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Critical Evaluation of Three Journal Articles on the Effects of Imprisonment

| August 18, 2016

This review will seek to establish the extent of the pro-social attributes offenders possess, and how these can be of use to the rehabilitation process. Offenders’ strengths have received relatively little attention in the literature, but strengths-based approaches show promising signs for criminal desistance, and as such deserve investigation. The first article under consideration (Aresti, Eatough and Brooks-Gordon, 2010) investigates reformed ex-offenders experiences in the community following release from prison. The study particularly sought to map the underlying psychological change, which comes with lasting desistance from crime. The findings were that criminal desistance seemed to be facilitated by a change to a pro-social identity and the attainment of meaningful employment. The change in identity was typically a positive experience, although participants struggled against their label of ex-offender when establishing this new place in society for themselves. They typically explained their past offending behaviour using whatever seems most plausible to them, such as mental illness or drug abuse, and thus distanced themselves from the offending behaviour.

Participants were five male ex-offenders, who took part in semi-structured interviews. This method would also uncover specific subjective nuances conveyed by ex-prisoners about what caused them to fully embrace an identity shift. Although the sample size was very small, and extensive data obtained from five people can hardly be used to speculate on ubiquitous effects. Inclusion criteria were implemented to ensure that the participants had sufficiently similar experience of criminal justice and shared a motivational drive to reform. This strategy eliminates confounding variables but limits the applicability of findings to the group best described by the attributes of the participants.

Aresti et al. (2010) filled an essential gap in the literature by addressing the experiences of reformed ex-prisoners in particular. The selection of this group is a good choice as developing a timeline of their reformation could assist in identifying factors which are conducive to causing offenders to re-assess their lives and make a qualitative change in their attitude towards society. Although it does not have the empirical specificity than quantitative research can provide; effect sizes and objective causal antecedents cannot be established. But subjective interpretations of the ex-prisoners involved gives research into this field a more human voice, aiding empathy and understanding which may ultimately help in the effort to reform more offenders.

McMurran, Theodosi, Sweeney and Sellen (2008) examine the self-reported motivations and goals of currently incarcerated prisoners, a strategy which could prove useful as it can identify what offenders believe they need in order to reform at the crucial period during which their future offending behaviour is still in question. By identifying what prisoners want out of life, intervention strategies can be better informed to use this source of motivation to rehabilitate them.

The method used was again qualitative, which was appropriate for in-depth understanding of prisoners’ aspirations. The paper brings in a relatively fresh perspective focusing on offender strengths and propensities to reform. Risk and needs-based models of criminogenic factors have been criticised for concentrating too much on offenders’ deficits and negative influences in their lives rather than their strengths and positive goals. McMurran et al. (2008) suggest that prisoners actually want what professionals on rehabilitation believe they need. But perhaps their present circumstances (incarceration) are causing them to assess their lives in this way, and upon release they will change their tone, or they could equally be expressing what they believe the authorities want to hear. This is a bias which profoundly impairs the validity of the findings.

These papers advocate a strengths-based resettlement of prisoners following release rather than risk-oriented strategies. Subsequently, research must be reviewed on the effectiveness of strengths-based approaches to rehabilitate and address the concerns of ex-prisoners in the community. The obstacles facing practical implementation of such approaches including conflict with the prevalent risk-based policies must also be considered. Therefore the third paper in this review will be Burnett and Maruna (2006).

This paper makes some excellent points on the potential of strengths-based approaches to endow ex-offenders with a sense of purposeful responsibility, which can help to enact a cognitive restructuring towards a pro-social belief system (Toch, 2000). Prominent in Burnett and Maruna (2006) is the empirical evidence; in particular a case study of a project in HMP Springhill in which prisoners were employed at a Citizens’ Advice Bureau (Burnett and Maruna, 2004). There were marked benefits for offenders; evidence for this was acquired via interviews, observations and surveys gauging public opinion, employed as an imprecise measure of prejudice against prisoners.

The findings confirmed that the most important impact was on their social identity. As in Aresti et al. (2010) this was attributed in part to a reduction in both the fear of rejection and the dismay at lost opportunities owing to the offender label. This article also brings up an important effect that prisoners experience; the suppression of personal characteristics and social withdrawal while incarcerated. The re-emergence of individual personality and realisation of the self in a more pro-social light is stressed as perhaps the best indicator of sustained desistance from crime (Farrall and Maruna, 2004). Burnett and Maruna (2006) add to this that rehabilitation programs can best help prisoners by offering ‘helper’ roles in the community, and allow the input of prisoners in selecting volunteer jobs to maximise their feeling of responsibility and earning their place in society, as well as cultivating their new persona as caring and helpful.

Criticisms of Burnett and Maruna (2006) have to include that the empirical evidence comes largely form only a single case study, limiting applicability. Also only the lowest risk offenders were allowed to participate in the program, arguably higher risk offenders would not be affected in the same way. Indeed this whole approach may only be useful for prisoners who are most willing to reform (and hence are lower risk) since inherently prisoners have to agree to the work and associate meaningfully with it.

Ultimately, the recommendations for the criminal justice system based on these papers is that prisoners must be seen as resources capable of contributing to society, and opportunities must be presented for prisoners to develop a new pro-social identity and hone their individual skills. Stigma, labelling and the risk-assessment culture are huge obstacles to this, and the trust bestowed on prisoners participating in community programs must not be dissolved too eagerly as this threatens to fracture the new pro-social identity. In conclusion, although there are limitations of these articles including vague measurement tools and limited applicability, the identification of encouragement of offenders’ strengths could prove beneficial for some prisoners, but perhaps only those designated as low risk.



Aresti, A., Eatough, V. and Brooks-Gordon, B. (2010) Doing time after time: an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis of reformed ex-prisoners’ experiences of self-change, identity and career opportunities. Psychology, Crime & Law, 16(3), 169-190

Burnett, R. and Maruna, S. (2004) Prisoners as Citizens’ Advisers: The OxCAB–Springhill Partnership and Its Wider Implications. London: Esm´ee Fairbairn Foundation

Burnett, R. and Maruna, S. (2006) The kindness of prisoners Strengths-based resettlement in theory and in action. Criminology and Criminal Justice6(1), 83-106

Farrall, S. and Maruna, S. (2004) Desistance‐Focused Criminal Justice Policy Research: Introduction to a Special Issue on Desistance from Crime and Public Policy. The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice43(4), 358-367

McMurran, M., Theodosi, E., Sweeney, A. and Sellen, J. (2008) What do prisoners want? Current concerns of adult male prisoners. Psychology, Crime & Law14(3), 267-274

Toch, H. (2000) Altruistic Activity as Correctional Treatment. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 44(3), 270–278

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Category: Essay & Dissertation Samples, Psychology