Penitence versus Redemption in the Criminal Justice System

Published: Feb 28, 2022  |  

Criminologist and commentator on criminal justice issues

I once entered a cell of a high-profile prisoner; his crime had been blazoned on every national newspaper and was serving the last few months of his sentence as an education orderly. He sat on his raised bed, his legs dangling over the menial storage where he had meticulously and precisely arranged his pairs of trainers, and invited me to sit on the only chair in the cell. During our 20-minute conversation, he was pensive and reflective, looking down all the while, except for when he raised his head, adjusted his glasses, then looked me straight in the eye. “Don’t count the days, but make every day count,” he said, his voice monotone and hushed. Yet behind him, I noticed a calendar marked with neatly-drawn crosses. He was clearly counting down his days, paying his penitence until his eventual release from prison.

As an independent criminologist, I have seen how many feel a deep-seated obligation to “pay back” continuously in some way to society or a higher power. Those who are caught and convicted for committing a crime experience punishment in some form or other, but when should that punishment end? Is it once a sentence has been served or longer?

Over the last 12 years, I have visited every category of prison in England and Wales and monitored a Category D prison for four years. In all that time, I have met hundreds of inmates, many struggling with the punishment not just of the sentence given by the courts, but the continual punishment they experience as they serve it and beyond.

The Ministry of Justice proudly states on their website that their responsibility is to ensure that sentences are served, and offenders are encouraged to turn their lives around and become law-abiding citizens. Apparently, the Ministry has a vision of delivering a world-class justice system that works for everyone in society, and one of four of their strategic priorities is having a prison and probation service that reforms offenders. 

But I am not at all convinced by this hyperbole. In my opinion, we have to stop the madness of believing that we can change people and their behaviour by banging them up in warehouse conditions with little to do, not enough to eat, and sanitation from a previous century. 

Additionally, if true reform is supposed to be achieved through time served, then a former inmate would emerge from prison with a clean slate, ready to contribute fully to society. Yet beyond prison gates, people who have served time live under a cloud of penitence, suppressing a sense of guilt for their deeds. Many of the formerly incarcerated insist on a daily act of penitence, a good deed, even raising money for a worthy cause. For onlookers, such acts carry an air of respectability, but it is important to understand what is really happening on the inside for those who engage in them as a form of self-punishment. 

According to the Oxford English dictionary, the definition of penitence is “the action of feeling or showing sorrow and regret for having done wrong, repentance, a public display of penitence.” In addition to the formal punishment they endure, many prisoners engage in penitence both physically and mentally during and after serving their time, which keeps them from moving forward with their lives and is damaging to their sanity. According to a recent report by the Centre for Mental Health, “[f]ormer prisoners…had significantly greater current mental health problems across the full spectrum of mental health diagnosis than the general public, alongside greater suicide risk, typically multiple mental health problems including dual diagnosis, and also lower verbal IQ…and greater current social problems.”

In my work, I have found that some people who have broken the law want others to know that they are sorry, whilst at the same time feel the pressure to prove this to themselves. In such cases, their penitence becomes a public display for families, caseworkers, and those in authority.

Witnesses to this display of penitence often think these people are a good example of someone who has turned their life around, but often, these former prisoners find themselves stuck in the act of penitence. Rather than turning their lives around, they are trapped forever in their guilt. In these cases, the act of atoning becomes all-consuming, an insatiable appetite to heed the voices in their soul that tell them, “you must do more and more, it’s not enough, I’m hungry.”

When I speak to those who are serving a whole-life tariff, I know that their debt to society can never be repaid: they are resigned to a lifelong burden of irredeemable indebtedness. But many of those who are released from prison remain incarcerated by their own guilt, feeling as if they must hide any hint of happiness they may find in life after prison so as not to be judged. 

For example, in 2019, I interviewed Erwin James, author, Guardian columnist and convicted murderer, who had just come out with his third book, Redeemable: a Memoir of Darkness and Hope. When I asked him, “What makes you happy?” he replied: “In the public, if I am laughing, I feel awful because there are people grieving because of me. Even in jail, I was scared to laugh sometimes because it looked like I didn’t care about anything.”

Just like I saw with the prisoner sat on his bed, I have witnessed a cloud hanging over many, especially when redemption, or the act of repaying the value of something lost, relates to acceptance and society’s opinion of you. Unfortunately, in the UK, paying back to society can either be the light at the end of the tunnel, or a tunnel with no light.

I believe we live in a punitive society in which the continual punishment of those that have offended is tacitly endorsed. In so doing, society inadvertently encourages the penitentiaries of this world to hold offenders in an ever-tightening grip.

Even a sentence served in the community—a sentencing option all too often shunned by magistrates—can carry an arduous stigma. In a public show of humiliation, the words “Community Payback” are garishly emblasoned on the offenders’ brightly-colored outerwear, announcing their status as a wrongdoer to all who see them. Basically, this is society’s way of saying, “we want you to be sorry, we want you to show you are sorry and we will not let you forget it.”

I am mindful that pain and grief still abounds, that some crimes will not be erased from our minds, and that crimes will stubbornly continue. But surely, the answer cannot be to condemn those who have done wrong to a lifetime without forgiveness. To move forward as a society, we need to discourage the continual need to offer an apology, and instead accept when former prisoners have paid their dues and served their sentences. Only then will we move from a vicious cycle of unending penitence to a world in which reform and redemption is truly possible.

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