Exciting times

It’s been a while since I last posted. Not because nothing has happened, but because too many things have happened at once and not given me the time to step back and blog.

A few days ago, I submitted a manuscript based on my thesis to Palgrave, who will hopefully publish it as Being Imprisoned – Punishment, Adaptation and Desistance later this year. I love the prospect of having all my findings in once place. Journal articles have to be so short that when I write them, no real sense remains of the stories the men told about their sentence and their lives. In a book, more of their stories can be included. Even better, the reader can use the index to find all their parts and see how they interweave and sometimes contradict each other.

Tomorrow, I will be speaking at this event. I am excited and nervous. It’s my opportunity to speak to many people who have the power to influence prisoners’ journeys through their sentence and beyond. But many in the audience will know more about the obstacles people face and the sense that they make of their experiences than I do. When I was interviewing in the prison, staff there were not surprised to hear that many of my interviewees accepted their sentence to make their imprisonment easier. Indeed, they knew when this acceptance started (usually within the first six months) and how common it was (very). Hopefully, though, most of the audience will find at least some of my and Esther’s research findings interesting and Shadd Maruna is sure to be inspiring and entertaining, as always. The talks will be filmed, so if anyone is interested, check back here and I will post a link as soon as the video is on the internet.

A few weeks ago I went to Brussels, for a meeting of the European Society of Criminology’s Working Group on Prison Life and the Effects of Imprisonment. The presentations were illuminating and included discussions of food, masculinity and mental health in prison, the impact of the prison regime, how migration is managed through imprisonment and much more. Some of them (including mine) are available here.

After all this gallivanting around and sharing old findings, I am really looking forward to working on the Lives Sentenced project over the next few months. I will be attending induction in prison on Monday, so hopefully interviews with prisoners will soon follow.  Once they have happened, I will be sure to share my thoughts here.

First Interview

I had my first interview a week ago. It was good to speak to a real person and hear his story about his experience of being sentenced again and again. For this research, I am asking participants to bring something to the interview that symbolises their sentences for them. My interviewee last Tuesday chose an ABBA song, The Visitors, and had copied it out for me. I don’t want to show his handwriting, and am not sure I can just copy and paste song lyrics, but they are here.

Like in the song, he said the impact of his sentences and being on license, was that he felt a never-ending dread, and that life as he knew it could be taken away from him at any point.  One of his most telling comments related to the line where ‘the books the paintings and the furniture’ are described as ‘loved so dearly’. He said he also felt this way about his possessions, because, after several sentences, the people he had loved were no longer around. Now his ‘furniture’ was all there was left to care about.

If repeated sentences have this effect on life, sucking it empty of meaningful relationships and filling it with dread, it is hard to see how people can ‘turn their lives around’. This is hard enough with the support of loved ones, and motivation to do so. My interviewee, like some of the ex-long-term prisoners in my last project, said he might as well be back in prison, and therefore might as well re-offend.

In the news

Monday was an interesting first day back at work for me. Before the holidays, I had spoken to Lucy Adams, chief reporter at the Herald, and she had said an article describing my PhD research would be published over the holidays. So, even when I was at the back of beyond in Lochinver, I tried to check the Herald website every day, to no avail. Then on Monday (January 6th) I had an email from BBC Scotland, asking if I was willing to be interviewed about my research that afternoon. Figuring they must have read about it in the newspaper, I checked the web again, and there was the article I had been waiting for. On the internet it didn’t look like such a big deal, but seeing it in print, on page 4, with two pictures, made me see my findings in a new light – I’d never considered them ‘news’ before.

Being interviewed was also a bit nerve wracking, but less so than I expected. I did make a few mistakes, but no matter (although I have to admit I haven’t actually listened to myself, because my accent is SO much stronger than I think, which is worse when it comes from the radio than when listening to interview recordings, for some reason). The programme is available here, but only for another 3 days. My bit is around the 40 minute mark, and lasts all of two minutes (or maybe not even).

The whole process made me realise a few things about engaging with the media. First of all, even when you speak to a friendly and sympathetic reporter, it’s in the nature of newspapers to grab the most attention-seeking headline possible. I’m not sure that ‘Scots prisoners find life behind bars easier than being released’ is the most accurate way to describe my findings. Even though some of my interviewees expressed something like this, I could never claim that they speak for ‘Scots prisoners’ in general and even for them it was only one part of their (often contradictory) story. Second, it seems like there will always be a few inaccuracies. Even though I had corrected the draft article, which mentioned life sentenced prisoners, the article still described my participants as ‘ serving the longest ­possible sentences’. It also said that the research had been conducted by Glasgow University  academics, when it was really just me, as a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, but I quite like to think of myself as a group of learned people.

The most disappointing thing has been that, even though the article mentioned the Lives Sentenced project and asked potential participants to get in touch, only one person has done so. I am hoping that Positive Prison Positive Futures, a group of people who have been through the criminal justice system and are now helping others to turn their lives around, might help me to find more participants in the community.

Just in case, I thought I’d also appeal to the readers of this blog: if you, or anyone you know, has been punished over at least 15 years, and most recently has served a community or short prison sentences, please have a look at this: Information sheet community. It explains what the research is about, who I am looking for and what participation will mean. It also gives my contact details, so anyone interested – please get in touch! I am hoping to start interviews in February/March.




Voting and belonging

I am waiting to hear about access, so don’t have much to report on the ‘Lives Sentenced’ project just yet. The following is not really to do with my research, although it does follow on (somewhat) from my recent post on the new direction taken by the Scottish Prison Service. If (most of) the developments in criminal justice (a devolved issue) are an indication what might happen in an independent Scotland, then I hope we will find out.

I went to the Nation//Live exhibition at the Portrait Gallery. I have lived here since 1997, but the exhibition still made me think in a new way about Scotland, Scottishness and belonging.

First of all, it has made me realise that I have been a bit of a political snob. Even though I left the Netherlands as quickly as I could, just after leaving school, I still often note the ways in which I think things are ‘better’ there. The decriminalisation of drugs, the smaller gap between rich and poor, the proportional representation political system, the cycling. Since my son was born, especially, I have been looking at the Netherlands through rose-tinted glasses. When I visit I have willing childcare (also known as grandparents), the weather is a wee bit better and the playparks are pretty amazing. Obviously I manage to ignore the fact that maternity leave is only 3 months, that Geert Wilders had a scary amount of power during the last parliament and that criminal justice has been devolved to city councils, meaning that there is very little help, for example, for people leaving prison. Either way, I haven’t felt part of Britain or British, even though I have been here almost all my adult life, my son was born here and I have no plans to leave. I have behaved (and felt) like a critical commentator from the sidelines. The coalition government, which I couldn’t (but also wouldn’t have) voted for and Scotland didn’t, hasn’t helped.

The exhibition made me reflect on my position as an outsider in a future independent Scotland. And I think (hope) I won’t be on the outside looking in in the same way. I have been inclined to vote for independence. Partly because I have no loyalty to the UK, which I think makes it easier for me to take a chance. But also because Scotland would move closer to my fantasy of an ideal country, where voting for national governments is fair  and brave political decisions are made.

However, here is a quandary. At the moment, as an EU citizen, I can vote in Scottish elections, because they are classed as regional elections. After independence, though, they will become national elections. And will I be able to vote then? It is not clear. The SNP have not yet come out on this issue, but I am not aware of any country in Europe where EU immigrants can vote in national elections. So, if this is the model that Scotland follows, I will effectively be disenfranchising myself by voting ‘yes’. And thereby become more of an outsider than I am now.

There have been rumours, however, that there is political will to allow EU nationals (at least those who live here when the referendum happens) to continue to vote. Will this extent to immigrants from outside the EU? Probably not. But if it did, wouldn’t that be a strong message about what it is to be Scottish – that this is a new (as well as an old) country that includes all those within it? That would be the kind of brave political decision that would get me to leave the sidelines and enter the fray.

But the decision made by Alex Salmond to exclude prisoners from the referendum, when he could have included them (see here) shows that some people, at least, will remain disenfranchised afterwards, presumably only increasing feelings of disconnection and a lack of responsibility towards the state.


Three cheers for the Scottish Prison Service

Last year I started hearing about the new Chief Executive of the SPS, Colin McConnell, and how he wanted to revolutionalise prison sentences. Because I don’t get to go to many evening lectures (I have a son to pick up and put to bed) I never heard him speak, but I did read the notes of his Sacro lecture in November 2012. I also wasn’t there when the SPS revealed their new vision ‘Helping to Build a Safer Scotland – Unlocking Potential – Transforming Lives’  at their annual conference last Tuesday. However, reading about it here and here, I am so excited! It can’t happen often that the recommendations you make in your thesis are pretty much exactly mirrored by the only organisation that can put them into practice less than a year later.

I said in my thesis that the long-term prisoners I spoke to did not feel that they were reformed by their time in prison (with some exceptions). They felt that the prison relied too much on cognitive behavioural courses and did not tailor the support enough to the individual. They also felt they were let down when it came to their release – they needed greater help finding suitable accommodation, claiming benefits and, eventually, finding work.

The finding work part is not the responsibility of the SPS, but the situation there might also improve if the consultation on the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (which closed on Wednesday) goes in the right direction.  In relation to what happens during the sentence, though, the SPS’s plans for change are exactly what I would have recommended, had I been their chief advisor (if only!). They will use an asset-based approach that is focused on the individual, and work with partners to make the transition from prison to community easier.

This new direction the SPS is taking might explain why they were so gracious in accepting my findings, including the ones that weren’t so positive. As they were already thinking of changing direction, my criticism of the limited rehabilitation during the sentence will only have confirmed their own compass readings. I think we, in Scotland, are living in interesting times. Of course, reforms have been proposed before, and even now some politicians are already voicing concerns, but isn’t it strange (but excellent!) that the organisation charged with punishing people is the one leading the way towards positive change?

In any case, some positive developments are already happening. Last summer, Jim Kerr, the (then) governor of HMP Greenock told me that it was rolling out a one-to-one model in which each prisoner will have an allocated prison officer who accompanies them throughout their sentence. Rather than the prison intake process, assessments and support being carried out by different members of staff, all these tasks will be completed by the same officer, allowing this officer to be better aware of the prisoner’s circumstances and creating the time, space and consistency for more meaningful relationships to develop. This approach is complemented by the creation of two Throughcare Support Officers, who will work with prisoners to tackle reintegration issues during their time in prison and for up to twelve weeks after their release. In time, this throughcare support will hopefully also be undertaken by personal officers, so that the relationship developed during the prisoners’ time inside can facilitate their motivation to seek support and overcome problems upon release.

If the SPS manages to maintain momentum (rather than being held back by dissenting politicians) and to build on these promising beginnings, their bold vision for the future can make a real difference in many people’s lives.

If you have to, do you still want to?

When I was an undergraduate, there was one tutor who would talk to us about why  we wrote essays. Our obvious reply was that if we did not write them we would fail. He then asked us if we were interested in what we were writing about. Some of us were, and some of us were not. But the strange thing was that, even if you were interested before you had to write an essay, by the time you handed the essay in, you had usually started to dislike the topic. And were probably less likely to read anything more about it than before.

In my PhD research, I found similar reactions to having to do things among the men I spoke to in prison. Many said they wanted help with aspects of their behaviour, and they were motivated to tackle their problems (for example, dealing with anger). But they were not able to access cognitive behavioural courses because (or when) they wanted to, but only if they had been assessed as NEEDING them. Even then, the prison time table dictated when they could take part. Taking part was not absolutely compulsory, but if you refused to take a course that you were assessed as needing, you would not gain any of the incentives, like a lower security risk, more comfortable living conditions, a move to the open estate or parole. So really, for most there was little choice. What this meant, though, was that the participants in the courses were there because they had to be, not because they wanted to be. And this, said some of the men, meant that little progress could be made.

Both these counterproductive arrangements are examples of the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. When we do something because we enjoy it or are interested in it, this is intrinsic motivation. But when someone rewards us for doing it (or punishes us for not doing it), this is extrinsic motivation. And it turns out that if extrinsic motivation is imposed when we had intrinsic motivation to do something, we are less likely to have any intrinsic motivation left afterwards.

I am worried that even those men who want to attend cognitive behavioural courses, will actually lose their own motivation to engage and change their thinking or behaviour, because they are not there because of their motivation. Another worry is that, when these courses do have a positive effect, what will happen when the expected reward does not follow? For example, a few of the men said that they had attended the courses, but then had not been allowed to move to the open estate. Will they keep trying to apply what they had learned, or will they think the whole thing was based on false promises and give up?

Would it be possible to make more of intrinsic motivation within the prison? Universities are, so far, not managing this. Students are not allowed to only hand in coursework when they feel like it, on topics they like, because often there would be nothing to assess. Prisons have to run courses with enough participants, which means they are not always available and some people have to wait for the next programme. But it would be interesting to see what would happen if at least a few places on each course would be open to voluntary participants. Would there be any? Would this have an impact on the rest of the group? And what would happen if one course was run with only voluntary participants, who were not expecting rewards for attending?



Time in prison

A few posts ago, I mentioned that not many of the men I interviewed for my PhD told extended stories. I figured that this was partly because it is difficult to answer a very open question asked by a  stranger with extended answers.

Another problem, though, was the topic of the stories I asked them to tell. Despite the many TV series set in prison (Prison Break, Orange is the New Black, Porridge, etc) the experience of imprisonment does not seem to easily lend itself to a good yarn. Many of the men described the more dramatic events in their lives, like their arrest, with rich, almost cinematic, detail, even though this was not the focus of the interview. But they found it much harder to talk about their life in prison. In the words of some of the participants:

That hour in the visiting room it’s a long time, there’s a lot of uncomfortable pauses of silence because you’ve no got much to talk about cause like it’s like ground hog day in here, every day during the week is the same and every week-end is the same, see you’ve no really got much to talk about at a visit, know what I mean, you end up big uncomfortable pauses of silence.

There have not been any/ no, there have not been any special moments this sentence. Every day is just another day, humdrum.

Prison is a deprived environment for the creation of stories. When the routine is exactly the same every day, without variation or much incident, there is little to tell. This lack of narrateable material might well be another of the pains of imprisonment, and partly explain why some prisoners feel that they do not mature during their time in prison.

An article[1] I recently read gave me another way to think about this.There is a primary and a secondary experience of time. The primary experience is the experience of time while it is passing. This is the one that the men talked about when they said they could make time pass more quickly by being busy – having activities helped to ease boredom and sped things up. There is also a secondary experience of time, which is our time perception when we look back on certain periods of our lives. Monotony leads to a slow primary experience, but a quick secondary experience. In other words, monotonous time passes slowly when we live through it, but when we look back on it, it seems to have gone by in a flash, because there are no memories to hold onto – no stories to tell.

I wonder what could be done to enliven prison life? On the one hand, routine can be comfortable – none of us would like to be forced to change town or jobs every year, and neither, I assume, would prisoners like to be moved from prison to prison or work detail to work detail, just to break up the monotony. On the other, a greater variety of experiences might mean that people do not find life in prison interminable looking forward, and empty looking back.

[1] Van Zuuren en Doets (2013) Doing time: A qualitative study on time perception during detention. Netherlands Journal of Psychology, 68, 64-74.

Still here, still doing it

For my PhD I interviewed men at the start of a long-term sentence, men at the end of a long-term sentence (a few months before release) and men on license (supervision in the community). Looking at my interviews, I was struck by the similarities in two fragments: the phrase ‘I’m still here doing it’ echoes in both.

I’m still here,
that’s the main thing at the end of the day,
I’m still here,
I’m still daein’ it,
I’m still free
(Tim* – on license)

It’s still fair,
I’m here I’m doing it
(Peter* – at end of sentence)

Both fragments describe ‘hanging in there’, the endurance of difficult circumstances. You would expect (or at least, I expected) that life outside should be easier than being in prison. Other interviews, as well as these two, made me see that life after imprisonment can actually be harder in some ways than being inside. Most of the men I interviewed in prison felt okay about themselves. They worked, had created a routine for themselves and were hopeful about the future. The men on license, though, were often disappointed in themselves. Now that they were ‘free’, they compared themselves to other ‘free’ people, most of whom had never been to prison, and found themselves wanting. Their ‘straight’ friends had families, jobs and houses – they didn’t.  Most of them wanted to get jobs, but the last time they had worked had been in prison; having a criminal record meant that most employers rejected their application out of hand. For some, their reliance on ‘the dole’ created problems in their relationships. One man was asked by his partner to leave their shared house; because he could not find a job and they lived together, she was expected to support him – he would get more benefits if he lived alone. Many of the men I spoke to described isolating themselves because they wanted to avoid trouble. This often meant avoiding old friends, enemies and police officers who knew them and might have some scores to settle. Staying ‘in the house’ meant that license could be as lonely as, and more empty than imprisonment. There was also no light at the end of the tunnel,  in prison there is release to look forward to, but on license there is nothing that promises better times ahead.

This situation is unlikely to change unless the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 is reformed. I spoke to an employment lawyer on the train last week, and she has started asking employers why they are asking questions about previous offending on their application forms. Often, they have no idea. In many countries in Europe, your offending can only be disclosed if it is relevant to the job you are applying for. In France, social workers will even help you to fill the gaps in your CV created by imprisonment. There is also research evidence that after a certain number of years of non-offending, those who have offended are no more likely than the general population to (re)offend in the future. Why, then, do offences that have been punished with prison sentences of over 2.5 years need to be disclosed to all employers who ask (often for no real reason), for ever more?

*the names are pseudonyms

Stories, stories, stories

I am starting to think (again) about the ethics of interviewing. For my PhD I was doing narrative research. This means that I wanted people to speak freely about their experiences, without being too constrained by my specific interests, and to do so with stories. So, I started by saying to the long-term prisoners I interviewed:

‘I am interested in hearing your story about your sentence, so I can hear what you think is important about it.’

A few, very talkative, men did tell stories, sometimes even before I had started the interview or switched on the recorder. In these stories,  they themselves were often the hero, struggling against powerful forces. Most of the men I spoke to, though, struggled to answer with narratives. They instead gave very short answers, summed up the offences they had committed or struggled to settle on one topic.

Silverman (2001) has pointed out that open-ended questions do not only give the interviewees freedom to answer as they wish. They also put pressure on the interviewee to provide extended answers and to decide what is relevant, which can be difficult, especially when questions are very broad. Since my fieldwork, I have often wondered how I would answer a question like ‘tell me about your time in university’. I think I would need quite a lot more input to feel confident that I was giving the interviewer what they needed. For example, were they interested in my social life or in what I learned? Or did they want to know what I thought about the universities I went to?

For the interviews in this project, I will have a pre-interview meeting with each of my interviewees, to explain the questions underlying the research. I hope this will make it easier for people to respond to my questions. Before the beginning of the proper research, I will also ask participants to identify the periods that make up their life (e.g. primary school, secondary school, apprenticeship, first job etc.), along with major events (marriage, having kids) and their sentences. I hope that having it all written down will help them to talk through their life and their sentences.


An offender by any other name?

Originally, this research project was called Lives Sentenced: The Punishment Careers of Persistent Offenders. Now, as you can see from the title of this blog, only ‘Lives sentenced’ remains. I’m hoping to come up with a better tagline.

Persistent offenders was included in the title of the project and funding applications because ‘persistent offenders’ are a group of much concern to politicians, and others who want to reduce offending. This makes sense: the Scottish Government has recently estimated that reoffending costs £3 billion per year and that the 22% of offenders who have more than 10 convictions are a particular problem in this regard (Audit Scotland 2012). Lives Sentenced is very much aimed to find out the views of these people. The recruitment criteria are that someone has had to experience punishment over at least 15 years and that their most recent sentence should NOT be a long-term prison sentence. Most of those who meet these criteria will also have 10 convictions, or at least so I assume. Why not call them persistent offenders, then?

Part of the problem is in the term ‘offender’.  Authors who have been imprisoned have written that they find the term‘offenders’ offensive, because it categorises and dehumanises the people at the receiving end of the criminal justice process (Richards & Jones 2004). Also, by labelling people as ‘offenders’, we are in effect highlighting a (possible) facet of their identity that we should all hope, given the evidence on desistance, is not the overriding factor in how they see themselves. I think ‘persistent offender’ is worse, because if I recruited people as ‘persistent offenders’ would I not be pre-supposing that they will persist?

In any case, I’m not actually interested in people’s offending, but in the way they see their punishments. What is a useful alternative term, then? The persistently punished? Should the title of this blog be ‘Lives Sentenced: The Meaning of Persistent Punishment? Any suggestions are more than welcome!