Intriguing new research published by the British Journal of Criminology last week looks at what it feels like to share your lived experience as a worker for a criminal justice organisation in England and Scotland. The research was conducted by the UK’s lead authority on peer mentoring in the criminal justice system, Gill Buck (@gillybuck), Philippa Tomczak (@philippatomczak) & Kaitlyn Quinn (@KaitlynQuinn90). At its heart are focus group interviews with criminal justice practitioners with lived experience.
The researchers start by describing how ‘peer’ led support has ‘exploded around the globe’ in the last 20 years. In a criminal justice context, this involves people employing their experiences of criminalization and other shared life experiences to inspire, motivate and support their peers. They go on to talk about how common peer-led work is now in what they term the penal voluntary sector, quoting a recent Clinks report which found that two thirds of criminal justice voluntary sector organisations regularly regularly consulted service users in the design and delivery of programs, more than half utilised service users as volunteers, and nearly one in three employed service users as staff.
The pitfalls and promises of involving lived experience
The authors summarise the benefits and risks of people with lived experience working in the criminal justice system from a range of different viewpoints. While some researchers highlight the benefits to both peer mentors and the people they support, others rise concerns about bullying and the exploitation of (frequently unpaid) lived experience workers.
There is also a discussion of the risks of re-traumatisation and of the stigma that sometimes applies to people who are identified as a ‘user’ participant or ‘peer’ practitioner in the criminal justice context. The researchers acknowledge that whilst user involvement and peer-led practice may enable “criminalized” people to belong and find purpose, it can also feel restricting. Peer work is described as a ‘liminal occupation’, a state of being ‘in-between’ two identities, creating unease as people are drawn in two directions at once and requiring ‘bridge work’ across being ‘street authentic enough’ to represent, yet ‘professional enough’ to stay employed
The researchers categorise their findings from the focus group interviews with practitioners (which included people with and people without lived experience) into three main areas: the safety net (feeling safe or saved by lived experience work), unbelonging (an aggravated sense of dispossession, longing and resentment of insurmountable exclusion) and the precipice (feeling limited, imperilled and hampered by working as someone with lived experience in a criminal justice setting).
The safety net
Many interviewees spoked about their user involvement roles saving people from traumatic contexts and easing distressing emotions. The safety net, therefore, represents a sense that working in the criminal justice voluntary sector
can rescue (ex)service users from dangerous pasts and presents blighted by anxiety and isolation. These feelings are illustrated by direct quotes from two different interviewees:
“there is no pressure at all, I mean I am in a non-paid position at the moment, so they are going to ease me in… I feel safe within there… I don’t have no anxiety around things I say, I can be completely myself… I don’t have to hide my scars, my [prison] tattoos, my past, my crimes, anything that has happened to me.”
“when I’m with you guys, when I’m here’, he said, ‘I don’t have that feeling in my stomach,’ and he was describing anxiety, you know that horrible feeling that I don’t fit anywhere in the world and what he was saying was ‘when I’m right in the middle of the network, the peer support group, I don’t have that anxiety”
Whilst lived experience practitioners described their experiences in positive terms, deeply problematic reflections were also shared. Some participants described a deep gulf between themselves and voluntary sector colleagues, indicating that apparently ‘safe’, or therapeutic spaces can be significantly more punitive than they appear. In fact, the safety net can be precarious, unstable and liable to revocation, leading people to feel they do not fully belong.
“It was just so stressful because I was the only person with lived experience in the team … the woman was … horrible to me like demeaning, like privileged authoritarian, autocratic… I was scared of her, she undermined me, and I could never be myself in the space because I felt really vulnerable, I felt like at any minute if I cause a … bit of tension it is going to look like I have a track record isn’t it? I need a job, so it is like horrible.”
The researchers explore the theme of ‘the precipice’ as a complex state. It describes the precarious uncertainty that many criminalized workers navigated. The precipice is multi-faceted. On one level it describes a setting that prevented people from progress, resulting in them feeling stuck in lower-level voluntary sector roles—an interesting counterpoint to the saving features expressed earlier. On another level, the precipice represents precarious success, wherein people felt little was needed to topple perceptions of ‘progress/rehabilitation’. The precipice also denotes an edge, a liminal space where people had to perform as both ‘peers’ and ‘conventional employees’, which entails particular burdens. Finally, the precipice is hazardous ground where it was very easy to be discredited and subjected to forms of punishment/exclusion.
“You are forever in the system, you never leave it, you just occupy a different position. You’re criminalised, you get a job in the third sector, you go be an academic, you never exit the penal field … you’re up on a bit of a pedestal that’s getting narrower and narrower and narrower the higher you go. What happens if you wobble? What happens if you’re maybe not the role model that people wanted you to be? Particularly in a lived experience environment, there’s such a pressure to just be better than best, gooder than good … imagine if I got convicted of not paying my council tax or something? It would be like a fall from grace … because I’m supposed to be this desisting, better than thou woman, and that’s an awful lot of pressure. I think that’s something that in our lived experience groups we have to support each other with.”
The research is a fascinating read as it uncovers the contradictory emotional experiences of the growing number of people with lived experiences working in the criminal justice voluntary sector. The research found that ‘user involvement’ work in this sector can be experienced as safe and inclusive and excluding, shame-provoking, and precarious.
The lived experience practitioners interviewed for this study talked about a number of different ways they were responding to the difficulties of their position including formal or informal lived experience networks, which can foster a sense of belonging and provide personal support and development; advocating trauma-informed management strategies, which account for how past trauma can manifest and additional supports that traumatized and marginalized workers may require; and a substantial project of consciousness-raising with leaders and managers without lived experience, to highlight how stigma can be reduced and supportive networks developed.
Thanks to Ian Schneider for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.