Informed Debate and Authority; Criminalised persons’ vilified through a ‘helping narrative’.

As a formerly imprisoned person, woman, in addition to being a former mentor to those leaving prison, and a student currently studying for an MA in Crime and Justice. I’m somewhat excited, and somewhat disturbed, that a fellow captive asserts the lives of imprisoned people have “demonstrably failed, failed in their lives in a big way” and their imprisonment indicates that they have “messed their lives up so badly” (Martin, 2020).

To begin, I’d like to turn to Tuck (2009) who’s work underpins and drives much of my thought around damage-centric discourse. In her address Tuck (2009)

“Calls on communities, researchers, and educators to reconsider the long-term impact of “damage-centered” research—research that intends to document peoples’ pain and brokenness to hold those in power accountable for their oppression. This kind of research operates with a flawed theory of change: it is often used to leverage reparations or resources for marginalized communities yet simultaneously reinforces and reinscribes a one-dimensional notion of these people as depleted, ruined, and hopeless”.

In the opening of If Criminals Can Change…Then so should society and our prisons, Martin (2020) asserts a motivation for the publication is for “promoting informed debate around the prison system” and “supporting the reintegration of ex-offenders into society”. I call to question the authenticity of these statements, in the knowledge of the impact that stigmatising and damaging discourse has on oppressed groups. I’d go further, and state that the dominant labels which people attach to criminalised people are a form of invisible violence. The World Health Organisation define violence as:

The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation”.

In this instance, the use of ‘power’ to label ‘a group or community’ that ‘has a high likelihood of resulting in deprivation’ can be defined as violent. The discriminatory practices deployed systemically and by society to those labelled ex-offender, is well documented within much literature surrounding prison, desistance and rehabilitation discourse. Tyler (2020) situates ‘stigma as the machinery of inequality’ and positions labelling and stigma within a socio-political lens, whereby the state are powerful owners of the deployment of stigma depictions, which result in the public being mere recipients of damaging and dominant discourse. As such, legitimising the oppression of those impacted. My own research with formerly imprisoned women who now work within the criminal justice sector, indicated that a strong sense of stigma resistance for self and others, was a characteristic of lived experience leadership. In short, we simply can not be and will not be passive recipients of stigmatising labels enforced on us by others, because they lead to our psychological harm and deprivation.

My interest in this discourse comes from theorising Trauma Tourism (see previously blogs), and the issues of purpose, power, intentionality and consequence of using the narratives and painful experiences of those in prison. The front cover of Martin’s (2020) publication indicates the content is “from thousands of one-to-one, heart felt conversations with people in prison”. As such, this sparked interest in the book as a case study. Importantly the only note within the publication regarding the content is that “the majority of stories, testimonials and quotations have been anonymised and identifying information has been removed”. Given that there is currently no way of verifying how these stories from prisoners were sought, links to the ethicality and morality of using them isn’t currently within scope. I have asked the author how the interviews were conducted and stories were obtained and I await an answer. The author indicates to want to “increase transparency” and I would hope that extends to information regarding consent and ethical frameworks guiding interviews and publications using prisoner ‘stories’.  

Although the content reading didn’t produce much thought around trauma tourism, it did ignite a consideration to what ‘informed debate’ looks like within the criminal justice arena. Firstly, and probably most obviously I’d take the position the ‘informed debate’ would, or at least should, resist the dominant and harmful labels that sustain oppression and inequality. However, it was evident within the first few pages that this wasn’t the case. I struggle to comprehend how a publication positioned as a resource to “support the reintegration of ex-offenders into society” can have any meaningful impact of criminalised people, if it contributes to violence against those same people.

Secondly, as Tuck (2009) argues, damage-centric work that aims to bring attention to peoples pain in attempts to influence change through authoritative redress, doesn’t work. In fact, it enables and again sustains the inequalities stigmatised people face. Damaging discourse within the publication is evident through-out the book where criminalised people are depicted as having ‘demonstrably failed’, ‘ex-offenders’, ‘untrustworthy’ and ‘incapable of living a crime-free life’. Further, it must be noted the Martin (2020) has indicated this book isn’t aimed at Criminology Graduates but more the general public who “already have numerous preconceptions and media propaganda to overcome”. In light of that, and as a Criminology Graduate, I would assert that this book plays well and truly into the hands of public dominant preconceptions and is a contribution to media propaganda.

Thirdly, the author states that the publication has been created with an absence of pre-conceived ideas. However, he states

“we must begin to differentiate between criminals; there are differences in crimes and differences in intentions. We can not justifiably group more that eighty thousand people in prison as all as bad as each other, all the same ‘lags’ or ‘cons”.  

From my interpretation of the above, the author is asserting a pre-conceived idea that we can justifiable group some, but not all, criminalised people as ‘lags’ or ‘cons’. Further to this, Martin (2020) asserts:

“It is possible to differentiate between violent and non-violent offenders”

Followed by and insinuation that people in prison convicted of non-violent crimes should be offered “protections” from people in prison convicted of violent offences. This is justified through suggesting that those convicted of non-violent crimes are “only in prison for a temporary period of time whilst they serve their sentence”. Lots could be said here but im going to keep this short, two keys points in the interest of informed debate:

  1. Unless you receive a whole life term of imprisonment, those convicted of non-violent AND violent crimes, are only in prison for a temporary period.
  2. This black and white thinking in the name of informed debate, ignored the issues of joint enterprise conviction, wrongful conviction and past violent convictions but not the index offence. (As well as many more issues).

Perhaps the most concerning from my perspective as a criminalised women and scholar, is the authors position of the female estate and experience whereby he asserts:

“The content of this book is very relevant to either gender in the U.K”

Despite being a male author and confirming his “experiences were gained in 5 men’s prisons”. I wonder, can we reliably and morally accept that a male authored book, with male participants, can be very relevant to the female prison and female experiences of imprisonment? Why was feminist criminology introduced, if the male experience was so very relevant to those experiences of women? This represents a very misogynist position which is based around a patriarchal system of punishment, which has and continues to invisiblise and speak for criminalised women. For a self-proclaimed “authority on the rehabilitation and resettlement of ex-offenders” I for one can confidently acclaim that the author does not and can not speak to women’s experiences of imprisonment and punishment. Women’s rights to voice and visibility have been fought for for too long, to accept this as appropriate and ‘informed debate’. In fact, credibility to informed debate, is flushed down the toilet when a male only publication claims to be ‘very relevant’ to women.

To end, a self-proclaimed “authority on the rehabilitation of ex-offenders” states:

“There are a number of mind-set milestones that a prisoner or ex-offender must go through to effect real change and to live law-abiding lives”.

He suggests that prisoners and ‘ex-offenders’ must

  • Have remorse
  • Understand the reason to their offending and know exactly where they went wrong
  • Admit responsibility
  • Rehabilitation: “I won’t do it again; I have learnt my lesson”
  • Reconciliation: “I want to make up for what I did wrong”

There is a lot to pick out of these points so I’ll stick to some important considerations. Firstly, all of these things are individualised. It suggests that if people can attain all of the above, they will have the capabilities to effect ‘real change’. This is ill informed and factually incorrect, as the desistance literature highlights. These are all micro-changes, and there is no identification of how macro and meso level changes are needed to sustain desistance. Indicative of pre-convinced, uneducated and ill-informed ideas on rehabilitation and resettlement.

Secondly, there is a wealth of research around learning disability and mental ill health, which impacts on one’s ability to show remorse, however this does not impact on one’s ability to no longer commit crime. To suggest otherwise, is harmful.

Finally, for now, admitting responsibility isn’t something that should be widely accepted as a component of the ability to lead law-abiding lives, for those who are wrongfully convicted and especially for those who have been convicted under joint enterprise. Despite the authors “guarantee” that “ex-offenders” will have a “more positive future” if they achieve the 5 R’s. There is no evidence base for this model being either effective or achievable.

One thought on “Informed Debate and Authority; Criminalised persons’ vilified through a ‘helping narrative’.

  1. Reblogged this on | truthaholics and commented:
    A very interesting and thought-provoking discussion about the lingering toxicity of intersectional discrimination AFTER an ex-offender has repaid his or her debt to society. Only through honest and open-minded reform lies the way forward, for both the individual and the state, through its penal institutions, which all too often label a person for life.
    “There are a number of mind-set milestones that a prisoner or ex-offender must go through to effect real change and to live law-abiding lives”.

    He suggests that prisoners and ‘ex-offenders’ must

    Have remorse
    Understand the reason to their offending and know exactly where they went wrong
    Admit responsibility
    Rehabilitation: “I won’t do it again; I have learnt my lesson”
    Reconciliation: “I want to make up for what I did wrong””


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