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Positive Psychology in Prisons?

written by Angus Skinner 20 October 2007

Angus Skinner, MAPP, works in his beloved and beautiful Scotland as an independent management consulting professional. He is also a visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde. He has over 40 years experience of social work services across the UK. As Chief Social Work Inspector for Scotland for 15 years, Angus provided advice directly to ministers on all matters of social work service legislation, policy, and practice development. Full bio. Articles on Positive Psychology News by Angus are here.

Is it wrong for anyone to be happy in prison? Is there to be no redemption once banished? Should the exchanges between the guards and the prisoners be always suspicious, judgmental? The US, with the UK following too closely behind for my mind, has seen, State by State with important variations, massive rises in the numbers of people imprisoned.

Lock Up All the Bad People?

Elliot CurrieElliot Currie, a Californian criminologist, describes this as foolish pursuit of a “utopian” idea that somehow if only we locked up all the bad people we would eliminate crime. Utopian nonsense. ‘Tis true we lock up the bad, but also often the sad and mad. Separating out these aspects of human behavior, experience and being are even harder in the judgmental rigors of the penal system than in general society. For young people and children caught up in this maelstrom, the only choices are often despair and self-harm or folly and risk. Most compromise – and choose obesity.

We see them on the streets. But increasingly we choose not to walk down the self-harming streets, and the dangerous folly streets. We avoid those areas. Carnage is not too strong a word to describe what is happening in some communities, both in the US and (though thankfully as yet less so) in the UK. Imprisonment of course shreds the fabric of communities; the very things that do reduce crime – relationships, employment, engagement – are set beyond reach.

There is a parallel in ways that positive psychology is often conceived – as if it were only about positive emotions, feeling happy, doing well. Currie’s critique of the “utopian” goal of eliminating crime is a critique of a utopian goal of crime-free communities. Underneath this lies a notion of “them and us.”

Of course some people need to be locked up to protect the rest of us, to deter others and indeed to pay a penalty for their crime. I have in the past had to lead government reviews of cases involving the most heinous, brutal murderous crimes; I know the worst of criminal behavior and its deathly effects on innocents. But my early and other experiences formed no or little internal sense of “them and us”, so I find it strange.

Having hope, maintaining some optimism, building efficacy, developing resilience – these are inalienable rights surely, the pursuit of happiness. This is not a matter of pity, or worthiness. It is the un-self-regulated emotions of the “lock-them-up lobby” that has brought us to this bad pass, one that endangers our societies.

Developing well in childhood, and in adulthood, is in major part about regulating our own emotions, tracking other people’s emotions and making wise decisions thereby. But it is especially tricky in these fields. We know the brain has a negative bias, and that therefore (with the notable exception of the National Geographic) the media and journalism has a negative bias. As one Judge pointed out to me recently, “What am I to infer from the fact that almost without exception all new legislation raises the maximum penalty for crimes?” What are the political possibilities of anyone proposing a reduction of maximum sentences? The negative bias is forcefully arraigned against any such move. And therefore I would ask, what are the possibilities of balanced, proportionate sentencing?

Affluence and Impatience – Do These Matter to Crime?

Working our way back from these broken parts of our societies will take time. Is it worth it? Of course. What, asked Princess Diana at a conference, is the point of being a star in a trash can? If we are not for humanity, then surely we cannot truly be for ourselves; the self, as Martin Seligman says, is not a good site for meaning. Avner Offer (an economic historian at Oxford) has written a compelling book analyzing the problems of affluence in the US and the UK since 1950 (which has a great review by Barry Schwartz). Offer’s argument is essentially that affluence breeds impatience, and impatience undermines well-being. This applies to all sorts of things (car models, broken phones, broken relationships), and in my view also to communities, crime, and how we are dealing with the issues involved.

Is it possible to work our way back, or are we on an inevitable road to greater divisions, with despair and chaos for many? Well, Canada, Denmark, Russia, Croatia and others have shown that there are better and more effective alternatives to ever extending the use of imprisonment.

Specific Examples of Positive Psychology

Does Applied Positive Psychology and positive social science have an important role to play in all this? You bet it does! It does for rehabilitative and therapeutic work, it does for organizational work in Prisons and Correctional Services, it does in communities, in child up-bringing and family and personal well-being. And it does so in other surprising ways. In a fascinating article, Bagaric and McConvill (of Deakin University) argue that the principle of proportionality (which is central to all justice systems) should be defined and measured in terms of happiness (well-being).

The politics, of course, lie differently. I was born and spent my early childhood in Pakistan. Today we have fifty of Benazir Bhutto’s bodyguard killed as they formed a human shield to protect her from a suicide bomber. What a gift of love. What faith in the future.

I am conscious also that Katrina and its devastation was a backdrop to the start of MAPP 1. Challenging issues involved. If we know nothing else from the last 300 years, we surely know that life is not a matter of “them and us.”

The turn to a positive social science is gradually affecting all areas of life. Just as well; there’s a lot to be done to turn the direction of our societies away from their present destructive courses.

Bagaric, M., & McConvill, J. (2006). Giving Content to the Principle of Proportionality: Happiness and Pain as the Universal Currency for Matching Offence Seriousness and Penalty Severity. The Journal of Criminal Law, 50-75.

Currie, E. (2005). The Road to Whatever: Middle-Class Culture and the Crisis of Adolescence. Picador.

Offer, A. (2006). The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain since 1950. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

The Barry Schwartz Review (you may need to be a subscriber to LRB).

Additional Reading:

Bagaric & McConvill: Goodbye Justice, Hello Happiness: Welcoming Positive Psychology To The Law.

Comment by David Myers on Bagaric & McConvill paper.
Image: Elliot Currie.

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Hopton 21 October 2007 - 7:17 pm

Very compelling article… thank you Angus! You explore important issues. I only wish more Americans would face the reality of incarceration taken to an extreme. It’s expensive to lock people up and it helps only our small minded and fear based understanding of the world. It’s interesting that in the U.S. at least, many prisons are owned and run by real-estate investment trusts, often publicly traded. Fear is also profitable… Keep up the great articles!

Jeff Dustin 21 October 2007 - 10:06 pm


I’m having trouble posting a comment to your article on prison happiness. (How’s the leg, by the way?)

I had to cry POLITICS POLITICS! when I read your article. To me the process of PP is inseparable from the political viewpoints and bias, to use a pejorative word for it, of its authors, researchers and inventors.

It is precisely the utopian view that locking up all the bad guys, killing all the bad guys, punishing them all “real good” can solve the complex problems that exist in the world today that has lead to some real BAD tragedies.

I remember the bumper sticker, “Kill them all and let God sort them out”. To me that summarizes the core ideal behind a lot of initiatives like the Iraq War, the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, the War on Terror. If we could just eliminate those that have the capacity to harm us, then we’ll all live in peace and harmony. It is very seductive and I admit there are times I agree that a bellicose response is the best one available.

Yet private armies, like private prisons, bother me. The idea that profit is the guiding motive and not justice I find unsettling and inappropriate. I hope PP can help address some of ecological problems that give rise to poverty and its associated higher crime. If we can pick apart the misery that leads to generational criminal culture, that would go a long way to reducing the need for so many prisons.


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