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What do the punished think of punishment?. Qualitative research on the experience of short prison and community-based sentences in Scotland DR SARAH ARMSTRONG (Glasgow University) & BETH WEAVER (Strathclyde University) Howard League ECAN Seminar, 7 June 2011

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What do the punished think of punishment?

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What do the punished think of punishment?

Qualitative research on the experience of short prison and community-based sentences in Scotland

DR SARAH ARMSTRONG (Glasgow University) & BETH WEAVER (Strathclyde University)

Howard League ECAN Seminar, 7 June 2011

*ESRC Grant RES-000-22-2881 supported this research.


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Timeliness of research on short prison sentences in Scotland

  • government targeting issue as part of larger reform programme

  • frequent (excessive?) use – up to three-quarters of all prison sentences

  • empirical documentation of their failure: 70+% re-convicted within two years


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Methodology and Sample

  • Open-ended interviews of 35 people in prison (22) or on a community sentence (13)

  • Men (26) and women (9), ranging in age from 19-55 years old

  • Crimes: mainly shoplifting/minor theft, assault (none on a stranger), breach of peace, drugs, technical violations of legal orders

  • Questioned about:

    --prior experience of short prison and community sentences

    --current experience: what's it like, what are you getting up to, how does it feel

    --purpose of punishment: of one's current sentence, of these kinds of sentences generally

    --comparative experiences: how does prison compare to community sentences

    --negative and positive impacts of penal experience


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Objectives of the research

  • Fill gap in knowledge: Gather information for most common but least studied sanctions in Scotland; build up a picture of this distinctive Scottish penal ‘culture’

  • How, not what: the experiences of doing sentences, their characteristic pains, not simply what is felt to be harder/easier (ranking exercise), but how it works (has an effect or impact), how it makes a difference, how it fits into one’s wider life experience


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Adding the 'user' perspective

70% those release from a short sentence are re-convicted within two years

  • 'Lost my college place, lost my house...'

  • 'getting you up, feeding you, getting you back to the cell... it’s just a routine that goes on and on.'

  • 'you're not allowed to do education, you can't do this, you can't do that...'

  • 'I’m goin out [of] here with basically nothing you know? I’m better off in here...it’s not really a punishment...in here, it holds no fear.'

  • I’ve got my own drug counsellors and that outside so...i'll just need to wait and go back out to them .. ..because its not going to happen in here


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The abiding feature of people serving a short prison sentence is the presence of a serious drug and/or alcohol problem


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  • Never asked about, but information about addiction volunteered by nearly all those interviewed.

  • Even where addiction wasn't mentioned, being drunk or high was mentioned in all prisoners' descriptions of offences.

  • A pattern emerged of a life entangled by addiction and criminal justice involvement.


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It is the cumulative effect of doing many short sentences, more than the experience of any single sentence, which carries the largely negative impacts of short-term imprisonment.


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For many, serving short sentences is a regular life activity

In and out 'for 16, no 17 [years], since I was 19; I'll be 36 in three weeks.'

35 year old man, theft, 180 days

Maybe 2 or 3 times a year I think, I done 3 sentences, 3 six month sentences and a 4 week remand, last year.

36 year old man, theft, 60 days

'Yeah, [I've done] 4 months, 6 months, 7 months, 8 months all that kind of [sentence]'

29 year old woman, 180 days, assault and breach


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A regular life activity of boredom, routinisation, infantilisation

it’s a long weekend [locked up at a] quarter to 5 on a Saturday then your back in your room and that’s you til the next morning again...then it's the same Sunday … see the boredom in the rooms it would absolutely knock ye off yer head. Just locked in a room. … You get outside for like half an hour everyday but it's frozen, yer just outside standing.

39 year old woman, 190 days, 'domestic'

Then, work, then you get your dinner, then work again in the afternoon ... cleanin ... Then ye get yer dinner then ye get locked up, then ye get oot again about half 6 and yer locked up at say, quarter past 8. And that’s you, til next day.

55 year old woman, 120 days, breach of order


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Meanwhile,

That’s the last 10 years I’ve been in and out of prison. That was the biggest I was nearly out of it, I was doin so well with my nice house, I was startin to take drivin lessons, I was startin to feel things, goin right for me, and the sentence I got I just felt pure, pure heartbroken y’know… I hit one aeyer officers and I get sent tae prison …He wis an off duty officer, that’s whit it wis. I was arguing wi my mate outside Morrisons and he was an off duty copper.

  • An adoption hearing came and went

  • A relationship with a girlfriend broke down

  • Sick grandparents were forced to look after a disabled child

  • A college place was lost

  • A training place was lost

  • A place in residential drug treatment was lost

  • Housing was lost

  • A partner moved away with the children

35 year old man, breach of the peace, 180 days


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Positive effects of short prison stays were limited and unpredictable


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Many saw short sentences as a valuable period of detox; for some this was the start of a deeper resolve to get clean.

  • 'I was addicted to heroin, been on methadone for fifteen years and today’s the first time I’ve came off it.... I knew that I had a good chance of coming off in here because I don’t get drugs in prison. I usually only use em outside. After thirteen years it’s been a long time comin you know….' - 35 year old man, 180 days, shoplifting

  • ‘I was a heroin user for thirteen years before I come in here and [hope] that doesn’t get back to them but this is the best thing that ever happened to me, honestly, I’ve come off it and thinking that I never will go back on it again.' - 37 year old man, 60 days, breach of the peace.

Estimated eight times in prison over 20 years

First time in prison


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People felt guilt, shame and remorse for their actions, but prison was experienced as pointless, vindictive and unable to connect to their sense of accountability.


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  • I’m nae entitled to walk oot to shops and jist help myself. I realise that I’ve got to be punished for daein it. … [but prison's] made me worse ... I dinnae like any form of authority, like I’m anti-authority now. 55 year old woman, breach of order, 120 days

  • There’s nae purpose, there’s nothing, nothing ever gets done for me in prison know what I mean, there’s no sort of, I come in here an comin off the drugs, an I get a detox and that’s yer help, a detox, that’s you. Yer back out and it's not as if yer getting any help. 36 year old man, theft, 60 days

  • The purpose is that, the purpose of having a short sentence is just to get you out of circulation. They don’t achieve nothing by it, ...you know you can’t put into a short sentence programme anything that... will help you outside 49 year old man, breach peace, 180 days

  • If you go to jail you done nothing, not a thing, for anybody. What can they say you paid back to society? Time? Does society need time fae me spent lying in a cell? 44 year old man, community service

  • Look at my previous convictions. If you're so sure these fucking paltry sentences are doing me any good, look at my previous convictions. If I had gotten just one big one at the start I probably wouldn’t be here. 35 year old man, breaking & entering, 180 days


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Given the choice almost all would have chosen a community sentence over a prison sentence. Community sentences were experienced as a more meaningful punishment than prison.


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'Paying back' was the phrase used to describe what punishment is meant to accomplish

[I]t was gardens I was doing [for community service]. It was great, it was a right good laugh and you felt a lot better doing something. Especially gardens cause you knew you were doing it for people who couldnae do it for themselves so you knew you were making a difference instead of being fucking stuck in a stupid wee 12 by 8 and doing nothing for naebody.

You’ve took from society the money it costs to keep you [in prison]. If you’re on community service, you can honestly turn round and say you have worked in an old folks home, or delivered a bed to young mum for her wean. Or you do work in the parks and when you go by you can say, I done that. It makes a difference to you when you can see you’ve done something whereas if you get 6 month you’ve done nothing. Vegetated and got bitter and tried to work out how not to get caught next time.

35 year old man, breaking & entering, 180 days

44 year old man, community service


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Concluding Thoughts

  • Short stays in prison are experienced as resulting in the same negative effects as addiction: loss of family, job, prospects...

  • ...But were not experienced in themselves as particularly difficult form of punishment.

  • Community sentences were experienced as more meaningful (and challenging) but sometimes also labelled a 'soft option' compared to prison.

  • Specifically Scottish penal culture? 'Your past is always in front of you'.


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