Inmates' Narratives and Discursive Discipline in Prison: Rewriting Personal Histories through Cognitive Behavioral Programs

By Littlejohns, Lydia; Ward, Tony | Journal of Theoretical & Philosophical Criminology, July 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Inmates' Narratives and Discursive Discipline in Prison: Rewriting Personal Histories through Cognitive Behavioral Programs


Littlejohns, Lydia, Ward, Tony, Journal of Theoretical & Philosophical Criminology


Commentary:

Narrative Identities is a powerful, scholarly, and insightful book that documents the dangers of applying rudimentary cognitive behavioral programs in prison in a mechanical manner. Drawing from a variety of sources, Schlosser beautifully illustrates how a correctional cognitive-behavioral rehabilitation programme can inadvertently obstruct the desistence process. While the focus of this book is on one particular cognitively-based programme, there are clear implications for prisoners throughout the world, with cognitively focused rehabilitation being the predominant treatment mode currently in use.

The book centers around Schlosser's interviews with a group of 30 inmates in correctional institutions throughout the state of Missouri. She asks what they thought had landed them in prison and what would help them stay out in the future. Keenly taking the opportunity of a non-judgmental ear, inmates freely tell the stories of abuse, drugs, violence, indifference, family killings and poverty. In her analysis, Schlosser discovers a core theme of unresolved tension in the stories of the inmates: their lives were blighted by tragedy and loss by factors beyond their control and yet each person held themselves responsible for their subsequent incarceration.

Schlosser traces the source of the internal struggle to the 'Pathway to Change' programme (and the wider correctional culture) that all individuals have to complete as a condition of their release. The programme attempts to rewrite inmates' lived realities into a one-size-fits-all explanation of their incarceration. In essence, their accounts of their lives are 'corrected' until they are consistent with an official meta-story. The meta-story states that the context within which crime occurs is always irrelevant and everything that is or has gone wrong in the inmates' lives is a direct result of their own bad choices. The Pathway to Change programme imparts the meta-story through a series of disjointed "lessons" that appear to be unrelated to the concrete details of the participants lives.

Schlosser skillful analyses the Pathway to Change programme manual and, throughout her book, weaves excerpts from interviews and programme lessons to illustrate the wide disparity between the experiences of the men and the programme lessons. At times, the disconnection would almost be comical if the cost to self-esteem and personal integrity were less severe. For example, a lesson on 'moral decision making', tells a story of a greedy astronaut in space who is eating all of the available food. Although the idea of greed and selfishness is not ambiguous, it is over simplistic in nature and is contextually irrelevant to someone in prison. Another lesson on moral decision-making depicts a dilemma in which a married couple are trying to work out which car to buy. Although this dilemma is slightly more grounded in reality, it reveals a lack of comprehension by the programme writer of the participants' financial struggles. Schlosser suggests a more representative and useful lesson could have depicted parents trying to work out whether to use their car during the coming winter, in order to get to work on time, or to buy their children winter clothes. Time and time again, the programme comes up short in showing sufficient appreciation of the difficulties many have faced from childhood and an understanding of the participants' current circumstances. In this way, the lived realities of the men are overlooked and the context within which they committed their crimes is routinely dismissed.

As well as illustrating a disconnection between the contexts of inmates' lives with the programme lessons, Schlosser uncovers a more disturbing element of discursive discipline at play. Analysis of the programme manual and data from the interviews reveals five themes by which discursive discipline is carried out; self-blame, degradation, disconnection, detachment from reality and expert knowledge. …

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