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Discourses We Live By

Hazel R. Wright
Marianne Høyen

IV. Discourses we work around: managing constraining circumstances

13. A Danish Prisoner Narrative

The Tension from a Multifaceted Identity During (Re-) Entry to Society

Charlotte Mathiassen


Charlotte Mathiassen explores the transition of a prisoner who has committed murder, from prison, to halfway house, to rehabilitation in society, in order to show how incarceration affects the individual. She is seeking better ways to support such transitions, ways that could help the prisoner develop a new sense of agency and self-worth.

Texte intégral

1This chapter recounts Nick’s story as he tries to get a grip on life after six years of incarceration, focusing on his experiences as he moves from prison to a halfway house and later from the halfway house to his own apartment. Nick was forty-three years old when I met him. He had served part of his sentence for manslaughter in a high-security (closed) prison and was in the process of moving to the halfway house. As this chapter illustrates, Nick experienced increasing unrest and de-habilitation. This markedly restricted his everyday living and being, even though his physical incarceration was lessened. Nick’s experiences challenge a major rehabilitative and societal ambition, namely, to integrate former prisoners into society through education and work. Furthermore, it sheds light on the way that, after prolonged imprisonment, shame, guilt and stigma can heavily influence the route back into society.

2The empirical method was qualitative. We (Nick and I) succeeded in three extended dialogues over one-and-a-half years and some follow-up phone calls a year after his release. I analysed the material to search for personally meaningful narratives and found both contradictions and tensions, agreeing with Bosworth and colleagues (2005) that:

Prisoners are not numbers. They are living, breathing people with personalities, characteristics, likes, and dislikes. In the current penal climate, as more and more people are locked up all the time, this simple observation is all too often forgotten. (2005, p. 251)

3I insisted on taking a point of departure in the prisoner’s first-person perspective as closely as I could. As Farrant (2004) described in her article on life story research with men who have served time in prisons, the dialogues between Nick and I were beset with contradictions and complexity and they had emotional effects on both of us.

Prisoners Going Home, or…?

4We know from research that the process of re-entry is often difficult (Keene, Smoyer & Blankenship, 2018; Maruna, 2000; Olsen, 2017; Petersilia, 2003; Riggs & Cook, 2015; Seigafo, 2017) and for different reasons. Often prisoners experience challenges due to poor education, poverty, unemployment, homelessness, psychological and health problems, marginal positions or exclusion resulting in what Keene, Smoyer and Blankenship (2018) term ‘stigmatized identities associated with their incarceration’ (2018, p. 799). Furthermore shame, guilt and challenges in coming to terms with their past contribute to some prisoners’ difficulties (Bhatti, 2010; Mathiassen, 2016) as do the lack of ties to a close social community, for instance, a supportive family (Brunton-Smith & McCarthy, 2016).

5Different research explores ‘what works’ in relation to reducing recidivism rates (i.e., offenders’ return to crime) (Cook et al, 2015; Hicks, 2004) but the answer to that question is far from simple (Cook et al, 2015; Travis et al, 2014). Time in prison is painful for several prisoners and this does not seem to help matters (Listwan et al, 2013). Petersilia’s belief in 2003 that: ‘How we plan for inmates’ transition to free living — including how they spend their time during confinement, the process by which they are released, and how they are supervised after release — is critical to public safety’ (Petersilia, 2003, p. 3), still holds. So does her point that people who have committed criminal acts need incentives to change, which necessitates ‘a supervised transition plan’ (Petersilia, 2003, p. 75), although the different prison experiences will determine the specific resources ‘necessary for successful re-entry’ (Anonymous & Dombrowsky, 2010, p. 477). For example, mentally ill prisoners who do not receive help risk harming other people or themselves (Seigafo, 2017).

6Conditions in Danish and Nordic prisons are different from those in American prisons and the release processes differ too (Aaltonen et al, 2017; Scharff Smith & Ugelvik, 2017). The preparation for release while the prisoner is still in prison, as well as the follow-up during his or her transition to a less restricted conduct of life, however, are important in both traditions, to try to minimize the risk of reoffending or other negative consequences.

7The main character in this chapter, Nick, struggled to adjust to life after prison. In several ways, he seemed to experience anxiety, maybe as a consequence of a societal stigmatizing discourse and practice around ex-prisoners like himself. Tyler and Slater (2018, p. 724) argue that if the focus is only on ‘individualized stories of disclosure and recovery, sociological questions about the causes of mental distress are frequently airbrushed out of the picture’. However, the point of departure in my analysis is to acknowledge the societal dimension to the challenges Nick faces and to reveal this through his different versions of parts of his story.

Setting the Scene

8Nick committed a single serious violent crime and the victim died of his injuries. A forensic psychiatrist diagnosed Nick to be within the spectrum of severe personality disorder. Therefore, he served his sentence in a special prison facility that employed more psychiatrists and psychologists than is the norm in Danish prison facilities, because the majority of prisoners had diagnoses within the spectrum of severe personality disturbances and the professional approach is that they need treatment.

9In Denmark, for ‘cases’ like Nick, the key professional intent is to reach a forensic psychological and psychiatric understanding of the mind of convicts who have committed serious crimes. However, in this chapter I adopt a different theoretical approach, trying to understand what is at stake in lives like his.


10Anthropological psychology, which draws on both existential and phenomenological thinking was one theoretical cornerstone of this research (Bertelsen, 1994; Mathiassen, 2009) and the concept of the ‘life-project’ was central, capturing the point of view that a person always strives and projects him or herself into the future. The individual directs him or herself in a manner whereby both the past and the present influence the process of direction. During this process, the actual life setting continually influences the person and the person influences the actual life setting. Time, place and person are intertwined and reciprocity and fluidity characterize the way life is established and progresses, which in some respects corresponds with the fundamentals in Ollman’s (2015) theoretical thinking, which will be presented later in this chapter. Therefore, one can argue that recollection of the past and expectations of the future influence how the individual strives and projects him or herself while maintaining that individuals strive and project themselves in an intimate and inseparable relation to the life setting directing them.

11Nick’s story will serve as a ‘case’ to illustrate the adjustments potentially faced by long-term prisoners who are in the process of being released from — and releasing themselves from — a physical, psychological and existential incarceration in prison. I shall focus on analysing how the context, Nick’s experiences in prison and beforehand, and his expectations for the future must all be included in an attempt to understand what is at stake in his life. Time is a crucial part of this. While conducting the dialogues with Nick, I was concerned that not only were his descriptions of whether or not to participate contradictory and conflicting, but so were other parts of his stories. I will analyse and discuss some of these contradictions, which seem to be present both in Nick’s stories of his own conduct in life and of the different attempts to assist him to see the possibility of a range of actions other than arrest.

Constructing the Stories

12Because I designed the research by following the anthropological psychological stance, the starting point in our dialogues was: ‘Please, tell me about what is important to you, in your present life’ (life project and engagement).

13I began in the present, in the here and now, to get an impression of what was important right now (engagement). Therefore, the present was one central anchor point in time in Nick’s meaning-making (Bruner, 2004). Furthermore, I asked him about his eventual dreams, hopes and wishes for the future (life project). Finally, I urged him to describe his way of living before imprisonment. In our dialogues Nick moved between different episodes, times and activities and we covered the present, the future and the past.

14The individual life project as it develops is intimately connected to the actual conditions, situations and locations — including other people, discourses and activities. I therefore urged Nick to describe how he experienced staying in this prison among this group of prisoners. Like Farrant (2014) before me, I did the research with ‘a clear commitment to take us deep into the heart of the prison experience’ (2014, p. 463).

15We explored the experience of being a prisoner in the institution of prison from different angles and over several years. How did Nick experience the demands from the psychologist? the governor? the other prisoners? What were the possibilities of exercise? of getting some peace to concentrate on school? Was it possible to have a friend in prison? Nick mostly took the lead in the conversations, but sometimes, just to be sure that I understood his story, I explored the themes he raised further. At times his narrative was very difficult to follow, due partly to peculiar sentence constructions and word usage but also because of the contradictions in Nick’s stories. In several ways, our conversations lived up to Jewkes’ (2014) characterization of criminology: ‘Criminology is about the dramatic, tragic, visceral, and emotive’ (2014, p. 388). This, I hope, will become apparent over the following pages.

Contradictory Relations in Nick’s Story

16Nick explained that he participated in this research to enable people to gain insight into prisoners’ experiences of release from a physical prison, a view in line with that expressed by Bosworth and colleagues (2005) who summarized the reasons for prisoners being co-researchers as ones that ‘… go well beyond purely instrumental factors to include complex affective issues that concern agency and hope’ (2005, p. 256). Nick seemed dually motivated; keen to ‘open the window’ into prison life and an individual prisoner’s experiences, but also to broaden his seemingly minimal experience of agency through such participation. Simultaneously, Nick underlined that he wanted to tell his story but also that he did not want to ‘enter the limelight’. To put it another way, Nick appeared rather reserved, almost scared, of being ‘visible and recognized’.

17Ollman (2015) argues that: ‘Changes and relations are the basic building materials of the “bigger picture”’ (2015, p. 10). He is a proponent of the philosophy of internal relations and has written extensively on Marx. Ollman insists on an understanding of matters in which the focus is on processes and relations rather than on phenomena that exist separately and are only ‘externally’ connected. In other words, disconnection and separate things do not exist; processes do, and are constantly interacting with other processes. At the same time, all human activity focuses on something, which is still a part of and thereby not separated from the whole. Abstraction is necessary for the process of understanding a whole and complex matter. Inspired by Ollman, I understand Nick’s wanting to be visible and non-visible at the same time as a contradictory relation.

18Farrant (2014), drawing on Heidegger and the concept of unconcealment, argued that storytelling and stories make ourselves and the other come to life. By sharing stories, the sharers come to life. During our dialogues, Nick tried to engage and participate and move beyond his invisible life in prison, but he also became increasingly worried about the potential consequences of our contact. Stated in more analytical terms, the contradiction or tension between his engagement and worries increased during the years of our contact. The question became one of how to understand this contradiction or at least tension in Nick’s description and story. Maybe Nick, by meeting up, by telling his story to me, slowly discovered how difficult it was for him to move towards being a citizen outside of prison. The materiality of life and the challenges of life outside of prison became increasingly evident and more difficult to handle. As Farrant (2014) found with other prisoners, Nick displayed some but not all of his often contradictory and multifaceted stories of self.

19Let me now turn to the part of Nick’s life-story in which the challenges intensified because he moved from the prison to the halfway house. This move was both a physical move and an existential and social move. Preparation began during the last part of Nick’s incarceration in prison and the process continued after the concrete move from prison cell to halfway house. Ongoing contact between prison staff and those in the halfway house demonstrated that procedures followed good practice, as did Nick’s involvement, since he was able to present his wishes and expectations for the future.

Leaving Prison

  • 1 See Schartmueller (2018) for a comparison of the release processes in Denmark, Finland and Sweden.

20Having completed six years of imprisonment when he left the closed prison, Nick expected to finish his sentence in the halfway house. This was theoretically possible due to his ‘calm and well behaved’ behaviour in prison and, of course, the length of his served sentence.1 From prison, Nick made plans to attend a school for adults in the ordinary school system once he was settled in the halfway house. This was mandatory because he wanted to go to university to become an engineer. Nick did attend school in prison but experienced problems concentrating, a common experience among prisoners and ex-prisoners. He had had to force himself to complete his programme of self-study.

  • 2 Prisoners self-cater in Denmark. They buy food in a grocery store in the prison and prepare their o (...)

21Nick had also insisted on having an ordinary job within the prison and was fully capable of working full-time apart from the time he spent on his self-study. Nick described his everyday life as rather routinized (Holzkamp, 2016). Furthermore, although Goffman’s description of the total institution can be criticized for being ahistorical and for ignoring the questions of political ideology and power (Slater & Tyler, 2018) I shall argue that the way Nick and other prisoners described the organization and regulation of their everyday life in prison echoes several of Goffman’s points. Nick described his everyday life in mundane terms: getting up when the guards knocked at the door, getting ready for the day, making breakfast in the kitchen.2 He started and finished work at the same time every day. After work, he jogged every day and in general, he kept himself apart, avoiding engagement with the social communities among the prisoners.

22When Nick moved to the halfway house, the prison routines disappeared. He had to kick-start his life again, a huge challenge. He described the other prisoners’ behaviour as disturbing and irresponsible and claimed that they did not respect other people. Nevertheless, his immediate relief and optimism at the prospect of new and different possibilities and relative ‘freedom’ rapidly diminished after he left the closed prison. During the next few months, Nick became increasingly depressed and his hopes and plans for his future education slowly deteriorated, even though the preparations made in anticipation of his release held good: he had a home, the possibility of attending school, and other people to interact with even though they all were ex-prisoners. We must consider why this should be the case.

You Wrap Yourself In

23The clearest goal and ‘life project’ in the stories that Nick shared with me was to attend school with the ambition of entering university. However, Nick found it a huge challenge to be in school with people who had no prison experience. As I said at the outset, there seemed to be contradictions in the way he directed himself towards life, other people and himself.

24Several activities at school centred on presenting oneself to one’s new classmates. This may challenge the shyest among us, but most people manage it without further ado. Sometimes people conceal aspects of their lives and histories and may have conflicted views when determining what to tell and what to keep private. To refer back to Ollman, this activity is part of a bigger whole, and its relation to the whole influences how the activity proceeds. Ex-prisoners do not have a complete choice as to how, and in which directions, their return to or reintegration into society goes. Societal discourses about, for instance, ‘the criminal’, ‘the monster’, or ‘the deviant’, influence prisoners’ self-narratives (Farrant, 2014), so the identity of prisoners and ex-prisoners can be understood as one constructed in relation to such societal discourses.

25Stigma, meaning ‘the situation of the individual who is disqualified from full social acceptance’ (Goffman, 1986/1963, preface), is the point of departure in my understanding of the processes of ‘othering’ that take place in our society when it comes to groups of ‘outcasts’, groups of ‘human waste’ (to borrow from Zygmunt Bauman, 2003). Ex-prisoners sometimes end up in such groups when the processes of stigmatization rule, not least those prisoners who have committed serious and violent crimes towards children and women. Processes of stigmatization and discrimination are social. Following Parker & Aggleton (2003), these processes are related to power and domination:

[…] stigma is linked to the workings of social inequality and to properly understand issues of stigmatization and discrimination […] requires us to think more broadly about how some individuals and groups come to be socially excluded, and about the forces that create and reinforce exclusion in different settings. (2003, p. 16)

26Nick experienced difficulties and challenges during his release and his attempts to participate in different societal and institutional arrangements. Nick described both his release in general and his entering school in this way:

You wrap yourself up… try not to enter the limelight… you become extremely vulnerable when you get released… because there is no defence at all.

27I have already explained that Nick wanted both anonymity and the chance to tell his story in a way that offered a real insight into the challenges that face prisoners on leaving prison. Drawing on Ollman, I argued that contradictions emerged in Nick’s stories and that it challenged Nick to handle the tension these contradictions caused. Eventually, this proved too much for Nick and he ended up breaking our contact, telling me that he felt he was getting too much attention. As Nick said he wanted to ‘wrap himself up’; he felt vulnerable and lacked the means to defend himself. He did not want anybody to reveal any details about him or the manslaughter for which he had served time and he stated this on several occasions, reinforcing his sense of discomfort about what could happen, the possibility of others confronting him with his acts and showing their condemnation. The fear of stigmatization is clearly present, and as I discussed elsewhere (Mathiassen, 2009), Goffman’s explanation of stigma suggests there is a process of self-stigmatization underpinning the tension when Nick oscillates between trying to participate in societal and social arrangements and retreating into isolation out of fear.

28I interpret Nick’s intentions and his feeling of being ‘without defence’ as closely linked to his attempts to approach and handle guilt and shame as ‘his’, to take ownership of his crime. Nick behaved in a seriously violent manner towards a young person in a period of his life characterized by substance abuse, personal and relational chaos, jealousy and stress. The young person died of the injuries and Nick, periodically, still seems desperate and unable to believe that he could have committed this serious crime. Therefore, I argue that he may still be going through the process of accepting the knowledge that he has killed a youngster, incorporating it into his self-understanding. In line with Farrant’s (2014) points (and drawing on Heidegger), I argue that talking to me assisted the phenomenon to come to life, and Nick to come to life, too. This means that Nick is becoming conscious of the part of him that, under specific circumstances, lost control and beat up another human being so violently that the young person died of the injuries. Thus, the tension I mentioned above is not only one that has developed because of the societal condemnation and exclusion that permeates our relational and institutional arrangements, but also because of Nick’s existential struggle. Other research, with and about people convicted of murder or manslaughter, describes similar struggles (Leer-Salvesen, 1991; Wright, Crewe & Hulley, 2017).

The Potentiality of Condemnation

29When Nick told me about the reason for his incarceration, he repeatedly oscillated between consternation about what happened on the day of the assault, and a firm belief about it.


You cannot help thinking about it?


It is present all the time. Because, just walking down the street, somebody might recognize you and shout: ‘Wow, there he is, that monster’. Such thoughts are always present.


Do they refer to the victim?


It is, well, … acting the way I did.… Right, which you can describe in so many ways, right? It is unbelievable, how could that happen? I have never understood how it could actually end that wrong. I have never been able to comprehend and possibly never will. We were so close… so many positive experiences… honestly I do not comprehend.… how could I — that evening — explode so heavily? I do not… because I had decided that everything should be okay.


Nevertheless, it went completely wrong?


Yes, unbelievable.

30Nick did not deny his acts but seemed to struggle with the fact that he actually did them, that within himself he had the capacity to lose control so thoroughly and with such devastating consequences. In a way, he exposed a contradiction and complexity through his story, one that revealed different sides of his self-understanding. Drawing on Tyler & Slater (2018), one could argue that the potentiality (Agamben, 1999) of condemnation, of stigma, which emerges in social settings as a relation, made Nick conceal parts of his story and parts of himself from others, and thereby the potentiality of stigma functioned as a form of power. In turn, this underlines the standpoint that stigma is more than a relational phenomenon which can be handled individually and discursively. Stigma has a social and political function as power, which Tyler and Slater (2018) argue is a form of governmentality (2018, p. 729).

31Paradoxically, although Nick criticized it persistently, the prison possibly afforded protection and a bolster against both ordinary life in society and the condemnation and stigma beyond the prison walls. Once released, Nick was no longer one among several who had committed serious and violent criminal acts. In prison, everybody was serving time because they had done something that was socially unacceptable. They shared the ambition that after imprisonment and release they would be able to live a life without committing new criminal acts. When Nick entered the social scene outside prison, he lost the security that came with being among likeminded people, which, I argue, is a significant aspect of his feelings of vulnerability, of being ‘without defence’. Nick, therefore, distanced himself from situations where other people could confront him with his past as a prisoner — his criminal act, but also with his present situation — his actual life in a halfway house.

32In attempting to conceal his history and his current way of life, Nick also distanced himself from the potential benefits of social and institutional participation. Again, I noticed complex contradictions in Nick’s story. He remained rather isolated because he feared what he was also longing for, namely social and interpersonal relations. As Nick said:

Well, if you are part of a circle of friends you are a part of each other’s life […]. You might have a close friend with whom you share confidentiality. You trust each other. You have a mutual relationship. Here I am in no-man’s land. The people I am around, they are in the same situation as I am. Additionally, the staff who are at work.

33Nick explained several times that he longed for a confidential relationship and he speculated that I had a close friend whom I trusted. He longed to be part of a relationship like that but his sentence ‘Here I am in no-man’s land’ shows that he is not achieving this, instead experiencing a sense of disconnection.

34Returning again to the concept of potentiality (Agamben, 1999), one could argue that Nick was able to imagine what could happen in the social and relational sphere. He expected his classmates to condemn him, which would make him need protection. Therefore, he never invited anyone to engage in an open conversation but protected himself by never actively participating in the social life of the class. I understand this as his acting on the potentiality of condemnation, for when I asked Nick if anybody had commented on, or said anything in relation to, his incarceration and his crime of manslaughter, his answer was a definite ‘no’. Thus, I believe that Nick’s way of handling his life was influenced by self-stigmatization, according to Goffman’s original understanding of stigma as relation.

35It is not inconceivable that it might be possible to access some kind of social community after committing manslaughter. There may be ways to find and join groups; some form of social membership available for ex-offenders. Why then did Nick seem so resistant to engage in the potentiality of a social life instead of choosing isolation? We should consider if the social and political dimension of stigma, stigma as governmentality, could fully explain it. When Nick served time in the closed prison, he lived primarily on his own. He did not want to mingle with other prisoners. He seemed to understand himself as a ‘different kind’ compared to the other prisoners. He seemed to need distance, perhaps because he had not yet found it possible to ‘take responsibility’ for his act because he could not fully comprehend that he was able to harm a minor. Nick, it seems, experienced contradiction between his (ideal) self-understanding and the reality that he killed somebody. Thus it appears relevant to ask: what were the possibilities for him to take responsibility and still to be able to live within society?

Secrets and Shame

36Nick saw an in-house psychologist once a week in prison. This consultation was intended to help him try to engage differently with life compared to the way he lived before his criminal act; to help him to come to terms with himself and his deed; and, finally, to provide assistance throughout the process of leaving prison. People who serve long sentences in this particular prison must agree to engage in psychological and/or psychiatric treatment so Nick experienced an element of pressure to participate in such treatment before he could hope for release.

37Nick did not appear ready for ‘group therapy’ or other intrusions on his privacy, nevertheless it can be argued that individual psychotherapy may have contributed to his sense of secrecy and confusion as to whether his thoughts and feelings about his act should be kept private. Indeed, it can be argued that the praxis of privacy fuelled Nick’s deliberate dissemblance and deception around who he was (and is) and what he did. This accords with criticism of the partial use of Goffman’s concept of stigma, the dangers of ‘schooling the stigmatized to better manage their stigmatized difference’ (Tyler & Slater, 2018, p. 729) without acknowledging the individualizing and de-politicizing aspects.

Physical Reactions

38After his release from prison, Nick felt increasingly sick. Nick described having pneumonia and depression, which he argued was an effect of his release.


You were depressed?


Yes, I was! Bluntly speaking I was. Definitely! I cannot recall ever having been as far down as I have been during this. It really got me by surprise. I ask myself, ‘why do I experience this’?


And why is that so?


Well, according to other people that I have talked to, I am not a unique case. Many people who end up in… who have been in a closed system and then suddenly get out… in a halfway house or the like… they suddenly get… they get a downturn…

39Nick compared his situation to that of other ex-prisoners and thereby seemed to normalize his own reactions. He took a break from school and struggled to get well. The societal arrangements contributed to his unrest and restricted way of living during release. To some extent, the official system — the different social workers and the absence of cooperation between the prison and the halfway house — contributed to the problems that Nick faced.

40According to Nick’s account, there appears to have been a contradiction between the educational plans he made and visions he had in cooperation with the in-house prison social worker and the approach within the social-welfare system after he moved to the halfway house. He explained that the municipal social workers preferred to find him a job rather than support his educational project. He experienced his one conversation with a municipal social worker as a ‘psychological test’. She posed ‘a lot of stupid questions’ and asked him whether he was intelligent. Nick described this as degrading and regretted that he had answered the questions at all.

41When I listened to Nick’s story, I got the impression that problems were caused by both system failure and a personal inability to handle the challenges. He was convinced that ‘they’ wanted him to work, but at the same time told me that the municipal social worker had agreed to support part of his elementary education begun in prison. The process and the situation were chaotic, with several different persons and institutions involved ‘in him’. There seemed to be contradictory, perhaps even conflicting principles in the professional approaches to Nick’s educational plans. Furthermore, he experienced a shift from the prison staff, whom he felt endorsed his plans and perspectives, to the municipal employees whom he felt to be in opposition to his wishes. Nick said that the new professionals pushed him too much:

People do not see how difficult it is for me sometimes. […] It might be positive that people push you but I do not feel ready yet. It is as if they reckon no matter what you touch you can do it.

42Nick believed that he gave other people the impression that he was capable of more than he really was. He thought the picture they held of him contradicted his own experience of himself. Neither the expectations of the social workers, school and prison, nor the societal arrangements, corresponded with Nick’s own. As I understood him, Nick saw this schism as feeding his sense of being unable to progress: ‘I cannot fly to the moon’, he told me towards the end of our contact. In other words, to describe participating in the planned education/ schooling as overwhelming would be an understatement. All the other pupils had a longer history at school and were acquainted with the rules and routines and engaged in the social life there; whereas for Nick the experience was one of being new, of being a stranger, of being insecure in all respects, in life and in school.

43Listening to Nick’s story, it seemed to me that the obvious solution would be to contact the social worker in prison because she best knew him and his ‘case’, but Nick refused. Nick felt that he should behave decently towards the social worker in the halfway house and wait for her to return from sick leave, even though the prison social worker might be able to help him immediately. This contradiction in Nick’s story puzzled me. Why was he acting against his own interests with regard to education? Was he trying to nourish that part of his self-image that was compliant and decent? Could he do this in parallel with his despair over the way the social system was failing him?

44Nick seemed to be experiencing a dilemma. How could he protect his own interests and at the same time acknowledge others’ rights to conduct their own lives? One could argue that he was in a desperate social situation because the prison social worker, someone who could help him, was physically far away. Conversely, the halfway-house social worker was sick but close by, and he desperately needed an ally close by. He was also lonely and needing a friend. The powerful municipal social worker was available but paid little attention to his interests or wishes. Nick himself talked of a lack of understanding of his marginal and fragile position — and I believe that this, in association with his experience of the potentiality of condemnation and his tendency towards self-stigmatization, added to the sense of stigmatization, in Goffman’s usage of the term. His sense of fragility confirmed his reservations about social engagement and encouraged his isolated and depressive ways of living and being. These processes were not separate, rather reciprocal and mutually reinforcing and, as already mentioned, became intertwined with the secrecy surrounding his criminal act.

45To refer back to the ‘what works’ discussion earlier in the chapter, I had found evidence that rehabilitating the individual via programming and therapy alone is insufficient. Such an approach may even confuse as it both assists and stigmatizes the individual. Furthermore, as Nick’s story illustrates, the societal and institutional conditions are crucially important in determining the success of an individual’s route back into society.

Time Passed

46Several months had passed. Nick was still in the halfway house, and his longing for a real friend and for genuine social relations still troubled him as they did in the prison and on release. However, he had several times experienced that his classmates did not condemn him, and this seemed to assist him in adjusting to life outside of prison. Nonetheless, the challenges of release still dominated Nick’s life story:

I am not very positive towards the future.… Damn — only problems… it feels like everything falls apart!

47Nick still found it difficult to form relationships with other people and his negative expectations, informed by his earlier experiences, were still dominant. In Nick’s opinion, the social services had collectively failed to understand his need for what I would characterize as ‘a calm and secure zone of development’. He seemed to experience the normal school system as too demanding (and confronting?) to be able to participate in it. The distance between the secure and routinized life of the prison and the challenging and very different school life in everyday society seemed to be too testing for him during the process of transition. The contrasts and contradictions between prison and life outside seemed too encompassing.

48Nick described a cessation in his progress towards a more liberated existence: ‘It is disappointing that you do not get the things done.… That you… you… know where you actually have the possibilities’. He considered returning to the type of job he had before incarceration and giving up school altogether.


49Ayear later Nick had moved to his own apartment. He received rehabilitation money to complete his education but in the same type of school he had attended several years earlier. Still he blamed the system for having failed him. He obtained advice from a psychologist with whom he met regularly and still had plans to attend university. He seemed to be moving towards learning to participate in social communities: ‘I am too reserved… I do not direct myself towards participating in a social way in society’, he said, with the aim of improving.

50In our last conversation, Nick stated quite clearly that he might be able to influence his own conditions — his own development. Guided by Dreier (2008), I understand his purpose as slowly gaining a sense of control over his own conditions, for he described himself as becoming clearer when communicating his needs and interests rather than just being a victim or a prisoner in, and of, his own life. This was not just a personal decision but closely connected to his slowly changing living conditions and activities. His progress seemed to be supported by his increasingly settled educational route and the expansion of his economic space. When I talked to Nick several months after he ceased formal contact, he told me that he ‘had done something concrete’ to diminish his anxiety and shame. He told me that after this action, which had been ‘tough’, he felt ‘relieved’. Nick did not want to elaborate on what he had done but regardless, ‘this’ also seemed to have supported his move toward a more liberated living and less incarcerated learning.

Leaving the Scene

51Nick’s life story demonstrated that time is an important factor following release after imprisonment for severe violent criminal acts. Using a life-story-oriented approach and getting close to the lived and living experiences of prisoners and ex-prisoners can reveal details of great importance to rehabilitation programmes. This is especially so when the research discovers contradictions and challenges and offers ways to make such dilemmas comprehensible. The forensic approach focusing on individual pathology is only one dimension of a complex task. Rehabilitation has to take place within restrictive societal and institutional arrangements that are heavily loaded with suppressive and productive power structures, and a framework of societal condemnation and exclusion of the wicked and unwanted.

52It seems necessary to acknowledge the objective challenges that prisoners and ex-prisoners experience and to insist on a greater understanding of the insufficiency of handling the processes of stigma individually and socially. ‘Today, I am back on the job market, and, without a license to practice law, still face rejection based upon my criminal record’, writes the anonymous author (Anonymous & Dombrowski, 2010, p. 481). This quotation illustrates how, although an individual may do his or her utmost to participate in reintegrating themselves in society after imprisonment, social and societal conditions often create invincible obstacles for the individual who tries to become a citizen after doing a long stretch inside. I hope that Nick’s life story will contribute to the dissemination of this insight by serving as more than an individualized story of disclosure. Rather, it offers a rigorous way to address both the individual and structural questions that are relevant to the lives of prisoners and ex-prisoners. Whilst I acknowledge that this is only one of several possible approaches — and indeed may be used in conjunction with some of the others — I believe that narrative accounts enable a deep questioning and interpretation of the reality of life after prison and therefore serve a useful purpose in developing our understanding of the needs of the ex-offender if he or she is to fully re-enter the community. Thus, it plays a role in supporting equality and diversity in everyday society.



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1 See Schartmueller (2018) for a comparison of the release processes in Denmark, Finland and Sweden.

2 Prisoners self-cater in Denmark. They buy food in a grocery store in the prison and prepare their own meals.


Associate Professor at Aarhus University, Denmark, is a registered Clinical Psychologist who has worked with children and families, and with adults in prisons, now her primary field of research. She remains interested in school bullying and its consequences in adult life, as well as its possible links to later offending. Charlotte’s work is informed by cultural historical frameworks and anthropological psychology, so it fits well with narrative and life history approaches. Her chapter, ‘Being a woman in mixed-gender prisons’ (in Smith & Ugelvik, Scandinavian penal history, culture and prison practice) in English, appeared in 2017.


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