Claire Field is a PhD student in Philosophy at the University of St Andrews, where she is a member of both the Arché and CEPPA research centres. She is supported by a SGSAH Doctoral Studentship, and her internship with Theatre Nemo was made possible by additional funding from SGSAH. For more information about her work see her website: clairefieldphilosophy.wordpress.com/about. (“Mark” in this post is a fictional character pieced together from a number of testimonials and interviews)
A significant part of my PhD research in Philosophy involves developing and arguing for a distinctive account of blame based on the concept of reasonable expectations. I am interested in thinking about the conditions under which it is legitimate to blame people for wrongdoing. These are often very different from the conditions under which we do typically blame people. Real life blaming takes many forms. We blame friends, when they treat us badly, lovers when they betray us, children when they act selfishly. We blame individuals, governments, gods, nations. The criminal justice system might be thought of as a form of institutionalised blaming. In the summer of 2017 I had the opportunity to switch gears and spend some time with Theatre Nemo, a charity based in Glasgow who work first hand with the hard edges of our current system of institutional blaming, running creative workshops promoting good mental health in prisons and in the community. They shared my scepticism of the dormant philosophical concepts of blame implicit in the system, and have an innovative idea for how to change things – a Holistic Support Centre, for which they are currently putting together a Board of Directors to oversee the idea’s development.
To an outside observer, the criminal justice system seems focused on crime. Through the threat of prison, it attempts to deter specific acts of wrongdoing, and judges people worthy of punishment proportional to their blameworthiness. As I learned from people who work in and around the system, almost no one views what they do in this way. Instead, a cornucopia of organisations and charities collaborate in and outside of prisons to try to meet the needs of individuals that caused them to commit the crime. Those who I met emphasised how their work focuses on redressing underlying needs that makes crime a natural option. However, current reoffending rates make clear that something is not working. As it was described to me, Glasgow’s rotating prison population is a ‘carousel’ of roughly the same people facing roughly the same cocktail of problems. One thing I learned is that the problem is in large part a logistical one of accessing the right help at the right time.
Starting over after leaving prison and building a life that does not involve crime in most cases would require serious willpower and change in direction. The majority of the people they work with have been through the criminal justice system multiple times, and face multiple difficulties such as mental health problems, homelessness, drug dependency, and childhood trauma. To me, this already huge task seemed impossible once Isabel, the founder of Theatre Nemo, described to me the typical process that the people she works with go through when they leave prison.
Mark is a typical case. When he walks out of HMP Barlinnie he is at a loss. Almost half of people who leave prison do so without knowing where they will be sleeping that night. Going to prison typically exacerabates homelessness – if you had somewhere to live before you went in, there’s often no guarantee it will still be there when you get out (amaizingly, when people are taken in to custody there is no official process for notifying
that person’s landlord or employer). He is hungry. He has his discharge grant of £46 and nothing more. He briefly thinks about calling his father, but they’re not on good terms – they haven’t spoken since before he began his two year sentence, and pride won’t let him admit that he’s got nowhere to sleep. He worries that he’ll end up on the streets, or in one of the infamously squalid hostels like the Bellgrove Hotel. So, he walks to the local authority office and joins the queue, who are responsible for providing temporary accommodation to the homeless. It’s Friday, so the queue is longer than usual. Due to an administrative detail, most prisoners are released on Friday, often overwhelming the housing office. He’s dreading having to explain his story to the staff there; he doesn’t want to think about all the reasons he’s ended up in this situation – his drug addiction, the years on the streets, and the breakdown of relationships with his family. He certainly doesn’t want to try to justify his past decisions to the people who work for the council, people who have comfortable salaries, homes to go to, well-structured lives. Mark cannot imagine what that must be like – for as long as he can remember his life has been a cycle of institutions. Reflecting later, he says “I didn’t like what I had become, I was always somewhere under some banner”.
It’s not that reoffending isn’t on policymakers’ radar. In 2012 the Scottish Government allocated an additional £10 million to fund a mentoring scheme for ex-offenders, which has been having some positive effects. Nevertheless, the rate of recidivism remains fairly stable, and to those who have been through the system, this is not surprising. One inmate at HMP Barlinnie notes that, “in the last 3 months, out of the 20 prisoners I’ve seen leave, I’d say 17 have come back for the exact same thing they went in for originally. And why? Because they had nothing out there. They had nowhere to go”.
Mark’s transition from prison would be much smoother and more successful if he had a solid support network he could rely on, “the way you are treated and supported can make or break your resolve. If there was a structure out there are you, and you knew that there were people willing to work with you and help you out there, that would help, immensely”. There are many excellent people and organisations working hard to help people like Mark – 1308 organisations support ex-offenders in Glasgow alone – but people leaving prison don’t always know about them. Even when they do, the process of accessing the right support can be long, difficult, and often demoralising. Mark spends a lot of time and money travelling between appointments in different parts of Glasgow. Many of the organisations he visits are over-stretched; supporting someone like Mark, who faces multiple different difficulties, requires the successful co-ordination of various different organisations. From Mark’s perspective, these are all unknown, “anonymous” people who do not understand him but who nevertheless hold his fate in their hands. All it takes to derail the process is a missed email, “and that’s you, you’re left hanging on a thread”. Without clear direction or focus, Mark’s feelings of isolation increase. Loneliness is a playground for negative thoughts, and can be fatal. Mark has contemplated suicide more than once. Simply having something to do with his time would help.
Theatre Nemo’s Holistic Support Centre idea is intended to help with this problem. It is a simple idea: make the process of accessing these many different support services easier, both psychologically and physically. Bring the services together into one place as much as possible – a Holistic Centre – and create a supportive and welcoming environment in which confidence, positive outlooks, and new friendships can develop. For Mark, it was getting involved in Theatre Nemo’s creative workshops that made his thoughts of suicide feel like just “a bad memory”. Similar creative activities would form the focal point for the Join the Dots project, providing reasons for people to become involved with the project, and providing the beginnings of a support network. With this in place, these people are more likely to feel comfortable seeking other help that is offered from the various other services available within the project; accommodation services, the NHS, addiction support services, employment support, and financial services. Isabel stressed that time is running out. None of these insights are new, reports dating back decades say similar things; but no one seems to be listening.
Reflecting on the what I learned about blame and its institutions, I realised that the idea that the criminal justice system is a system for judging and apportioning blame for transgressions is an unhelpful one. A more appropriate way for institutions to think about what they do is as facilitating the necessary conditions of moral responsibility. People who lead very difficult lives can often not be expected to avoid crime – given the multiple adversities they face this is not a reasonable expectation. However, with the right support people can be helped to reach a point where it is reasonable to expect more. Many people I spoke to used the metaphor of bringing people to levels, or raising bars. It seemed that what most people working in the criminal justice system are trying to develop are strategies for creating conditions under which it is reasonable to expect people to comply with the law.
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