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The impact of youth prisons and other repressive measures is subject to public and scientific debates for years. The meaning of individual agency has, however, been largely neglected in the context of understanding processes of desistance among juvenile inmates. This text addresses differences in perceiving the institutional setting, interrelations with other inmates and the authorities as well as participation in educational training. Based on a larger study of qualitative, retrospective interviews in German youth prisons, three exemplary cases are presented illustrating different developments during incarceration. Overall, three cases document several obstacles and requirements that are supportive in the individual process of developing agency, rethinking prior behaviour and maintaining modified ways of behaviour. The three cases also provide some explanations why many young inmates maintain delinquent behaviour.

Keywords delinquent behaviour; adolescence; desistance; agency; youth prisons

Like the future of the juvenile justice system, the effects of different measures, sanctions and diversions have been discussed over the years in Germany and other countries (Bereswill, 2004; Sherman & Strang, 2007). One essential problem in this regard is the heterogeneity of addressees. They not only differ in demographic aspects, such as age, gender, social and cultural origin, but also in the impact which certain measures (may) have on the individual, such as stimulating the processes of resocialization in prison.

Desistance research has shown that imprisonment may alter one’s attitudes and behaviour and contribute to less delinquency upon release if an inmate develops a new script of identity, which may be based on conformity and social engagement (Maruna, 2001; Maruna & Roy, 2007). Such developments can be grounded in the very experience of being imprisoned and in one’s reflections on previous behaviour and future options, even though they may also result in subsequent difficulties in adjusting the new self-image to the outside world (Bereswill, 2004). Apart from the ways of coping with these obstacles, it appears also worthwhile to better understand those causes and pathways of individual developments in prison that might best contribute to

Journal of Social Work Practice Vol. 26, No. 4, December 2012, pp. 459–472

ISSN 0265-0533 print/ISSN 1465-3885 online q 2012 GAPS

permanent desistance from delinquent behaviour, but also to persistence. Recent research has shown that many inmates do have difficulties with changing their modes of thinking, thus maintaining and partly expanding delinquent and defiant attitudes (Maruna, 2001; Zdun, 2012). Although the latter may somehow also be due to the restrictive setting of closed institutional custody, they tend to cope with this situation by establishing an image of supremacy towards other inmates as well as towards the authorities. On the whole, little is known about the differences of individual agency for behavioural changes among inmates.

Mulvey et al. (2004, p. 223) define agency as ‘confidence that they [individuals] have control over the activities in which they engage and the people with whom they associate’. This goes beyond cost–benefit ratios, and Maruna and Farrall (2003, p. 179) add that ‘sense of purpose in life or a commitment to occupational success might be more influential forces’ and would better contribute to lasting changes, than fear and avoidance strategies. Bottoms et al. (2004) and Maruna (2001) demand further consideration of agency in the context of desistance, claiming that neither social and structural improvements are sufficient if one’s individual attitude towards desistance is defective or misguided (Prochaska et al., 1997) nor one’s motivation if it does not correspond with adequate conditions and support (Mulvey et al., 2004). However, Laub and Sampson (2003, p. 279) add that behavioural changes do not have to be ‘necessarily a conscious or deliberate process’. Thus they argue: ‘We need to capture changes in decision-making, shifts in the perceptions of risks and rewards of crime, and fluctuations in the meanings of “doing crime” versus “going straight”.’ (Laub & Sampson, 2001, p. 55).

On the whole, agency has to be examined in the context of individual developments and behavioural changes because it is not a constant parameter, although it can be stabilized (Maruna & Farrall, 2003). Bottoms (2006) demands a further in- depth examination of individual coping with recidivism in such processes. Thereby he refers to destabilizing biases if an individual gets used to interpreting everyday difficulties just as an outcome of his own (dis)abilities or if a person feels regularly discriminated against instead of being encouraged. In addition, Kazemian (2007) reminds us of the meaning of situational temptations and opportunities. High self- efficacy and trust in one’s own options would on the contrary rather contribute to stable behaviour patterns (Bereswill, 2004; Mulvey et al., 2004). These insights are supported by my previous research that found formerly delinquent immigrants quite quickly desist from former behaviour after arrival, if their agency and motivation are acknowledged and if they receive sufficient support from new inmates and institutions that have been known to regularly compensate for lack of support from the family in the first period after immigration (Zdun, 2012). However, desistance research has paid little attention to imprisonment, and in particular there are no comprehensive studies on the differences of agency among inmates with regard to behavioural changes.

This paper addresses this neglected issue and explores the experience of being imprisoned from the perspective of young male immigrants in German youth prisons, and different modes of coping with imprisonment are reconstructed by using qualitative data. Therefore, I show – based on retrospective interviews – certain patterns derived from the empirical material of three cases from the study, demonstrating differences in perceiving the institutional setting, interrelations with other inmates and the authorities as well as participation in educational training.


Despite the gaps in desistance research and in particular in respect of agency, other strands of criminology have at least addressed related issues and therefore provide a background for this research. This includes the above-mentioned research on the effectiveness of different measures of diversion and sanctions, illustrating, for example, in how far they may increase individual skills and competencies as well as self-efficacy (Bereswill, 2004; Cullen et al., 2011). However, this kind of research primarily addresses the likelihood of recidivism (after having participated in these measures) and partly the processes of resocialization; rather increased self-efficacy is considered a result of the intended development and the very process of individual changes is one’s agency is neglected. Recidivism is perceived as an individual or institutional failure rather than a possible step in the process of desistance.

Other research indicates alternative explanations for lack of delinquent behaviour during imprisonment, going beyond changes of individual attitudes. This is demonstrated, for example, by cooperative behaviour by some prisoners, primarily aiming at better treatment or early release as well as participation in educational and vocational trainings to have better job opportunities after imprisonment (Stern, 1947; Brewster & Sharp, 2002; Batiuk et al., 2005), without any particular intention to desist permanently from prior offences. This partly coincides with the seminal work of Goffman (1961) and Sykes (1958), indicating that the rigid structures and authoritarian modes of contact in prison extremely restrict the opportunities of inmates and may cause such a pressure on the individual that he/she behaves conventionally towards the authorities only, without changing his/her very attitudes. This kind of research should be considered with caution as it is rather tricky to differentiate between such ‘superficial’ changes and a ‘true’ change of one’s attitudes and agency to maintain desistance; not just because the latter may also fail and hence does not seem to be different from the others at first sight. Perceiving desistance as a process, it appears important to pay close attention to the individual development of motivations and intentions of conventional behaviour. Truly meant change need not occur on the first days of imprisonment, and a lack of respective intention might, for example, be overcome by positive experiences in the very course of cooperative behaviour.

Data and methodology

As Bottoms (2006) emphasizes, examining the processes of changing agency requires in-depth qualitative research. The individual developments and interpretations involved cannot be adequately investigated by way of quantitative measures (Flick, 1995). The qualitative approach allows for considering the role of circumstances and for describing and interpreting changes in agency after imprisonment.

The sample comprised young male immigrants from the former Soviet Union in Germany, aged between 18 and 20 years. This part of the population was chosen because it is partly known for establishing sub-cultural groups in prison that rather reject social integration (for an overview, see Zdun, 2012), ensuring a wide spectrum of individual behaviours. All interviewees had several violent encounters and had committed different kinds of street offences. They were imprisoned for 1–3 years, predominately because of aggravated assault, but some also for robbery or drug trade. All in all, the intensity and frequency of prior offences did not vary much between the


interviewees who were considered persistent offenders rather than serious offenders. Moreover, they did not differ significantly in respect of poor social, economic and educational backgrounds. They had migrated from similar areas, namely small- and middle-sized cities in Kazakhstan and Russia. Finally, the duration of stay in Germany was controlled, ranging from 2–6 years.

These sampling criterions were chosen to ensure interviewees had similar initial conditions at the beginning of the prison sentence. Moreover, we chose these inmates because they had a certain chance to use their time of imprisonment for behavioural changes. First, the sample referred to a typical age at which processes of desistance often occur (Moffit et al., 2002; Bottoms, 2006). Second, inmates were chosen who – at least to our knowledge – had not been involved in (organized) criminal groups before imprisonment; otherwise their opportunities and motivation to rethink their prior behaviour might have been significantly reduced. Moreover, for all interviewees it was their first prison sentence. Third, the duration of each imprisonment term lasted long enough to generally allow for substantial processes of behavioural change. The interviews were conducted after at least 6 months of imprisonment.

The recruitment of the interviewees in different German youth prisons had to consider various institutional restrictions and required several permissions. However, based on the sampling criteria with regard to gender, age, duration of stay and kinds of offences, the prison staff firstly requested a general readiness for participation from the pool of matching cases. After this pre-selection, we explained the goals of our research as well as the measures for confidentiality, and all open questions were answered before conducting each interview. No suggested interviewee rejected participation.

Interviews lasting between 90 min and 2 h were digitally recorded and transcribed verbatim. The narratives were critically analysed, examining and comparing their latent meaning. This followed a hermeneutic interpretation:

based on the theoretical conviction that the narrating experience already conveys an interpretation. ( . . . ) The aim of understanding the text is not a complete reconstruction of facts or causalities. The aim is rather to grasp the latent meanings of subjective self-representations and social action.

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