Role of the Religious Community in Helping with Desistance
The religious community can play an important role in providing both tangible and intangible support for offenders to help them reintegrate into society after serving a prison sentence. Tangible support provided by a religious community can include help with housing and employment, two key concerns for offenders upon release from prison. As for the intangible support, it usually includes strong social bonds within the community based on reciprocal relationships, an issue of major significance for the reintegration of the offenders, particularly regarding the degradation and stigma associated with their imprisonment. Acceptance by spiritual and community leaders can act as a redemption ritual which allows offenders to break from their negative past and develop a new, positive identity. The community can also support the move away from crime by providing a moral community which engenders respect for the law. Moreover, civic engagement and contributing constructively within a community can strengthen a positive new identity. This tangible, as well as intangible, support plays an important role in helping offenders manage the delicate transition back into society, which is usually fraught with challenges as well as possibilities. It is important to emphasise, however, that such support only led participants to successful desistance if the individual had made a personal commitment to move away from crime. For individuals who refused to make such a commitment, community help did not lead to desistance from crime. By continuing to remain involved in crime, they risked experiencing ruptures in their relationships with positive peers within the religious community and jeopardising their access to help and support.
Redemption Narratives, New Social Relations and a Moral Community
It is therefore not surprising that the role of the religious community as a bridge towards acceptance and a positive new identity was crucial in the lives of the participants who had moved away from crime. For Muslim ex-offenders in this study, their belonging to and participation in a religious community helped them maintain a positive identity by supporting all three elements of their redemption scripts. Within religious communities, participants sought guidance and forgiveness from spiritual leaders. These interactions with spiritual leaders acted as redemption rituals and strengthened a positive identity. Religious communities helped these participants overcome self-doubts about their decision to desist, thereby helping them to maintain a sense of control over their actions. Religious communities were also a source of social capital and participants could access help with housing and employment through their social contacts within the community. Contributing positively to their community helped these participants strengthen their new identity away from crime.
Participants emphasised the importance of their religious communities in inhibiting their involvement in crime by providing strong social bonds and support. Relationships with members in the religious community were an alternative to previously harmful peer relationships. Positive roles within a community offered an alternative way to make social bonds and gain the respect and status that individuals got through their involvement with their peer groups (Maruna, 2007). Religious communities were seen to promote moral messages that condemned acts of deviance and crime and helped offenders maintain a sense of connection to moral norms and values. Congregational religious practise also provided structure and gave a sense of routine to everyday life (Calverley, 2013).
For Abdullah (British Pakistani), changing his circle of friends and involving himself back in the mosque was crucial to his commitment to desist.
When I came out (of prison) I had offers every other week. “Hey how you doing? Heard you’re back, sorry to hear about your father, you know when you’re ready give us a shout”. I just changed my number then. I just said “boom”, crossed everybody out start fresh again start fresh again, started coming dhikr here. On Thursday we’d come here and read dhikr, read jumʿa (Friday prayer), changed my attitude, changed my ways, changed everythin’ cause now I’ve seen it there’s no point doin’ it again, is there? You know what I mean. You know so I’m just thinking let’s start all over again get another chance and get on with it to be honest with you. But it’s just obviously you know you make mistakes we’re human innit but if you make the same mistakes again, I don’t know what to call that – stupid innit?
Along with peer relationships, to have a person of high spiritual standing within the religious community engage with them, despite their own stigmatised identity (due to their crimes), helped participants to manage the shame and stigma of their crime. By getting acceptance from a figure of religious authority, participants felt they could move away from the stigma of their past. This acceptance can be regarded as a redemption ritual. As Abdullah explained:
Our Sheikh’s different, it’s no sakhti [strictness], there is no sakhti… I am, I am, I am scum, I am scum. People know now my true colours and what I am. You know who I am. People know who I am, you know more than that, but you still choose to sit here and talk to me. That’s what my Sheikh’s like. My Sheikh will say to me “Son yeah, it happens innit. Have you learnt anything off it?” “Yeah I have.” “Right, puttar [son] go and do your thing. Go and do your thing. Now don’t make the mistake again.” If you make it again the Sheikh will sit there and say, “You done it again?” “I have done it again.” “What you doing?” It’s just, you know what it is, it’s just that focus…
For born-Muslim participants, relationships within the religious community were based on kinship bonds and a common ethnic culture. Most of these participants had moved away from their kinship community during the phase in which they were involved in crime. They returned to these kinship relationships after release from prison.
Converts tended to establish links with a religious community through their experience of conversion; for some of the participants, this was during their prison sentence. For them, the bonds they formed with other Muslim prisoners during their prison sentence remained important after release from prison. Ali (white convert) had relied on his Muslim friends from prison when he was going through a “mid-life crisis”:
Last year I had a major slip. You know I’m just saying this for the sake of being truthful. I had a major slip, me and my wife broke, I went back to London. I thought I was missing something… and I had enough, and I said I wanna go out… So, I went out to bars and started wanting to live that non-Muslim lifestyle again… You see everybody is out there having fun and I allowed myself to become weak and… but you know it was difficult. So, I went back to London and being away from the situation and back around people who knew me… umm and who challenged me, you know what I mean. I needed to be around people who would just be bluntly honest with me and say listen… yeah, they were all from prison. I reached out to them. I texted about three or four of them one day and said, “Look man, I’m in a bad way, you know I’m really in a bad way, I’m close to doing things that I’m not, you know”… and mashallah they really… they said come back to London, at my house every day you know, they were good brothers, I mean. Yeah, they were really there for me. You know they kinda got me back…
Ali’s relationship with other ex-prisoners who had committed to desisting from crime provided a reciprocal relationship which helped him maintain his commitment to desistance despite his personal doubts. Having such a group to rely on in times of difficulty was significant in helping him maintain desistance from crime.
Giving Back to Society – Moving Away from Materialism
Civic engagement and giving back to the community offered participants another avenue through which they could occupy roles that could lead to identity change and help them move away from crime (Uggen et al., 2004). Many of the participants spoke of wanting to contribute to broader society in a more positive way. For some, this was related to their role in their kinship community (Dawood, Abdullah, Rahim), while for others it was a broader concern. In particular, participants saw their life stories as instructional; they felt their experiences were useful in helping others avoid the mistakes they had made. Two of the participants were working as mentors in the criminal justice system. Others also spoke about their desire to be more civically involved.
Amongst ex-offenders, the role of a ‘wounded healer’, a person who helps other prisoners navigate their integration back into society, is seen to lead to a range of positive outcomes (Eglash, 1958; LeBel, 2007, 2009; LeBel et al., 2015). Involvement in mentoring roles is linked to a lower sense of stigma about previous criminal history, more pro-social values, better self-esteem and better coping strategies, along with higher levels of wellbeing and life satisfaction.
Steve (Mixed Race, convert) wanted to work as a youth mentor. He felt such work would be particularly rewarding for him due to his own difficult past:
What I really want to do is get into that mentoring like youths that are in gangs and trying to deter them from, because obviously I’ve been there, I’ve done that. Been involved in gangs in that area and stuff like that. So that’s what I want to do, and in terms of, that would be fulfilling for me. Just before I come out, I was thinking about even like charity work abroad. Not for long. Just for me, helping someone, I get, there’s nothing, there’s not a better feeling, you know what I’m saying? There’s not a better feeling. Obviously, I have to make money, but I started to realise it before, I was always “money, money, money” But there’s more to life than money, you know? Money can’t bring you happiness. So, I’d rather help someone along the way, and be satisfied and content, you know?
Ex-offenders regarded their informal role within their community as playing a significant role in their desistance journey. The chance to contribute positively to their community, to be involved in activities within their religious community, and to be seen as established members of their communities were a way of “giving back” to society, which was important for respondents.
Imran (British Pakistani) had set up a call centre with some friends. He felt that his business offered him a chance to give back to the community as he was able to give employment to young boys in his city:
Plus, we’re okay, so I mean that one thing [his business] like changed completely from what we are, well from what we were. Do you know what I mean? Obviously in a positive way, so we’re bringing something to the community. Or we’re doing something and now, for example the place in (name of city) we took like 30, 40 lads from the area who had nothing basically, who were drug dealers who were everything and we took 30, 40 of them and put them straight and now they’re all paying taxes, they’re all getting their own wages, mothers are happy, fathers are happy that’s, do you know what I mean? So, we’re lucky to be where we are and we can do that. So, alhamdulillah I mean everything’s worked out for us so we’re alright.
Imran saw the business he had set up in which he was contributing to the community by providing jobs and paying taxes but also through the spiritual practise of organising dhikr services after work as an indicator that things had worked out for him despite his conviction. This sense of personal achievement as well as his emphasis on giving back to society suggested that he had successfully established a positive identity for himself.
Tangible Help with Employment and Housing
Community membership could offer participants the chance to build non-criminal relationships, as well as get help with employment and housing. Most of the participants told me that they relied on contacts made through their religious communities in finding help with employment and housing. Trust formed through social relationships within religious communities allowed participants to move beyond the stigma of a criminal record. Several participants received help in setting up business ventures through social contacts at their mosque. This kind of help was significant for ex-offenders as their criminal record limited their options for finding regular work; setting up their own business gave them the opportunity to earn money without having to deal with the stress and stigma of sharing their criminal record with potential employers.
In the case of Abdullah, for instance, kinship networks linked to his mosque played an important role in helping him become self-employed:
I always knew people anyway, because my uncle, my caca (paternal uncle), few members of my family, they were in the ladies’ wear. So, I always had the connections since we were kids that I know who to go to. So, if I went to him, he don’t need a credit or someone to say he’s a good lad, him. They’ll give me the credit anyway ‘cause of family links. They knew my father, there’s always be that link, they’ll never run off with our money, so he’s one of them.
Imran, who served two prison sentences for violence, also found support to set up a business through friends in his kinship network. After leaving prison he set up a call centre with the help of a few friends from his community:
I mean obviously for me because like, obviously I was always into fighting and all that I think that’s what I think me now, I’ve like calmed down all that I think basically just stick to the law, simple as that, obviously we’re blessed enough to get to a position where we have done now you know what I mean? Obviously, I’m not an (unclear), we were as teenagers, we were lost, proper lost. We done everything and so for us to like leave that and alhamdulillah, we’re alright because now we’ve obviously got legit businesses there where it’s happening for us if you know what I mean?
Along with the tangible help Imran received through friends in his community, he also attributed the success of his call centre to his Sheikh who he felt had blessed his business. Near his call centre some of the workers had set up a Thursday dhikr group, which they attended after work.
It’s like we built up from like seven, eight people from eight people, then from there we built up within two years we got it to like 150 – 60 people so obviously, once we implement the idea of it and we got the computers it just sprung up itself, it just – constantly just – like it’s just the building I mean I can’t explain it. I mean obviously we got blessings I think of Sheikh Itisham but it’s just since these last six, seven months it’s just been building.
Similarly, Naveed (British Pakistani) also got his first job through the help of Muslim friends outside prison. Close to the end of his sixteen-year sentence for murder, when Naveed was in an open prison, he was introduced to a property developer through one of his friends. This developer offered him a job on one of his projects. Having a job made the transition to life outside prison much easier for him. This friend became a key contact for Naveed outside prison; he started to mentor him and helped him progress through different types of jobs. Eventually he managed to get him involved in a mentoring project for young Muslim offenders.
Although religious communities could offer help with housing and employment, this help could also be jeopardised due to continued involvement in crime. Informal tangible help from community members or through formal channels such as Islamic charities required a degree of responsibility and reciprocity from individuals receiving this help. This was particularly the case with formal sources of support as NGOs faced the pressures of reporting the rates of reconviction and recidivism for the people they were helping, in order to maintain their funding. They were also under immense pressure to show that offenders under their care were moving, in quite short periods of time, onto secure employment and more long-term secure housing. These pressures faced by the organisation made it difficult for them to adopt a more long-term relationship with the offenders they were supporting. In the case of informal help, these pressures were also present, as participant’s relationships could become strained if they continued to carry on their involvement in crime despite receiving help and support. However, generally, in the case of informal sources of support, there was more flexibility, more chances of forgiveness and help available for offenders to bring about change. Informal help therefore was better able to support the ‘zigzag’ nature of desistance.
Vin and Zulfikar, two casual Muslims who had found accommodation through community contacts, became homeless due to their continued involvement in crime. After release from prison, Zulfikar’s (British Pakistani) cousin had offered him a place to stay in London. This arrangement, however, did not last long, as his cousin disliked him using drugs and alcohol.
After his release from prison, Vin (mixed race, convert) had secured accommodation through an Islamic charity. He really valued his apartment as his first secure, independent accommodation; having access to his own place was an important step towards taking more responsibility and becoming an adult:
Where I’ve got my own little flat, it’s like it’s the first time I’ve been in a situation in life, so I’m managing it. It’s like I’m becoming an adult. Or I am an adult, but I know what I’m being, I’m being more responsible in terms of getting to understand how the working world works. I’ve never had a job before. But same way I’ve never gone out and doing my own shoppin’, my own washin’, my own laundry, my own cookin’. All of these things, I’m doing them. So I have grown. I’m adding these skills and experiences. Just trying to re-start my life, basically, away from the crime. ‘cause the circle was vicious circle, and one thing leads to the next, and you know, you only get older.
Despite the hope and aspiration in Vin’s interview, his situation changed quite rapidly. When I tried to contact him for a follow-up interview, he was not available. I found out through the organisation that he had been evicted from his flat. A key worker at the organisation explained that he was always behind on his rent; there were concerns that he had a gambling addiction and was using his housing benefit to maintain his addiction. Although Vin was open about his dependence on cannabis in the interview, he did not mention anything about gambling. However, since he could not consistently keep to the rules set by the organisation, he had lost his access to his apartment.
Role of Religion for Persistent Offenders
It is important to emphasise that the importance of a religious community in deterring from crime was effective for participants who had developed strong redemption narratives, in which they separated their current identity from their past criminal actions and saw themselves as inhabiting their real, authentic ‘good’ self (Maruna, 2001, 148). Desistance involved both an active decision and commitment from the individual in moving away from crime despite difficulties and challenges, along with an environment which promoted and supported this change in the individual (Maruna, 2014). Desistance from crime was a process which required constant work from participants, and many found it hard to completely move away from crime. Dependence on drugs was a mitigating factor, however, which could draw participants back towards crime, as were financial pressures and the pull of negative peer relationships.
The main difference between persistent offenders and ex-offenders was a sense of control over personal actions. Persistent offenders who were part of religious communities felt that their actions were driven by forces outside their control (Topalli et al., 2013). They described their rule breaking as driven by worldly temptations or strains. This focus on external forces helped them justify their involvement in crime. These participants retained the idea of returning to an identity in which they were able to overcome the strains of worldly desires and obstacles to commit fully to the religious teachings they were ignoring due to their involvement in crime.
Dawood (mixed race, convert), was a regular attendee at his mosque and had recently been arrested for involvement in the supply of drugs and possession of an imitation firearm. For Dawood, his arrest was a one-off slip; he had succumbed to the financial pressures, and he had also wanted to help his friend who was looking for a place to store some of his drugs. Describing his crime as influenced by external pressures and explaining his actions as an attempt to help a friend were ways in which he could see his crime as externally driven and not in contradiction to his religious beliefs:
Like his mum kicks him out. She’s found some ganja [name of a drug] or something in the house some puriya [packet of drugs] em and she kicked him out the house. So he says, “Can I stay at the flat?” and I’m like might as well and ‘cause I was staying somewhere else at the time I was like, “Yeah no problem, no problem.” Like I say, he was giving me money as well, which I was a bit skint at the time because I was like going back down d’you know the wrong ways and that, so my money weren’t save, it was windowed away. Like I say I had the stress of Christmas coming up and the kids saying “I want this, I want that, I want this, I want that” so like I said I don’t know why but I kinda justified it to myself in my own head “Oh well I’m not doing it myself like I’m just letting him do it in the flat and letting him stay there” and like I said I can’t tell lies and say I didn’t know he was doing drugs ‘cause I did know he was doing drugs and selling drugs like I said I kinda justified it to myself.
Identity change is seen as a process which starts with contemplation of the possibility of change (Ebaugh, 1988). Persistent offenders showed some degree of reflection and contemplation along with phases of action. However, a complete shift in social relationships and changes to identity were not observable.