Desistance from lockdown

Published 25/06/2020
Author(s) David Honeywell

Dr David Honeywell, Research Assistant at the University of Manchester and Criminology Lecturer at the University of Hull


During this difficult period of lockdown, I have begun to make comparisons between the process of desistance and the impending collective recovery from the social and psychological impact of coronavirus. Desistance is a theory that examines how ex-offenders abstain from crime (see Farrall & Calverley, 2006) and transform their identities (Giordano et al, 2002; Maruna, 2001, McNeill, 2016). It has always been my view that desistance can be translated to any walk of life not just the experiences of ex-offenders. It is about abstaining and rebuilding which can be likened to countless other examples of recovery, including from addictions (Coleman & Vander Laenan, 2012), illness (Frank, 1995), grieving and divorce (Giddens, 1991).

I am writing this from an autoethnographic perspective as an ex-offender, a desister, and an academic. It may be a surprise to some, but lockdown has had a positive effect on my sense of self. It has forced me to self-reflect and, as many others discussed in relation to their own experiences of lockdown, promise to make significant changes in my life which. The last time I self-reflected to this extent, was during my time in prison over 20 years ago. Back then, I made several resolutions, some of which I achieved and some of which I did not achieve.

I set myself two main goals, which was to become a criminologist to have a family of my own (see Sampson & Laub,1993; see also Earle, 2018 in relation to Convict Criminology).. These goals resonate with Shadd Maruna’s articulation of the informal social control theory of desistance (see Sampson & Laub, 1993) as ‘A steady job and the love of a good woman’ (2001, p. 30) but it’s important to look beyond this traditional nuclear family (see Jardine, 2017) because we cannot all fit snugly into the ideology of marriage, kids and a stable job. More important, is how we feel about our personal identity and acceptance of who we are.

Out identity is the mirror image of how others perceive us. Desistance scholars agree that desistance is a process of identity transformation which involves developing a replacement self (Giordano et al. 2002) while disassociating oneself from former associates and environments. That said it is also essential to draw on one’s past experiences as a way of making good – to redeem oneself. For example, some desisters work for charities becoming mentors for substance users and the homeless or work in education where the lived experience as former substance users, being homeless, victims of crime, physical and sexual abuse becomes an essential tool to give something back as a sort of ‘wounded healer’ (Maruna, 2001). The most profound message here, though, is how we are able to turn hardship into a positive (see McAdams, 2006; Giddens, 1991).

I was able to do this through education and, ironically, the structure of prison life enabled this process. I had clear vision of what I wanted to do and, through education, I began to develop a new student identity. But once I was released from prison, I experienced what I now know as ‘the pains of desistance’ (see Nugent & Schinkel, 2016). The importance of education has become more apparent much later in my life because as the desistance theory has developed, I have a greater understanding my own and others experiences. For me, education during my time in prison, 1995-1997 was the main goal towards gaining a stable life and then later in my academic career, as I developed a theoretical understanding of what desistance was (Sampson & Laub, 1993), I began to develop my own theoretical position about the complexities of desistance. I also found that the theory of desistance validated my own experiences and enabled me to use my past and present to develop my position in academe.

There are many desistance perspectives but the most profound for me is Giordano et al’s four stage Cognitive Transformation Theory which sets out what individuals need to do which include (1) being open to the idea of change; (2) Finding a hook/hooks to assist change; (3) envisioning a “replacement self”; (4) transforming the way they view deviant behaviour or lifestyle itself. And though each of these components are associated with ex-offenders, they are as pertinent to those who are not associated to a criminal lifestyle. Desistance is a criminological theory associated with ex-offenders who genuinely want to turn their lives around but there will be many parallels to how individuals will have to turn their lives around coming out of lockdown.

The criminological theory of ‘desistance’ is a process of self-transformation associated with ex-offenders that involves a trajectory towards achieving what many others take for granted such as gaining employment, developing meaningful relationships, achieving financial stability and gaining stable accommodation. The ultimate goal of desistance is to change one’s lifestyle and I feel that many people who have had time to reflect during lockdown may wish to make significant changes whether that means spending more time with loved ones, being more health conscious or simply allowing themselves more time to relax.  Desistance is about starting again, and a lot of people will now need to start a process of desistance as they begin rebuilding their lives. Some will have to find new employment; some have lost loved ones; some will lose their homes and businesses and as result of being forced into isolation many relationships will have been tested to the maximum. But if desistance is anything to go by then past experience shows that people can overcome the most difficult situation and even emerge much stronger and more focussed.



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