Us, Them; We

Turning ‘Us/Them’…into ‘We’ is what this ACE movement is capable of. Those navigating the criminal justice system are sometimes the little damaged children we all failed years ago, turning up as broken adults who need help.


“The wee tree in the cage is sort of being restricted to where it can go without a cage, a kind of obstacle round it. So it’s still got the walls but it’s not got its freedom. It’s confined within its areas…because it is… it’s restricted and that. If you look at that [other tree] behind it, there’s nothing round that. That’s a free tree, do you know what I mean? That’s going where it’s meant to go.” (Elvis, 2018. Current supervisee of penal supervision)

(* For the purpose of this essay, I will refer to the photographer and supervisee as Elvis/ he/ him. This is for practical reasons – I am unaware of the photographers’ gender.)


When I look at this picture I recognise a park near my home. A park that I have walked through many times, negotiating the winding paths whilst chatting with my sister. In this picture I see a source of calm and reconciliation. A place in which I am reminded of my childhood, a time spent roaming around my back garden, learning about plants and insects with my Dad. When I look closer I see a sapling. A plant that someone has taken time to protect from grazing rabbits and will grow tall and strong as a result. What I see is quite different from what the photographer and supervisee, Elvis*, describes above.

The contrast in our reaction surprised me. Why did Elvis perceive the mesh around the plant as a restrictive force? Why did he not see the importance of the act?

Since learning about penal supervision, I have a greater understanding of why Elvis may take this perspective from the image. Indeed, those under supervision are directed, controlled and positioned by authority figures. They are stigmatised against and often excluded from society. Supervision creates obstacles that the people subject to it must be capable of manoeuvring. Whilst I may understand supervision as a safe and stabling force, those under the watchful eye of the state often regard it as a continual source of control. A tightrope – one wrong move and you fall back into the widening net…

I found it difficult to relate to Elvis. In my experience, supervision has been a source of care and protection: an attentive parent who spends time guiding and teaching (“The wee tree is in the cage so that the bunnies don’t get at it!”). A lifeguard, ready to jump in at the first sign of vulnerability. So, in order to modify my lens to align with Elvis’, I decided I needed to modify my own experience.

Swimming is a leisure activity that I am lucky to partake in four times a week. I generally go to the university gym between classes and spend roughly thirty minutes in the pool, after which I slump onto a hot bench in the sauna. This routine is a great source of relaxation in my day. Swimming has been a big part of my life; I used to compete with my local squad around Scotland when I was at school. The presence of lifeguards, therefore, is something that I have grown up with. I understand their purpose and respect what they do. In fact, during my regular visits to the university pool I have become acquainted with the lifeguards that work there and find their presence unintimidating and natural. If my experience of supervision was different and was more closely in line with Elvis’, then this leisure activity may look quite different:

I arrive at the swimming pool, jump in the water. I instantly feel like a goldfish in a glass bowl; can sense the uncomfortable glare of the lifeguard. They walk around the edge of the pool, like a shark hunting its prey. I am uneasy. I proceed to veer into a different lane of the pool, disrupting the other swimmers and going against the norms and the rules. I am stopped by the lifeguard who scolds and defaces me in front of the other swimmers. These people stop and watch as the commotion unfolds. In this scenario, the supervisor is a negative figure in my life. They are not a friend, but instead, a restrictive force that stand for discipline. They have the ability, the capacity, to make me feel vulnerable. In this scenario, I do not go back to the swimming pool between classes. I become the entrapped tree, limited and restricted.

Creating this dystopian-like reflection helped me gain a deeper understanding of Elvis’s description of his photograph. It made me think about the parallels in mine and Elvis’s lived experience of society. The differences in our freedom of movement and our outlooks on the world.

Before starting this Sociology course, I believed that supervision was a much less evasive form of punishment than prison. A softer option. I still do believe this to an extent. However, I can understand now that this perception was likely the result of my own positive experience with it. A perception, I have come to realise, that is not universally shared. The literature we have discussed in class would suggest that Elvis is not alone in his understanding of penal supervision. Supervision can be regarded as an ‘in between’ sentence. You are existing in society yet subject to the continuous scrutiny by the state. You are the sapling that is encased by mesh, forced to watch other trees grow in their chosen direction.

In my scenario, I had the choice to veer out of the lane. To go against the rules. I wondered if Elvis had this same choice, or in fact, if he knew the rules in the first place? I could return to my lane – unscathed. Could Elvis? My upbringing has set me up in a way that I have the ability to make a bad decision yet land onto a far-reaching safety net. My positive experience of supervision means that I respect and understand it in a way that Elvis does not, or perhaps, cannot. My childhood and the encouraging role-models that existed in it taught me to respect and listen to my supervisors, the rules of the game. Maybe his childhood did not afford him this same chance. Elvis’ view of penal control means it is understandable that he may not gain the benefits from it as an institution or respect it as a form of social practice. Perhaps if Elvis and I could align both of our perspectives then he would be able to gain more from the process.

Our dissimilar perspectives suggest that there is an ‘us’ and ‘them’ in our society. However, my ability to see through Elvis’s lens made me wonder whether this could be joined through empathy? Before this task, I would have asked: What did Elvis do to find himself under penal supervision? But after my attempt to understand Elvis’s perception, this question has shifted to: What happened to Elvis to trigger his opinions and feelings of supervision? Changing my stance from ‘them’ and ‘us’ – to a more inclusive ‘we’. I believe it is vital that we understand both sides of the system in order to reach a well-rounded and effective solution. Elvis’s apparent trauma with this form of punishment is what may be happening to widen the net of supervision. When individuals lose trust in the state, then they also lose faith in its methods. By educating and helping Elvis to gain a better experience of supervision, perhaps we could work together to make sure Elvis goes “where [he is] meant to go”.

I am now intrigued by Elvis’ story and feel I understand a little better how supervision as a lived experience looks through his eyes. Although I can never walk in the shoes of Elvis, I can broaden my experiences and knowledge of supervision to perhaps walk beside him for a while, negotiating the winding paths together, and in that, try to help.


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