Blokes and prison, part one – what a 14 year-old critical analysis has taught me about criminal reconviction rates

Blokes and prison, part one – what a 14 year-old critical analysis has taught me about criminal reconviction rates

I’m currently working my way through a series of books on crime, violence and recidivism or reoffending that I’ve quaintly named the ’12 Dissertation Disciples’ as I’m very much trusting in them to give me some kind of clue as to how to write the damn thing, although I’m truly hoping one of them doesn’t betray me in a majorly cruciferous way (I know that refers to a family of vegetables but I’m feeling it, okay). Anywho, one of these books is a study from 1994 by Charles Lloyd,  George Mair and Mike Hough and it basically looks at UK reconviction rates whilst at the same time taking a long hard look at how we measure such data and to what end.

They made a number of very interesting observations that should hopefully serve in my dissertation project, which will involve an evaluation of the effectiveness of a rehabilitation programme designed to desist criminal behaviour. The italicisation there is important because it would be erroneous to evaluate such a project for its effectiveness in its ability to reduce crime on the basis of reconviction rates alone…

Reconviction rate data are fundamentally flawed and crucial at the very same time. They are majorly important as a general indication of national and regional performance of policing, the courts and HMP institutions – increases in reconviction rates demonstrates that something is going wrong somewhere without being able to accurately distinguish the nuance behind its failings. It falls down for a number of reasons when used to determine criminal trends: numero uno is the fact that reconviction does not equal reoffence and therefore doesn’t reflect who, what or why causes the latter to occur (or reoccur), plus there’s a whole hierarchy of levels between committing an offence and actually being reconvicted, for a start you need to get caught, for instance.

Another issue with reconviction rates is that depending on what data you’re looking at, the definition of reconviction can differ! In some it simply refers to police involvement whilst in others it could refer to arrest, incarceration, or presentation in court. And on top of that, the purposes for convicting an individual in the first place can be motivated for a number of reasons not limited to simply trying to correct and prevent further naughtiness, for example as a means to ensure public safety or as a statement to make an example of an individual.

The choices made in a courtroom aren’t just reflective of the individual, but also of a society in a particular time and place as well as the specific legal team handling a case and making those decisions. Ultimately, the people responsible for maintaining law and order are just that, people, trying to make their best judgement. Nowadays with the help of much criminological and psychological research, it is not just the severity of a crime that’s considered when sentencing someone, they also look at that person’s context personally and socially – factors that are crucial for deciding the appropriate sentence.

Major predictors of reconviction according to the analysis consistently proved to be age and criminal history. Most often, young men that have been in and out of prison for years are those most likely to be trapped in a recidivistic cycle – mostly for what you’d call low-risk, high-reward crimes such as burglary or car theft. From previously having studied developmental psychology, and aggression in social psychology, it is evident in both instances that, for one thing, young people have not developed a concrete sense of self or identity by the time they are 18 years old – contrary to popular belief. In-fact, and particularly for men, it can take much longer (up to around 30 years of age, on average) before people gain a solid sense of who they are.

This is important because the above statistic demonstrating that lads are becoming trapped in crime seems suspiciously related to the widely-known fact that teenagers notably take risks as a means to explore the bounds of right and wrong. Consequently, wrong place, wrong time mischief encountered and reprimanded by authority could have the potential to lay foundations for a pattern of thrill-seeking identity establishment, all the while attributing themselves to their behaviour. I’ll be exploring the mental health implications associated with exposure to crime from adolescence in future posts, so stay tuned for that one.

What do we currently do with young men stuck in these cycles? Increasingly, and especially for minor crime, they are likely to be cautioned on the basis of a first offence, or are fined, or are issued with an IPNU (Injuction to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance…doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like ASBO did, does it?) More serious or persistent offenders are usually presented with jail time or community service orders, although most recently suspended sentences are in vogue, which works a bit like parole (keep nose clean, keep out of nick deal).

However, Nothing Works™! This is a bit of a moth-eaten phrase used by experts of the criminal justice system of yore, referring to the fact that no type of sentence, whether considering an individual circumstances or not, appears to effectively reform behaviour en-masse because depending on the offence, on average around half will reoffend within 12 months of sentencing (CSO) or release (prison). At the same time, the UK is faced with other major HMP-related hurdles i.e. underfunded and overcrowded prisons – we have the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe, despite the fact that it’s rubbish at reforming behaviour apparently. So what’s the solution then?

As Simon Amsell said in his most recent stand-up comedy show, Numb, where he jovially imagined a utopian future, and reflected on the pointlessness of prisons:

Do you remember when we had prisons? When we separated people off into cages rather than giving them the love they needed that would have stopped all the crime?

Alas, love is the answer as soppy as it may seem, or perhaps more technically speaking – attending to and addressing criminogenic needs (the things that put people at greater risk of involvement in crime, such as unemployment or drug addiction). In theory the more of these that are addressed, the less likely a person will reoffend. I’ll be discussing this in greater detail in future blogs but the point is that there is a clear transition going on here thank goodness, from ‘what type of thug goes in what type of shut-up box’, to a clearer appreciation of the importance in understanding why it is that people commit crime in the first place and for what reason they return to it after being punished.

Reconviction rates mean nothing to the individual breaking the law for reasons known only to them, and they mean nothing to the victims associated with their crimes.

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Men and their Brains – what’s going wrong?

Men and their Brains – what’s going wrong?

This blog post was inspired by and dedicated to Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit, who touched so many lives with his music and his heart.

For Mental Health Awareness week I thought I’d explore my absolute favourite area of psychology – blokes! I think this is mostly because the male mind is arguably the most neglected and the most potentially dangerous, both to themselves and others. The statistics are frightening – suicide is the leading cause of death in men under 40 in the UK but are similarly high around the world, and almost three-quarters of all violent crime is committed by men. So what’s going on and what can be done about it?

As part of a research project I conducted at the beginning of the year I explored how traditional norms of masculinity affected help-seeking behaviour, or the propensity of men to approach others with regards to their health. I specifically looked at football fans, as in the UK the high levels of subscription to the sport  has created a complex soup of rituals and aspirations in this country that has driven parenting, socialisation and identity formation of men from infancy, particularly since the 1990s. Many fathers have used football as a crutch as a means to bond with their male offspring through action and play, rather than the nurturing heart-to-heart communication traditionally associated with mums, becoming coaches as well as caregivers and instilling the importance of success, competition and skill. Even for those that have escaped this sport-infused approach to child-rearing there is no doubt that these values are intricately woven into our society and form the basis of expectations we have of what it is to be a man.

A sportsman, a businessman, a politician, a lawyer, a doctor – all stereotypical careers associated with male competence. Although moves towards equality of the sexes improve all the time, the pressure for the overruling physical and psychological strength of men very much remains, but we still do not question enough why we do this at all. For a lot of men there is an overwhelming sense of falling short, whether that be on the basis of academic or educational aptitude, athletic prowess, or even physical stature from height to hair to cock size – there are just as many high standards that men hold themselves to as women but are often not challenged because the other major issue here is the apparent trade-off between demonstrating strength and communicating vulnerability.

Men aren’t talking enough: to their partners, to their mates, to themselves, about who they are and what their place in the world is, as well as their insecurities and failings. The study I had conducted featured retrospective research on male suicide that found the overwhelming motivation driving the featured group of individuals to take their own lives, aside from poor relationships with their fathers, was a conviction that they had committed an unforgivable or intolerable wrong, or series of wrongs. A sense of failure that they absolutely could not reconcile with but could not discuss with anyone as that would only serve to reinforce their failure in their inability to effectively deal with their problems on their own.

This on its own is arguably a primary causal factor of depression in general – failure to meet a goal, to overcome a challenge, disappointment of things not going to plan. Research shows that sadness in itself is an adaptive function of mental health (when not experienced to extremes) that serves to motivate an individual to improve their mood after having experienced something unpleasant. This manifests through an attentional widening effect (people are more aware of their surroundings), have a greater capacity for memory recall, but also are prone to taking greater risks due to the sensation of having less to lose than an individual experiencing other negative emotions such as anxiety.

The violence that is so prevalent in the male population can be attributed to a number of explanations that likely interact to a varying extent and on a case-by-case basis. From the predispositions of genetic expression to the greater acceptance of playful aggression of boys throughout development, and also for reasons not yet fully understood, lads are generally more prone to delinquency in adolescence – although this is often limited to these years, for a small majority they never grow out of it. Fundamentally though, violence is fuelled by anger which is a psychologically-reinforced mood state featuring high risk taking, poor decision-making and a sense of high personal control over their present and future. The more often a person has acted aggressively to get what they want, the more easily this mood state is primed in memory making its recurrence much more likely than if a person rarely lost their temper.

A recent study has found both depression and aggression to be one in the same negative emotional state but with differing levels of motivation, and motivation is primarily determined by an individual’s self-esteem and self-efficacy which is an individual’s confidence in their ability to carry out their day-to-day responsibilities in life. And this here is the bottom line. Both men and women are equally affected by this issue but evidently women are to a much greater extent encouraged to express insecurity but also to support their insecure loved ones. Men on the other hand have been on the whole discouraged from pouring their hearts out when their inadequacy comes to the fore.

It may be important then to look at the way self-esteem is built and mended by our female role-models and caregivers, and apply that not just to those born and raised as masculine individuals but more specifically on a idiosyncratic level that applies coping techniques to relevant contexts. Everyone learns in a different way, everyone has their own preferences in communication, and what makes them feel reassured. In the long-term it’s essential that educational and care-giving authorities assisting in the warding of our children teach the importance of  a secure and stable identity, and the protective factors associated with self-esteem. This however won’t help men now who have not been long exposed to the level of understanding that is emerging today – so what can be done for them?

The main and perhaps most-reinforced initiative addressing male mental health is about talking more, and particularly reaching out when things in life are getting on top of them. As much as this is an important and valid part of improving a man’s mental well-being it’s also important to consider that this may be much easier said than done especially when ‘boys don’t cry’ and ‘stop being a girl/gay’ have reigned supreme as scolding slogans preventing guys from doing just that. Therefore, more than anything it’s essential that men get to know themselves – what they like, what they don’t like, what they’re scared of, what their dreams are.

From then, with a greater understanding, it’s easier to approach their mental well-being in a way that suits them and it does not necessarily mean confronting a friend about what is getting them down. It could involve consulting an online forum, or contacting an anonymous helpline, or even leafing through self-help texts. It’s essential that people feel comfortable at every stage of addressing their mental health as the whole point is to create a sense of comfort and reassurance which cannot be achieved when feeling forced or excessively anxious.

There was a psychologist dude called Lev Vygotsky who was primarily interested in child development, but his theory of learning has been enormously influential in the construction of educational curricula around the world. More specifically he suggested that people learn at whatever age via ‘scaffolding’ or essentially continuously building upon previous learning based on a foundation lain by those we consider to be experts, usually parents, teachers etc. Therefore, we can use scaffolding model in our approach to addressing mental health by starting from where we are right now, having an idea of where we want to be and then, through a series of experimenting with what works for us and in our time, create a sturdy structure of coping strategies that are positive and conducive for growth.

The cardinal offering of advice I would give to anyone, and specifically blokes, who are going through some stuff and don’t know where to begin, is to not give up and here I am talking to you directly. Because by doing that you’re not giving yourself the chance to try and work things out, and there are always always always new and interesting things to have a go at that you’ve not yet considered. When all seems hopeless, it is of primary importance that you do, in that moment, what you need most in the world, that is within your immediate control. And that could be a bubble bath. It could be a wank, frankly. Physical comfort is a huge contributor to boosting your own mood so by doing what you need to do to make yourself feel cozy goes a long way. After that I recommend that you get everything out of your brain that’s making it want to explode: scribble it out on paper, scream it out loud, bang it out on drums. Give yourself permission to voice that which is driving you up the wall.

And then it’s key that you figure out for yourself what you can do in the next 24 hours, week, month, 3 months, 6 months, year, to better love and care for yourself (and that’s absolutely what you need, in the way a good father loves his child) and to work towards a better place, whilst making a mental or physical note of your social support network which you can use to orchestrate and facilitate these little but oh so important goals for yourself.

Please remember that your social support people do care about you, and want to be there, so take advantage of their kindness because it’s free and it’s there. Even those without a friend to their name will find a kindred spirit online somewhere via sites such as Reddit – the male comradery particularly on that website is just plain stinkin’ cute.

This advice may not be helpful to all men and of course addressing traditional masculinity and its effects on mental health neglects the nuances of gender and sexuality that have previously been overlooked both in research and in public discourse. Unfortunately, I am by no means an authoritative voice on gender non-binary individuals, or those otherwise considered not ‘normative’ by societal standards’ although it’s encouraging to see ever-increasing awareness and understanding of issues that concern this population.

Below I have featured a number of resources that have been helpful to myself and even though I’m a lady-person I can confidently say that they are equally applicable to all and hopefully will offer some benefit. In closing, I believe that no-one should be silent on the importance of male mental health and  we should all take an active interest in the mental well-being of our male partners, relatives, friends, colleagues etc., for they are not alone and we are there should they need us, and that it’s okay to fuck up horrendously, they are always worthy of forgiveness and love.

  • The Blurt Foundation! https://www.blurtitout.org/
    • “Blurt exists to make a difference to anyone affected by depression. Being diagnosed can be overwhelming – there’s a lot to learn and plenty of prejudice to battle. Telling people is tough, and not everyone will understand. That’s why we’re here for you, whenever you need us, for anything at all.We’ll help you understand depression and what it means for you. We’ll support you, listen to you and introduce you to people who’ve been where you are. We’ll help you break down barriers and broach the subject with those closest to you. We’ll help you help yourself, with a little knowing nod.”
  • Matt Haig books:
    • Reasons to Stay Alive
    • Humans
    • How to Stop Time
  • The Mighty:  https://themighty.com/
    • “The Mighty is a digital health community created to empower and connect people facing health challenges and disabilities.”
  • Mind: https://www.mind.org.uk/
    • “We provide advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. We campaign to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding. We won’t give up until everyone experiencing a mental health problem gets support and respect.”
  • Mental Health Helplines: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mental-health-helplines/
    • “Whether you’re concerned about yourself or a loved one, these helplines can offer expert advice.”

You’re not weird, you’ve got Asperger’s! Receiving a diagnosis at 24

You’re not weird, you’ve got Asperger’s! Receiving a diagnosis at 24

I’ve been wanting to write about this for a while but then it’s hard to put into words all the different components and angles that go into it. So I supposed the best thing is to work backwards.

About two weeks ago I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which is essentially high-functioning autism. You may or may not know that autism is a spectrum and even in the high end of Asperger’s there’s varying levels of functioning – but more on that later. The process of diagnosis involved an initial screening process using the AQ test (you can Google it, have a go yourself if you like), followed by a three hour interview with a clinical psychologist. Actually the interview bit ran on a lot longer than this because if you know me, you know I have a very complex history and have faced a bunch of adversity I won’t go into here but the long and short of it is that because my parents have always had their own stuff going on, my mental health and behavioural/social functioning had never been taken into account. So I was raised neurotypically (‘normal’).

Despite this, I’ve always felt weird and still do. Like I’m experiencing the world behind a piece of glass and everyone around me is living this life in a way entirely alien to me – presently I’m in Edinburgh studying my Master’s, and I can say with confidence that I only have one friend (a kindred spirit of sorts) out of over a hundred on my course. I see people around me hugging and huddling together, chatting away and making plans, and walking out of lectures to go for lunch, or go round to each other’s flats, and I’m sat surrounded by them, silently gawping, wondering how on earth they’re doing it.

Aside from feeling a million miles away from fellow humans, I get overwhelmed in the same way that Internet Exp- sorry Microsoft Edge gets when you open more than two tabs. I’ve always considered this to be perfectly normal but not so much: I strategise practically every element of my life – mornings, bedtimes, mealtimes, teeth brushing patterns, walking patterns, reading patterns, listening to music patterns, leaving the house patterns, to name a few. I like to have an idea of precisely how things are going to play out no matter how incremental. Naturally that means I’m processing quite a lot of information consciously and not only is this pretty draining, if you add a social interaction into the mix, or multiple tasks that need managing at once, I’m going to start leaking…and I literally do if we’re talking about sweat. What I’ve considered for years to be an anxiety disorder, has in-fact been anxiety symptomatic of the fact that everything everywhere is happening all the time and I’m absorbing every molecule of it.

As a result of that, studying gets kind of bothersome and time-consuming because I have to focus on every word, speed reading really isn’t an option. And with 5 exams, a 5000 word report, a 2000 word essay, and an 8000 word dissertation looming, you can appreciate that I feel le fucked most of the time. Having some understanding as to why I get so bogged down in my own brain definitely makes it easier to take a step back and have a “hey, you’re doing an autism, go cuddle your teddy bear for a bit” moment…I’d say this is in lieu of my husband being absent but I’ve had TD since I was 7 years old and he’s been the most consistent source of support I’ve ever had so ya know, sorry not sorry. In-fact I’ve read that cuddling and interacting with soft, squishy materials is generally very comforting for autistic folk so maybe he’s been an effective coping strategy this whole time!

There’s other bits and bobs about Asperger’s that ticks a lot of boxes in how I operate but you can find out more about that with a cheeky google, if I went through it all you’d be here…well for at least 3 hours and you’re not being paid to sit through this unlike the lovely clinical psychologist I saw. What I will say though is that for someone with Asperger’s there’s stuff I can do very well. For instance, I can present myself as if with confidence socially, and I can maintain eye contact, and I can empathise or laugh on cue. That’s not to say my responses are false in any way, it’s more that I’m able to respond based on the fact that I can objectively understand how I should behave in certain situations – when someone is clearly upset I know it’s important to be kind and try to sympathise with them. This is perhaps why I’ve slipped through the net until now, I’ve been militantly raised to be polite and well-behaved, and so generally I can pull it off (as long as you don’t pay attention to how much I’m shaking or sweating).

It only really occurred to me to get it looked into from studying learning difficulties like Asperger’s as part of my psychology Master’s. As soon as I read up on it, it dawned on me like a sonic boom. And then I got the positive diagnosis.

So then what now? What now indeed! At 24 I’m already a grown-up (mostly) and have done most of my fundamental identity formation/social/learning approach training that comes with parenting and schooling, the secondary socialisation train went years ago. Being told that I’m wired a bit differently and that I can adjust my thinking and behaviour to better complement it is all well and good, but how the bloody hell do I do that?! It’s not like I can call up a local school and ask if a SEN teaching assistant will be my sensei, and I their grasshopper to teach me the ways of the Aspie. Kids that get diagnosed early on get prepped and ready through to adulthood in a way that plays to their strengths, it would appear that adults such as myself have to do a little bit of going backwards before really progressing onward.

The sunny side of this is that I may be granted adjustments for assessments and study support in the next few weeks with thanks to my university, and once I’m done with my Master’s I can seriously consider joining a local support group for adults with Asperger’s. And I’ll continue to search for some kind of guidebook for people in situations like the one I have found myself in, I’m but a wee, slightly-autistic lamb lost in a limbo between neurotypical normies and well-adjusted aspie masters.