Overturning Convictions: Language, Belief, and Rewriting the Criminal Narrative by Abbey Stein, Ph.D.

Overturning Convictions:

Language, Belief, and Rewriting the Criminal Narrative

by Abby Stein, Ph.D.

Last year in these pages, I addressed the nature of criminal violence. I told the stories of 64 violent men that I had interviewed.1 For 80% of them, I could trace a developmental pathway from early neglect and brutal physical and/or sexual abuse to the extreme constriction of consciousness that allowed them to survive childhood assaults, but which also provided the template for disowning their own brutality. Indeed, for the men I interviewed, violent attachments had been the norm. For as long as memory served, pain was a prerequisite for love. One man learned his multiplication tables with his father's pistol cocked at his temple, another watched as his father smashed his mother's head against the rim of the kitchen sink, a third told me that his mother discontinued a beating only to shove a lit cigarette down his throat. Of note, he remembered her as beautiful and loving.2

For the men and women with whom I have worked, the trajectory is eerily familiar. With little in the way of productive intervention, early victimization gives way to ongoing aggressive engagements. Engagements with gangs, where a beating is the price of fraternity. Engagements with assault, where battery is considered the logical response to a friend's imagined disrespect. Engagements with rape, where force becomes an appropriate rejoinder to hearing the word "no". In a Darwinian world, even murder can sometimes seem like an adaptive interpersonal strategy.

Having worked with offenders, I know from my own experience that there are no monsters, demons, or wicked brutes born of evil seeds. There are only children, savaged by those entrusted with their care: left to starve or beaten for not eating, thrown down stairs, tied up and raped, locked in closets for wetting the bed, forced to evacuate in litter boxes, burned in homemade exorcisms, drowned in bathtubs, abandoned in dumpsters. Twenty years later, they are all grown up and, if you are lucky you will meet them in the newspaper instead of the alleyway. And yet, I am convinced that punishment is the very last thing they need. As noted forensic psychiatrist James Gilligan has said, referring to most inmates childhood histories of neglect and abuse: anyone you meet in prison has probably already been punished enough.3

One man I interviewed, Hermie, explained his stoic posture in prison by traveling backwards to his childhood home: "I don't make no noise when I cry because when my father beat me, if I cry out, he beat me harder, until blood came out." Hermie described himself as "a lot of little people made out of sticks." Convicted of an armed robbery, confused as much about what he had done as who he was, this mentally ill young man entered the long night of the correctional system. I guess if we could be certain that the man "made of sticks" would be rehabilitated in prison or, failing that, would simply perish and leave us all alone, we could avert our gaze from the factories of despair that we call correctional facilities. Today, we are simply warehousing people-42% of them seriously mentally ill4-in environments certain to hone only their most antisocial survival skills. Here are the words of a man in the twentieth year of his incarceration. As he looks around, he sees his fellow inmates giving up their identities to adopt the "convict code": "Whereas prison was once threatening to them, they are now clones of those who most intimidate them in the beginning. It's one kind of fear or other that drives most of the men to emulate the lifers or old cons. They see that these men have survived many years in a dangerous world."5

The prisons do not rehabilitate, they reinforce the very worst in people: their paranoia, rage, and fear. So called "correctional" facilities merely mimic the early brutal lifestyles of the usually poor and occasionally infamous. From strip searches to beatings and isolation, our prisons repeat trauma in a way virtually guaranteed to maintain defensive violence as the default behavioral position. For years, reformers have suggested that criminal justice models be replaced by public health models that treat the psychological and physical costs of crime as they would another health hazard, with a comprehensive strategy for prevention and control similar, for instance, to anti-smoking campaigns.6 Where prevention fails, law violators would still be held in secure facilities. However unlike prisons, these institutions would offer services that improve physical and mental health, develop academic skills, and provide strong social support for the transition to lawful society.

Sadly, the reformers' visions are unlikely to be realized any time soon, particularly given the economic fix in which the United States now finds itself. If anything the prisons, which cost an estimated $30 billion dollars per year to run, will likely turn to dumping offenders back in the streets even more quickly than in the past, with almost no access to transitional services that might help released men and women maintain lawfulness. Each year roughly 650,000 people leave the state and federal prisons, most for supervised parole. These numbers will only grow now that "three strikes and you're out" laws have proved so expensive to maintain, and Congress has embraced "Second Chance" legislation which facilitates the early release of many prisoners. Most will exit the prison with no discharge planning, indeed with no place to go: "All you think of is going home. Then when that time comes, there's no home to come to."8 Released prisoners have only their convict identities to carry them forward: "They have tattoos all over them. They have convict hairstyles...they have spent years fitting in as a convict. Now they have to leave and start all over again."9

Criminal profilers and forensic psychologists still blithely throw around terms like "evil", "demon", and "monster" when describing the people they are supposedly attempting to understand. Less pejorative perhaps, but equally stigmatizing, are the labels "former inmate", "ex-offender", or "ex-convict", especially when their use persists well after the person so titled has paid his or her debt to society. The public adopts the labels and the images they conjure. It's funny, how frightened the public is of the returning prisoner. The truth is that they are more frightened of us than we could ever be of them. Reintegration is terrifying, especially for those who have served long sentences and rejoin an unfamiliar world: cellphones instead of pay phones, metrocards instead of tokens, women who must be addressed as Ms. instead of Miss or Mrs. One man described his experience of returning to the outside: "When I first came out, I was shell shocked. It was like I was in a foreign country."10 Michael Powell, serving his third prison sentence, describes the overwhelming anxiety when inmates finally reach their parole date: "Going back to prison isn't a threat. The real world is more threatening now... Some panic. They stab another prisoner or kill one, so they will get more time. They assault guards or get caught with drugs, whatever it takes to receive a new statutory sentence or violate their parole or lose accumulated good time so that they can remain in prison."11

But, despite their best efforts, most will not stay behind bars. The reality is that 95% of murderers, 99% of sex offenders, and every single robber, burglar, and drug dealer, will get out of prison at some point and be returned to the community. As my boss at John Jay College, Jeremy Travis, keeps reminding us: like it or not, they all come back.12 What should we do with them when they get here? How can we help them stay out of prison, and write a new ending to the usual story of the revolving door? Of course we must provide substantive programs. But we also must change the rhetoric of reentry to reflect our hopes about people returning from prison, rather than our fears.


One recent study of desistance from crime cautions that the use of derogatory language, in the description of those released from prison, must be taken seriously: "The self narratives we humans carry with us are not created in a vacuum. They are rational adaptations from existing paradigms of public discourse ...and are related to the discourse we are told about ourselves by those in authority."13 These researchers' findings demonstrate that the development of particular kinds of self-narratives support staying straight more than others. New narratives must actively resist the identities installed and hardened during arrest and imprisonment.

The dominant discourse in the criminal justice system today is one of confession and mea culpa: a demand that the offender agree with society's withering assessment of his or her worth, in order to win release from captivity. Shame, guilt, dejection, humiliation are demanded from the parolee, with no recognition that this only serves to reignite the debasing memories that triggered the crimes in the first place. Offenders themselves internalize the shame that the labels we apply to them advertize: where they were once worthless pieces of excrement deserving of a good beating from their parents, they now effortlessly embrace the anti­social diagnosis and dead-end identity of the ex-con. Demanding a singular narrative of shame from lawbreakers only drives a compartmentalization of the self into good and bad entities, preserving the split Jekyll and Hyde personas produced by earlier traumas. Moreover, a script in which the ex-offender is typecast as lowlife replays every attitude of hopelessness that underlies the desperation of drug abuse, robbery, and assault, and homicide. The design of courtroom dramas as Manichean morality plays, keeps prisons well stocked.

For those struggling to re-enter lawful society, to carry forever the label ex-offender, or former convict, is tantamount to the imposition of a life sentence. Such monikers encourage toxic self-definitions that virtually prohibit lawfulness, and function as visible stigmata in the public arena, thus forestalling reintegration into civil society. Research suggests that a change in both the nomenclature and ritual of re-entry may help reshape offender identity and, by doing so, lower recidivism.''14 Shaun Maruna and her colleagues were some of the first to argue that, while obviously not a complete solution to the problem of recidivism, the "social process of autobiographical reconstruction" can be an important step toward successful prisoner reentry."15

Labels are more than sticky inconveniences. Labeling is one way that societies maintain-even expand-deviant subcultures."16 Traditionally, this has been most noticeable with psychiatric and legal labels. For example, there was not even a legal category "sexual predator" until 1976. Since the term has been implemented, and highly publicized, the registered sex offender population has grown roughly 7% per year.17 At this rate, it is expected that by the end of the next decade, 2% of all men in the United States will be designated as sex offenders, listed on sex offender registries for the rest of their lives. By allowing ourselves to be drawn into these gross taxonomies of criminal offense, we create a quota system that abridges any truly effective enforcement, treatment, or repatriation of the people who pose an actual threat to others.

The philosopher Nietzsche18 said that what vexed him most was that "what things are called is incomparably more important than what they are (Italics in original)." Nietzsche underlined our human need to nominalize things: to organize people, places, and objects in simple straight categories, and then to reify those categories as if they represented an unvarnished truth. In fact, the theory of dynamic nominalism,19 posits that whatever category we create automatically attracts a group to meet it criteria. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of prisons and prisoners: If you build it, they will come.

As a clinician, I believe wholeheartedly in helping people to construct empowering self-narratives that replace the toxic scripts that drive destructive behaviors. For instance, working with battered women, I know the difference between imaging oneself as a survivor rather than a victim. Huge shifts in political identity have occurred for depressed people who went from being thought of as weak to being recognized as sick, for women when they stopped being defined by marital status, going from Mrs. to Ms., for men and women no longer designated as cripples but as physically challenged. We can make fun of too much political correctness, but language matters. It has real consequences. Keeping offenders in rhetorical exile after release antedates a very real expulsion from traditional paths to social inclusion: voting, holding a government job, living in public housing, joining a licensed or bonded profession, maintaining parental rights. The categories we create and the labels we affix become the ex-offender's introduction to the collateral damage of having served time. We need a new language and a new set of re-integrative rituals tha instill self-worth and promote a healthier attachment to society.


This rhetorical shift has begun already in specialized courts, which have have great success in providing treatment to offenders and services for victims in the last few years. Early research suggests that over the long haul specialized courts save taxpayer millions of dollars by diverting defendants into programs that reduce recidivism. Unfortunately, so far these "problem solving" courts exist only to handle cases involving drugs, domestic violence, prostitution, and civil commitment for mentally ill offenders. However, if the model could be expanded to process the majoriy of offenses, either at the point of conviction or parole, the criminal justice system would be taking a long and important step toward heiping people rewrite their narratives with more pro-social themes.20

Not only do problem solving courts provide concrete help with a multitude of problems faced by defendants, they encourage self reflection and offer a vital kind of partnership with the criminal justice system. This begins with a judicial process, where judges-rather than being presented only with an offender's long rap sheet of prior offenses and the damning narrative of his or her current violation-receive a package that includes testimonials of good character, and other documents that support the idea that the person coming before the bench can successfully negotiate the future. The judge rather than imposing prison time or even a particular disposition as an alternative to incarceration, instead enjoins the defendant to make a behavorial contract with the court, one in which he or she helps design a plan for avoiding further offenses which seems both fair and actionable. A judge in this situation invites defendants to reflect on ways to capitalize on their own strengths and avoid risky situations, instead of infantilizing them as wards of the state, incapable of self-determination.21

Almost every offender I have ever spoken with regards the violent criminal part of himself as "not-me". This is most often understood the courts as a denial of responsibility. However, my own work suggests that many offenders have so split off the damaged parts of their identity that they perceive them almost as external entities. (Ted Bundy, the prolific serial killer, even called his murdering self "The Entity".) The "not-me" malevolent self remains ego-dystonic in order to protect a fragile core identity from the knowledge of its own rage and despair.22

I know that this lack of agency speaks volumes about the dissociation of traumas both endured and executed. Yet, this sense that the bad is not deeply rooted inside them can also be used as a therapeutic gateway to a more empathic self-state in offenders. A belief in one's own moral identity, core goodness, and foundational virtue is as important an aspect to nurture in individuals returning from prison, as are more visible indices of law abidingness, like avoiding old acquaintances, or passing a urine test. We must encourage the psychic integration of all parts of the personality-even the so-called "bad" parts-but we ought to do this in the service of creating a holistic self who understands its own vulnerabilities, not simply in order to facilitate the aims of a correctional system bent on eliciting statements of remorse from shamed subjects. Religious ministries have a long history of successful intervention with inmates in part because they offer a way to integrate the past through forgiveness rather than re-inculcate it through shame.23

Judges in reentry courts do this too, by averring that there is proof in the offender's history that he or she has the capacity for goodness. The judge, during court proceedings, provides examples of promise in the person's background, even if such evidence must be pulled from a much earlier time in the defendant's llife. Perhaps the defendant showed enthusiasm for a particular subject in elementary school, a talent for sports, kindness in dealing with a relative's illness, even restraint against the temptation to behave violently during the commission of a lesser crime, or evidence of an attempt to help the victim in the aftermath of the offender's own impulsive attack.24 Not one of us would wish to be known exclusively by our failures or weaknesses. Just as we are better than our worst day implies, criminals are much more than their crimes suggest.

The Office of Justice Programs Reentry Court Initiative has established nine pilot "reentry" courts around the country since February 2000. These experimental courts have learned from faith based models the importance not only of language but of ritual. Courts set milestones for the reentry process that prompt official recognition and even celebration. Many courts offer graduatiorn ceremonies presided over by the judge: public rites of passage attended by everyone present at conviction, including the arresting officer, attorneys for both the defense and the state, friends and family members of the graduate. The ritual commemorates the successful completion of probation or parole as a critical turning point for the now ex-offender, and the court buoyantly recognizes that achievement. Re-entry courts provide powerful public forums for encouraging positive behavior and for acknowledging the individual effort in achieving reentry goals. In returning status, they effectively de-label the former prisoner.25 It's like a reverse perp walk.

The time for renaming former convicts has come. Similarly, the very concept of the "correction officer" may over-empower those who surveil those citizens in prison, probation and parole.26 Why not call them coordinators, helpers, caretakers? Or, as a colleague suggested, sherpas,27 guides through a befuddling new land. After all, prison guards-beleaguered, cynical, and woeful as their jobs make them-would also profit from a repurposing of their mission and identity.

Of course, at the same time that we do away with hurtful labels, we must exercise care to not merely substitute new names for the old ones without also internalizing a new belief system about the people being signified. History is rife with examples of changing nomenclature that failed to liberate designees from repressive systems. For example, while the move from sinful to sickly may have protected the mentally ill from being burned at the stake, it in no way saved them from electroconvulsive shocks or lobotomies.

I admit that it is hard to find a new name for people coming out of prison. "Citizens formerly deprived of liberty" has been suggested by advocacy groups, but it does not roll trippingly off the tongue. Until we come up with something better, next time you meet someone who spent some time as a guest of the state, just call them by name, instead of by label. And, please, remember to say "welcome home."

Dr. Stein is an Associate Professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The CEO of Stein Psychodynamic Associates, LLC, and the author of Prologue to Violence: Child Abuse, Dissociation, and Crime (2007), The Analytic Press, Inc.


  1. Stein, A. (2009), Shock and Awe: How child abuse drives violent crime.Journal of Psychohistory, 35(3).
  2. Stein, A. (2007), Prologue to Violence: Child Abuse, Dissociation, and Crime. Mahwa NJ: The Analytic Press, Inc.
  3. Gilligan, J. & Lee, B. (2004), Beyond the prison paradigm: From provoking violence to preventing it by creating "anti-prisons" (residential colleges and therapeutic communities, pp. 300-324. In Devine, J., Gilligan, J., Miczek, K.A., Shaikh, & Pfaff, D. (Eds.) Youth Violence: Scientific Approaches to Prevention. NY Academy Sciences, ANYAA9 1036 1-417.
  4. The Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2006.
  5. Powell, M. (2009), Release from prison: Shock or Growth?
  6. Mercy, J A, Rosenberg, M L, Powell, K E, Broome, C. V, & Roper, W L (1993), Public health policy for preventing violence. Health Affairs, 12(4), 7-29
  7. Public safety, public spending: Forecasting America's prison population 2007-2011. Pew Research Institute.
  8. Kennemore, T.K. & Roldan, I (2006), Staying Straight: Lessons from ex-offenders. Clinical Social Work Journal, 34(1).
  9. Powell, M. (2009), Release from prison: Shock or Growth?
  10. Kennemore, T. K. & Roldan, I. (2006), Staying Straight: Lessons from ex-offenders. Clinical Social Work Journal, 34(1).
  11. Powell, M. (2009), Release from prison: Shock or Growth?
  12. Travis, J. (2005), But they all come back: Facing the challenges of prisoncr reentry, NY: Urban Institute Press.
  13. Canter, D., Maruna, S., Porter, L., & Lundrigan, S. (2001). Going Straight: Final Report of the Liverpool Desistence Study. Joseph Rowntree Foundation
  14. Canter, D., Maruna, S., Porter, L., & Lundrigan, S. (2001). Going Straight: Final Report of the Liverpool Desistence Study. Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
  15. Maruna, S. & Ramsden, D. (2004). "Living to tell the Tale: Redemption Narratives, Shame Management and Offender Rehabilitation" (pp.129-151) in A. Lieblich, D. P. McAdams & J. Josselson (Eds.) Healing Plots: The Narrative Basis of Psychotherapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  16. Becker, H. (1963), The Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. NY: Free Press.
  17. CSOM Publications (May, 2001), Recidivism of Sex Offenders. Center of Sex Offender Management, Bureau of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.
  18. Nietzsche, P. (1974), The Gay Science. NY: Vintage, page 121.
  19. Hacking, Ian (2002), Historical ontology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  20. Hora, P. F., Schuma, W. G., Rosenthal, J. T. A. (1999), Therapeutic jurisprudence and the drug treatment court movement: Revolutionizing the criminal justice system's response to drug abuse and crime in America. 74 Notre Dame Law Review, p. 439.
  21. Wexler, D.B. (2001), Robes and rehabilitation: How judges can help offenders "make good". Court Review, Spring issue.
  22. Sullivan, H.S. (1953), The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry. NY: W. W. Norton.
  23. Maruna, S., Wilson, L., & Curran, K. (2006), Why God is often found behind bars: Prison conversion and the crisis of self narrative. Research in Human Development, 3(2 & 3), 161-184.
  24. Wexler, D.B. (2001), Robes and rehabilitation: How judges can help offenders "make good". Court Review, Spring issue.
  25. Travis, J. (2005), But they all come back: Facing the challenges of prisoner reentry. NY: Urban Institute Press.
  26. Octavia Otetea-Uddin, personal communication.
  27. Caroline Reitz, personal communication.

Dr. Stein's article is from the Spring, 2010, issue of The Journal of Psychohistory, Volume 37 No. 4 - Spring, 2010 - Reproduced with permission.

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