Shadd Maruna Breaks New Ground Studying Prisoner Reform

by Katharine Duke

Shadd Maruna is on the law faculty at Queen's University Belfast. (Photo by Ashlene Aylward)To hear Shadd Maruna (PhD93) talk about his groundbreaking research and first book, Making Good: How Ex-Convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives, one would never know that it was touted as "the most outstanding contribution to criminology in 2001."

Maruna, modest, with a self-effacing sense of humor, downplays the prestigious award given to him by the American Society of Criminology, saying that research-wise he was in the right place at the right time.

Using data he gathered while at Northwestern, Maruna examines in his book what causes previous criminal offenders "to go straight."

After interviewing 65 ex-prisoners, half who had not re-offended after several years and half who were still actively involved in crime, Maruna concluded that one of the main factors that distinguished the two groups was their self-narrative — or storied version of who they were and where they were going.

"To a degree, it came down to how they were able to make sense of and account for their pasts," Maruna explains.

What he found was often surprising. Previous literature assumed that reformed ex-prisoners were ashamed of their pasts, repentant and full of remorse.

"As it turned out, that wasn't necessarily the case," he says. "Instead, reform was more about putting one's past to good use, saying if it weren't for me having gone through these things (such as prison or addiction), I wouldn't be the person I am today."

Maruna's book hit the shelves about the time the National Institute of Justice released a short report about ex-prisoners titled But They All Come Back, revealing that about 1,700 ex-prisoners are released each day in the United States. This, according to Maruna, "sent shock waves throughout the criminology community" and left people scrambling to find research on "prisoner re-entry."

"If truth be told, the book caught an important wave," he says. "'Offender re-entry' has probably become the biggest research issue in criminology in the last five years. But back in 2001, mine was the only book out there on the subject."

Maruna's interest in ex-convicts' experiences began the summer before he enrolled in SESP's PhD program in human development and social policy. As a recent graduate from Illinois State University, Maruna found work on the graveyard shift at a halfway house in Alaska.

When he arrived at Northwestern the next fall, Maruna immediately gravitated to Dan Lewis, the SESP professor with the most expertise in criminology. On Lewis's suggestion, he also became involved in the work of Dan McAdams, a SESP professor and psychologist interested in self-narratives and identity. Combining his two mentors' areas of expertise, he set out to collect the life stories of ex-convicts for his master's thesis.

Afterward, Maruna went to Liverpool, England, as a Fulbright Scholar to conduct the research for his dissertation that would later win the Phi Delta Kappa Outstanding PhD Award.

Since then, Maruna has written or edited four books and about 70 articles and book chapters. His academic career began at State University of New York at Albany before he moved on to the University of Cambridge in England. Maruna is currently a Reader (the UK equivalent of associate professor) in the Law School at Queen's University in Belfast, Ireland, where he lives with his wife, Ashlene, and their children, seven-year-old Zara and two-year-old Rory.

Maruna continues to do innovative research, including a new study of politically motivated former prisoners incarcerated for their activities during the conflict in Northern Ireland. Most recently, he has started to examine the flip side of the reintegration process, looking at community attitudes toward ex-offenders.

"I've looked a lot at ex-prisoners' stories, but reintegration is a two-way street," he says. "Community members have stories about ex-prisoners that also need addressed to understand recidivism."

Photo caption:
Shadd Maruna is on the law faculty at Queen's University Belfast. (Photo by Ashlene Aylward)
By Katharine Duke