By Kirsty Teague
Please note that Kirsty Teague, Lecturer in Criminology and Doctoral Candidate at Nottingham Trent University is supervised by Dr. Nicholas Blagden, Professor. Belinda Winder, and Dr. Paul Hamilton. This is part 1 of a 2 part blog. Kieran
Participant 10 diary entry: ‘Sunday 27th December, just spent my worst Christmas on record and Covid did not help. Since last Thursday I have not spoken more than ten words to anyone, I am beginning to hate it here, and I think not being aloud to speak to my next-door neighbour is rather pathetic, and the persons who agree with it need to get a life. It must go against everything equality stands for. I very rarely get angry and I’m not angry now but I do get emotional and at the moment I feel emotionally drained, tired and for want of a better word unloved, not that I wish to be loved but it would be nice if someone actually cared’
In England, March 23rd, 2020, October 31st, 2020, and January 4th, 2021 will be remembered for marking three distinct national lockdown phases resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst for many, we were entering unchartered territory of social isolation and reduced autonomy, for some of the most vulnerable in society this was not new. For men with sexual convictions, life post-prison is too often marked by isolation and restrictions.
Whilst we were shielding the clinically vulnerable, those who were vulnerable as a result of their offence history were becoming more isolated than ever before. For many men with sexual convictions, relationships with family and friends are too often replaced by professional relationships, not least with probation services. However, in March 2020 even face-to-face (F2F) meetings were replaced by digital supervision, with only probationers deemed high-risk warranting a doorstep visit. Whilst of course this was deemed necessary to control the infection rate, the impact of a lack – and for some a total loss of – human contact has been evident, especially in a research setting.
My PhD research is exploring how men with sexual convictions construe and relate to ‘community’ by looking at social cure and social curse processes that help or indeed hinder, reintegration post-prison. This is done through a combination of methods including interviews, repertory grids and diaries. From November 2020 through to April 2021 I commenced face-to-face data collection. Below I outline my reflections and realisations throughout.
The new and innovative Corbett Centre provides the hub for this research, including participant recruitment. From the outset, many service-users of the centre were keen to participate. However, with the rapidly changing nature of the virus and responses to its control, I anticipated engagement would dip, no matter how well-intentioned service-users were, to begin with.
What followed, however, was an unbridled enthusiasm to engage with the research. Fourteen participants engaged with two interviews (one semi-structured; and one repertory grid), with the opportunity to maintain a diary as well. Throughout the pandemic, the centre has been COVID-secure and risk-assessed, making it a place of safety, in its widest interpretation. During the pandemic, ‘community’ and being ‘together apart’ have been critical for social connectedness. The necessity to understand the bearing of these concepts on men with sexual convictions provided plenty of discussion at a time when they felt somewhat disconnected. In practical terms, this led to lengthy discussions which often meant that it was sometimes difficult to round up discussions and prepare for subsequent interviews. There was often a conversational spillover that warranted a coffee and a chat after, or the need to switch off from an emotive discussion on lacking social belonging (which featured a lot) to then learn a card game before they left the centre. It was at these junctures I reflected on Prof. Belinda Winder’s, take on research ethics being an ‘iterative cycle of ethics and care’.
Participant 3 diary entry: ‘Saturday 16th January – ‘… had my interview at CC and it made me realise how much I enjoy being there. With work and not living too close it isn’t somewhere I get as often as I would like but it is one place I feel truly relaxed as myself ‘warts and all’. Ok, Kirsty’s company, coffee and mini-egg chocolate do have a bearing on that but even so it’s nice to have a proper conversation without being guarded about my past…’
Participant 7 diary entry: ‘03/02/2021 – Wednesday – ‘I went over to the Corbett Centre today… I had a chat with Dave and Kirsty too. It was nice to have a bit of social time. I did some shopping on the way home too’
Any researcher will be familiar with the banal and ritualistic (but, yes necessary) providing debriefing sheets to participants following a research encounter. However, conducting this kind of research, during these times, required humanistic and relational encounters. Many participants commented on how few people they’d had a meaningful interaction with, in the preceding days and weeks before engaging in research. Taking the time to have a chat about the mundanities of life, but also to discuss how they were coping was incredibly important.
Participant 10 diary entry: Friday 18th December, staying in and being sort of isolated for the last four days and not speaking or seeing anyone, a few thoughts came to mind, one being, if I never speak to or see anyone in my life, do I really exist. I sometimes feel like I’m in sort of a ground-hog day, not moving forward like I should be, sometimes it even feels like I’m moving backwards
The pandemic has provided fewer opportunities for us all to have meaningful encounters with people, and those with sexual convictions sometimes more so. It was also often during a research encounter that issues were presented that perhaps wouldn’t pre-COVID. One participant hadn’t slept the night before coming to the centre due to him finding out his mother was too scared to leave the house as a result of neighbours learning of her son’s offence history. For this reason, we spent much of the morning discussing the next steps and wellbeing-related issues. Whilst for many, the pandemic has provided an opportunity for reflection on what is important in life, violence (symbolic, structural and bodily) continues for those who have a sexual conviction, and those they are close with. Being there to listen and provide moral support (scaffolding appropriate practical support) throughout the pandemic has been essential.
Part 2 will discuss barriers to engagement with meaningful others experienced by men with sexual convictions during the pandemic and the impact conducting f2f research had during this time on the researcher.