individuals, we see merit in compelling public services (including asylum and criminal justice services) to engage with the central question of what social goods (and what kind of society) they exist to promote, rather than being justified, defined and measured in terms of their contribution to minimising harms. We suspect that the latter way of framing services militates towards segmentation between services, rather than their integration, and that it tends to dehumanise their recipients as bearers of risks or needs, rather than as citizens who may need some support to enjoy their rights and fulfil their obligations.”

If this excerpt has whetted your appetite, you can read the full final draft version of the article here: Kirkwood and McNeill (final). Or you can access the published version here: http://crj.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/03/13/1748895815575618.abstract


Space, reentry and alienation

On Monday, I was an invited participant at a forum organised by the Chaplaincy of the Scottish Prison Service, entitled ‘Creating Space for Change’. I was a member of a panel with three senior clerics and the Chief Executive of the SPS. You can find the papers here: Creating Space for Change, but my paper is reproduced below:

Space-related metaphors are ten-a-penny in criminal justice. For me, the one that immediately springs to mind relates not to the ‘places and spaces’ that might concern the architects or urban planners of community safety, but rather to ‘outer-space’. Some years ago, as the USA began to confront the social consequences of its ill-fated experiment with mass incarceration, the term ‘prisoner reentry’ emerged. I’m not sure who first coined the phrase, but it is most associated with Prof Jeremy Travis of John Jay College in New York. Prof Travis has recently acted as Chair of a high-powered National Academies of Sciences report on ‘The Growth of Incarceration in the USA: Its Causes and Consequences’ (see: http://www.nap.edu/catalog/18613/the-growth-of-incarceration-in-the-united-states-exploring-causes). It is a sobering read. Travis’s work on re-entry has done a great deal to challenge America’s political establishment and its civil society institutions to think seriously about how a nation can handle millions of people returning from prisons year after year – and about whether it really makes sense to send them away in the first place.

What is most striking about the term ‘re-entry’ is its astronautical association. It is the same term used for space-craft returning to the Earth’s atmosphere. To survive re-entry, such craft need skilful piloting and navigation, all sorts of technologically innovative design and engineering… and a soft landing place. Trajectory, speed and final destination need to be controlled, and the craft has to be able to handle exceptional pressures that cause less robust objects to explode. To avoid that sort of calamity, billions of dollars (and other currencies) have been spent on these craft and on their pilots.

In these respects, the metaphor is perhaps helpful; it shows the importance and costs of investing in a safe return. But, of course, it is also a problematic metaphor, at least insofar as it might imply that people in prison or returning from prison are not really ‘of this world’. By contrast, when sociologists discuss processes of ‘alienation’, they they are usually describing the disillusion, disaffection or disintegration of people within society but who feel removed from it as a result of the ways in which our world is ordered – often unfairly. That sort of ‘alienation’ might well be a common experience of people who find their way into prison; it might even be a cause of or influence upon their offending. But punishment – at least in many of its forms – is also itself alienating. Imprisonment is a kind of deliberately inflicted disintegration; a form of banishment that creates its own problems of safe return. And, as Jeremy Travis and others have long pointed out, these are problems as much for the excluding society as for the individuals and families directly involved. Whether we like it or not, the expelling society is also the receiving society.

To speak of an ‘alien-nation’ might invoke a still more worrying kind of ‘othering’ of people who go to prison; one that contrives to construct them as an alien species. The sci-fi language makes this sound like a modern development, but again as sociologists (and anthropologists) remind us, human beings have been sorting themselves into and out of social groups for millennia, and in myriad ways. In the context of a faith communities’ initiative like this one, it might be a bit provocative to single out one religious forms of ‘othering’, but I wonder if one of the less attractive legacies of Calvinism – one that Scotland and the USA might share to some degree — is the sort of ‘deep othering’ implicit in notions of the Elect and the Damned? Indeed, some sociologists of punishment have begun to explore the extent to which different cultural heritages (linked to different theologies) might help us explain markedly different approaches to punishment in near-neighbour countries.

Whatever progress this sort of analysis produces in terms of how we might understand ‘othering’, the more urgent question has to be ‘How do we resist it?’. That question might be answered on a number of levels – from the political to the personal – but it seems to me that story-telling must be a key part of it. Although as a criminologist and a social scientist I want the sorts of evidence that my colleagues and I produce to guide us towards a more progressive, less alienating and smaller penal system, the evidence itself points me towards the importance of other kinds of narratives. Change can’t be produced merely by academic appeals to our heads when punishment is very much a matter of the heart – and of the gut.

I can think of two obvious emotionally-engaged ways to refuse or resist the creation of the alienating gap between the self and the other; between ‘them’ and ‘us’. One is to reject or even just unsettle the distinction between the ‘respectable’ self and the criminal other. There is a brilliant US website called ‘We Are All Criminals’ (http://www.weareallcriminals.com/) that does this simply by asking ‘respectable’ people, in confidence, to relate crimes that they have committed but for which they have never faced sanction. If that strategy unsettles assumptions about non-offending ‘selves’, then the second, related approach is to support and share narratives that unsettle ‘our’ assumptions about the offending ‘other’. In the Scottish context, both ‘Positive Prisons, Positive Futures…’ (http://www.positiveprison.org/) and Vox Liminis (http://www.voxliminis.co.uk/) have both been doing an excellent and important job in this second task. In somewhat different ways, these organisations (and others) create and construct people with convictions as the contributing, creative, committed citizens we should all aspire to be.

We all face choices between making and sharing stories that divide us and create enemies (alien, foreign or domestic), or making and sharing stories that unite us and create friends. I’m not suggesting that there is nothing to fear, although it is worth noting that we often misplace our fears; most of us are most hurt by those closest and most similar to us, rather than by those most distant and most different. I am suggesting that, ironically, ‘othering’ is self-defeating and we need to be vigilant about it and against it. If we can learn to resist the ‘othering’ impulse, maybe that will help us create the space for change that we all need, if we are to flourish as individuals, as communities and as a nation.

Reforming Attitudes to People who have been in Prison: The Importance of Emotions

We begin 2015 with a guest post from Alejandro Rubio Arnal, who recently graduated with an MSc in Criminology & Criminal Justice. His research project explored the impact of viewing and discussing ‘The Road from Crime’ on attitudes to former prisoners. The results were fascinating…

As a consequence of the boom in incarceration that began in the late 1970s, more people than ever are being released from prison. This, added to high recidivism rates, has meant that since the beginning of the 21st century interest in the re-entry of former prisoners has increased amongst policymakers, academics and (to some extent) amongst the general public in many jurisdictions. Desistance research has highlighted the importance of social reaction in enabling or frustrating the process. Nevertheless, relatively little is known about what shapes attitudes towards former prisoners and even less is known about the process by which these attitudes change. The aim of this post is to present the main results of my research project for the MSc of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Glasgow (Rubio Arnal 2014), the purpose of which was to begin to address the gap in our knowledge about how to change attitudes towards crime related matters.
My study was an attempt to try to explore the importance of emotive (as opposed to cognitive) messages in changing attitudes towards crime related issues; it complements the only study of changing attitudes towards former prisoners that has used multivariate analysis (Hirschfield and Piquero, 2010.) Nonetheless my research had limitations that affected its validity, reliability and generalizability due to factors such as the sample size, the research techniques that were used, the researcher and time constraints (see Rubio Arnal 2014).

The research was conducted with the purpose of answering two questions: 1) How did the film ‘The Road From Crime’ (2012) (which contains emotive as well as cognitive messages) affect religious people’s attitudes towards former prisoners? 2) Why and how did those attitudes changed? To answer these questions, both quantitative and qualitative techniques were used. Two sessions were conducted in two different churches in two different Glasgow neighbourhoods. 10 participants assisted to the session in Church A whereas in the session in Church B there were 11. A purposive, snowball self-selective sampling strategy was used. Respondents initially completed a questionnaire that measured attitudes towards former prisoners (Negative Attitudes Towards Former Prisoners scale: NATP-scale) and other variables that could be considered potential predictors of those attitudes. After watching the documentary participants were asked to re-read all of the questions of the same questionnaire, and if they wanted to they could change their answers. Afterwards a focus group was conducted.

In order to better analyse the results, quantitative and qualitative data were integrated. The analysis of both focus group transcripts and questionnaire answers showed that the session as a whole altered the attitudes of participants towards former prisoners, or at least it reinforced more positive attitudes.

With regards to the questionnaires, there were two ways of measuring if participants changed attitudes towards former prisoners: (1) the NATP scale (a scale composed by 5 items), and (2) two questions that directly asked participants if they thought their attitudes towards former prisoners had changed as a result of the session. When looking at the NATP scale, 47% of the participants changed their views towards former prisoners after the session: 90% of them after viewing the film (and before the focus group discussion). When looking at the other two questions, 86% of the participants thought that the session as a whole changed their views toward former prisoners and 57% of all the participants thought that the documentary changed their attitudes towards former prisoners, while 80% of the participants in the focus groups thought they were useful too.

By examining quantitative and qualitative data, the changes in attitudes seem best explained with reference to empathy as an emotional response: a variable that has rarely been examined in criminological research. Two thirds of the participants who changed their attitudes felt more empathy towards former prisoners after watching the documentary. Of the other three participants, one had already scored the maximum (for empathy) before watching the film. During the focus groups, participants of Church A, who originally held more positive attitudes towards former prisoners than those of Church B, also expressed themselves in a more compassionate way. My results match with those obtained by Batson and colleagues (1997): that inducing empathy towards a person convicted of murder improved attitudes towards him and others with similar convictions.

Maruna and King (2009) have argued that, in order to decrease punitiveness, providing examples of success to increase belief in redeemability might be helpful. The results of my research support this idea: both belief in redeemability and punitiveness changed: more than the 50% of the participants believed more in redeemability after watching the documentary, and eight out of 21 of the participants became less punitive too. All the participants whose belief in redeemability increased also changed in their wider attitudes towards former prisoners. Apart from this, the session also made participants realize: (1) that former prisoners had to face greater problems than they had expected, and( 2) that social reaction was more important than they thought in the process of desistance and in the rehabilitation of offenders.

Therefore my research, albeit on a small scale, has confirmed the importance of emotive or affective messages in changing attitudes towards former prisoners, and in particular, the importance of empathy as an emotional response in the process of reshaping attitudes towards former prisoners.

If you would like to contact Alejandro, feel free to email him at: alejandro.rubio.arnal@gmail.com


Batson, C. D., Polycarpou, M. P., Harmon-Jones, E., Imhoff, H. J., Mitchener, E. C., Bednar, L. L. & Highberger, L. (1997). Empathy and attitudes: Can feeling for a member of a stigmatized group improve feelings toward the group?. Journal of personality and social psychology. 72(1):105- 118.

Hirschfield, P. J., & Piquero, A. R. (2010). Normalization and legitimation: Modeling stigmatizing attitudes toward ex-offenders. Criminology. 48(1): 27-55.

Maruna, S. & King, A. (2009). Once a Criminal, Always a Criminal?: ‘Redeemability’and the Psychology of Punitive Public Attitudes. European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research. 15:7–24.

Rubio Arnal, A. (2014). Changing Attitudes: a Research on Attitudes of Religious Groups Towards Former Prisoners Reentry. (Available online at https://www.academia.edu/9962514/Changing_Attitudes_a_Research_on_Attitudes_of_Religious_Groups_Towards_Former_Prisoners_Reentry [Accessed 03/01/2015].

Reforming narratives: Is there life after punishment?

Recently, I was invited to give a public lecture for the Sutherland Trust, a Scottish charity that exists to promote and debate psychodynamic ideas and their usefulness in health,  social care and education.

My title was the one above — and I had a little help in the lecture from my friends in Vox Liminis — another Scottish charity, recently created to bring creative practices to the criminal justice system. In the lecture, Louis Abbot (of the excellent band Admiral Fallow) performed two hauntingly beautiful songs which served to illustrate aspects of the talk. The first song, ‘Breathe life’, was written by Louis with a person in prison, and the second, ‘What if my best isn’t good enough?’, was written by another excellent musician — Andrew Howie — with a person quite recently released from prison.

That second song was one of five commissioned by Vox to explore a fictionalised crime, punishment and reintegration scenario, and was used to great effect in a recent public event to stimulate a sort of deliberative dialogue about those issues. Those five songs and a little information about that process can be found at this link: Distant Voices. There is even a CD you can buy for a small donation: The perfect Christmas gift!

The Sutherland Trust lecture can be listened to on IRISS FM here: Reforming Narratives

The accompanying slides can be downloaded here: McNeill (Sutherland Pics) 281014

Let me know what you think…