In Search of Respect

Gabrielle Watson’s first book, Respect and Criminal Justice, has been published by Oxford University Press.

Gabrielle Watson is the Shaw Foundation Fellow in Law at Lincoln College, Oxford. She was formerly a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Faculty of Law and Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Law at Christ Church, Oxford. She works on topics at the intersection of criminal law, criminal justice, and jurisprudence.

My first book, Respect and Criminal Justice, was published in 2020 by Oxford University Press. It is the newest addition to the Clarendon Studies in Criminology series: the successor to the Cambridge Studies in Criminology series, inaugurated by Sir Leon Radzinowicz—the ‘founding father’ of British criminology—and JWC Turner 80 years ago.

The book offers the first academic study of ‘respect’ in criminal justice in England and Wales, where the value is elusive but of persisting significance. Its publication is especially timely in this political moment, as we reflect on the stark, seemingly intractable problems of police misconduct and deep structural racism, as well as the ongoing threat of COVID-19 and viral contagion in our prisons. Part of the push for criminal justice reform must involve the simple act of listening, followed by the search for robust theoretical ideas with which to frame the debate. In this piece, I reflect on the role and value of respect in prisons.

Owing to some sustained—but ultimately unsuccessful—reform efforts in recent decades, prisons regularly appeal to the word ‘respect’, proclaiming it as a core value in official discourse. Yet, on closer examination, the modern prison’s relationship to respect is not as clear-cut as institutional documentation would have us believe. 

In prisons, respect is a mere slogan. The real value and potential of respect as a critical and regulative ideal has been diminished by the tendency to treat it as peripheral to practical concerns such as target setting, the maintenance of order, and deterrence.

What is respect?

The book begins by attending to the deceptively simple question: what is respect? It turns first to philosophy with its rich Kantian literature on the issue, and its core claim that every human being has a claim to respect no matter what: respect need not be negotiated and cannot be forfeited. But contemporary philosophical accounts complicate matters by identifying respect in a number of ways: as a mode of behaviour, a form of treatment, a kind of valuing, a type of attention, a motive, an attitude, a feeling, a tribute, a principle, a duty, an entitlement, and a moral virtue.

If philosophers cannot agree, it should come as no surprise that prisons in England and Wales—notoriously pragmatic in their approach—have glossed over the meaning of respect. Yet empty appeals to respect distort as much as they communicate. When there is a lack of specificity in understanding and giving effect to respect, it does much to magnify the status inequalities that have come to define imprisonment. It also shows scant regard for the fact that respect—or lack thereof—tends to be felt more keenly by ethnic minority groups and those whose sense of belonging and social possibility in society are precarious.

As part of a reform agenda for the 2020s, prisons must be explicit in their definition of respect if they are to proceed according to—let alone realise—the value. My book offers some suggestions: among them, the idea that respect is both an act and an attitude, that it is ideally reciprocal, that it occurs at both the individual and the institutional level, and is the primary means by which to acknowledge an individual’s intrinsic worth.

Unsavoury punishment

To write a book on respect is an ambitious task, and I spend a good deal of time boundary-drawing in order to render it manageable. Perhaps the most striking illustration of respect—or lack thereof—in the book is to be found in a case study of prison mealtime from the eighteenth century to the present day.

The ritualised preparation and provision of prison food is imbued with considerable symbolic power, and its pivotal role in shaping the daily prison experience has been considerably understated. The dominant narrative in historical accounts of prison mealtime is that, pre-twentieth century, food was intended to punish, debilitate, and degrade. The eighteenth century may have epitomised the most indecent of prison conditions, where a restricted diet was an explicit feature of punishment. Part of the reformative work of John Howard was to offer an incisive critique of the practice of charging prisoners for meals, proposing instead that they be provided with a daily allowance of food. Nonetheless, his vision for respect was strictly minimalist:

‘I am not an advocate for an extravagant and profuse allowance to prisoners. I plead only for necessaries, in such a moderate quantity, as may support health and strength for labour.’

John Howard, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, with Preliminary Observations, and an Account of Some Foreign Prisons (1777: 33).

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the experience of imprisonment remained unimpeachably severe. Prison meals had seen no real improvement and consisted chiefly of bread and thin gruel or broths. There was cause for cautious optimism, however, following the introduction of prison inspections in 1835. Prison diet became a national scandal and inspectors made an explicit call for food to no longer act as an instrument of punishment. Advances were made in the quantity—if not the quality—of prison food but an instrumentalist line of thought endured, in part, due to widespread public support for a retributive approach and the prevailing conservative ideology of the period.

By the mid-nineteenth century, prison food had once again been called into question, with leading physicians of the time recommending a substantial reduction in portion sizes on the grounds that the food provided was excessive and insufficiently penal. To provide food sufficient to ensure good health would be to provide conditions of relative comfort, and the extremely poor with a positive incentive to commit crime.

Integral to more progressive developments was the commissioning of a Departmental Committee on Diets and the publication of its report in 1925 (289-292). Following the Committee’s investigation into prison food, the motivation to provide a nutritious diet to inmates was firmly established. The following year, the Committee made further calls for a more balanced and varied diet which included the provision of regular vegetables, the replacement of prison ‘cans’ with aluminium trays and utensils, and opportunities for prisoners to dine in association in the hope that it might cultivate in them a sense of self-respect. These reforms were indicative of a newly configured relationship between the state and its subjects, and a sustained attempt to afford prison mealtime a visibility and form that brought it into line with a society that considered itself to be civilised.

In the decades that followed, prison mealtime was visibly transformed. Prisoners were given increased involvement in menu design, and meals were gradually made available to those with religious, ethnic, cultural, and medical requirements. However, there is compelling evidence to suggest that, in prisons in England and Wales, food—if only implicitly—continues to form part of a penal strategy. Subtle institutional attempts at degradation through food persist, and daily meals serve as painful and periodic bodily expressions of the power that the institution exerts over the individual.

The National Audit Office, for example, noted concerns among prisoners that standards for the storage and preparation of ethnic and cultural food were not met consistently. It seems that prisoners’ lack of trust in this regard was not unfounded. The National Audit Office confirmed several cases in which prisoners had signed up in good faith to receive ethnic meals, which were later found to have been unethically prepared. Four out of sixteen prisons did not store halal meat separately from other meat and, in eleven prisons, kitchen equipment intended for those with Muslim diets was not labelled separately: by no means a peripheral problem in view of the expanding Muslim community in detention in England and Wales.

Such incidents make clear that, in practice, respect is not always reciprocal, whereby prisoners do not—even cannot—respect those responsible for preparing their food. When prisoners are denied ethically prepared ethnic meals, they are likely to become too distracted by the conditions of their confinement to respond respectfully to prison authorities who so unethically denied them respect.

The elusive promise

On 11 July 2018, HM Inspectorate of Prisons for England and Wales published its Annual Report, in which it documented two unannounced inspections that caused deep concern. HMP Wormwood Scrubs suffered from ‘appalling’ (p13) living conditions, violence, an almost complete lack of rehabilitative or resettlement activity, and seemingly intractable problems over repeated inspections. At ‘squalid’ (p5) and fundamentally unsafe HMP Liverpool, inspectors found some of the worst conditions they had ever seen. An impoverished regime, many cells lacked even the basic requirements for health and hygiene and the leadership and management focus on respect was ‘inadequate at every level’ (p15). It appears, then, that respect remains somewhat of an elusive promise.

Although respect is a precious commodity, in our prisons, it need not be utopian. It simply requires a degree of mutual understanding when it is owed to, called for, deserved, elicited, or claimed by another. With a sense of modest realism, the book sets out those challenges in detail—and envisages the advances that could be made—in inscribing respectful relations between state and subject.

Respect and Criminal Justice (2020). Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 256 pp.



Dr Gabrielle Watson, Shaw Foundation Fellow in Law, Lincoln College, Oxford.




Images courtesy of the author


Celebrating Survival

A review of “Prison: A survival guide” by Carl Cattermole


David Best is professor of criminology at the University of Derby, Honorary Professor of Regulation and Global Governance at the Australian National University and Chair of the BSC Prison Research Network.


Politically, we appear to be surfing a new wave of being ‘tough on crime’ with more prisons to be built and a growth in the prison population to be anticipated. Outside of the political posturing however, all of us who have spent any time in the UK prison system recognise that prison is a tough, miserable and potentially damaging environment for all of those who have to spend time there, including but not restricted to the prisoners.

This is captured in a wonderfully accessible way in Carl Cattermole’s ‘Prison: A survival guide’ a lived experience account of what life in a UK prison is really like, with the original draft written by someone newly released from a male UK prison. The book does exactly what it says, providing a largely chronological account of how to get through the experience with as little distress as possible.

Cattermole1Illustrated with cartoons from Banx (@banxcartoons), it also provides a sense of hope – particularly around the friendships that can emerge in prison and how they can endure ‘through the gate’ – and the humanity that is a theme of the book comes across incredibly strongly. The book is warm and at times funny and is easy and accessible, but what makes this survival guide so important is the multiple voices contained within it.

Watch a video of Carl talking on Straightline.

Carl is a fabulous narrator and story-teller but his voice is supplemented with those of the partner of a prisoner, the child of a prisoner, a child prisoner, a prisoner who has a child in prison and the experience of a prisoner from a member of the LGBTI community. Each of these accounts is incredibly poignant and insightful and the strength of feeling is intense and powerful.

It would be extremely difficult to read the book without realising the ripple effects of pain and misery that imprisonment causes to families and to communities, but it is also impossible to read the Survival Guide without acknowledging the resilience and strength that emanates from each of these clear and powerful voices.

As a criminologist, I would like to recommend it not only to all of the members of the Prison Research Network but also to all of their students as a rich and layered insight into the prison experience. But it should also be mandatory reading for all prison officers and prison governors.

Of course, expecting politicians to read something that is inconsistent with their own prejudices and soundbites is unrealistic but perhaps some of those working in the MoJ and the Prison and Probation Service may be swayed by the pain and the power of this book.

Whether you think prisons are a necessary evil or not, this is a book that confirms the harms that prison inflicts while clearly proclaiming that there are a group of people who can and will overcome that harm. Whether they should have to is a critical part of the debate ‘Prison: A survival guide’ should generate. And perhaps Carl could be encouraged to follow it up with “Community: A survival guide”?

Buy the Book – Prisonism website

BSC members can win a copy of ‘Prison: A survival guide’ together with a copy of ‘Pathways to Recovery and Desistance: The Role of the Social Contagion of Hope’ by David Best by emailing ‘Prison Book Draw’ to  The draw runs through September and October with a closing date of October 29, 2019.

Book Summary

Prison A Survival Guide (Penguin, 2019) is the cult travelogue for the obfuscated and complex British prison system. Its primarily authored by Carl Cattermole, a 30 year old ex-prisoner, based in South London and sometimes Latin America, but also features contributions from female, LGBTQ+ and child prisoners and their supporting family members. Its target audiences are anyone who contacts the system: prisoners and their families, criminologists and politicians, citizens who want to bust media myths and know where ‘criminal justice’ £billions are being thrown. The first print run sold out in 10 days. Carl and other contributors are currently touring to promote the book.



Professor David Best, University of Derby


Twitter: @davidwbest12

Copyright free image courtesy of author

Cartoons courtesy of Carl Cattermole and Banx (@banxcartoons)


Desistance, Structures, Agency and Policy: Presenting Penal Cultures and Female Desistance at Sheffield University

the link between employment and a successful route out of crime has received considerable attention in criminology. However, gender-specific literature on the subject is minimal.

linneaLinnéa Österman is a senior lecturer and researcher at the University of Greenwich. Her research interests revolve around gender and crime, desistance, comparative penology, Nordic criminal justice, and critical pedagogy. Completing her doctorate in Criminology at the University of Surrey in early 2016, Linnéa has been involved in a number of research projects focussing on women’s experiences of justice in various cultures and contexts over the last 10 years. She is a passionate criminologist and a social justice optimist, and dabbles with music-making in her spare time.

On a grey and cold January evening in the not too distant past, I got on a late train to Sheffield for a desistance conference focussing on agency, structures and policy. After a nightmare midnight AirB&B check-in and not enough sleep (think along the lines of phone dying, no charge point, the host not knowing where I was, and an old-school attempt of using a phone box, ultimately confirming that they are truly tourist-photo dedications with no practical use!), I woke up on the morning of the conference kick-off day looking at the programme with a good amount of anticipation. I had been invited to present comparative themes from my recently published book Penal Cultures and Female Desistance, and this would be the first time I would be given a chance to discuss (as well as discreetly, or possibly not-so-discreetly, promote) my newly delivered book baby. Fortunately for all parties involved, I had not been spoiled with a boundless timeslot, so I had decided to focus specifically on the area of gender, employment and desistance. Before summarising my own contributions, some general reflections on the conference could be useful.

A core focus of the event was on structures, and the 2 days contained a number of fascinating talks, many that explored desistance in international or comparative perspectives; refreshingly starting to address the Anglophone bias in the field. This generated thought-provoking discussions around culture, agency and structures, ranging from diverse areas such as the role of consumer culture and recessions for Irish desisters, the different use of time and space along desistance journeys in Israel and England, and institutional influences on young Parisian probationers, to social capital resources among different ethnic group desisters in the UK, and opportunities to design more desistance-focussed assessment tools within CRCs. In all of this, the overarching question of whether desistance can be understood as a social movement was present within many of the presentations.

While these discussions were thought-provoking and inclusive, as one conference attendee sharply pointed out early on: The one structure that seemed to be shining with its absence from much of this was that of patriarchy. Reflective of the broader literature, many of the studies presented had all male samples. However, as noted by the chair Professor Farrall early on, this recent move towards focussing on larger forces in the desistance literature may bring about new opportunities to explore gendered systems across time and space. From a historical perspective, it has for example been found that the ‘marriage effect’ in male desistance did not seem to apply about a century back in time. Professor Farrall drew interesting links between this finding and women’s disenfranchisement and lack of power at the turn of the 19th Century. Do women in recent time periods have more power to exercise social control in the home environment, thereby make the ‘marriage effect’ in desistance more relevant?

A key question that was repeatedly posed within these discussions was ‘Which processes may structure desistance?’. Although the replies emphasised how little we still know about the answers to this question, the role of ethnicity, socio-economic status, age and maturity, time periods and different criminal justice systems were all suggested to be influential. On the question of gender, however, the chair suggested that ‘the jury is still out on this one’. Those who are familiar with the desistance literature will know some of the grounds for this; research has found that there are significant overlaps in dominant desistance themes for women and men, including the level of immersion in the criminal underworld (Uggen and Kruttschnitt, 1998), and wider factors relating to poverty, low education levels, drug addictions and problematic family backgrounds (Giordano et al, 2003; McIvor et al 2004). That said, we cannot disregard one of the most widely recognised differences in terms of gender and offending, namely, the extent of it. Women generally ‘grow out of crime’ earlier and have significantly lower re-involvement in offending than their male counterparts (Giordano et al, 2003; Rumgay, 2004; Graham and Bowling, 1995; McIvor et al, 2004).; a finding that is confirmed in both self-reported and official data (Uggen and Kruttschnitt, 1998). Women are thus not only less likely to offend, but when they have done so, they are also less likely to do so again.

Beyond these points on extent of involvement, the small number of studies that have specifically looked at gender also find some processes that seem to be gender-related, such as the role of relationships, stigma and social capital (McIvor et al, 2004; Cobbina, 2010; Leverentz, 2014; Estrada and Nilsson, 2012). An exploration of gender roles also quickly casts a critical eye on some of the major desistance claims to date. The classic generalisability problem of just ‘adding’ women to theories developed with (and by) men rings loud in this area, a key example of this being Sampson and Laub’s work (1993; 2003) on desisting men and the value of marriage for desistance, or the so called ‘love of a good woman’ thesis (Leverentz, 2006). With the developing literature on female desisters, we now know that these findings are in direct opposition to how desistance seems to work for women – something I have detected in my work and others before me – namely, that for many women intimate relationships are commonly part of the problem rather than the solution.

Moreover, the consequences of living with both the physical and mental scars of violence and abuse can have an impact on the ability to access desistance-related processes. An unexpected discovery on the conference programme showcased some interesting and emerging work in this area in the way of a PhD student from Stockholm University – Robin Gålnander – who is doing ethnographic work with female desisters. Robin is about mid-way through a fascinating study following ten women in Sweden through their desistance journey. Meeting them every 6 months, Robin aims to catch different phases of desistance, as these women try to put decades of offending, drug dealing and using, behind them. Giving support to what we know about women in the criminal justice system, all of the women in Robin’s study have histories of violent victimisation, perpetrated by men predominantly on the criminal scene. The preliminary findings suggest that these experiences hold them back from desistance paths in various ways, including the challenges of navigating psychiatric care (or lack of), living with PSTD and in isolation, with many spending time under protected identity. As well as it being fascinating to see interesting new work on female desistance coming out of regions outside of the Anglophone setting, on a more personal basis, it was also admittedly energising to attend a criminology conference – especially one on desistance – where someone could take a quick peek at my conference tag and pronounce my name perfectly (accent and all!) without a look of apprehension or confusion on their face. My observation here is a simple one – it is encouraging and positive to see greater international perspectives on this scene, and (though I am maybe somewhat bias here) in particular, ones exploring female experiences in the Nordic sphere.

For my own 30 minutes of room control, I focussed on the comparative role of, and access to, employment for women in Sweden and England. As many readers will know, the link between employment and a successful route out of crime has received considerable attention in criminology. However, gender-specific literature on the subject is minimal. The limited studies that exist are also inconclusive, with some research suggesting that job stability is not strongly related to female desistance (Giordano et al, 2002), and other work emphasising employment as a central role for women’s post-release identity (Opsal, 2012; Leverentz, 2014). We furthermore know that women in criminal justice are especially disadvantaged in terms of employment. Women’s employment situation has been found to be significantly worse compared to their male counterparts; women are less likely to have been in employment before prison, as well as having a job to go to following release (Prison Reform Trust, 2016). As I will not need to point out to readers within this network, women are also, more generally, disadvantaged in employment and wage contexts globally (and especially so in Anglophone areas, where recent shifts in the labour markets mean women are increasingly pushed into low-wage, non-unionised areas of employment). There are additional structural aspects that need to be given attention to fully understand gendered barriers in this area, such as the dominance of female labour in sectors (i.e. care work) where a criminal record is an especially marked barrier (while at the same time, being a relatively easily accessible sector for women with lower levels of education).

In the presentation, drawing out some key themes from the book, I touched on both symmetries and dissimilarities across the female experience in Sweden and England. My study found huge similarities in relation to how women viewed the basic value of employment; as a way to learn to live a ‘straight’ life, to build routines, and to ‘keep busy’. However, these factors on their own are not necessarily sufficient for lasting change. This is where the next identified value of employment comes in, namely, the importance of a ‘good job’. A ‘good job’ in this context is a job that, minimally, allows the woman – and those in her care – to stay above the poverty line. This is about meeting basic needs and having access to a liveable income, and it is at this point that the differences start to emerge between the English and Swedish samples in my data. More specifically, most of the desisting women in the English sample struggled to meet basic needs on their current incomes, despite being in part-time employment. These narratives in turn need to be situated in the totality of life circumstances, such as being in debt. As noted by one of my participants, ‘Amanda’; Employment gives you enough money to be able to survive, usually, but not at the minute, not in X, the wages are so crap. […] If youre in debt like I was, cos they didnt give me money for 3 months, thenyou cant survive.” The role of welfare sanctions is central here (which is why ‘Amanda’ did not receive any money for 3 months) – Many of the women in the English sample had experiences of sanctions, which often led to a direct destabilisation of their desistance process. We know, of course, that the consequences of welfare policies are gendered, with the last decade of austerity having disproportionality affected women in our society (Women’s budget group, 2016).

Contrasting this theme of ‘access to a liveable income’ to the Swedish data, this type of ‘survival narrative’ in terms of access to bare essentials is completely absent. This marks an important difference in the lived experience of female desistance across the samples. In contrast, a ‘good job’ for the Swedish participants goes beyond mere survival, and narratively links to a chance to start to re-build a new life, paying off debts, and have an economy to engage in activities. As noted by ‘Angel’: Well, I’ve got a great job now like, and I really want to treasure that […] I’ve got a fucking income now like, I can even pay my debts, it’s just like ‘wow’! You can do things that you’ve never [done before]”. Access to a livable income effectively contributes to the construction of a new non-offending identity for ‘Angel’. However, the value of a ‘good job’ goes beyond monetary factors and also link to what I refer to as ‘humanitarian values’ in the book, namely, the role of having colleagues, who, as pointed out by ‘Jasmin’ “wonder where you are when you fail to appear […] Yeah, just that feeling that people wonder where you are”; producing a lived sense of inclusion and self-worth. In this context, a ‘good job’ aids the process of becoming an integrated member of society. This experience is also supported by financial means, and access to wage subsidy schemes, which forms another major difference in experience between the two samples. While I do not have the space to write about these processes, and the role of active labour market policies, in detail here (hint: read the book – flyer and discount voucher attached!), a major overarching difference that emerges in the data is about how these experiences of a lived sense of inclusion and value that investment in quality employment opportunities and the chance to earn a liveable income produces, in turn provide a major motivating factor for lasting change in the Swedish women’s narratives. The data suggest that these subjective experiences offer a far more powerful tool for change than any of the threats of sanctions, or indeed experiences or further exclusion, that dominate the English women’s narratives.

As always with a good conference, I exit University of Sheffield’s halls with a mind filled with more thoughts and ideas than what it is realistically possible to process after a couple of days intense brain stimuli. The twenty pages of notes that awaits re-opening – after a weekend break from desistance – will hopefully allow me to make more sense of it all. Nevertheless, as I am sitting on a severely delayed and uncomfortably crammed train returning from the first conference in my life where I was able to talk about a book with my name on it – and doing so in the privileged position of a room filled with some of the field’s giants – I can positively say that I somehow manage to keep a beaming smile on my lips, whilst reluctantly switching off the automated Outlook reply and turn my attention to the column of dark blue emails that awaits me.

Originally posted on the BSC Women, Crime and Criminal Justice Blog


Linnéa Österman, Lecturer in Criminology
Department of Law and The Centre for Criminology
University of Greenwich

Twitter: @LiOsterman

Images: courtesy of the author

Discount Penal Cultures Female Desistance