Agency, Character and Identity

Even if imprisonment is justified as punishment there is wide recognition that the experience of imprisonment does little to enable offenders to reenter civil society and participate in constructive, successful ways. Apart from matters of disenfranchisement there are other impediments, chief among them that many offenders have little understanding of their own capacities as agents and of successful exercise of self-determination. In addition to lacking valuable skills, many ex-offenders are unprepared for the judicious, prudent exercise of freedom, something vitally important to a liberal democracy. The project is motivated in large part by the pressing need to better understand how imprisonment disables persons for successful reentry, and to better understand how to distinguish between justified punishment on the one hand and damaging prisoners on the other. Such damage not only harms prisoners but also causes wider harm to society by diminishing the abilities of ex-offenders to participate successfully. The project focuses on the impact of imprisonment on offenders’ characters and their conceptions of themselves as agents as a way of illuminating these issues. 

 What are the implications of taking the importance of character seriously with respect to imprisonment and its aftermath?

This is not a question about whether character-based considerations should have a role in sentencing. It concerns the significance of character for understanding important aspects of criminal sanction, reentry, and reintegration. Character is a nexus at which several important types of considerations meet. These include matters concerning cognition, the emotions, motivation, deliberation, decision, and persons’ self-conceptions. Whether or not a person’s character is a matter of direct interest to the state, character is explanatorily and ethically significant. Fuller understanding of the relevance and significance of character will illuminate numerous issues regarding practices and policies intended to assist people leaving prison. While it is not the proper task of the state to ensure that persons develop certain types of character, if state sanctioned practices and policies (e.g., punitive sanction) cause significant, avoidable damage to persons’ characters, the issue warrants careful examination and amelioration. The impact of imprisonment on persons’ characters has not been studied in depth, and how a person regards himself and his abilities can be crucial to successful reentry. The project will examine the diverse approaches to encouraging pro-social character as a strategy of preparation for reentry. This involves examining the respects in which character is dynamic, aspirational, and responsive to deliberation and self-determination, and the ways offenders can overcome thinking of their own characters as fixed and unchanging. Progress in this direction requires exploring the intersection of ethical, empirical, and conceptual aspects of various types of programs, such as cognitive – behavioral programs, addiction treatment programs, anger management programs and educational programs –and how they can be employed most effectively and with the enduring, constructive results.

  The project on Agency, Character & Identity will conduct research into the methodology and efficacy of these programs with a focus on how they can best serve the constructive aims of those who assist people leaving prison by contributing to the development of abilities and attitudes most helpful to those returning to society.    

                Use the links below to read more about the work on this project.

                                                Normative focus                Empirical focus