Sarah Armstrong (Glasgow University) and Beth Weaver (Strathclyde University) conducted research, in cooperation with the Scottish Prison Service, into the experience of doing short prison sentences and community-based sentences (probation, community service). We explored what those affected by these punishments are going through and how such sentences help or hinder the ability to reduce offending and get people’s lives on track.

Our research report on short prison experience – What Do the Punished Think of Punishment? – found:

  • The abiding feature of people serving short prison sentences is the presence of a serious drug and/or alcohol problem.
  • It is the cumulative effect of doing many short sentences, more than the experience of any single sentence, which carries the largely negative impacts of short-term imprisonment.
  • Imprisonment seemed to have positive and even life changing effects for some people but in a way that would be impossible to anticipate.
  • Prison time often is passive time.
  • The impact of community sentences was rated positively compared to the impact of prison.
  • Given a choice, almost everyone would choose a community sentence over a prison sentence.
  • People felt they were being sentenced on their criminal histories to the exclusion of any progress they were currently making in their lives, and this negatively affected their sense of fairness and penal legitimacy.
  • Family relationships were important to nearly every
  • Offenders with chronic drug and alcohol and offending problems were active and organised while in prison, and hoping for a life of work and family stability outside of it.


Our research report on community sentence experiences – The dynamics of community-based punishment: insider views from the outside – found:

  • Perceptions and experiences of penal purposes: Probation is about getting help and community service is about giving help by paying back
  • How community sentences work: punishment as a personal process
  • The pains of prison were mainly felt to be its unintended effects
  • Being out and staying out: Probation worked as a supportive and protective, though time-­limited constraint on people’s behaviour
  • Community sentences meant people could keep their lives going, or get their lives back on track
  • Doing time on the outside: the negative and positive aspects of time in community sentences
  • People on community sentences unequivocally expressed a preference for doing community sentences over a short prison sentence – but not because it’s ‘easier’
  • Users’ Views: Suggestions for improving the experience and impact of short prison and community sentences

If you have any questions about this project or (Part of this research was conducted as part of an ESRC Grant, RES-000-22-2881, which is gratefully acknowledged.)

Gender, Crime and Criminal Justice

Criminal Justice Process and Institutions

Violence, Drugs and Alcohol

Associated People

Prof Sarah Armstrong

University of Glasgow

Prof Beth Weaver

University of Strathclyde

Related Publications

February 2012

‘Persistent Punishment: Users Views of Short Prison Sentences’

Semi-structured interviews were conducted of 22 prisoners to gather information about the characteristic features of short prison sentences. Themes raised […]

March 2011

User Views of Punishment: The dynamics of community-based punishment: insider views from the outside

This report explores the experience of community sentences from the perspective of those subject to them and is part of […]