Abstract: A 1992 study, The Dynamics of Recidivism, was cited by the Home Secretary of the Conservative government during the 1990s to support the political doctrine that ‘prison works’. This claim drew on qualitative data from pre- and post-prison interviews of 130 male offenders to uphold a narrow rational choice perspective that emphasised the perceived ‘costs’ of imprisonment to the offender. A ten-year reconviction study was carried out as a follow-up to the 1992 study. The subsequent criminal careers of the majority of the sample contradict an assumption that imprisonment has a deterrent impact. In the light of these findings, and an analysis of the differential impacts of subjective and social factors in the experiences of these ex-prisoners, this article reviews the limitations of ‘rational choice theory’ as a basis for understanding recidivism and desistance from crime.