Transcript: Reforming narratives: is there life after punishment?

Sutherland Trust lecture: 'Reforming narratives: is there life after punishment?' presented by Fergus McNeill, Professor of Criminology and Social Work and Head of Sociology at the University of Glasgow.

Podcast Episode: Reforming narratives: is there life after punishment?

Category: Criminal justice 

What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.

FM - Fergus McNeill
LA - Louis Abbott

This episode features a recording of a Sutherland Trust Lecture, Reforming Narratives, is there Life after Punishment? Presented by Fergus McNeill, professor of Criminology and Social Work at the University of Glasgow. It was held on the 29th of October 2014, and features songs created by Vox Luminous, which are sung by Louis Abbott.

FM So tonight’s lecture is a little bit different, the middle is fairly conventional, in that I will talk to you for about 35 minutes about the subject of Reforming Narratives or Narratives of Reform, I suppose we could call them the narrative reconstruction that people experience as they move away from offending and into different kinds of life. But to make it a bit more interesting for you and to give us something concrete that we can use as an object of our discussions and analysis, we have 2 songs, both of which come in different ways from the work of Vox Luminous, which is another charity recently established in Scotland to bring creative practice to criminal justice, and Vox has done a number of things, a lot of song writing workshops in prisons, some public events, and a range of different initiatives. The 2 songs illustrate the themes of the talk for me very nicely, I am not going to say very much about them now, I will talk about them in the context of the lecture, but we are going to begin with one and finish with another, so I am very pleased that Louis Abbott has agreed to come along tonight and sing the first song, which he will explain to you in terms of its origins or the circumstances in which is was written, so Louis?

LA Hello everybody, this first song is called Breathe Life, and I was lucky enough to do a song writing session in 3 days at Castle Huntley, which is an open prison near Dundee, and this song was one of the songs that came out of that session, 8 or 9 songs written in 2 days, which is pretty good going with the inmates there.

You keep my head afloat when all I want is to sink

You always keep me smiling with your constant wit

Turquoise eyes, chocolate hair, bunch of cherries under there

Since we’ve been together, we just seem to fit

I’m content and I’m happiest with you

I feel confident, I feel brave, and it’s true

You’re my life, you’re my all, and you’re my something wonderful

It feels right when you hold me every day

Breathe Life into me

You breathe life into me

You’re my life, you’re my all, and you’re my something wonderful

You breathe life into me

I’ll always been your dancer, your partner, your lover

And step by step we’ll circle the fire

When the heat from the flames steals the air from my lungs

And you breathe life into me

Breathe Life into me

You breathe life into me

Turquoise eyes, chocolate hair, bunch of cherries under there

You breathe life into me

You breathe life into me


FM Okay, thank you very much, Louis, you will hear a bit more from Louis at the end, but you can go and take your seat and relax for a while. I will come back to that song in a moment, but first if you have a look at this picture on the screen, I don’t know if anybody recognises it, no reason why you should … it may be the oldest cave painting ever discovered and what I read about it online tells me that it’s probably about 40 thousand years old, and it might be the first human depiction of humanity, although some people think that Neanderthals made these images, so whether or not we consider them human beings, I don’t know, I am not that kind of scientist. But what you see here are, they’re silhouettes of hands which are decorated and you probably can’t see the decoration on the hands, but there are also lines drawn between the hands by the painter. And so I interpret this as being a picture which is about humanity but also about community, and that’s a theme that I’ll return to right at the end, but I think it’s interesting that the first piece of art, potentially visual art, produced by humans maybe speaks to this theme of being a person and being a person in the context of a community of people.

Now if we turn to the words of the song that Louis has just sung, this is called Breathe Life, as you heard, and it’s a very new song, maybe written in June, so just a few months old, but there are some quite ancient themes in this song, I think, or some quite ancient aspects to it. I didn’t realise in coming to Laurieston Hall that this was a Jesuit Centre, but you might pick a few religious motifs.

This song, Breathe Life, has nothing to do with God, as far as I am aware, but note some of the words, so it begins…. you keep my head afloat when all I want to do is … or when all I want is to sink … so there’s a confession of need, a confession, or a recognition that this persons humanity cannot be fulfilled or sustained alone. And then in the chorus, we have ‘Breathe Life into me’, which sounds to me like a request or a petition…. we have ‘you breathe life into me’, which seems like a statement of thanks or gratitude, we have ‘you’re my life, my all, you’re my something wonderful’, which is adoration, and we have thanks again. And then this middle 8 part, which is paid as a waltz, I discovered in the car on the way over, ‘I will always be your dancer, your partner, your lover, and step by step we’ll circle the fire, and the heat from the flames steals the air from my lungs, and you breathe life into me.’

So it’s a song therefore which also speaks to love and to mutual commitment, and so far I have said nothing about prisons or punishment or desistence from crime, I am just talking to some themes of common humanity, some recurring themes in the narratives, or stories that human beings tell themselves about themselves and about their lives. And this is an ancient business, if I go to my next song, this is a very old one, and this, believe it or not, is a song of desistance from crime, at least that’s the way I read it, if you … I don’t know if you are old enough to recognise the movie poster, or the movie star, but my Mums favourite is Gregory Peck, and that’s Gregory Peck, very poorly painted I have to say, barely recognisable, with Susan Hayward in their version of David and Bathsheba. Again, I wasn’t aware this was a Jesuit Centre, but for those of you who didn’t enjoy the pleasures and pains of a religious upbringing, the story of David and Bathsheba is that David was the kind of Israel, by this point in his story or his narrative, he was looking out his window one day and he saw an indescribably beautiful woman bathing on the roof of her house, and he wanted her. So he arranged for her to be brought to him, he pressured her into having sex with him, he was the king, after all, and it was very hard for her to refuse, so we might consider David, if it’s not sacrilegious to say so in this context, a sex offender in this story. It’s open to interpretation in the Hebrew Scriptures in the Christian Bible, but again it’s possible to interpret him as applying this pressure certainly, social pressure. Bathsheba falls pregnant and the story gets worse. David brings Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, back from the battle, as a way of covering David’s sins. Uriah is a noble man and there’s an ancient rule that you don’t sleep with your wife or in your family home when your men are at war, so he refuses to sleep with his wife and David therefore gets him to carry a message back to the General at the Front, to put Uriah right in the heat of battle, so that he will die, and Uriah dies.

So does the baby, later in this story, but David then marries Bathsheba and they go on to produce Solomon, and so the story goes on. So, in this story, David is potentially a sex offender and arguably a murderer, a very serious offender indeed. And Psalm 51, according to the internet, which is not my source for all of my material I should add, as a proper academic, in Psalm 51, we have his confession and his repentance, and I will just read it to you just incase the words are too small. It says … ‘Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being and you teach me wisdom in the sacred heart. Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean, wash me and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness, let the bones that you have broken, rejoice, hide your face from my sins, blot out my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, oh God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your sprit from me, restore to me the joy of your salvation and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach the transgressors your ways and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from blood guiltiness, oh God, oh God, oh my salvation and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.’ And this is a song, a psalm. So what’s going on here, a confession of need, a petition to God, a statement of gratitude, and a conclusion which expresses a commitment to do something in response to forgiveness from God, in this case? So the themes of the two songs separated by 3000 years, have some commonalities, at least, in their narrative structure. And if I turn a little bit more directly towards my supposed topic, which is desistance from crime … Jimmy Boyle, I think in his prison diary, gives us a very clear statement about why this process of transformation or change, in the religious context we might call it salvation or redemption, why this process is so difficult to navigate. David was very good at it, he was always falling and always getting back up again and being able to re-craft his story, that’s probably because he was such a great artist, I imagine. But Jimmy Boyle came from a different place. He was a person brought up in a context of pretty profound social disadvantage, repeated and reinforced social exclusion you might call it today, arguably constraining and diminishing the resources for change that he had at the moment of life when he wanted to make a transition.

So that was hard enough, and for most people in the criminal justice system, that’s their background, a background at the harsh end of social inequality, maybe at the harsh end of some difficulties in the way they have been parented, maybe some difficulties in their educational progression and development, certainly some difficulties in their relationships with authority and the way that authority responds to them, the application of labels that structure and govern and limit and constrain the direction of their life, and then they come to the moment of change and the resources for change are diminished and the opportunities are diminished.

But it’s worse than that, because the change process itself is painful, and Jimmy Boyle says this about it in his prison diary, and this is him becoming an artist, becoming a sculptor in the special unit at Barlinnie Prison. He says ‘I am finding out a great deal about myself, I am making new relationships and living in a world totally unknown to me. I love it, yet there are times when I hate it. I am torn between two worlds, alienated from the old one and a stranger in this new one.’ So those of you that have studied sociology, would recognise this as a statement of liminality, between-ness, betwixed in between two worlds, feeling now no longer comfortable either where he’s come from or where he appears to be going. So a person of disadvantage, a person with diminished resources, standing on the cusp of a significant life change, but confronted by, not just their own limitations and perhaps problems of acceptance in the society that they are trying to move towards, but also struggling with the pains of transformation themselves.

Criminologists, like me, in the last 20 years perhaps, have become very preoccupied with the question of how and why people stop offending and this is what we refer to as ‘desistance research’. In fact it’s been studied for about 100 years, but studied initially just as a natural phenomenon, so criminologists 100 years ago recognised that there was a relationship between age and crime, and that most people seemed to age out of crime. But their principle preoccupations for 40 or 50 or 60 years, were with why some people start, especially when they start young, and when they stay persistent in their offending behaviour compared to others, and only latterly did we develop a much more significant body of evidence about stopping, so leaving crime behind. And what we learn from this body of evidence, broadly, is that desistance is not an event, people don’t wake up one morning committed to no longer offending, they go through a process of personal and human development, that process takes place in and is shaped by social and cultural contexts, which influence, not just your resources, but the context in which you try to travel this road away from crime, so it’s a social transition as well as a process of personal human development, and it involves moving away from offending and that might be to do with the volume of your offending, the frequency of it or the severity of it, but crucially for me, and this is the big question, that we’ll end with towards the end of the talk and in the last song, ‘what do you desist into?’

So I will in a moment, conceptualise desistance for you as a journey, and talk about the difficulties of the journey, but whilst it’s important that we focus on the journey and understand its dimensions and contexts, it’s also important that we confront the question, ‘where are we expecting people to travel to when they leave crime behind?’ The literature suggests that we can now think about desistance in three inter-related and I think, interdependent ways, so policy makers tend to be principally concerned with behaviour, is the person no longer offending, that’s what I need to know. And even in England and Wales now, if you work in the probation sector, the company that runs your probation unit is going to be reward on a binary measure of whether or not the volumes of people it processes are reconvicted or not reconvicted, so that’s a concern with primary desistance, with behavioural change. But, the research teaches us very clearly that especially for people who have been heavily criminalised and heavily penalised, desistance also includes a shift in identity, or self concept, and this lends itself to a deeper understanding of a much more substantive form of desistance, to put this in a simple way, I might stop offending for any number of reasons, I might stop because of an injury or an illness, or a distraction, it doesn’t mean anything in terms of whether or not I am changing in my attitude towards compliance with the law, in my attitude towards myself, in my social habits, in my patterns of association and so on.

So criminologists increasingly argue that secondary desistance is more important, even if somebody who is changing in their identity, and their attitudes and their values, is struggling and relapsing, we should celebrate and support that identity transition and hold them as far as we can until the behaviour catches up with the shift themself concept an identity. And lastly, a more recent addition here is the idea of secure or tertiary desistance, so this is a third level which is not so much about me changing who I think I am or what I think I am about, it’s about whether or not you accept it, and whether or not I therefore feel a sense of belonging in your moral community, or whether I stay at the margins and edges of that community and therefore vulnerable to relapse or setback. Theories that try to explain desistance in a number of different ways, I am going to spare you the detail here, but essentially 4 ways of understanding desistance, and nowadays most scholars agree that these are interconnected and interdependent, so it’s not that we have to choose between these theories, it’s that we have to understand how they interrelate. So first of all it is about age, people do grow out of crime, they become more mature, they take more responsibility, they are more prepared or able to calculate the consequences of their actions, they are less impulsive, they grow through adolescent turbulence and into more settled adulthood, that’s the normative transition of human development.

But for some people that process is slower for a number of reasons. We take into account physical, psychological maturation as part of the reason why people change their behaviour. Age also indexes social bonds, social ties, connections to social institutions, so in our early 20’s, typically, we also get into work or we get into study, or we get into some form of generative activity. We may get into relationships, we may have children, and as we forge these new ties to different social institutions, they influence our conduct.

They constrain and limit our opportunities to offend in certain ways, for example, classically, in this literature, a young man, used to running wild with his group of friends, maybe some drug using, maybe some drinking, maybe some offending, falls in love, and he commits to the relationship with his new partner who is more pro-social in the jargon, wants him to, as we say in Glasgow, I don’t know if this translates to the East ‘screw the nut’, sort himself out, get his straight head on, and get into work and be in a position to sustain a relationship and maybe to become a father. So these normative transitions towards adult commitments are also important in desistance, so it’s not just maturation as an internal process of development, it’s a social process of developing new ties, which serve to both support and constrain.

I like the phrase ’the ties that bind’ in this connection, because they bind in a sense of binding a wound, so the bind is healing but the bind is also constraining and limiting in some respects. However, not everybody who gets a job, or a college place or a partner, or a child, stops offending. And so more recently scholars have become more and more interested in the subject of dimensions of the desistance process, so what is it about a particular relationship that means enough to a person to influence the choices that they make about who to spend time with, where to go, what to do, whether to pursue vocational training, whether to be invested enough in that relationship to trump or override other concerns or interests. And these subjective dimensions turn out to be very important in the research. So I may have an opportunity to change that’s presented by work or study or love, but it only works as a hook for change if I am prepared to grasp it, and there’s an individual subjective process involved, a meaning making process linked to those kinds of deliberation. And these three influences also feed into situational aspects, so the places and spaces in which I move in my life are also changing as I age. And if I am spending less time hanging around with my so called delinquent friends, if I am at pleasant gatherings of the Sutherland Trust, with well socialised people, drinking small amounts of wine, politely listening to speakers, I am not likely to be offending. But if I go just a few yards away from here into a different environment, then perhaps my prospects would be altered. But I choose this, I choose life.

So the question that really preoccupies us today is, well what can we do about this, if this is a natural process of moving away from offending, which some people find harder than others and which takes longer for some people than others, what can we do about it, do we have to just wait? Well, there are 2 sorts of things that we can do, we can make it worse or we can make it better. And a lot of the time in criminal justice, the truth is that we make it worse, we slow down peoples movements away from the behaviours that we want them to stop. How do we do that? Well, think about imprisonment for a moment, I will leave the juvenile justice system to the side for a moment, there is good Edinburgh based research about why even a welfare based system has labelling effects that slow down change processes, but let’s not talk about Edinburgh based research tonight.

Think about imprisonment, in relation to these four theoretical perspectives. Are prisons places of maturation, places where you learn to take responsibility, places where you are in concern of decisions about when you rise and when you sleep, when you eat, what food to prepare, what clothes to wear, what activities to participate in, who to hang around with? No. You have none of these choices in an institutional environment, they are all made for you. And for that reason and for many other reasons to do with adaptation to prison life and survival in a prison context, some psychologists argue that prisons are places of … they are like a deep freeze for psychological development, and some argue even more strongly that prisons are places of regression rather than development in terms of human maturation, so the deep freeze thesis is enough to make my point tonight. Secondly, are prisons good places for developing positive social ties? No, for the most part, in prison your positive social ties are likely to atrophy, through your withdrawal from the life outside and through your distancing from it, and even if your family wants to maintain contact with you, you might not want so much contact with them because it might be too painful. So social ties don’t seem to fair well in prison. You are co-located with other people, who, by definition, have been involved in offending. Is prison a place of narrative transformation, a place where your identity can be positively reconstructed? Maybe, but not by its nature, by its nature what prison says to you is you are an offender, you are a prisoner, that’s your principle identity in a prison. So it’s hard to construct a prison as a place of identity transformation, although we’ll see later that it might be possible. And lastly, the situational aspects barely apply because you don’t control the situations and the places and spaces in which you move, so you can’t establish new habits because you don’t have the freedom to do so, so institutional environments don’t look very promising in relation to desistance theory. And very quickly, this is one model at what the process of desistance involves, or what the steps or stages looks like.

These are not, the reason I have configured it this way, is that they don’t follow in any particular order, but there are 4 dimensions. The person open to change, or in a moment of openness to change is exposed to a hook for change, and the hook for change might come in the form of a job or the college place or the opportunity to go to a Vox Luminous workshop and make music, or it might come in the form of a new relationship or parenthood, or it could come in the form of the negative experience of imprisonment, causing you to wake up to yourself and reconsider the cost of the life that you are living. So, in a state of openness, a hook for change presents itself, but to move much further, even a person who is grasped by the prospect of change needs to have an available, appealing, conventional self, a way of imagining who they are going to be, which is authentic, but pro-social, or at least doesn’t involve offending.

So the question of how you construct this narrative, this positive narrative about yourself, obviously depends to a certain extent on the people around you, in other words whether there is anyone around you that you can look to as a positive role model, but it also relates to your history and whether there are people in your past that represent a way of living which you can connect with and relate to, and that might not be so easy for some people, and I think that’s part of Jimmy Boyles problem in the prison diary, and why he is so discomfited by the change process. And then comes perhaps a change in attitudes and behaviour.

But the scholars who Giordano and colleagues who did this study, which is a very large study in America, and a very well regarded study of desistance, argued initially that attitudinal change and behaviour change comes last, not first, and yet it’s the thing that we focus on, principally in criminal justice, which is telling, I think. So what do we know then about these journeys, the characteristics of these journeys? So this is the odyssey, and people, I am not suggesting we have all read Homer, I confess I haven’t, I may have seen the film through, so this is the quintessential story of the journey, the heroic narrative of the journey, undertaken again by a person in difficult circumstances, but one who has lots of resources. Odysseus is a king, the leader of Ethica, if I remember rightly, and he has favour from the Gods, some favour from the Gods, I think there’s a bit of competition among the Gods about what they make of Odysseus. But off he sets on his quest and he goes through many adventures and faces and confronts many foes, the Cyclops being one of them, the Sirens, he has to tie himself to the mast of his ship, so that the Sirens song doesn’t bring his ship onto the rocks, and he heroically conquers all and then he goes back to Ithaca, and when he returns to Ithaca, he’s worried, he’s worried about the loyalty and commitment of his family to him, he hasn’t seen them for years, he doesn’t know whether his son, whose name I have forgotten … Laertes … maybe, or is that his Dad …


Thank you, and his wife who was called, Penelope? Maybe, anyway he’s worried about whether or not they are going to welcome him or whether or not they have all moved on in their lives without him, not unlike a returning prisoner in some respects, and I think, if I am right, he’s also supported in his return by a mentor, in fact by a Mentaur, that’s where the word comes from, who casts mists around him so that he can’t be recognised by people, which allows him to test their reactions and loyalties before he re-engages in relationships with them. Fortunately his family have been faithful and Penelope has rejected all suitors, hundreds of them, and in fact I think there’s a bit of a bloodbath at the end when Odysseus deals with the, but we will leave that part out. It doesn’t fit my desistance story.

So it matters where you start in a desistance journey, and it matters what resources you have for the journey. These are complicated processes, not events and they are characterised by ambivalence, uncertainty, fluctuating motivation and zigzagging, vacillation, people tack one way and then they tack the other. These processes, the research suggests, for people who have spoiled identities, so if your identity has been heavily criminalised and penalised and if you have internalised that negative identity, then removing those labels or probably more likely, writing over them with something else is a challenging process, but it is a process of re-biography, changing the narrative, and that’s much more than just learning some new skills, new thinking skills, so it goes beyond the typical cognitive behavioural approaches that we use into something much more fundamental, maybe even existential.

The process can be supported and sustained and even stimulated, in the first place, by someone else who believes in you, maybe somebody who breathes life into you. That person might be the reservoir of hope that you needed to dip into, in order to gather or garner some hope for yourself. And hope is a critical part of the desistance process too, it’s very hard to travel or even to embark without some sense of hope, as we will see in a moment. Desistance is an active process in which people discover agency, agency meaning something like command of your own life, so becoming the captain of the ship rather than being tossed on the winds or the waves. It’s a process that requires social capital, meaning the resources that reside in our social relationships and social networks, it’s not just about personal resources or human capital. And it’s a process which seems to be confirmed, secured by recognition and redemption. So if we have processes or rituals or events, then that can help to sustain the desistance process.

Now my favourite book of all on this subject is Making Good, How Ex Convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives. Can you guess that the author is American? Well he is, and that’s him, Shadd Maruna, who is a friend of mine, and worked for many years at Queens University in Belfast and has just returned to work at Rutgers University, where he is Dean of Criminal Justice. And Shadd’s, this is Shadd’s PHD research from a number of years ago now, published in 2001, it’s an award winning book, it won a prize from the American Psychological Association, and what Shadd did was sort of brilliant, but very simple. He identified two groups of people who had the same prognosis, and the prognosis was, as he calls it in one of his chapters, ‘prognosis - dire’. So both groups of people had a dire prognosis, they came from criminogenic backgrounds, they lived in criminogenic environments and they had lots of criminogenic traits, so they were most likely to persist in offending.

But some of them were stopping and some of them were continuing, so Shadd analysed the narratives, the stories they told about themselves, and compared the two sets of stories. And unsurprisingly, but very interestingly, the persisters, the people who were continuing, had a condemnation script, and the condemnation script runs something like this. ‘Woe is me … my life has been terrible … terrible things have happened to me … I am not in charge of my life … there is no way for me to escape this vicious cycle.’ I am enacting a script that is written by somebody else. And interestingly, Shadd says, they are right, their prospects are so socially structured that their assessment of their position is accurate, and most criminologists would agree with them, that that’s their likely fate. What’s paradoxical, is that the people who are stopping offending have a redemption script, which starts in a similar way … ‘I came from a terrible background … terrible things have happened to me … but then says, however I was always a good person … the real me is a good person struggling to come out in the context of bleak circumstances. With the help of someone, some outside force, I have been able to overcome these disadvantages and become the author of a different story and a different future, and now I am going to prove it to you by giving something back to society.’ That’s the redemption script.

Shadd, in contrast to lots of cognitive psychologists argues that this group, the people who are stopping, have cognitive distortions, but they are very helpful distortions because they give them a sense of command over what are objectively bleak circumstances. However, distortions nonetheless present some problems, and this book, Being Imprisoned, is a brilliant new book by a young colleague of mine, Marguerite Schinkel, at Glasgow University, who did her PHD at Edinburgh with colleagues over here co-supervising. And what Marguerite did was she looked at the experiences of long term prisoners in Scotland and she tried to explore how they understood the meaning of their sentence, and one strand of this was about desistance from crime or about stories of transformation, as she calls them. She identifies that not everybody needs one of these stories, so if you never accepted the criminal identity or if your offence was a one off offence, then there is no negative identity to unpick, so you don’t need a transformation story if you don’t have a criminal identity. You don’t need a transformation story if you are well resourced, so if you have got money, support, family, friends, opportunities waiting upon your release, prison doesn’t need to sort you out, the experience of being in prison doesn’t need to sort you out.

And if you are hopeless, if you have given up on the prospect of there being a better life, then you also don’t need a transformation story, because you don’t even believe in its possibility. So for these three groups, transformation doesn’t apply. But for those for whom prison is all that stands between a spoiled past and a positive future, in prison transformation is really important, and there are two forms of in prison transformation, an active form where the person seeks out, secures, employs and benefits from opportunities in the regime, in the environment, it might be sport, it might be music, it might be offending behaviour programmes, it might just be active educational engagement or contemplation, but there’s an active process of engaging and transformation. Or there’s a passive process, which is that you believe that rehabilitation is being done to you by the regime and that you will be all right because the regime will work for you somehow. Sadly, Marguerite followed up, or rather she interviewed another group of men who had been released from prison just before she began her study, and many of them had transformation narratives formed in prison, but destroyed by release. So their experience of returning home to circumstances of exclusion and rejection and to relationships which had been damaged by imprisonment and by their withdrawal from those relationships to survive imprisonment, meant that the narrative unravelled. So there are problems in investing in imprisonment as an agent of change for the prisoner who refuses to do so.

Beth Weaver, another young colleague who is also about to publish a book, she doesn’t have a cover yet, so I had to go for a picture of her instead, and the publishers website, this book called Offending and Desistance is due out in the next few months, and this is a brilliant study of 7 men, who offended together as adolescents and as young adults, who went to prison in their early 20’s but whose subsequent life trajectories have gone in very different directions, so at least one of them is still in and out of prison all the time, most of the others have stopped offending, but in different ways and through different routes. And what Beth discovers is that their pathway away from offending is centred on the shifting character of their social relationships, including with each other, so the gang that was the problem also became the solution, at a different stage in their development.

One of them, after a fall out in the gang, made a break, went to London, got work on a construction site and gradually drew other members of the gang down to London to work with him. In that context, they didn’t have spoiled identities, they had new opportunities, they formed new relationships, romantic relationships, they had children, or they brought … sometimes in some cases they brought family with them, and they had a fresh start. So the shifting character of the social relations between the men was critical to their desistance, and the key point here is that their process of re-storying their lives was a shared process, a collective process, not an individualised one, or perhaps both individualised and collective would be a more accurate way to put it.

So how do we support re-storying, or desistance? Well first of all we should be realistic about the challenges, there are going to be lapses and setbacks, this is a complex process. We need to individualise the support, respecting the subjective dimension. We need to work to build self determination and people’s sense of command over their own lives. We need to work to mobilise social resources and social relations. We need to recognise change and be careful about the language that we use about people, labelling them, for example, as offenders and prisoners and ex offenders, isn’t necessarily very helpful in the desistance process. And we need to provide practical support in order to secure change. That’s the story of Marguerite’s released prisoners, that the absence of practical support into employment and into participation in society is what denies them the capacity to realise the transformation that they have begun.

So I think, and I am nearly finished, it’s nearly time for Louis to come back up … there are four forms of story making at play in processes of re-integration. One part of the story is the way that you transform yourself, and you kind of heard that in the first song. That’s a story about an individual, in a relationship, describing that relationship and referring to the way in which it influences who he sees himself as being and what he wants to become, in his case, a committed husband. And there’s lots of focus on personal transformation in prisoners, although not usually cast in that language. Rehabilitative opportunities, to some degree, are provided, whether they’re the right sorts at the right time for the right people is another complicated question for a different lecture. But I think we’d be too preoccupied with the personal story of transformation, and maybe neglected the fact that stories need leaders and performances need audiences.

And if my narrative reconstruction is unheard and unheeded by the people around me, then the story means nothing. And I can’t make it real, it can’t become a true myth until people start believing in it with me. So social reintegration, the existence of a community which is prepared to hear this story and accept it, is critical to change. Judicial reintegration, having a system which doesn’t require people to be continually labelled by their past is a critical aspect of it. And moral reintegration is in play in these processes too, because unless my debts are settled and unless my audience accepts some indebtedness towards me, we can’t mediate our way towards a shared understanding of what this story is all about. So moral mediation matters in the process of re-storying too.

This model, which I am not going to take any time to explain, refers to the pathways to integration that matter to people who come to this country as asylum seekers, and it’s based on empirical research with asylum seekers. So, foundationally they say they need rights, legal status, citizenship, in order to be able to make claims and feel a sense of legitimacy. But even when they have that, in order to forge relationships with people they need language and cultural competence, a way of relating, and they need a sense of safety and stability, or they remain isolated and locked in to wherever they are. That’s actually what happened to Marguerite’s ex prisoners, they were out, but they were effectively locked in their residencies, feeling they had nowhere to go where they were accepted. The asylum seeker then who has language and cultural competence and a sense of safety and stability, can move into forging social relationships, bridging relationships into other communities, bonding relationships maybe with their own community, social links to organisations, that might mean political participation and engagement. Above all of this are the markers and means of integration, a job, a decent place to stay, the prospect of education and human development and health, and those other markers are the means of integration. And I am arguing a lot at the moment with people in prison systems and in governments and in policy and practice in lots of jurisdictions that these should be the matrix of a justice system that’s worthy of the name, rather than this preoccupation with reoffending.

So, as I said earlier, reforming narratives, new stories need audiences, and the work of Vox Luminous is one attempt, not just to help people in the process of creatively representing their own lives in some way through song, principally, but also taking those narratives to public audiences and exposing them to the stories that people want to tell, people in the justice system want to tell. So you have heard one and you are about to hear something a little bit different, to close, as well. These pictures come from the audience of these stories, told at our Distance Voices concert a few months ago. So these are the words of the song that I am going to finish with, well I am not going to finish, Louis is going to sing it, thankfully … you could come up while I explain this bit … so this song was commissioned by Vox Luminous for the purposes of this concert which involved a kind of deliberative process of the audience engaging with a crime scenario and its penal consequences, and this is the last song which describes the experience of the person who commits the offence, having gone to prison and then having been released back into society. And it ends with these three lines, which form a kind of refrain, and these three lines are a better summary of my final conclusion that I could offer, myself, so Andrew Howie, who wrote these words, with Joe, I have forgotten Joe’s second name …


… Bowden, from Positive Prison? Positive Future. Joe is about a year out of Shotts prison, something like that, so Joe wrote this, or was the consultant, if you like, that Andrew worked with to produce this song, and Andrew ends the song with this challenge, and this is in the voice of the released prisoner, ‘Better sit still than rise up and fall’ … in other words, I am frightened and I don’t know if I want to risk change. Or, ‘better to fail than not try at all’, which might be a chink of hope or even just a hope of hope, emerging in that story, but critically, the final part of this refrain is, can anybody help me? Which is to say, if I find a voice to express this, is anybody going to react, or listen or hear what it is that I have to say? So, Louis is going to sing that song for us now to close.

I’ve filled in these walls a hundred times

…………. in countless Monday morning lights

But I don’t know how long I can last

when you can’t get past my past.

Darling, I’ll try the hardest I can

To be some ………….. of an ordinary man

What if my best isn’t good enough for you?

What if my best isn’t good enough, what if I never come good?

What if my best isn’t good enough for you?

If I could teach you how to live

Or at least not to fuck up like I did

That would be enough for me, I swear

Yes that could be a medal that I wear

You could slam the door and lock me out

God knows what you get up to

What if my best isn’t good enough for you?

What if my best isn’t good enough?

What if I never ring true?

What if my best intentions are just trampled on the floor?

Better sit still than rise up and fall

Better sit still than rise up and fall

Better sit still than rise up and fall

Better to fail than not to try at all

Better sit still than rise up and fall

Better to fail than not to try at all

Can anybody tell me?

Can anybody tell me?

Can anybody tell me?

Can anybody tell me?

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