25 April 2007
by Shadd Maruna
Nearly 60% of prisoners re-offend within two years of their release, and released prisoners are thought to be responsible for at least 1million crimes in the United Kingdom each year costing around £11billion a year.
Although the blame for these high re-offending rates is often, justifiably, laid on the criminal justice system, and the prison in particular, considerable research suggests that the problem may be much wider than this.
How, after all, can any rehabilitative intervention counter the structural and cultural barriers described by the eminent criminologist Jock Young as the "bulimia" of modern society. He describes the "bulimic society" as one characterised by massive cultural inclusion, but systematic structural exclusion. It is a culture in which citizens are encouraged to "worship success, money, wealth and status" but "systematically excluded from its realisation".
Even the most earnest reintegration efforts are going to have little impact if prisoners are simply reintegrated into this sort of cultural trap.
Prisoner volunteer work may be different in this regard. The benefits of volunteer work for offenders include a sense of accomplishment, improved self-esteem, purpose, and building a sense of responsibility for their actions.
More than this, however, volunteering may also offer a means of escape from the culture of consumption and the cycles of desire, frustration and crime described by Young.
Unlike with rehabilitative interventions like cognitive-behaviouralism - providing offenders with thinking skills to counter distorted thinking - or anger management, volunteering puts the offender in the position of a help giver rather than a help receiver, focusing on building strengths rather than correcting deficits.
Volunteer work also sends a message to the community that the offender deserves further support and investment in their reintegration.
Maybe most importantly, however, volunteering integrates the prisoner into a new subculture and one with rules and values that are almost the opposite of those of the bulimic society.
Dr Shadd Maruna is a reader in criminology in the school of law at Queen's University, Belfast. This is an extract of a speech he is to give this evening at Community Service Volunteer's Edith Kahn memorial lecture at the House of Lords.