chapter  1
11 Pages

Introduction

This book, Black Men, Invisibility, and Desistance from Crime: Towards a Critical Race Theory of Desistance has been three decades in the making, culminating in the completion of my doctorate in February 2013. In the intervening years I have worked tirelessly in prisons, communities, combined with numerous other settings and locations trying to gain insights, knowledge, and understandings into ‘race’ and the ‘racialisation of crime’ with specific reference to black men. The term ‘black’ therefore in this book is used to identify peoples of ‘African descent’ and locates itself within a frame of reference used by many of the research participants both here in the UK and the USA to define themselves as a way of representing a ‘unity of experience’ in relation to racism, white privilege, and oppression among people whose skin is not white. Historically and politically, the use of terms to describe ‘racialised identities’

has been an extremely contentious issue, related to the language and associated meanings that attempt to describe those racialised identities, inasmuch as the term ‘black’ is not static but changes over time both within and between groups (Serrant-Green, 2002). It is therefore important that any terms used to identify individuals in this book are defined at the outset and placed in a context relevant to the tone and shape of the book. My countless encounters with black men in the community and prison have

also set the backdrop for my relationship with the study of desistance and extending its boundaries. Having spent nearly three decades engaging black men in a dialogue about their offending, I felt there was an even greater need, and a more urgent ‘call’, to investigate those factors that either enhance or hinder the cessation of their offending behaviour (referred to as desistance) in this under-researched area of criminology. Desistance is increasingly conceptualised as a theoretical construct used to explain how offenders orient themselves away from committing crimes. Previous studies have suggested that successful desistance occurs due to one or several factors: a ‘rite of passage’ (Maruna, 2007); a ‘current status’ (Farrington, 1986); a decision (Cusson and Pinsonneault, 1986); ‘ageing out’ or maturing away from criminal activity (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990); personal and social circumstances (Healy, 2010), space-and place-specific factors (Flynn, 2010), or ethnicity (Calverley,

2013). The list is not exhaustive, highlighting that the desistance project is ongoing and still developing. To desist, a returning prisoner must be equipped with the necessary tools to

successfully ‘reintegrate’ back into the community, contributing to its overall development by being reformed as a consequence of experiencing positive rehabilitative processes. On concluding their prison sentence, the offender will then be released and ‘re-enter’ the community, hopefully prepared for a life free from crime, and ultimately ‘desist’. However, my doctoral research revealed that this is certainly not the case for many men returning back to the community that they left behind after being sent to prison. And for black men, there are significant barriers to overcome, based on how they engage and encounter the racialisation of the social structure post-release. It is right therefore to assume that the privileging and promotion of the

stories of black men’s experiences of both ‘re-entry’ and the movement towards their desistance provided me with a unique opportunity to expand the current thinking in a ‘racialised’ area of criminology that is both under-researched and under-theorised. In reality, the visible absence of available academic information and data when looking at, investigating, or theorising black men’s own understandings of their desistance not only weakens contemporary debates on ‘race and crime’, but criminology as a whole. Indeed, my observations and participation within prison rehabilitation programmes targeted at black men over three decades has led me to believe that seldom have black men’s insights, understandings, and ‘lived’ experiences within the UK and the US criminal justice systems, been taken into consideration in the study of both re-entry and desistance as a whole. This state of affairs led me to believe that any future investigation into

black men’s desistance must give voice to the ‘minority perspective’ (Phillips and Bowling, 2003). This ‘minority perspective’ should not only acknowledge and validate the stories that black men themselves tell of their own understandings and insights into their desistance, but it must also enable them to ‘narrate’ and ‘interpret’ their own reality by bringing coherence to their ‘real-life’ stories, creating a ‘counter-narrative’ that would challenge and contest what many academics claim about their criminality, with reference to their desistance trajectories (McAdams, 1988). The research started by posing several key questions:

1 What impact does the racialisation of crime/criminal justice systems have on the desistance process for black men?