the research

why is this project important?

A substantial body of research confirms that political, social, and economic exclusion is damaging to individual wellbeing, as well as societal and democratic health. Studies from Baumeister and colleagues (2007: 517; see also Baumeister 1991, 2005; Baumeister and Leary 1995) on rejection and belonging, for example, have consistently shown that being rejected or excluded “causes strong behavioural reactions, including increased aggression, reduced pro-social behaviour, and increased self-defeating behaviour”. Social exclusion can also result in perceiving life as less meaningful, heightening distress and depression, increasing feelings of loneliness and anxiety, and suicide (Pierson 2016; Stillman et al 2009; DeWall 2013). Work on structural stigma (existing at the institutional and systems level) suggests that discriminatory patterns of ostracising policies perpetuate public stigma (stereotyping, fear, othering), which in turn establishes a detrimental and synergistic cycle of further marginalisation (e.g. tightening of restrictions or laws, reduced eligibility, decreased resourcing). This is especially acute for already disadvantaged or highly stigmatised groups (like those with severe mental illness or disabilities, the indigent, immigrants, indigenous peoples, prisoners, HIV patients, and substance users) (Livingston and Boyd 2010; Corrigan et al 2005; Bos et al 2013). At the community level, Putnam (1994, 2000) and others have demonstrated that the inability to access, establish, or generate social capital contributes to deprivation, societal inequalities, and civic and political disengagement (Li et al 2003; Morales and Giugni 2011; Anheier and Kendall 2002; Lin 2001; Young 1999). Studies on felony disenfranchisement in the United States highlight the political, social, and civic consequences when millions of former prisoners are prevented from not only voting, but also accessing housing, employment, financial aid for schooling, and are prohibited from participating in civic life (like sitting on juries or running for public office). Entire communities – which are most often made up of people of colour – then, become disqualified from a range of basic, but critical, social services and opportunities, without the means to be politically represented (Manza and Uggen 2008; Uggen et al 2016; Uggen and Manza 2002; Lerman and Weaver 2014; see also Wacquant (2009) on social and legal ‘castaways’).

But there is also increasing innovative work happening in criminal justice to use inclusive practices to mitigate or prevent exclusion or further marginalisation. In Tunisia, for example, youth radicalisation is being targeted with community-based social inclusion and engagement efforts. Early findings from a study tracking this initiative indicate that social belonging and acceptance, and community integration through ‘mainstream’ ties to the job market, education, political participation (and feeling represented), and access to reliable civic activities are successful in preventing or breaking extremism trajectories (Ben Salah 2019). Education programmes, like Inside-Out in the US, bring prison students and university students together to co-create supportive and ‘transformative’ learning spaces that promote respect, equality, and dialogic engagement (see Dzur 2019: 85-90). Graham and White (2015) spotlight various forms of ‘innovative justice’ programmes globally, which include crafting cooperatives in Bolivia, prisoners as community sports umpires in Australia, and forms of ‘green justice’ through prison horticulture and work in nature. Such innovations share important features: they are hyperlocal, they have top-down support and commitment with ground-up energy and input, people work closely with each other toward common goals, and they are aimed at bridging the gap between outside and inside, and moving from exclusion to inclusion.

Most prisoners in my study had experienced civil death from political, economic, and social disenfranchisement long before imprisonment (i.e. through employment discrimination or inaccessibility, exclusion from school, targeting by the police, deprivation, housing insecurity, addiction, and so on; see SEU 2002). Incarceration can further alienate, stigmatise, and marginalise, reinforcing negative and cynical attitudes toward authority and institutions, while often increasing feelings of resentment and bitterness. These individuals then “find themselves ‘in’ but not ‘of’ the larger society” (Johnson 2002: 319). It is, of course, unreasonable – and undesirable – to expect prisons to remedy the social ills that have often damaged people prior to incarceration (see Garland 2001). What my research shows, however, is that re-enfranchising prisoners through democratic practice can engender more humane prison practices and lessen the harms associated with exclusion. As Dahl (2000: 79) contends:

“If citizens are to be competent, won’t they need political and social institutions to help make them so? Unquestionably. Opportunities to gain an enlightened understanding of public matters are not just part of the definition of democracy. They are a requirement for democracy.”

Civic Dignity seeks to further this discussion by exploring – with members of the public – how we can think differently about exclusion and inclusion, with the shared objective of creating healthier and safer communities. 


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