Tag Archives: Desistance

#Desistance belongs to us, not ‘professionals’!

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This post was first published on ex-offender.co.uk

If there’s one thing that really gets my goat about the Criminal Justice System as a whole, it’s the constant theft of goodness from those who provide them with their living. To listen to some of the ‘dedicated professionals’ sell their idea of what they ‘do’ for us criminals, you’d think a lot of them had been awarded sainthoods. Funny how the saintliest often looked very different close up. As any prisoner will confirm – and so do the courts – there are criminals on both sides of the door. Just because someone has keys or the social authority to incarcerate others, it does not automatically follow that their behaviour is anything a dedicated professional desister would choose to do.

Let’s get one thing clear. There exist truly dedicated and professional Criminal Justice professionals. I know because I have met them and, at some point in our contact, I was put under serious and unprofessional pressure by one or more of their colleagues and we dealt with the problem together. These were people with whom I forged rehabilitative alliances during my sentence and the mark of their professionalism was that they allowed me to teach them. I don’t believe I ever abused the privilege because it would have sabotaged years of dedicated work that began about 10 seconds after my wounding-with-intent offence. When my sentence was complete, I began my own professional desistance programme.

My desistance has everything and nothing to do with the CJS. It has nothing to do with it because my choice is my own – it is my choice as a free woman. I do it to a professional standard because my free choice has everything to do with the CJS. When I was banged up on the woman’s wing of HMP Durham at the height of the suicides, the Wing Governor told me my disciplinary standards were too high for the wing. Not, he hastened to add, that he disagreed with me. From what I could see, he did his best in one of the most corrupt places I have ever had the misfortune to dwell in. I arrived with the label ‘trouble-maker’ and retained it whilst resident there because the conditions were so bad. The way the women were treated was nothing short of criminal in some instances and it didn’t surprise me so many were dying. That the conditions that closed F Wing down continue to exist elsewhere in the Women’s Estate, even after Corston, says a very great deal about the ‘rehabilitation’ standards of the CJS as a whole.

Even though ‘you’ have been informed, we see no change in either your attitude or behaviour towards women prisoners. These are women who have already experienced systematic abuse; you’ve been told you’re abusing them; you’ve been told to stop. Nothing has changed, has it? It’s not so much a case of recidivism – you didn’t even try to ‘go straight’! The present CJS cannot deliver rehabilitation because it doesn’t know how. It’s a part of the problem and I’m sick of it’s evasions, avoidances and lack of responsibility.

When I see Probation, and its hatchlings, colonizing the word ‘Desistance’ it affects me in the same way as the sound of nails across a blackboard. There are individual Probation staff – usually working at the coal-face – who appreciate some of the points I make but, for the most part, “dedicated professional Probation Officers” cannot hear a word I say. They have appropriated the ‘good’ and dumped all their shadowy behaviour onto me. Calling me ‘vexatious’, after I complained about their attitude problem towards me. It’s why I sacked them when I was an offender.. No-one is as bad as I was painted on my first recall and it helps to have their bigotry in writing when I explain why I can’t work with Probation.

Looking through the ex-offender website blogs, what struck me was the level of contained anger in the posts. Here I add mine. The effect this anger has on me means that I become a ‘law-nazi’ – similar to a grammar-nazi. My anger is focused on those who break the rules. All those public officials who think its OK to lie – especially those employed within the CJS. That HMP Durham’s Suicide Prevention Officer always prefaced his information with “I do not believe in lying to prisoners” says a great deal about that officer’s professionalism and even more about his colleagues. The CJS can turn a mirror on its own behaviour before it can make any claim about its ability to rehabilitate anyone else. When it comes to desistance, the CJS is not playing in the premier league anymore.

Desistance belongs to those the CJS presently look down on – folk like me. It’s our way of proving you wrong about a whole lot of things. For me, desistance means that I can outdo each and any professional within the CJS because I know the whole system and your knowledge comes only in bits and pieces. Desistance is showing you – in word, deed and intention – just how little you know and how small-minded you have become. Desistance is me saying to ‘you’ that you can judge me when you’ve lived what I lived through; learned what I’ve learned; know what I know; and can do what I do. Desistance will be on MY terms; to MY agenda: with MY level of personal discipline; and if you want to learn, you can pay me to teach you. Desistance belongs to desisters. If you want to know about it, you talk to us and you treat us as equals with professional levels of respect. Anything less renders a CJS professional unfit for desistance work.

Desistance isn’t just a challenge for the criminal – desistance challenges society. Desisters choose not to break the law – how many of society can claim the same thing as they fiddle their expenses or lie on their tax return? Desistance is the ethical and moral challenge – from those you choose to call ‘unforgiven criminals’ – because our attitude, behaviour and outlook is demonstrably better than your own for the most part, especially given the challenges that beset us. Our failings are proof of humanity and there are only a few of you who manage to be as honest about yourselves as we are about us.

Ultimately, desistance is about forgiveness. There are all kinds of forgiveness and many different ways to forgive but it has to be earned. To make a bid for forgiveness, there first has to be a ‘sin’ to forgive – no sin, no forgiveness, and no learning discernment. In terms of desistance, it seems to me that parts of the CJS have yet to acknowledge that they have even sinned. At some point they’re going to have to acknowledge their behaviour… or change careers. Not my problem anymore – I left that kind of irresponsible behaviour behind me a long time ago. The CJS has some considerable catching up to do.

Personally, I think desistance could catch on. You know, a bit like the legend of the Danes who all wore Stars of David in solidarity with their Jews when the Nazis invaded Denmark. Anyone can be a desister from crime, especially today. We could all desist from disrespecting or devaluing other people for starters. Desisters are honest – we’re upfront about who we are and we’ve come up the hard way. If you find us angry and cynical, we’ve got good reason. We’re tired of dealing with thieves, liars and incompetents and, if I have anything to do with it, we’re about ready to show you the parts of us you have been refusing to see.

For all those who are tempted to perceive my previous sentence as threatening, on the bigotted grounds of my past criminality, I would ask this: what is it about applying the law equally and fairly to everyone that frightens you? Have you got something to hide?

The Adult Territory of Desistance

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(This first appeared as a Guest Blog on the No Offence Forum – 5th October 2012)

 

Desistance is a new concept to me having only stumbled across the idea in the last week or so but it speaks to and answers a great many arguments I have had with both society and the justice system. It’s the first authentic approach I’ve found that offers adult-to-adult contact between offender and community by confronting the failures of responsibility on both sides of the relationship. In doing so, desistance offers the potential for change, transformation and healing. An offender cannot transform themselves out of that label and into desistance without similar changes within society itself. By stepping into the adult responsibilities of fault, the desisting offender calls to the same within the community. These are therapeutic concepts I recognise and am very familiar with. In encountering desistance, I met an old friend.
Whilst society, in general, makes a big song-and-dance about adult responsibilities, this is not actually reflected in a lot of its behaviour. The best theoretical structure to ‘hang’ this on probably comes from Transactional Analysis. TA talks about the different approaches to interpersonal relationships from the perspective of Parent-Adult-Child. Responsibility issues are clarified and become accessible to both sides of the criminal justice relationship, creating attainable measures for both.
For example; the traditional relationship between system and offender can be seen to belong to the ‘Critical Parent to Adapted Child’ dynamic. This is the “You are bad and must do as I tell you or else” message of the system to the individual offender who is expected to comply by adapting themselves, not simply their behaviour, to these highly critical parentally-oriented demands. That it fails ought to come as no surprise to anyone because it reinforces irresponsibility on both sides. In adult-to-adult relationships, we have to recognise that neither is going to be perfect because perfection is unattainable to honest human beings. We are all imperfect. The only difference between me and most of my community and me is that I am fully qualified as imperfect. Presently, as a rehabilitating or desisting offender, if I am taking on the adult responsibilities for my own social redemption, I will inevitably confront those aspects of a critical-parent society that refuses to take responsibility for allowing me to do this. These are the obstructions faced by both the individual offender and the criminal justice system. The beauty of desistance, both as an idea and as practice, is that it enables discussion between the two. We are required to relate to each other in order to find the way through. That desisters clearly exist demonstrates this ‘intelligent framework’ has functioning ‘legs’ capable of producing the outcomes society claims it wants. At the same time, desistance challenges that same society to transform the attitudes that actively prevent such outcomes from occurring.
One of the problems within the criminal justice system are the judgmental and blaming qualities within its structural ‘DNA’. What is certain, from a psychotherapeutic perspective, is that nothing can change whilst judgement and blame remain in overall charge. Introducing an adult-to-adult interpersonal dynamic to this system does not mean responsibility issues relating to the offences themselves are ignored – far from it. These have to remain as central issues because they are the necessary seed from which desistance can grow. Without the offence, there can be no desistance and there can be no change in either offender or the offended society. What makes the transformational difference is that the offence is seen as an aspect of the human being who is also an offender, rather than the whole of their being. A therapeutic relationship looks for what else the offender is capable of. We know they can behave so badly that they attract legal punishment but what else is there about the individual that is healthy and could be supported to the point where this overshadows the offence. This is what Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard”.
By utilising ‘unconditional positive regard’, the onus is placed on the offender themselves to build upon what is being identified – to diminish the unwanted and antisocial aspects of their attitudes and behaviour in favour of healthier alternatives. The choice for change becomes the offender’s adult responsibility and those who decline to take up the offer can be confronted with the fact that their refusal then becomes society’s responsibility to manage. It’s not a case of wholesale abandonment of traditional ways but of introducing a choice. Desistance adds to what exists but does not replace it. Society needs to be able to deal effectively with irresponsible criminal behaviour but a healthy society recognises that this is not the only solution.  If an offender takes up the personal and social responsibilities inherent within the desistance challenge, society is confronted by the need to provide the necessary support to make it a realistic and achievable possibility. The responsibility becomes a shared project where each party teaches the other about the problems within the collective field by identifying the personal and social factors which result in offending behaviour coupled with a joint effort to resolve them.
For as long as society and the individuals who make up that society are caught up in parent/child attitudes, we are all contributing to the creation of offending behaviour. It is a vicious circle that helps no-one and does a great deal of social harm. Excluding offenders from determining what they need in order to be able to shoulder the responsibilities of becoming a functioning adult is highly controlling, unhealthily parental behaviour. It inevitably fails those who might be capable of desistance were they given the necessary support.  From my own perspective, this is as socially irresponsible as any offender’s crime because it actively contributes to recidivism. Equally, failure to address the issues that give rise to criminal behaviour is socially irresponsible and offenders can be forgiven for thinking our political and social leaders are hypocrites because they are required to shoulder the entire blame created by poor decisions over which they had no control. In psychotherapeutic terms, critical parenting is abusive and adding more social controls on to already abusive circumstances can only create more problems than it will ever solve.
When I entered personal therapy for the first time, almost thirty years ago, I began a journey that brought me face-to-face with all those aspects of self that had failed to ‘grow-up’ into adult responsibility. Anyone who has undergone such self-examination will tell you that this is the hardest road anyone can walk. It is excruciatingly painful to discover that reality falls well short of our beliefs about ourselves. If society wants its pound of flesh from those engaged in desistance, I really couldn’t recommend this route more highly. Nevertheless, the advantage to the individual for undertaking such a monumental task is a level of self-worth and self-determination like no other. In examining our self-beliefs, we often find that those aspects we thought valuable are worthless and vice-versa. An individual who has a realistic grasp of their own value and capabilities has a very great deal to offer, regardless of how they got to that point. In fact, I might suggest that those who have direct experience of the worst of themselves and the society they grew up in have far more to offer at the end of such a therapeutic journey than those who have not. We know where the problems are because we’ve lived them and we have a better idea of effective solutions because we’ve tried them.
To become a healthy-enough and functioning adult is probably the greatest challenge as well as the greatest achievement available to any individual, offender or otherwise. Without a framework that recognises this, we create the problems we face now as a society. What we can be certain of is that the old ways of thinking don’t work and everyone, community and offender alike, is paying a very heavy price for this failure. The question we all need to ask is whether we can afford to continue to treat each other this way?
I know what my answer is. Do you?