Desistance, Structures, Agency and Policy: Presenting Penal Cultures and Female Desistance at Sheffield University

Linnéa Österman

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On a grey and cold January evening in the not too distant past, I got on a late train to Sheffield for a desistance conference focussing on agency, structures and policy. After a nightmare midnight AirB&B check-in and not enough sleep (think along the lines of phone dying, no charge point, the host not knowing where I was, and an old-school attempt of using a phone box, ultimately confirming that they are truly tourist-photo dedications with no practical use!), I woke up on the morning of the conference kick-off day looking at the programme with a good amount of anticipation. I had been invited to present comparative themes from my recently published book Penal Cultures and Female Desistance, and this would be the first time I would be given a chance to discuss (as well as discreetly, or possibly not-so-discreetly, promote) my newly delivered book baby. Fortunately for all parties involved, I had not been spoiled with a boundless timeslot, so I had decided to focus specifically on the area of gender, employment and desistance. Before summarising my own contributions, some general reflections on the conference could be useful.

A core focus of the event was on structures, and the 2 days contained a number of fascinating talks, many that explored desistance in international or comparative perspectives; refreshingly starting to address the Anglophone bias in the field. This generated thought-provoking discussions around culture, agency and structures, ranging from diverse areas such as the role of consumer culture and recessions for Irish desisters, the different use of time and space along desistance journeys in Israel and England, and institutional influences on young Parisian probationers, to social capital resources among different ethnic group desisters in the UK, and opportunities to design more desistance-focussed assessment tools within CRCs. In all of this, the overarching question of whether desistance can be understood as a social movement was present within many of the presentations.

While these discussions were thought-provoking and inclusive, as one conference attendee sharply pointed out early on: The one structure that seemed to be shining with its absence from much of this was that of patriarchy. Reflective of the broader literature, many of the studies presented had all male samples. However, as noted by the chair Professor Farrall early on, this recent move towards focussing on larger forces in the desistance literature may bring about new opportunities to explore gendered systems across time and space. From a historical perspective, it has for example been found that the ‘marriage effect’ in male desistance did not seem to apply about a century back in time. Professor Farrall drew interesting links between this finding and women’s disenfranchisement and lack of power at the turn of the 19th Century. Do women in recent time periods have more power to exercise social control in the home environment, thereby make the ‘marriage effect’ in desistance more relevant?

A key question that was repeatedly posed within these discussions was ‘Which processes may structure desistance?’. Although the replies emphasised how little we still know about the answers to this question, the role of ethnicity, socio-economic status, age and maturity, time periods and different criminal justice systems were all suggested to be influential. On the question of gender, however, the chair suggested that ‘the jury is still out on this one’. Those who are familiar with the desistance literature will know some of the grounds for this; research has found that there are significant overlaps in dominant desistance themes for women and men, including the level of immersion in the criminal underworld (Uggen and Kruttschnitt, 1998), and wider factors relating to poverty, low education levels, drug addictions and problematic family backgrounds (Giordano et al, 2003; McIvor et al 2004). That said, we cannot disregard one of the most widely recognised differences in terms of gender and offending, namely, the extent of it. Women generally ‘grow out of crime’ earlier and have significantly lower re-involvement in offending than their male counterparts (Giordano et al, 2003; Rumgay, 2004; Graham and Bowling, 1995; McIvor et al, 2004).; a finding that is confirmed in both self-reported and official data (Uggen and Kruttschnitt, 1998). Women are thus not only less likely to offend, but when they have done so, they are also less likely to do so again.


Beyond these points on extent of involvement, the small number of studies that have specifically looked at gender also find some processes that seem to be gender-related, such as the role of relationships, stigma and social capital (McIvor et al, 2004; Cobbina, 2010; Leverentz, 2014; Estrada and Nilsson, 2012). An exploration of gender roles also quickly casts a critical eye on some of the major desistance claims to date. The classic generalisability problem of just ‘adding’ women to theories developed with (and by) men rings loud in this area, a key example of this being Sampson and Laub’s work (1993; 2003) on desisting men and the value of marriage for desistance, or the so called ‘love of a good woman’ thesis (Leverentz, 2006). With the developing literature on female desisters, we now know that these findings are in direct opposition to how desistance seems to work for women – something I have detected in my work and others before me – namely, that for many women intimate relationships are commonly part of the problem rather than the solution.


Moreover, the consequences of living with both the physical and mental scars of violence and abuse can have an impact on the ability to access desistance-related processes. An unexpected discovery on the conference programme showcased some interesting and emerging work in this area in the way of a PhD student from Stockholm University – Robin Gålnander – who is doing ethnographic work with female desisters. Robin is about mid-way through a fascinating study following ten women in Sweden through their desistance journey. Meeting them every 6 months, Robin aims to catch different phases of desistance, as these women try to put decades of offending, drug dealing and using, behind them. Giving support to what we know about women in the criminal justice system, all of the women in Robin’s study have histories of violent victimisation, perpetrated by men predominantly on the criminal scene. The preliminary findings suggest that these experiences hold them back from desistance paths in various ways, including the challenges of navigating psychiatric care (or lack of), living with PSTD and in isolation, with many spending time under protected identity. As well as it being fascinating to see interesting new work on female desistance coming out of regions outside of the Anglophone setting, on a more personal basis, it was also admittedly energising to attend a criminology conference – especially one on desistance – where someone could take a quick peek at my conference tag and pronounce my name perfectly (accent and all!) without a look of apprehension or confusion on their face. My observation here is a simple one – it is encouraging and positive to see greater international perspectives on this scene, and (though I am maybe somewhat bias here) in particular, ones exploring female experiences in the Nordic sphere.


For my own 30 minutes of room control, I focussed on the comparative role of, and access to, employment for women in Sweden and England. As many readers will know, the link between employment and a successful route out of crime has received considerable attention in criminology. However, gender-specific literature on the subject is minimal. The limited studies that exist are also inconclusive, with some research suggesting that job stability is not strongly related to female desistance (Giordano et al, 2002), and other work emphasising employment as a central role for women’s post-release identity (Opsal, 2012; Leverentz, 2014). We furthermore know that women in criminal justice are especially disadvantaged in terms of employment. Women’s employment situation has been found to be significantly worse compared to their male counterparts; women are less likely to have been in employment before prison, as well as having a job to go to following release (Prison Reform Trust, 2016). As I will not need to point out to readers within this network, women are also, more generally, disadvantaged in employment and wage contexts globally (and especially so in Anglophone areas, where recent shifts in the labour markets mean women are increasingly pushed into low-wage, non-unionised areas of employment). There are additional structural aspects that need to be given attention to fully understand gendered barriers in this area, such as the dominance of female labour in sectors (i.e. care work) where a criminal record is an especially marked barrier (while at the same time, being a relatively easily accessible sector for women with lower levels of education).


In the presentation, drawing out some key themes from the book, I touched on both symmetries and dissimilarities across the female experience in Sweden and England. My study found huge similarities in relation to how women viewed the basic value of employment; as a way to learn to live a ‘straight’ life, to build routines, and to ‘keep busy’. However, these factors on their own are not necessarily sufficient for lasting change. This is where the next identified value of employment comes in, namely, the importance of a ‘good job’. A ‘good job’ in this context is a job that, minimally, allows the woman – and those in her care – to stay above the poverty line. This is about meeting basic needs and having access to a liveable income, and it is at this point that the differences start to emerge between the English and Swedish samples in my data. More specifically, most of the desisting women in the English struggled to meet basic needs on their current incomes, despite being in part-time employment. These narratives in turn need to be situated in the totality of life circumstances, such as being in debt. As noted by one of my participants, ‘Amanda’; Employment gives you enough money to be able to survive, usually, but not at the minute, not in X, the wages are so crap. […] If youre in debt like I was, cos they didnt give me money for 3 months, then you cant survive.” The role of welfare sanctions is central here (which is why ‘Amanda’ did not receive any money for 3 months) – Many of the women in the English sample had experiences of sanctions, which often led to a direct destabilisation of their desistance process. We know, of course, that the consequences of welfare policies are gendered, with the last decade of austerity having disproportionality affected women in our society (Women’s budget group, 2016).


Contrasting this theme of ‘access to a liveable income’ to the Swedish data, this type of ‘survival narrative’ in terms of access to bare essentials is completely absent. This marks an important difference in the lived experience of female desistance across the samples. In contrast, a ‘good job’ for the Swedish participants goes beyond mere survival, and narratively links to a chance to start to re-build a new life, paying off debts, and have an economy to engage in activities. As noted by ‘Angel’: Well, I’ve got a great job now like, and I really want to treasure that […] I’ve got a fucking income now like, I can even pay my debts, it’s just like ‘wow’! You can do things that you’ve never [done before]”. Access to a livable income effectively contributes to the construction of a new non-offending identity for ‘Angel’. However, the value of a ‘good job’ goes beyond monetary factors and also link to what I refer to as ‘humanitarian values’ in the book, namely, the role of having colleagues, who, as pointed out by ‘Jasmin’ “wonder where you are when you fail to appear […] Yeah, just that feeling that people wonder where you are”; producing a lived sense of inclusion and self-worth. In this context, a ‘good job’ aids the process of becoming an integrated member of society. This experience is also supported by financial means, and access to wage subsidy schemes, which forms another major difference in experience between the two samples. While I do not have the space to write about these processes, and the role of active labour market policies, in detail here (hint: read the book – flyer and discount voucher attached!), a major overarching difference that emerges in the data is about how these experiences of a lived sense of inclusion and value that investment in quality employment opportunities and the chance to earn a liveable income produces, in turn provide a major motivating factor for lasting change in the Swedish women’s narratives. The data suggest that these subjective experiences offer a far more powerful tool for change than any of the threats of sanctions, or indeed experiences or further exclusion, that dominate the English women’s narratives.


As always with a good conference, I exit University of Sheffield’s halls with a mind filled with more thoughts and ideas than what it is realistically possible to process after a couple of days intense brain stimuli. The twenty pages of notes that awaits re-opening – after a weekend break from desistance – will hopefully allow me to make more sense of it all. Nevertheless, as I am sitting on a severely delayed and uncomfortably crammed train returning from the first conference in my life where I was able to talk about a book with my name on it – and doing so in the privileged position of a room filled with some of the field’s giants – I can positively say that I somehow manage to keep a beaming smile on my lips, whilst reluctantly switching off the automated Outlook reply and turn my attention to the column of dark blue emails that awaits me.

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