A Gordian knot of sentences

The interviews I am analysing just now are showing me how difficult it can be to escape the complexity and multiple layers of future and present sentences, which can interact, exacerbate each other and cancel each other out.

For example, one participant was recently doing well in the community, seeing her son every day, staying with her mother and was off drugs for this period. She then got indicted for an offence she admits she DID commit, but because witnesses did not turn up, for which she ended up getting admonished. By then, though, she had relapsed and started taking drugs again in prison. Then she was indicted for the offence she was  on remand for at the time of the interview. She admits committing this offence, but maintains it was self-defence. After that period of indictment she was released, again because witnesses did not attend, and was given a court date later, but did not turn up, so she was indicted again. At the same time (or this might be at the same time as the previous indictment – it is impossible for me, even reading back over the interview, to make complete sense of it all) she was serving a Community Payback Order. The judge had not wanted to give her one, given her record, but her lawyer had forced his hand by pointing out she had served significant time on remand already, so otherwise would not have been in prison much longer. She engaged well with this CPO and felt it was helping, but because she was indicted she was breached and given 15 months sentence for this breach. This means that, in effect, she has been punished quite severaly (lost a chance at rehabilitation, punished with 15 months imprisonment) for an offence of which she has not yet been proven guilty. However, she might serve these 15 months concurrently with her eventual sentence, so that, in effect, it disappears. In the meantime, however, she is back to being homeless because her mother does not want anything to return to her home because she is taking drugs again, and facing significant time in prison depending on the outcome of her trial. Furthermore, she is now recorded as having breached a CPO, making it less likely that she will receive one in the future.

It takes some wherewithal to make sense of such a situation, to keep track of all the possible and actual sentences at the same time. So many people just don’t bother, don’t think about the future, ‘take one day at a time’ and just do this until they are eventually released. However, even on the outside sentences still loom. As one participant said “even when I’m doing well, I’ve always got court cases hanging over me, from the past”. The ties that bind people to the justice system are knotted indeed.

Working in a house full of children

There’s something strange about working in a room in a house full of children. With Glasgow far away, and driving still a challenge, I work from home on the days that I can. I sit in our back room, and have the closest thing to a retreat possible. A desk, a sofa-bed, internet. It gets cold in here once the heating goes off, and so I go to the shed, collect armfuls of logs, handfuls of kindling and spend some time making a fire and keeping it going.

In the meantime, there are the comings and goings of family. The eldest needs driving to and collecting from nursery, the twins get up and go down, I can hear crying, whispering, laughter and conversation through the closed door. I am in the same space as my family, but not with them.

Work provides a window into the world at large –away from this hillside, from this valley. The world of work is busy with tweets, emails, students, colleagues, people I know, people I don’t know, prison staff, men and women trying to make some way in their lives with a criminal record. So many connections, both made and unmade. But it is also quiet, time to let new thoughts arise, to sit and think about the best way to analyse, the implications of a quote, the links to what is already known.

It is a tricky balance, work and family, and now that I have three children I sometimes feel the guilt of never getting it right. But without the people outside the door, this space would not feel quite so peaceful, quite so precious. And without the work, family would feel claustrophobic. Just now, I found out from my four year old that there are FIVE [edit: now SIX] presents under the Christmas tree. What could be more exciting?

Barlinnie prison and change

I presented my research in Barlinnie prison today, to an audience of about 70 people. Mostly prison staff, but also a few prisoners, the management team of the prison, a few folk from SPS headquarters, plus assorted others. This was to get people talking about how Barlinnie might become more rehabilitative. This is the aim of its Development Programme, along with adopting a person-based approach.

I thought beforehand that this would be a tough crowd. In the past, I have come across prison staff who very much have a ‘lock them up, they only have themselves to blame’ attitude. They would probably find my research wanting because it largely ignores the ‘wrongs’ people have done. Instead of looking at why they might deserve prison, I pretty much only talk about the (mostly negative) impact of their sentence.

But not this was not the case. Everyone there recognised that  the barriers that prisoners face when they come out make it so hard for ex-prisoners to move on with their lives and felt the injustice of this. People in the audience gave several examples of  where quite a simple solution could stop people coming back to prison, but where these solutions are stupidly out of reach at the moment. For example, someone might have a job lined up, but unable to take it up because they don’t have housing in place. Other things have gotten harder recently, like the incredibly punitive sanctions for not turning up for Job Centre appointments (up to 3 years no Job Seeker’s Allowance) that make even a minimum of financial stability elusive.

Amongst Barlinnie staff, from the governor to the hall staff who attended today, there is a real enthusiasm to do the most they can to turn prisoners’ lives around. But where does the SPS role end? One solution to the housing crisis in Glasgow we discussed was for SPS to start building temporary housing for prisoners leaving prison. It was rightly pointed out, though, that SPS should not take responsibility for other parts of state provision that are failing. Instead, it all needs to come together in  a way that seems difficult to achieve. Could it be possible for the SPS to demand change from other government departments by pointing out that it cannot do its job of rehabilitating prisoners, and avoiding more crime, if housing is not available, employment is elusive and benefits not forthcoming?

We also discussed how the SPS is already filling the gaps in other areas of state provision, by housing the homeless (who often offend on purpose), dealing with the mentally ill and providing a ‘break’ for vulnerable people from the tough circumstances in their lives. People offend on purpose to have a roof over their head or to curb a drug habit and sheriffs still imprison people to get the help they cannot access outside. Again, other parts of the state have to step up, so that the SPS can focus on those who deserve a punishment of imprisonment, but within that should be given the best prospect of a positive future.

If anyone would like to contribute to the Development Programme, staff at Barlinnie are keen to hear from people and gain their insight – please email BarlinnieCommsTeam@sps.pnn.gov.uk

The reasons for silence

It’s been quiet around these parts for a long time now. The reason: these two creatures. Born in April, they should allow me to get back to normal around January 2016, when my sporadic musings should start appearing here again.

The start of analysis – evaluating childhood

Having done most of my interviews (I am still looking for a few women in the community), I have finally started my analysis! This means that I am now able to check some of my hunches during the interviewing stage. One of these was that many of the women I spoke to categorised their childhood as good or bad (but usually good), right at the start of the interview. Men seemed to do this less often.

Here are the results of my first proper look at the data: it is true that more of the women tended to label their childhood. Seven out of the thirteen for whom I have completed transcripts did, with many (5) defending their childhood as ‘good’ or ‘perfect’ right at the start of the interview. Two women did the opposite, starting the interview by saying that their upbringing had been ‘bad’ or ‘not very good’. Some examples:

Me: And what about even earlier, like, what’s your earliest memory?
Pffff….fuck…I’ve not really had that much ae a good upbringing, eh.

Me: So I don’t know if you’re happy talking about your childhood…
Me: If you just wanna start there…
Well, I had really a good…really good upbringing. Erm…ma mum and dad were together, brother, erm…ma mum and dad were hard-working.

Men occasionally did the same, but much less often. Three men defended their childhood as ‘good’, with only one man saying right away that he had had ‘a bad home. Twelve men (at the moment I have 16 completed transcripts) just described their childhood without evaluating it.  Again, some examples:

Me: Did you have brothers and sisters?
Er…had a…bad, bad home. 1 sister and 3 other brothers. 5 ae us. Erm…ma childhood was quite bad. I had erm…I used tae get battered fae ma step-dad quite a lot.

I always look back at ma childhood very fondly because I can genuinely say wi’ any period of ma life…fra adolescence tae…right up til today, ma childhood was only the genuine period in ma life where I can look back at…where I can genuinely say I was happy.

A more subtle difference between the men and the women was that women were more likely to use the formal word ‘upbringing’. None of the men used this word, instead talking of ‘home’ or ‘childhood’. Upbringing sounds like a word used by officials, social workers and the like. The way many women defined their ‘upbringing’ as good right at the start of the interview made them sound like they were defending themselves (or their upbringing) from an idea that they did not agree with – that it was problems with their childhood that had led them to where they were now. This would also make sense of why more women and men who defined their childhood did so in a positive way; those with difficult childhoods were more likely to just give a description:

[I had] two brothers. D and D. Then when my mum died, we were split between my dad and my gran and granddad. Because my dad ended up with a drink problem. So he wasn’t really…he was looking after us but not the way he should have been. And just between my gran and granddad, my dad… that’s it really. Till I was 16. I started the drugs. Started taking drugs. Just from there, just trouble, constant.

Um…well…ma mum didnae bring us up, eh. Um…she…well she brung me and ma big brother up till like I was aboot 3…um…and then I had tae go and stay wi’ ma gran and granddad ‘cos ma mum like…she like taken drugs and ma dad, so they wernae able tae cope, eh.

Difficult childhoods might fit the expected picture held by officialdom about the past lives of prisoners better – and those with a childhood that did not fit this picture felt the need to defend it. That women felt this need more strongly might be because they are more ‘unusual’ by being imprisoned – and are often portrayed as especially damaged. The question is what it means for a life narrative (of which childhood is inevitably an important part) to be constructed in response to the (negative) expectations of others. Those who said their childhood had been good often later described situations that were not ideal, but not necessarily traumatic either (a parents who spent all their time working to fulfill material rather than emotional needs; a mother leaving her children on the cusp of adulthood; being seen as a trouble-maker). Might they have been more negative about their childhood if they did not have to defend it from officialdom? Or been more able to acknowledge the complexity of a childhood neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’? And if so, what implications might this have had for the way they saw events later in their lives, including their sentences and offending?

Changed lives, continuity in sentencing

One thing that is striking about the lives of those I have interviewed is how their lives are full of turn-arounds and moments where their offending comes to mean something different, or even stops for years. A few examples:

A woman who was addicted to drugs, in prison multiple time, but then managed to come off drugs with the help of a Drug Treatment and Testing Order. She stopped offending for some time, but after a traumatic rape started drinking heavily to manage her mental health problems. This led to further offences (breach of the peace, shoplifting, assaulting police) and further imprisonment.

A man who often had confrontations with the police when drunk, resulting in fairly constant prison sentences. After his late twenties he started calming down, but also found himself homeless at a time when much of the homeless accommodation  in Glasgow had been shut down. Realising he was safer and more comfortable in prison than on the streets, he started to drink on purpose so that he’d have the courage he needed to seek confrontation with the police and return to prison. This strategy meant that he continued to be in and out of prison for a further ten years.

A man who had served several sentences and was addicted to drugs, but then met a woman and managed to ‘go straight’. Moving to a new area, they set up home together, had children, and he found a job that he was happy with and paid the bills. Several years went by before he accepted an offer of  free drugs, relapsed into a habit (as did his partner) and started dealing drugs to fund this. Their children were taken into care and later adopted when Social Work found out, and he returned to prison several times after.

Several women who stopped taking drugs and offending when they found themselves pregnant and managed to sustain a crime- and drug-free lifestyle for several years while their child was young. Having social work contact from birth (due to their drug taking), though, meant that when they relapsed their child was taken away from them (often to go and live with family members), with little of no hope of them being returned. To cope with their sense of failure and missing their child these women turned back to drugs and offending, serving further sentences (see also imprisonment as the aftermath).

Several men who started offending for the excitement and didn’t mind going to prison, as this was part of the life they chose. Somewhere along the line, they started using drugs and, even though the excitement of offending had worn off, now offended to fund their habit.

Despite these significant changes in their lives and different motivations/needs for offending, the criminal justice system did not recognise these changes. Instead, even after years of non-offending, these people were still being punished on their criminal record, in almost all cases receiving a prison sentence as soon as offending resumed. Interestingly, especially in the case of women, when they first started offending they had been given chance upon chance, breached probation order after breached probation order, in an attempt to keep them out of prison. If the criminal justice system was a bit more interested in what is going on in people’s lives, rather than just basing decisions on previous offending, it might become possible to have a second chance to avoid prison, and to access much-needed help (counselling for trauma, housing, help with addiction, help to regain custody over children) instead. This might well avoid a second phase of repeated imprisonment.

Imprisonment as the aftermath

I have now finished interviewing men and women in prison, but am still looking for a few more people in the community.

Most of the interviews have not been transcribed yet, let alone analysed, but I have lots of snippets of what people said in my head. Parts of their stories. The meaning of imprisonment often changes over people’s lifetimes. For many of the men (but by no means all), in their youth imprisonment was part of a lifestyle that involved taking risks, finding ways of getting high and sometimes the high life of dealing drugs and having lots of money. Some were nostalgic for those times, and trying to relive their younger days (by taking Valium, for example) could lead to further offending in the present. As one man said:

I just go wandering aboot when I’m wrecked, it’s something I used tae do when I was younger and it just comes back tae me. Soon as I take something it comes back tae me when I was younger and I just go intae that mode again. Cos when I was younger, I used tae go oot taking everything and anything, taking Tippex out of the big buildings, you know the big buildings, cos they’ve got big cupboards and they’ve got trays of Tippex and I used tae get the thinner ….So aye, we used tae…we still took money and other things when we were in all they big offices, but it was mainly for Tippex and I think I miss that…cos that was my young days, eh?

The nostalgia doesn’t extend to their prison sentences per se, but sentences in their youth were part and parcel of the lifestyle, and not experienced as very difficult. Some men admitted that they had wanted to go to prison, because it would give them standing with their friends. Whether imprisonment when young meant the same for women I can’t quite remember, and I don’t have the transcripts for their interviews yet, so can’t check. I don’t think so, though. For them, first prison sentences more often followed ‘getting habited up’ on drugs, so in that sense were already part of the aftermath of something bad happening.

Later in life imprisonment, for both men and women, imprisonment was often a consequence of a spiral of despair following a personal disaster. This could be the death (sometimes murder) of a family member. Often it was having a child (or children) put into care. Before the disaster, the men and women had often had a positive period in their lives. In the case of having children taken away, this was either because they had come off the drugs before the birth, or because they were trying to meet social workers’ expectations in order to keep their child. But then something happens (a return to drugs or dealing, or social workers just not being satisfied) and their child is taken away (or someone is killed, or has died). To numb the pain of this, they returned to drugs and re-entered the cycle of drugs and offending (or offending through the possession of drugs). This means that imprisonment is part of the aftermath of the disaster, rather than something destructive in its own right. As such, it doesn’t carry much meaning, other than a place to regroup. With children permanently adopted, it can be hard to muster the motivation to try again. To build up a life again.

So prison goes from collateral damage that comes with a lifestyle, to being part of the aftermath of personal disaster . In either case, it doesn’t have much meaning.

Imprisonment as a grand gesture

In past projects, I have come across the notion of imprisonment as a ‘job’. For example, a drug dealer I once interviewed told me that he would not be in prison again, because there were people he paid to take the fall if his drug dealing was detected. I have also heard several times how people made bargains with their co-offenders on who would go to prison if they were caught (usually the one with the shortest record, because they would get the least severe punishment). Several men have also told me that they have taken the blame for an offense committed by their partner, because they did not want to see their women go to prison and lose their children. This shows how criminal punishment is something that can both be negotiated and used as a resource.

In this research, with people for whom repeated imprisonment is a constant in their lives, I have heard several examples of a new (to me) way of using prison as currency.  Some interviewees have described how they have taken the blame, the fall, or the rap for people to whom they owed something (but not money). They might have done something to wrong that person, and to ‘make up’ for this wrong, volunteered  to go to prison on their behalf.

This is an interesting illustration of the different role criminal justice plays in the lives of the (often) imprisoned. If they are harmed in a criminal way, many would not go to the police, because this would constitute ‘grassing’. Such harm is often seen as par for the course because of the lives they lead, shrugged off with a ‘what goes around, comes around’ attitude. However, in this instance, they use the criminal justice system for their own devices. Many of us owe something to others, because we have done something wrong. We might have cheated on a partner, lost our rag with a friend, or broken something that cannot be replaced. All these debts cannot be settled with money. Therefore, we might be extra considerate towards the wronged person’s needs for a while, express our regret many times, in as forceful a way as possible, or try to make amends through grand gestures.

Going to prison is one such grand gesture, but not one that many of us would consider. For these men, prison has become sufficiently normal and non-aversive that opting to spend time there is a feasible way of clearing a (non-financial, non-criminal) debt. They may also have limited resources to carry out other grand gestures. Either way, imprisonment here gives them a chance to atone for a wrong they have committed, but not the wrong the criminal justice system thinks it is all about.



I’ve just started interviews in the prison, with men who have served many sentences. Yesterday, one of them said something that took me aback. He described leaving prison as ‘a holiday’ and said that this was a common way of describing release among short-term prisoners. Do they see their life in prison as their ‘real life’, just like others see their lives of  everyday responsibilities as ‘real’, and holidays as a temporary escape? If being outside is ‘a holiday’, then this automatically means it is temporary – seeing release in these terms almost precludes a move away from offending.

At the same time, this prisoner felt outside life was sometimes more difficult than life in prison. Having to cope with the demands of relationships, dealing with bills, having to buy food and cook, just the kind of things that make our lives normal, made his life outside stressful. Like the long-term prisoners I spoke to for my PhD, he described being in prison as respite (a holiday?) from all the stresses of ‘normal’ life. Seeing the outside world just as a place to ‘go mental’ before a return to prison (and normal life) avoids its more difficult aspects. Getting drunk, using drugs and partying  – the outside world as some sort of strange Ibiza for people who otherwise live in prison.

Lessons from prison staff

I went to the prison yesterday to speak to staff there about my research. Relying on staff, as I do, to explain my research to prisoners, I thought explaining it to them face to face  would be a good idea. And it was. Although it was awkward, sitting across from seven burly guys, all with their arms crossed, leaning back in their chairs, and more than a little skeptical about this being the best use of their time.

There is such a disconnect between the academic world and those who work in prisons. Much more so than between the academic world and social workers, or health staff. One explanation is that most prison staff have left education early, and are therefore weary of academic outsiders coming in. The overwhelming majority have not been to university, and there are very few officers on the wings who also write articles in academic journals or briefing papers for the wider world, as social workers sometimes do. There is a will, in Scotland, to change the way prison staff are trained, and to offer further education to those who are interested. But maybe it shouldn’t all be one way, with universities bestowing academic learning on staff.

I’m aware that experienced prison officers will have heard many more prisoners’ stories than I ever will. During my research on the experience of long-term imprisonment, staff told me from the start that prisoners would not want to consider the fairness of their sentence in the abstract. They knew that prisoners needed to put such questions out of mind in order to ‘get on’ with their sentence. It was a total surprise to me.

At yesterday’s meeting, despite their air of skepticism, the officers I talked to gave me ideas and pointed out possible difficulties I would not have thought of. So, while meeting me might not have meant much to them, meeting them was very helpful for me. Today I have heard that they have already recruited seven interested prisoners. The question for me now is, how do I tap into the wisdom and knowledge of the people who have the most contact with prisoners, without asking too much from them?