Accumulating Meaning, Purpose, and Positivity ‘Drip-by-Drip’ in Prisons
A growing body of research argues that in order to enhance offenders’ chances of successfully re-joining society and desisting from offending, prison should be less punitive and more focussed on rehabilitation. Indeed, substantial evidence suggests that punitive prison environments may actually increase recidivism (see Gendreau, 2012; Raphael, 2009). Such studies emphasise the need for ‘purposeful activity’ in prisons, and schemes that enable offenders to positively contribute towards their own rehabilitation (Herbert & Garnier, 2008). A recent report from the Ministry of Justice has emphasised the importance of ‘meaningful prison work’ and ‘active citizenship’ (Secretary of State for Justice, 2010). Recently a growing body of research has begun to explore what might constitute ‘meaningful work’ in prisons. Such research generally encourages constructive prison settings where offenders can form strong social bonds and meaningful relationships (Edgar, Jacobson & Biggar, 2011; Stevens, 2012). Peer-support schemes appear to represent a source for such positivity (Dhaliwal &Harrower, 2009; Perrin & Blagden, 2013).
Researching the Impact of Peer-Support in Prisons
The research project summarised here investigated one peer-support scheme, the Samaritans Prison Listener scheme, which operates in prisons across the UK. The research was inspired by my personal experience of volunteering with Samaritans. I experienced such deep realisations and attitude changes through listening to people’s innermost thoughts and feelings. This prompted my curiosity about how such experiences might impact on prisoners.
Offending is often associated with decreased empathy, communication skills deficits, and difficulties both in establishing strong social ties, and in regulating emotions (Lohrlr, Farrington and Justice, 1998; Ward and Gannon, 2007). As such, it is plausible that participating in a scheme centred on principles of empathy and emotional wellbeing could have a magnified effect on offending populations. This assumption informed the main aim of the project: to explore the impact of ‘being’ a prison listener.
In 1991, the Prison Service, in collaboration with Samaritans, established the Listener scheme to help tackle suicide. Via the scheme, prisoners suffering distress, despair and suicidal feelings are able to call on Listeners and talk face-to-face about their feelings anonymously and without judgement. Prisoners wishing to become volunteer Listeners go through several weeks of training. Once fully trained, the Listeners may be called out several times a day to provide emotional support to those in need. As well as listening, members of the scheme also meet weekly to discuss issues relating to ‘caller care’ and the general running of the scheme (Foster and Magee, 2011).
The Listener scheme is currently the foremost peer support scheme in operation in UK prisons (Samaritans, 2012). However, research is limited; a significant gap in knowledge exists relating to how Listeners conceive their roles. Only one study has explicitly addressed what listening actually means to prisoners (Dhaliwal & Harrower, 2009). In that study, participants demonstrated elevated self-confidence, personal growth, greater empathy, and respect for prison staff as a result of Listener roles. Although being a Listener appears to elicit positive change within prisoners, there is a paucity of research specifically exploring what it is about listening that prompts change and what this change means to Listeners. The aim of the present research was to bridge this gap.
To this end, six male prisoners were interviewed. Transcripts were analysed using interpretive phenomenological analysis. Analysis revealed two super-ordinate themes (‘personal transformation’ and ‘countering negative prison emotions’) and several subordinate themes. Whilst it is only possible to provide a sample of the analysis here, the full paper (Perrin, C., & Blagden, N. (2014). Accumulating meaning, purpose and opportunities to change ‘drip by drip’: the impact of being a listener in prison. Psychology, Crime & Law, 20(9), 902-920.) can be requested at email@example.com.
Super-ordinate Themes/Subordinate Themes
- Personal Transformation
- Countering Negative Prison Emotions
- New Me: Developing a Positive Self-image
- Desire to Give Something Back
- Gaining Perspective
- Distraction / Channelling Energy
- Development of Meaning and Purpose
All participants appeared to experience their listening role as a method of evidencing and understanding change. Theorists propose that desistance requires personal maturity, new social bonds and a personal subjective narrative shifts which offenders build around these changes (Farrall et al, 2011). Research surrounding offenders’ experiences of desistance highlights how they tend to create and internalise a self-narrative which helps them understand the changes they experience and why offending no longer ‘fits’ into their life story (Vaughan, 2007). This self-narrative assists the development of a ‘new me’ but, crucially, needs to be combined with a key ‘turning point’ (Sampson & Laub, 2005). Listening appeared to constitute a turning point for participants:
If you’re out through life causing destruction and distress to people and yourself, you can quite quickly fill your bank up with negative ways of thinking and negative thoughts… It’s like having a big tub of dirty water, that’s negative. And then someone gives you a positive drip, and eventually, with more drips, the water gets less murky, overflows, and then it’s just nice and clean. That’s what happens basically. It’s learning to accept that positive (‘Steve’).
My whole concept now is to help rather than hinder, and that’s because of the scheme, and I’m not just saying that. That is genuine… I didn’t give a shit before I was a listener. I would argue with staff. I was a right so and so… Even my probation, he’d go “oh I feel so agitated when I talk to you”. And then in one of his reports, when I had joined the listeners, he said “Cliff is now approachable, he’s mellowed out, and we can talk”. I think it was because I’d learned respect (‘Cliff’).
Desire to Give Back
Along with the establishment of ‘new selves’ and positive self-images, participants also demonstrated a desire to ‘give something back’. In exploring crime desistance, Maruna (2001) posits that offenders who are ‘going straight’ construct a ‘redemption script’. This is typified by a desire to ‘give something back’ and an acceptance that although they cannot change the past, they can contribute positively in the future. These propositions have been linked with successful reintegration (Marsh, 2011). During every interview, participants gave descriptions of how they thought they had given something back. These thoughts provided them with deep satisfaction:
You could see someone was upset or whatever, and after you speak to them they’ve perked up a bit… they start relaxing a bit and they say “yeah, I’m ready to go back out to the prison”… and when you see it happen it makes you feel good because you’ve done something good and given something back. I’m not saying it makes up for the crime you’ve committed, but you are giving something back and you’re turning something into a positive. Even if it’s just for that hour or that day, you know you’ve tried (‘Andy’)
Development of Meaning and Purpose
Every participant expressed that their Listener role provided meaning and purpose in prison. In 2010, the Prison Reform Trust asserted that ‘prisons should not allow offenders to simply mark their time in a purposeless fashion. Rather, prisons should be seen as places where prisoners are engaged in challenging and meaningful work’ (Edgar, Jacobson & Biggar, 2011). The Listener role certainly appears to help prisoners establish meaning and build purposeful lives in prison. Self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) is useful in explaining why having meaning is so crucial for prisoners. The theory holds that humans naturally seek autonomy, connectedness and have an intrinsic desire to effect the environment around them, not just exist within it. When these needs are not met, individuals construct illegitimate substitute strategies. However, when these needs are met, individuals become motivated to reflect and realise change (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Through Listener roles, participants were able to generate meaning and purpose. The following extracts highlight how participants moulded themselves important roles and gained a feeling of being needed.
It’s meant the world to me and I’m not gonna lie. And I think that’s come across, and it has meant the world to me cos it’s helped me a great deal. But I’d hope that I’ve helped other people, so it’s worked dual. (Ben)
These people have spilled their heart out to you. And you’ve got that, in a little box, just there, never to be revealed. So he’s put his life (pause)… He’s took everything and he’s put it in this basket here (hand gestures a box and passes the box to the researcher). “Please look after it” (whispers). That’s what it’s like. Like, don’t let no one see it. You’ve gotta protect that. (Kyle)
Conclusions and Implications
Broadly, this research furthers existing understandings of how change can occur through peer support schemes. More specifically, this research has helped bridge the gap in knowledge surrounding the Listener scheme and the effects on the Listeners themselves. Through listening, prisoners benefit from purposeful activity during their time in prison, a chance to acquire new skills, earning respect from others, building positive self-concepts, and an opportunity to give something back. Each of these benefits has the potential to encourage desistance, be it via the ‘knifing off’ of unwanted pasts (Sampson and Laub, 2005), the reversal of negative thinking cycles (Maruna, 2004), the satisfaction of desires through prosocial means (Ward, 2002), or via other psychological mechanisms. Although the Listener role cannot claim responsibility for reduced offending, becoming a Listener in prison appears to encourage desistance by surfacing the ‘good’ in individuals and allowing them to positively ‘re-story’ their lives. These implications may hold true for other peer-support schemes, and the concept of prison peer-support in general.
Fundamentally, adopting a Listener role in prison seems to help equip prisoners with the tools required for a productive prison life and a potentially successful societal re-entry. It seems necessary to present the Listener scheme (and other peer-led programmes) as a resource HM Prison Service should encourage. Furthermore, there may be significant value in understanding the benefits of listening in terms of therapeutic applications. Although this research does not claim that Listener (and other peer-support) schemes produce and sustain desistance, they certainly represent one avenue to catalyse change.
Questions, comments, and paper requests are very welcome (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Christian Perrin is a PhD researcher at Nottingham Trent University. His research focuses on peer-support schemes in prisons, and how prisoners who uphold peer-support roles may contribute towards their own rehabilitation. As such, the research is very much connected to the desistance and prisoner well-being literature. Christian carried out a study exploring the Samaritans ‘Listener’ scheme in 2012 as part of an MSc in Forensic Psychology. Findings from this study highlighted how having a meaningful role in prison can enable prisoners to progress through their sentences more constructively. This research is now being expanded as part of a PhD.
This blog was drawn from Christian’s paper at the Irish Postgraduate Criminology Conference in which he won the inaugural IPRT Postgraduate Prize.