What Motivates an Arsonist

Mark Humphries is a life sentenced prisoner living in the community; he is also a student with the Open University. Mark comments on prison life and issues of criminal justice. In this personal blog he recalls the work he did whilst in therapy for his offending.s

Fire is a very powerful and versatile element. It has many symbolic definitions, and it can be used to purify, to burn and to give us light. Fire allows us to keep warm and to cook with by providing heat. it can also be used to protect us and to send signals to others. What is it then that motivates some people to abuse this powerful tool for malicious purposes.

Due to the way that my life was turning out prior to imprisonment, and not wanting to leave in the same manner I have taken time to learn about some of what it is that allows arsonist to set fire. Throughout my time in custody I have met many arsonists; this has been in therapeutic groups as well as in general conversations. Each prisoner that I spoke to came to set fire for their own reasons; it is my opinion that this is one of the many reasons why arsonists are difficult to categorise, and why arson is such an enigmatic offence to deal with. on a personal level, my offending with arson caused me much grief and anguish; I am aware that the suffering that I went through is minimal compared to that of my victims, their families and the emergency services that had to deal with these incidents and me. Without going into too much detail I will share with you what I have learned about the motivation behind arson.

There is, without doubt, a sexual side to offending for some of those that use arson. In therapy I met several people that went on to express sexual thoughts, and to carry out sexual acts while watching the fires that they set; many of these people were sexual abused in their infancy or early childhood. This went on to have implications in the way that some of the men I met handled their intimate relationships in their teens and adulthood. All the arsonists that I met have had relationship difficulties. Many of them could not define what it was that they wanted from their relationships.

There is also a cathartic effect that arson can have. This is when the offender uses arson as a problem solving solution. The arsonist that uses fire like this usually has a poor self-worth image and sees their life full of rubbish that has to be gotten rid of. They do not see anything of worth within themselves, and probably would have been told similar throughout their life. For them the physical fire is burning up this rubbish in their life. It is also possible that there are issues that have been repressed for a long time that have come to the surface and have caused pain.

Another strong motivator for the arsonist is the power and control that they hold over people. When an arsonist sets a fire someone has to react because all fire has the potential ability to kill; this is enhanced when it is arson. To have people, especially the emergency services, is a massive sense of power for the arsonist that uses fire to hold control over their neighbourhood. I was told by one man in jail that this was the only time he felt as if he was worth anything, and it was the only time when others took notice of him.

One of the strongest things that came out of my learning was that adults do not deal with children that set fire in an effective manner. Many told me that the adults around them when they were lighting said ‘don’t worry they’ll grow out of it’. Some of them did not grow out of it, and at least one went on to kill using arson. As I was writing the original article that I have taken this blog from there was a newspaper report that two 13 year old boys went into a barn to set fire to straw, only one came out alive. We do need to take seriously children playing at setting fire.

I have listed a few of the reasons that came to light when I was in prison for arson, and I am sure that there are many more. I hope that what I have written has made sense and helped us all move forward in some way.