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Prisoners and Public Perception – Thoughts after Delivering Desistance?

A recurrent theme of Safe Ground’s Symposium last week was the impact public perceptions on crime and offenders can have on the desistance process.

In the keynote speech, Professor Shadd Maruna  highlighted factors critical to desistance, including the importance of a stable, supportive environment. He explained that rehabilitation is associated with feelings of self-efficacy and hope. There is a sense of being in control of one’s future, a self-conception of being ‘better’ than one’s offences or more than just an ‘offender’. Yet being released back into a community where perceptions of prisoners are overwhelmingly negative will most likely create an additional obstacle on the road to ‘going straight’.

Another key factor for desistance is stable employment. However, as Professor Maruna humorously pointed out, going to prison ‘is a bad career move’. A comment from one guest (who is an ex-prisoner himself) explained that the right not to be judged is conducive to a move towards desistance. Yet to gain employment, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 automatically means that a prisoner is constantly judged solely on their offence. We heard that rehabilitation should create a sense of being better than one’s offenses, so this is some food for thought.

Later on in the day, there was a panel discussion. This was chaired by Dr Tim Bateman, University of Bedfordshire, and the panellists were Richard Garside – Director for the Centre of Crime and Justice Studies, Professor Shadd Maruna – Queen’s University Belfast, Digby Griffith – NOMS Director of National Operations Services, Diane Curry OBE – CEO of Partners of Prisoners & Families Support Group (POPS), and Michael – serving prisoner and Safe Ground programme graduate.

A question was put to the panel asking what we can do to change public opinion of prisoners. Crime and justice are deeply emotive issues, said Professor Maruna. Richard Garside echoed this, saying that the more someone knows about the contents of the offence, the more human they are about it. Having a personal relationship with an individual who has previously committed a similar offence can be particularly effective in reducing stigma and building empathy.

We need humanly rational decisions around crime, as then one starts to realise we all have pasts and we all have reasons for making mistakes. This makes public attitude less harsh towards the prisoners as a rejected group when they consider the story behind the crime.

The media portrays prisoners in a very negative light, with predictable impact on public opinion on offenders. However Digby Griffith argued that this is not as clear-cut as it first appears, drawing on existing research suggesting there is something of a disconnect between what the media project and what the public believe. Results from the Ministry of Justice’s ‘You be the Judge’ website demonstrate that typically the public penalise crimes with a much lower sentence than an offender would actually receive in court. They do humanise the issue.

This discussion, and points made throughout the days events, highlight that having emotional attitudes towards prisoners is a good thing. They are more than just their offence.

Find below the audio of Professor Shadd Maruna’s presentation at the House of Lords. More sound clips from the day will follow soon.

Photographs of the day available here.

Ellie Budd

Marketing and Communications Officer (Volunteer)

Shadd Maruna Presentation on Desistance, House of Lords, 19.03.12

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