Pros and cons: offender autobiography, penal reform and probation training

Nellis, M. (2002) Pros and cons: offender autobiography, penal reform and probation training. The Howard Journal of Crime and Justice, 41 (5). pp. 434-468. ISSN 0265-5527 (

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‘The life history approach is peculiarly ignored in teaching contexts’ wrote Ken Plummer in 1983 (p.74). Things may have changed on ordinary social science degrees, but offender/prisoner autobiographies — akin to the life story approach — are a still underused resource in the training of probation officers. The criminological importance of such autobiographies was recently affirmed by the late Steve Morgan (1999), adroitly re–therorised by Goodey (2000) and used constructively by Wilson and Reuss (2000) in a study of prison(er) education. This article describes, from experience, how they can be used at the beginning of a probation training programme, to develop a preliminary understanding of desistance, and to open up debate on what works with offenders and what doesn’t, in and out of prison. An historical background to British prisoner autobiographies is provided to ground this approach to teaching in a distinctive criminological discourse, to provide a resource for those who wish to take debate on prisoner autobiographies further, and to indicate the kind of impact that the best of this writing has had on the penal reform process. The article should be read both as a contribution to an overdue, and at present meagre, debate on how an academically sound and vocationally relevant curriculum for trainee probation officers can be constructed, and as an at least partial substantiation of the deeper argument that probation training can draw productively on traditions of penal reform which it has hitherto neglected.