Life Imprisonment from Young Adulthood: Adaptation, Identity and Time

January 31, 2021
Professor Ben Crewe
Deputy DirectorPrison Research Centre, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge

On 12th February 2021, we are delighted that Professor Ben Crewe, along with Dr Susie Hulley and Dr Serena Wright, will be delivering a InsightsOnline event about their research into the experiences of those serving life sentences. In our latest guest blog, Professor Crewe provides us with some background to this research and some thoughts on how individuals can be supported in prison.

To attend the event on 12th Feb, please click here.

For several years, along with my colleagues Dr Susie Hulley and Dr Serena Wright, I have been researching the experiences of men and women serving very long sentences from an early age. Our research has led to a number of publications, including a book (Life Imprisonment from Young Adulthood: Adaptation, Identity and Time) which summarises all of the findings from the study: https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9781137566003

In all research projects, there are some participants who stick in the memory for longer than others. In 2013-14, when we were interviewing lifers in a range of establishments across the prison estate, I was especially affected by a long interview with one man, Alfie (a pseudonym), whose circumstances felt particularly dire. Like many of the men and women in our study – given tariffs of fifteen years or more, when aged 25 or under – he had been convicted under joint enterprise, and given a minimum sentence that was almost as long as the number of years he had been alive. He disputed his guilt, but had come to realise that his options for challenging his conviction and sentence were extremely limited and were unlikely to be successful.

Facing many years of imprisonment, Alfie felt almost completely hopeless about his future and struggled to make it through each day, reporting bouts of very severe depression. He was physically small and timid, and although he did not feel especially unsafe, his fear and despair about the years of imprisonment that awaited him were palpable. Among the few sources of meaning in his life were art, which provided him with a creative outlet and a means of psychological escape, and the budgerigar that he was allowed to keep in his cell, but his overall outlook was bleak.

In the intervening years, I have often wondered about Alfie and how he has adjusted to his sentence. In our study, we deliberately sampled individuals at different sentence stages, to help us better understand how the experience of ‘doing life’ varied according to the amount of time served. The majority of the people we spoke to who were within the first few years of their sentence were, like Alfie, in a fairly dire psychological state. Most felt that they had no control over their life; few could envisage a meaningful future; the majority were ‘drowning’ in emotions, of anger, bewilderment and shame.

Those who were further into their sentence tended to have found ways of coping, rather than simply surviving, often through finding meaning and self-understanding through education, faith and therapy. They had come to realise the importance of trying to build some kind of life within prison, even though the opportunities for making friendships and finding some kind of everyday purpose were limited. But these men and women were also aware of how much they had missed out on life i.e. on key years in their 20s and 30s, when most people put down roots, develop long-term relationships, start families and build careers.

An increasing number of men and women are in the same situation as Alfie: entering prison when relatively young, and facing sentences that are much longer than were typically given out a generation ago. Tariff lengths for murder have increased significantly in recent years, and the current direction of sentencing reforms means that any change in this situation is very unlikely. According to the response to a recent Freedom of Information request, that there are now 1,359 men and women in custody with tariffs of 15 years or more, sentenced when 25 or younger, compared to 895 in 2013. The study we conducted, which involved interviews with 146 men and women, and surveys with more than 300, therefore provides important insight into the consequences of these ultimate sanctions, for the men and women who are serving them, as well as for the people and organisations who are managing them in prison as well as in the community.

Ensuring that people in the same position as Alfie are held humanely and given a reason to keep going is now one of the key challenges for the Prison Service. How can life be made meaningful for people facing many years in custody? How can prisons ensure that young lifers entering the system fully understand what their sentence means, including how their current behaviour might impact on their future? What might make the difference, in terms of helping early stage lifers to process their emotions? Among the policies and practices we think might have value are: mentoring schemes, involving late-stage lifers guiding their early-stage peers; the greater use of clinical therapy for lifers coming into the system; improved information about what a life sentence entails; and more ‘generative’ opportunities, i.e. opportunities for lifers to ‘give something back’ to the wider community. We will discuss these ideas in more detail in our talk on February 12th.

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