Can Prisoners Change?

Post by Sarah Boylan, MSc Student at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford, summarising a discussion held with men at HMP Huntercombe.



Time to read

3 Minutes

After eight weeks of studying a module titled ‘Prisons’ that formed part of my Master’s degree in criminology, my professor asked me to contemplate this question, and write approximately 4000 words in response. I approached this task with a view to scrutinise concepts of change and to question whether the responsibility to invoke change should lie with prisoners themselves or with the state.

Fast-forward another eight weeks, and I found myself considering this same question again, this time with a group of men currently serving time in HM Prison Huntercombe. The University of Oxford and HMP Huntercombe had formed a reading group in which students met to discuss literary material, our experiences of school and prison, politics, philosophies of punishment and a host of other topics. During one of these discussions we came to the subject of essay writing, and posed the same question. The conversation was thought-provoking, emotional and insightful, and providing a short summary for this blog post was a challenge. However, I have attempted to capture the main themes that we reflected on.

Internal Motivation:

Unsurprisingly, the concept of rehabilitation was integral to our discussions in prison around ‘change’.  The men spoke of ‘taking responsibility’ and ‘internal motivation’ as the most important factors for invoking change in a person. They emphasised the need to improve how they handled failure and the processing of their emotions in healthy ways. Many group members said meditation, mindfulness and an understanding of stoicism had better equipped them personally to reflect on their experiences and feelings.

A fundamental way in which prison was considered to invoke change in people was through the amount of time spent in uninterrupted, oftentimes solitary, spaces contemplating life. During this time, the incarcerated students developed a new drive to change. Though the group said clearly that this was not an enjoyable experience, they saw it as an important one.

As one man put it, “rehabilitation comes from within”. For him, while a person could be given many opportunities, change only occurred when people were ready and emotionally equipped to do so. This was therefore agreed to be one of the main drivers for change in persons serving time in prison. Whilst this arguably echoes neo-liberal ideologies that equate rehabilitation with responsibilisation, there was also a profound recognition that structural disadvantage creates barriers to a person’s ability to change, which are discussed further below.

External Motivation:

Although the group concluded that internal motivation was important, they also recognized that many external factors can incentivise a person to change. In particular, they emphasised the significance of a strong support network from family and friends, a desire to be a better parent, employment opportunities and meaningful work prospects and a commitment to one’s moral philosophies or religious beliefs.

Our group believed that a lack of some or all of these things provided the main reason that blocked formerly incarcerated persons from change and desistance from committing crime, therefore these factors were seen as equally important for invoking change as personal motivation. Even when an individual wants to rehabilitate themselves, this was understood to be a very difficult task without the availability of strong social support networks.

The Barriers to Change:

Although the group spoke optimistically about their ability to change if they had the right attitudes and necessary social support, they also voiced the sobering recognition that for many incarcerated persons these mechanisms for change were not likely to be available to them. These obstacles or barriers that prevented prisoners from changing or growing personally were noted to be both internal factors created by the prison itself and external issues that were part of the wider administration of punishment in the present neo-liberal society.

Regarding the internal factors, the group described symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) that they or their peers had experienced as a consequence of incarceration. The near-constant anxiety that had been instilled in many of those who had served time in particularly dangerous prisons, the exhausting feeling of loss due to their separation from loved ones and the deficiency of all sense of purpose or meaningful work due to a lack of education or employment opportunities in prison, all contributed to a deterioration in incarcerated persons’ emotional and mental states during their time served. Prison, therefore, had unquestionably changed them.

The internal factors that invoked negative change in prisoners did not cease at the prison gates upon release from incarceration; the group recognised that there are also many external barriers to change that (ex)prisoners must face. They worried about the shame and stigma associated with a criminal record, the increasingly stringent conditions for parole and the continuous need to prove ‘low-risk’ status when being managed in the community. For foreign national prisoners especially, the external component of their barriers to change seemed overwhelming; with the threat of deportation looming, it was no wonder that both the desire and ability to lead “better” lives, at times, felt out of reach.

The conversation with men in Huntercombe made clear that, people can and do change in prison. While some of these developments were positive and welcome, others were more painful and problematic. Above all, the men made clear, his question may not be the right one to ask. Instead, we should be asking the imperative question of: how can we change the prison, as well as the wider justice system?