Beyond Redemption: celebrating the success of PRisoN Learning Together students

This guest blog comes from a guest lecturer who joined us for a session of the module to support learning facilitation.

The other day my eight year old son got in trouble at school. He’d had a scuffle in the school yard, and when a teacher had come to sort it out he called her stupid and dumb. He had to go to see the Head, and at pick up time, so did I. That is never good.

Happily, the school my son goes to takes a restorative approach to discipline, dialoguing about the feelings behind actions and their consequences, and asking those involved to agree about how the situation can be resolved. The Head told me that my son had, through talking, come to understand how his actions had made his teacher feel, and she praised him for the heart-felt apology he gave. Nevertheless, my son was certainly ashamed as we discussed it on the way home. His offence had been resolved, and was in the past, but the shame he felt lingered. It was an awkward evening in our house that night.

Earlier this year I had the privilege of joining the Leeds Beckett University and HMP Full Sutton Learning Together students for a session of their criminology course. The week’s topic was entitled ‘Redemption and rehabilitation: really?’ I’d done my pre-readings, from convict criminology, I’d learned that the criminal justice system often bureaucratically focuses on individual sites of fracture and brokenness, while at best ignoring, and more probably, exacerbating, the social tremors that underpin these fractures. From the reading I had learned that most people who commit offences want to rebuild their lives and move away from offending, but that punitive responses to crime can make that very difficult. Even when people do successfully rebuild crime free lives (as most people who have committed offences do) this is rarely officially recognised, much less celebrated. And other work reminded me about the research that shows prisons are uniquely unsuited to achieve the mission they are given – to keep the public safe by assisting people to live law abiding lives – because they are too often violent and excluding places. I was ready to dialogue with my fellow learners.

Following an interactive lecture, we gathered together in our small groups comprised of two students from Full Sutton, two from Leeds Beckett and a post-graduate facilitator. One of the questions we had been asked to consider was, if we were to design a ritual of redemption, what would this look like? The article we read drew on anthropological literature to explain the importance of rituals of redemption – public forums in which people who have done wrong, and are working hard to redeem themselves, can be officially recognised for their rehabilitation. Within the criminal justice system we are experts at crafting ceremonies of degradation – public forums in which the harm people have caused is recognised and the culpable individuals are shamed and excluded. We are less good at recognising and celebrating people’s success. The reading suggests that formal rituals of redemption should be public ceremonies, conducted with family, friends and high ranking public officials; a space to recognise re-entry and movements away from past mistakes. But when I discussed this with my group one student, currently incarcerated, challenged this theoretical wisdom. He wasn’t looking for any ‘ritual of redemption’ he said ‘I just want to work hard, do well, and be recognised for that’.

Sociologist Christian Smith writes that the human condition, the very essence of being a person, is bound up in an interrelational recognition of our fragilities as well as our strengths. We recognise ourselves in relationship to how we are recognised by others. There is value in harm and wrongdoing being recognised for what it is and responded to appropriately. This is at the heart of legitimate punishment. But the student’s comments made me wonder whether, when we define our recognition of good in relationship to a movement away from harm, rather than just for the good it is, do we somehow devalue that recognition, and weaken its redemptive power?

The morning after my son got in trouble I talked to him as we drove to school. He was excited to go to school, chatting enthusiastically about what Wednesdays hold. Today was drama. He loves drama. He told me very seriously that in drama they were absolutely banned from using ‘the m word’. Of course, I had to ask ‘What is the m word?’ In hushed tones he answered ‘Mistake … because we all make them, but if you make one you can’t stop the whole production, you have to work together to find a way to carry on.’ I felt a surge of love for the staff at my son’s school as I dropped him off. My son had behaved badly the day before. Had that bad behaviour been used to define his future he could have dreaded going to school, but because of how the staff had addressed his behaviour, he wasn’t. He was dying to get into school to try to do well, and he was looking forward to the opportunity to do so.

Perhaps in focussing on rehabilitation and redemption the criminal justice system risks getting caught up in a self-defeating spiral where the harms of the past still define the future. In contrast recognition lives in the present, it sees what is, and so makes possible what can be. Today, in HMP Full Sutton, I joined with others to celebrate the hard work of the Learning Together students. We acknowledged the students’ achievements, and let them all know that we expect great things from them in the future – the kind of things that happen when we recognise eachother and the important part we must each play to bring about positive social change in the world.

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