By Dr Sarah Armstrong, Director of SCCJR and Senior Research Fellow, University of Glasgow

Lila Kazemian (John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York) presented a recent SCCJR@Glasgow working lunch, one of several talks on her recent book, Desisting in Prison.

In introducing herself Dr Kazemian noted her slightly unusual training in criminology which involved both developmental/life course approaches and desistance theory. She brought these frames to bear on her study of men’s experience of a long term prison sentence, which included, in addition to some survey work, qualitative interviews, adding yet another lens, that of prisons sociology, to the methodological mix. Indeed, the talk raised interesting questions about the possibility and implications of mixing different explanatory frames. The vocabularies of these different perspectives sometimes seem to evoke competing versions of reality.

The research under discussion took place in France where, Prof Kazemian observed, prisons research occupies an ambivalent position, connected to the precarious situation of criminology generally in that country. The complicated politics of the criminological discipline in France can be traced both to structural factors of French academia, but also uneasiness with the discipline’s perceived dependent and uncritical relation to state power.

A key theme of the talk was the provocative claim that prisons can serve desistance when reconceived as places of ‘care’ or nurturing rather than custody; moreover, she argued, and recognising the potential controversy of saying so, prisons can be places where good things happen. This, unintentionally, echoes precisely the vocabulary and stance of the Scottish Prison Service, for example in its 2016 ‘Values Proposition’ in which the Prison Service is argued to be a service of care more than custody, and more generally adopting desistance as a goal of imprisonment.

Dr Kazemian reviewed existing concepts of survival in prison studies which focus on notions of ‘adaptation’ and ‘coping’. She argued that while these are important and evidenced observations of prison experience, they also are excessively limited, thin and negative versions of existence in prison. She supplemented these with concepts of resilience, thriving and flourishing. An example from Buddhism  – of flowers blooming in mud, was deployed to analogise how people can flourish even in the most challenging circumstances, in this case the largely oppressive and degrading conditions of confinement.

Two stories of ex-prisoners served to exemplify different journeys towards or away from desistance. In one case a man with no family, a drug problem and no job nevertheless developed an optimistic outlook and commitment to never going back to prison. In the other case, a man who otherwise had many things going for him – in the language of life course criminology, variables strongly associated with non-offending lifestyle – nevertheless was bitter about his prison experience and not committed to a clear desistant lifestyle. In terms of desistance theory as well as developmental criminology, the two men fall into clear cases of success and failure, of being on a desirable and undesirable trajectory. Outside these frames, though, other meanings, and judgments, are possible.

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At the heart of the talk swirled questions about the very meaning of desistance itself – perhaps reflecting the ever expansive ways the term is put to work: personally adopting a non-offending life script; desisting from criminal behaviour as a result of the new sense of self; being reintegrated (or integrated in the first place) through conscientiously chosen individual behavioural changes and/or wider social and civic acceptance; benefitting from wider social and political structural change that supports seamless transition from criminal justice to ordinary civil existence. The concept stretches to cover personal characteristics and personal choices, individual attitudes and public opinion, social structural change, organisational activities and lifestyle modification. What holds all these ideas together, possibly, is the unifying idea that the person who is desisting (whatever that means) has done something wrong, which can be unproblematically defined as crime and which justifies detention or other state punishment.

This is an assumption that penal abolitionists, among others, explicitly resist. Prof Kazemian anticipated this in arguing against the abolitionist stance, characterising abolitionism narrowly, as standing apart and unengaged from prison realities and thereby refusing to assist in their reform, while quixotically hoping for broader social transformations. (A different sense of abolitionism, including the debate about abolition’s relationship to reform can be found in the recent ICOPA reading list.)The lively discussion that followed the presentation questioned whether in fact achieving the caring, nurturing qualities desistance in prison requires, might in fact mean desisting prison altogether. People questioned how easily the punitive and painful qualities of prison could be excised from penal experience. Do prisons present a problem of politics or a problem of dosage? The debate continues.