The shadow of penal supervision

An update and something new: ‘Waiting’

Last week’s Howard League Scotland event (previously advertised on this blog) went very well. We had a full house of about 150 people ranging from school pupils, through people with different kinds of experience of the justice system, to some very distinguished criminologists! A difficult crowd to satisfy, but the combination of Louis’s delivery of the songs, the power of the visual images and some thoughts from me seemed to just about do the trick. Our recording of the evening isn’t really good enough to share, but you can find the presentation here: McNeill HLS 200917    The last slide contains links to web addresses where you can also find some of the songs and more of the images.

Last week also saw the formal book proposal going off to the publisher for review. One of the questions asked in their pro forma was about any distinctive or novel features in the book. I mentioned the links to the Seen and Heard project, of course, but also a new idea which came to me on my way home from the Eurocrim conference that took place in Cardiff a couple of weeks ago.

I was sitting in the train on the long journey home, fresh from conversations with prospective publishers, wondering how to write a book that could be appealing and interesting to a general audience whilst also being academically credible. I’ve noticed, for example, that some US academic books avoid the disruption to the flow of the argument that comes from in-text referencing (in the Harvard style), favouring the use of endnotes where the sources are cited and (sometimes) arguments are elaborated. An excellent recent example is Phil Goodman’s, Josh Page’s and Michelle Phelps’s Breaking the Pendulum: The long struggle over criminal justice. If you haven’t come across this yet, and want to understand how penal systems change (and fail to change), I thoroughly recommend it. It will feature prominently in chapter 2 of Pervasive Punishment.

Whilst that sort of formatting might help with making the book accessible, it also occurred to me that maybe most people tend to commit to books when they care about the characters involved. Academic texts don’t usually have characters — or at least not ones whose lives are brought alive imaginatively. But ‘Why not?’, I thought. Why not use some short pieces of imaginative, fictional writing to bring alive the themes that each chapter seeks to address — mainly by conveying the human experiences and stories that lie at the heart of supervision? There is no reason why these pieces of writing shouldn’t be research-based; indeed, they could weave in things that I have learned from being a supervisor, from being supervised (though not in the criminal justice system) and through research on supervision (including in the Seen and Heard project).

So I started writing a piece that I imagine might open the book’s introduction. Here it is:


A man sits on a bench in a waiting room. The bench is screwed to the floor. Not even the furniture here is free. Perspex screens and locked doors separate those waiting and those for whom they wait; distancing the untrustworthy from those to whom they are entrusted. The graffiti carved into the bench offers testimonies of resistance: small rebellions that make the place seem even more desperate.

Meanwhile, the walls shout out their messages in pastel shades and bold print. They stupefy, promise and threaten. Problems with drugs? Problems with alcohol? Problems with anger? Stay calm. Apparently, help is at hand – or at the end of a phone-line. But remember that abusive language and aggressive behaviour will not be tolerated. Not in this room that is itself an installation of abuse and aggression. To those that wait it says: ‘You are pathetic, desperate or dangerous. You are not to be trusted. You must wait’.

The man is one of several waiting restlessly, fidgeting under the weight of the room’s assault. Eyes are downcast. Mostly those waiting try to avoid contact, to avoid hassle, to stay as unknown as possible. This is a shameful place to be after all. Better to be out of place here than to belong. This is not a place to make connections.

The man wonders what she will be like — the unknown woman who now holds the keys to his freedom. Her word is law: This is an ‘order’ after all. He is to be the rule-keeper, she the ruler – cruel, capricious or kind. She may hold to leash lightly or she may drag him to heel. Instinctively, he lifts a hand to his neck, but no one can loosen an invisible collar. At least it is not a noose. He swallows uncomfortably, noticing the dryness of his mouth and the churning of his gut. He is not condemned to hang, he is condemned to be left hanging.

He just hopes she’ll be human enough to make him feel that he is human too.”

While this is fiction, there isn’t a sentence in it that I couldn’t cite an academic reference to support.

When I got home, I read this to my wife. She is an avid reader of fiction (including crime fiction) who has very little interest in criminology. I think she’s now a little more interested in Pervasive Punishment, though perhaps mainly in how this story is going to evolve chapter by chapter than in the academic work that will inform it. Still, that’s a start.

If you have time, let me know what you think of this approach?


  1. Hi Fergus,
    I really like the approach you are taking, for all the reasons you give above. On top of that, I think the approach you propose implicitly (or maybe explicitly?) critiques the hierarchies of types of knowledge that we often take for granted in academic writing and beyond that in the way we design services and practices. I also think that it goes really well with your ideas about reintegration being a two-way street and in a way your approach would put that ontology into practice in the very act of conceptualising and writing the book. I am sorry if my comment seems obvious. I think its great that we can follow your thinking process on this blog, fascinating! Best wishes,Katharina

  2. This is a very interesting idea, Fergus. There are, of course, examples of work within the field that draw on memoirs and first-hand accounts. Goffman’s Asylums does this beautifully (although he uses a large number of texts, rather than individual ‘characters’). Would there be a body of literature on supervision in the community that you could mine in a similar way? Another option, which I have tried to some degree, is to provide the life stories of key research participants and then weave them and their experiences through the text. Again, you might not have the data to be able to do this, but it seems something worth considering. Ben

    • Thanks Ben. I am mining lots of different supervision studies — particularly the pilot projects in the COST Action on Offender Supervision in Europe — and some of my own experiences. I guess the ‘new’ thing — for me at least — is representing these findings in a fictionalised form. I know there is much debate about the lines between fact and fiction in ethnographic work… especially where there are ethical reasons for changing the ‘facts’ to protect confidentiality. Anyway, much to ponder…

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