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Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology

Autonomy in prison: So close?...Yet so far

By Annie Bunce


For my PhD research, I have qualitatively explored prisoners’ motivations to participate in an innovative programme that brought together young people (aged 13-17) at risk of, or already involved in, criminal activity with serving prisoners within the prison estate. 

The programme involved trained prisoners delivering a series of educational and interactive workshops to the young people, with the aim of diverting them from away from the criminal justice system.Simultaneously, the programme aimed to support participating prisoners’ rehabilitation, by encouraging them to reflect on their own offending behaviour, and equipping them with skills and experience transferrable to the real world. I was interested in how prisoners’ motivation fluctuated over time, and how aspects of the programme, wider prison life, and individual factors influenced this process.


Within prisoners’ narratives, motivation was often linked to the extent to which they felt autonomous in their role on the programme. Over time, participating largely supported this sense of autonomy, and enthusiasm, interest and enjoyment sustained motivation to be there - which for many had been more instrumental initially. The majority of prisoners had internalised the aims of the programme such that being able to give something back, and this being experienced as highly personally rewarding, was motivating in itself. However, this sense of autonomy and the facilitative effect it had upon motivation to participate was fragile, due to the inevitable practical restrictions placed upon their behaviour by the prison environment, which threatened the perceived level of control that prisoners had over their lives. Whilst prisoners provided many examples of ways in which participating in the programme had supported their autonomy, more so than they had experienced in prison before, these were often juxtaposed with examples of barriers to their freedom and choice that were experienced as frustrating. On the one hand they enjoyed being in a position of unprecedented responsibility compared to their prison experience thus far, yet everything they did was subject to the rules and boundaries of the programme; relationships forged with programme staff, team members and the young people encouraged and inspired them to keep pursuing their goals, yet officers largely continued to make them feel worthless and they were unable to share their successes with their families; and while the programme itself provided a safe and comforting space throughout the working day, this was only ever a temporary escape from the punishing atmosphere of the rest of the prison. I will explore these examples in more detail throughout the rest of this blog post.

I found that prisoners appreciated having significant input into the running of the programme, including delivering the workshops themselves, being encouraged to inject their own style and personality into them, and having their voices valued when it came to making suggestions for improvements. In line with the concepts of generativity and the ‘wounded healer’ (Maruna, 2001; Maruna, LeBel and Lanier, 2004; LeBel, Richie and Maruna, 2015), their status as ‘prisoner’ was no longer entirely associated with negative connotations, because the programme allowed them to channel this into something positive, which motivated them to carry on using their experience in this way. As opposed to feeling like a burden on society, being entrusted with this responsibility made them feelwanted’, and provided a sense of competence many had never felt before. However, the programme operated according to a manual, the workshops were scripted, and prisoners were under strict instruction to not ‘glamourize’ any aspects of committing crime or being in prison. Whilst, in theory, they were ‘running the show’, in reality they had very little control, and final decisions were made by staff. Prisoners expressed frustration that the programme was overly-scripted, rigid and outdated, and their interactions with the young people censored, which they believed negatively impacted on their ability to connect with them. I sensed a constant battle to assert their autonomy, which prisoners were determined to win because they believed it was their unique ability to relate to the young people that made the programme so powerful.  As Mick told me:


you’ve experienced everything that these people have experienced [but]… Ultimately, they [staff] always do what they want to do and the way they want to do it so sometimes you just bite your lip and just get on with it for the sake of your sanity. Other times you sort of make a bit of a, you try and be forceful.


Many of those I spoke to were acutely frustrated because they genuinely cared about the young people, wanted to make a difference in their lives and believed they had the ability do this, but were not always able to go about this as they saw fit. Being encouraged to use their experiences to do good, on the one hand, but having other people - who did not share the same experiences - dictate how they could do this made little sense to them, as another man pointed out, “that would be like me telling you how to do your PhD!”. I could really feel the energy and desire to help that was sustaining their motivation to continue participating, even when it could sometimes feel like they were up against a brick wall. This was further emphasised by their body language. I frequently wrote in fieldnotes about how animated they all were when telling me about how they worked with the young people, their personal achievements, and the kinds of positive impact they believed they were having. They sat forwards eagerly on their seats, their smiles stretched across their faces, and I couldn’t get a word in edgeways. This was very different to the slouched down, arms-crossed, somewhat deflated and defeated stance that many took when speaking about what they would do differently if they had the choice, and what more they wished they could do for the young people. On balance, the interviews were more dominated by the former enthusiasm, and I left the prisons feeling optimistic and in awe of the strength and determination of those I had spoken to on far more occasions than I left feeling disheartened.


Relationships forged whilst participating were largely autonomy-supportive. Prisoners felt that programme staff truly cared about them, wanted the best for them, and believed in them. Many of them reflected warmly on examples of staff having gone the extra mile to help them with something, whether this be practical or emotional support. Having somebody else recognising and promoting their strengths, providing positive feedback and genuinely wanting them to succeed reinforced that they were on the right path, and could achieve more than they had ever thought possible. In line with research on desistance, positive regard extended towards them by programme staff whom they trusted and respected- a kind of ‘re-labelling’ process- challenged any prevailing negative perceptions of themselves and provided motivation, confidence and self-control to continue pursuing a ‘new me’ (Maruna et al., 2004; Maruna and Toch, 2005; Maruna and LeBel, 2010; McNeill et al., 2011; Blagden, Winder and Hames, 2016). Prisoners also valued friendships with other team members, and the strong sense of team spirit based on shared goals, mutual respect and understanding, with several likening the team to a family. This motivated them to be at their best and put their all into the programme so as not to let one another down, and to be the strongest team they could for the benefit of the young people. These relationships were particularly meaningful because they contrasted heavily with the usual tendency to ‘keep to yourself’ around the prison due to an atmosphere of distrust, and relationships with officers that were generally described as indifferent, uncaring and, at worst, hostile.

Having these kinds of connections with others also appeared to lessen the void caused by being separated from their loved ones, because they had somebody to care for and look out for (the young people and each other) and were cared for and looked out for by others (programme staff and each other), and for many the development of these relationships had helped them to think about how they could better approach and improve their relationships on the outside, which kept them motivated to succeed and get back to their families. However, this sense of belonging found on the programme was also fragile, as prisoners sometimes found it difficult to relate to programme staff because they did not share the same experiences, and because of concerns around confidentiality, and the occasional tensions caused by inevitable underlying power imbalances. 

Many prisoners spoke about how the programme provided a safe and pleasant environment, within which they were treated more like equal human beings than they had been before in prison. They all spoke with fondness and gratitude about being treated respectfully as a friend, colleague, and member of a team, by both staff and fellow team members. Most were able to understand why there were fairly strict procedures in place, in terms of what they could do with the young people, and recognised that staff too were operating within programme boundaries, and built in as much flexibility as possible. The negative impact on motivation caused by the inevitable limits placed upon their autonomy was at least partly alleviated by the fact that they were actively encouraged to express themselves and explore their capabilities; their achievements were celebrated; and their immediate needs were supported- both within and beyond the programme. The programme itself also appeared to function as a kind of protective bubble around the stress and chaos of the rest of the prison. As ex-team member Keira told me it’s like a home within prison”. Another important aspect of this was feeling re-connected on some level to the world outside of the prison, which previous research has also identified as a motivating factor (Uggen, Manza and Behrens, 2004; Edgar, Jacobson and Biggar, 2011). Regularly interacting with professionals and young people from the community reminded them that there was something to go back to, and provided a welcome sense of normality. Regardless of how humanising the programme experience was, in terms of enabling them to “not feel like prisoners”, a sharp reminder of how far they were from normalcy and freedom was never far away. As two men asked me, how human can you feel when you have forgotten the feeling of grass between your toes and what the sky looks like at night? Most had resigned themselves to the fact that, as long as they were in prison, they would have limited control over their lives. Having gained clarity around who they wanted to be and affirmed their commitment to change whilst participating in the programme, not being able to test out this ‘new me’ until they were released was a frustration.


Many of the prisoners I spoke to had managed to establish a degree of autonomy even under such controlling social conditions, and the programme was a significant part of this, but the complexity and dynamism of motivation in the prison context cannot be over-emphasised. What is needed is prison-wide commitment to supporting prisoners’ autonomy, as inconsistent provision may actually be more detrimental to motivation and well-being than being predictably restricted of it.  Given the fragility of prisoners’ sense of autonomy and its importance for ensuring that any motivation to change endures, a more holistic approach is desperately needed. More often than not, people in prison are being shoe-horned through overly-structured, impersonal cognitive-behavioural programmes in the name of rehabilitation, rather than having the opportunity to undertake meaningful activities that they are interested in and hold some relevance for the life they envision outside of prison. There has been a recent rise in strengths-based, more individualised and creative approaches to rehabilitation such as therapeutic communities, arts-based initiatives and democratic participation (Edgar, Jacobson and Biggar, 2011; Davey, Day and Balfour, 2015; Hunter et al., 2016; Dolan, 2017; Jacobson and Fair, 2017), which is promising. It is not realistic given limits on resources that the necessary support for prisoners’ autonomy can be provided entirely through rehabilitation programmes, yet the prison regime as it stands offers little else in between. Daily processes and interactions thus need to be more autonomy supportive, in order to achieve a prison culture that encourages its inhabitants to flourish, such that any motivational effect of programmes is supported, rather than threatened, by the wider prison environment. My PhD journey has led me to the firm and optimistic conclusion that good things can come out of prison, but far more needs to be done to constructively engage prisoners’ motivation.

Annie Bunce ( is in the final year of her PhD, which has explored prisoners’ motivations for participating in rehabilitation programmes, at the University of Surrey. Her research interests are rehabilitation programmes, motivation and prisoner wellbeing and desistance. She also works part-time as Research and Evidence Officer for Samaritans’ work on self-harm and suicide prevention in prisons. 


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Bunce, A., (2018) Autonomy in prison: So close?...Yet so far. Available at: (Accessed [date]).


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logo The Comparative Penology Group is led by Dr Ben Crewe and his research team who, since 2016, have been working on a five-year project titled: 'Penal policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis'.

The research is based in England & Wales, and Norway, and involves four inter-related studies of (a) penal policymaking and the penal field (b) the experience of entry into and release from custody (c) the daily experiences of female prisoners and imprisoned sex offenders, and (d) prisoners in the most secure parts of each jurisdiction's prison system.

This project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC).









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