Research

Experiencing very long term imprisonment from young adulthood: identity, adaptation and penal legitimacy


House of Commons Justice Committee 2nd Inquiry on 'Joint Enterprise': Submission of project data in call for 'evidence'.

In 2011, the House of Commons Justice Committee undertook a short inquiry into the operation of the legal doctrine of 'Joint Enterprise', publishing recommendations in 2012 which centred on increasing clarity in this complex area of law. 'Joint Enterprise' is a common law doctrine (i.e. not legislation) which creates secondary liability 'when a person who agrees to commit a crime with another becomes liable for all criminal acts committed by the other person (the 'Principal offender') in the course of their joint criminal venture' (HoC JC, Joint Enterprise, Eleventh Report of Session 2010-12). The report questioned whether the doctrine of Joint Enterprise was causing particular problems in relation to its application in murder cases, and cases involving 'gang' violence. The 2012 Report called for Joint Enterprise to be enshrined in legislation, acknowledging the potential issues relating to murder cases but arguing that reform in this area 'should not have to wait for a wider review of the law on homicide'. However, on May 15 2014, the Justice Committee published a call for evidence for a second inquiry. The evidence requested was focused primarily on legal and prosecutorial issues, but also asked for 'factual and/or statistical information on the extent, if any, to which the use of joint enterprise has disproportionately affected certain communities and ethnic groups'.

While our research was not designed as a study of Joint Enterprise, issues relating to this legal doctrine have been highly prominent in our interviews, and our surveys have captured a great deal of descriptive data about prisoners convicted of murder under this doctrine. On this basis, we have made a submission of written evidence relating to these issues to the Justice Committee, which can be seen by clicking on this link.

Signatures

June 2014

Ben Crewe Susie Hulley Serena Wright

Next steps, and new steps: Completing fieldwork, making sense of the data, and developing a new study

Having been to sixteen prisons in thirteen months - during which we completed 125 interviews, and collected surveys from almost 300 prisoners - we have completed the fieldwork stage of the study, and are now embarking on the long process of data coding, analysis and sense-making. However, we are also beginning to make plans for some supplementary fieldwork and bid-writing, thanks to an award we have just been given by the Isaac Newton Trust: a grant-making body aimed at promoting learning, research and education within the University of Cambridge.

This funding will provide us with time and resources to do two things. First, it enables us to interview as many as possible of the 21 women in the England and Wales prison system serving the kinds of very long sentences in which we are interested. This will constitute a standalone study, of a population that has received very little academic attention (although see Walker & Worrall 2000), while also allowing us to compare the experiences of men and women serving prison terms that are, in a formal sense, equivalent, but might well be experienced very differently.

Secondly, the grant will also allow us to prepare an application for further funding to study those men and women who fall within our original research criteria but who are currently in secure psychiatric hospitals rather than in the prison estate, as such. Data that we obtained from the Ministry of Justice suggest that this group represents a surprisingly large proportion of our population – around a fifth – including a disproportionately high percentage of women. Since a central question in our research is how people cope with very long sentences, it seems all the more important that we try to speak to those who have been removed from mainstream prison conditions due to acute psychological problems, or because they have been diagnosed with dangerous and severe personality disorders. We hope to interview a significant proportion of this sub-sample in due course, not least to try to understand how different kinds of institutional trajectories shape the experience of a long sentence, and to access a group of offenders who may normally be lost between the folds of prison and mental health research.

Signatures

April 2014

Walker, S. and Worrall, A. (2000) Life as a woman: The gendered pains of indeterminate imprisonment, Prison Service Journal 132: 27-37.

Being ‘on the book’

Our fieldwork is almost finished and we have spent the last couple of months talking to men in two High Security prisons. A number of things have struck us, including, in the mainstream high security prison we visited, the large proportion of young, ethnic minority men very often serving time under Joint Enterprise legislation – the ‘new generation of long-term lifers’ perhaps?  The other, particularly striking aspect of these prisons is the fairly widespread experience of being ‘on the book’.  This term is a colloquial phrase used by prisoners to describe being a ‘Category A’ prisoner: one who is deemed highly dangerous to ‘the public, the police or the security of the State’ should they escape and for whom the aim must be to make escape impossible’ (National Offender Management Service 2013). 

All such prisoners are held in High Security prisons, where they are subject to additional rules and restrictions, which do not apply to Category B prisoners held in the same establishment.  Many Category A prisoners who we interviewed found the additional security requirements difficult to live with and were frustrated by what they saw as the illegitimacy of their Cat A status.  This often made an already very difficult, very long sentence feel particularly onerous to these prisoners.

As part of the additional security measures, Category A prisoners are subject to more regular strip searches than Category B prisoners – once a month rather than once every three months.  Their status also exposes their family and friends to more intrusive security checks as potential visitors must receive approval, a process which involves home visits by the police.  Prisoners found this particularly difficult, as they feared it would be upsetting and embarrassing for their visitors.  This led some prisoners to stop requesting visits from anyone new (i.e. not yet approved), as explained in the following quotation:

‘I just don’t even want them [potential visitors] to be cleared because I don’t want to give the police that fact or the prison of going to my people’s houses and. […] people who are working, I know a lot of people who work, successful in life, and when they hear the police are going it’s like ‘nah forget that’ […] it’s just a joke, so I would rather just go without it.

Have you always felt like that?

Yeah because you get all your hopes up as an approved visitor to get someone cleared to see you, you wait for the Governor to sign it, then the Governor goes ‘no’ and you just go through the raw… you get so angry and frustrated and they don’t understand so instead of going in that predicament you just like have nothing.’

Category A prisoners in High Security prisons often reported feeling that they were ‘deep’ within the system, exacerbated by the sense that they were ‘stuck’ there (although there were example of prisoners feeling ‘stuck’ at all stages of these sentences, this feeling was particularly intense for those described here).  In some cases, this sense of stagnation was related to a total confusion both as to how one became Cat A, and how one could stop being Cat A.  Some prisoners reported being told that they were Cat A to ensure they received more security at their court cases years previously.  In this context they questioned how they could ever affect re-categorisation.  Where they had been given some indication as to how to 'come off the book' they complained that the 'goalposts shifted' continuously:

‘They say to you yeah, do the course and then you’ll come off the book – all the lads who have done the course they say ‘oh now you have to demonstrate it for the next year’…but they wasn’t saying that before. This is a game of just dragging things out.’

There was little sense of procedural justice in the re-categorisation process, as prisoners observed others coming off the book who had completed far fewer courses than them or had been convicted of, what appeared to be, a far more serious crime.  According to staff, who themselves struggled to tell us the criteria for becoming Cat A or having the Cat A status removed, official letters often did little to clarify what the individual needed to do to come off the book.  In some cases, this generated intense feelings of frustration, anger and despair amongst prisoners.

‘I’m really frustrated about being a Cat A, it’s my dream to become a Cat B prisoner’

As this quote shows, prisoners see progressive re-categorisation as a highly significant event, which forms an important milestone for them even if it is years into the future.  This is true for prisoners at all stages of their sentence, however for prisoners ‘on the book’ the step between being a Cat A and becoming Cat B feels particularly big and making it feels especially challenging.

Signatures Susie Hulley Ben Crewe Serena Wright

Guilt, innocence, denial

One of the most interesting aspects of our study so far has been the high proportion of interviewees who are disputing their conviction, their sentence, or both. We have become particularly interested in how denying the offence and maintaining innocence function as coping mechanisms for prisoners given very long sentences, especially having interviewed a number of men who initially contested their guilt but subsequently acknowledged it. For some prisoners, denial seems to offer a shard of hope about not having to undergo decades of confinement. For others, it results from pledges of innocence made to family members at the first point of arrest and trial, which become very hard to withdraw. Contesting the conviction also provides prisoners who are otherwise facing a seemingly unending block of time in prison with short-term goals and targets.
We will say more about all of these issues when we begin to write up the study, and we want to do so without making any assumptions about whether those men within our sample who are maintaining claims of innocence are guilty or not. In previous studies, it has been possible to say in good faith that such matters have not been analytically important, but, in this piece of research, themes of guilt, shame, remorse and conversely injustice and resentment are highly significant factors in the narratives and adaptive decisions of our interviewees. Moreover, because all of our interviewees are convicted of such serious offences, and are sentenced to such long terms, it is impossible not to be struck by something quite fundamental: a number of our participants have either managed to maintain false positions of innocence over many, many years of custody - something which must require considerable psychological effort, and comes with a number of disadvantages, including making it harder to progress through the system - or they are the victims of gross miscarriages of justice.

Signatures Ben Crewe Susie Hulley Serena Wright

Getting On with the initial survey analysis, and Getting Back In to the field

Having been 'in the field' since February this year, we concluded a long period of prison-based fieldwork at the start of September. In that time, we visited 11 different prisons, both 'closed' and 'open', and both in the adult (aged 21+) and Young Offender (aged 18-20) estate. During this time, we conducted in-depth interviews with 87 men, all of whom were serving a life sentence with a tariff of 15 years or more, given to them when they were aged twenty-five or under. We have interviewed selectively: in the early phase of their sentence (having served less than four years), in the middle phase (halfway through their tariff, plus or minus two years), and in the late phase (either a year from their tariff point or beyond it). In most of the prisons, we approached everyone who met these sentence-stage criteria to request an interview, but this was not possible in the two category B training prisons, where a large number of prisoners fell within these categories. In part to mitigate this, and to gather data from a larger sample, we distributed questionnaires in all of the establishments to all prisoners who met our broader criteria. While we wait to receive security clearance in order to enter two high-security establishments - a hiatus that might last for a couple of months - we have begun the analysis of the 147 surveys that we have so far received, alongside a review of the emerging themes from the interviews.

The questionnaires comprise three sections: an initial section which asks for background and demographic data (including sentence length and, whether the conviction is for Joint Enterprise, for example), followed by sections which ask prisoners about a) the various problems of imprisonment that they are experiencing; b) their experiences of change (both positive and negative) across the duration of the sentence to date, and c) their attitudes towards prison staff, and the prison system.

Our initial inspiration for the questionnaire was Barry Richards' (1978) exploratory study into 'the problems of long-term imprisonment'. Richards' own impetus for his study was a concern about longer prison sentences, and a desire to know more about the 'psychological effects of such long-term "storage"' on those serving them. His study was designed to explore some of the 'psychological stresses' associated with the phenomenon of long-term imprisonment, and the 'methods of coping' that prisoners might adopt in response to this experience. Richards therefore devised 20 'problems' of long-term imprisonment, examples of which include 'Feeling that your life is being wasted , 'Feeling angry with yourself ', 'Worrying about how you will cope when you get out', and 'Being bored'.

Building on Richards' method, and based on our interviews in the first prison in our study, we supplemented his original problems with 21 further problems, including issues related to feelings of legitimacy (e.g. 'Feeling that the length of your sentence is unfair'), existential fears (e.g. 'Feeling that you have no purpose or meaning in your life'), and concerns about the status of relationships with loved ones (e.g. 'Feeling that you are losing contact with family and friends').

In our initial analysis of the survey data, we have organised these problems into eight broad thematic groups: i) the Deprivations associated with life inside prison; ii) Existential concerns (e.g. 'Being afraid of dying before you get out'); iii) Relationships, 'on the inside' (i.e. with other prisoners),including issues of safety, and 'keeping out of trouble'; iv) the prison System itself (e.g. The frustrations relating to speed of progress through system); v) Relationships with individuals 'on the outside' (e.g. 'Missing somebody'); vi) the Sentence (specifically its length, and legitimacy); vii) Emotional and Psychological issues, some related to issues of Coping (or not coping) (e.g. 'Feeling lonely', 'Feeling suicidal'); and iv) Power and Authority (e.g. relationships with prison officers, and the prison rules).

Ranking the problems experienced as most intense by the men completing the survey, we have found that our life-sentenced prisoners across all ages and sentence stages are least concerned with internal issues (for example, their own psychological well-being or emotions), and most concerned with external issues; specifically those related to the health and well-being of family and friends. Moreover, the top-ranking problems within our sample bear a remarkable similarity to the problems of long-term imprisonment identified by Richards, more than 30 years ago, as well as those found by Flanagan in his replication of Richards' study in the United States [see Fig.1, below]. If we based the analysis on only the 20 original problems, 'Missing somebody' is the top-ranking problem of long-term imprisonment across all three studies. 'Feeling that your life is being wasted', 'Missing social life', and 'Being sexually frustrated' also feature within the top five across all three studies.

fig.1 - 5 most serious problems 1978-2013

When including our supplementary problems, 'Missing somebody' remains the most problematic aspect of long-term imprisonment [Fig.2], but other problems are also identified: 'Feeling that you are losing the best years of your life', 'Worrying about people outside' and 'Being afraid that someone you love or care about will die before you are released'. Again, then, these concerns are primarily 'external' - about loved ones outside - and existential.

fig.2 - 5 most serious problems including supplementary problems

These are preliminary results, which may change once we have completed our fieldwork and collected data from prisoners in high-security establishments.
We will keep you informed…

Signatures

Getting in and getting on

Calling this an ‘occasional’ blog has turned out to be something of an under-statement. In the time since I first posted details of this study, we have recruited a research assistant (Serena Wright), negotiated access through the NOMS National Research Committee, and made significant headway with our interviews. We are now in our sixth prison, having completed almost sixty interviews and received back over 100 surveys in three adult establishments and two Young Offender Institutions. As in all research projects, there is something both strange and gratifying about the realisation that the study is now more than just a written proposal: gradually, it is being populated by real people, whose raw, lived experiences are much more than the ‘gaps in our knowledge’ that we first tried to identify almost two years ago.

One of the most notable things about the research process so far has been the sheer logistical complexity of trying to undertake research in a number of different establishments. Securing approval from the NOMS National Research Committee required a long and detailed application, including consent forms and information sheets, and while this went about as smoothly as one could expect, it represented only the first stage in an ongoing, multi -stage process. Central approval is no guarantee of access to individual establishments, which – quite rightly - can only be granted by individual governors (usually via their institutional research leads). Here, we have been exceptionally fortunate, in already having connections with a number of governors through previous research projects and a Masters course for practitioners on which I have taught for many years. We have been struck by how difficult it would be to make progress with this research without these pre-existing relations of trust. For example, when, at late notice, we were asked by one prison to postpone our research visit, within a week, we were able to negotiate access to two alternative research sites.

In all of the prisons that we have so far accessed, we have been given keys (enabling us to move freely through the establishment, without being guided or escorted), some kind of base, office spaces on the wings in which to conduct our interviews, and access to information that has made our task much easier than it might have been. Governors have been very generous, not only in this respect, but in agreeing to let us in at all. There is a good argument that, as publicly-funded institutions, whose behaviour is a matter of public concern, prisons ought to feel some obligation to allow researchers in to evaluate their climates and consequences. But the risks and burdens for governors in doing so, at a time when their establishments are increasingly tightly staffed and resourced, should not be under-estimated. The benefits of our research for the organisation are much greater than for the individuals who we are facilitating it, who shoulder the small but still possible risks that we might compromise the security of the prison or cause distress to our interview participants by asking them what it is like to face or live through decades of imprisonment.

While some participants have become upset during our interviews (more often during interviews with the two female interviewers than with me, which is notable in itself), if anything, we have been surprised by how rarely this has occurred (more common emotions have been anger, frustration, despair and deep remorse). This is both a relief and an indication that prisoners may be less vulnerable as research subjects – at least within the social rather than medical sciences – than is often assumed. Indeed, to make a general point about their status as a ‘vulnerable research group’, many prisoners have expressed gratitude for the opportunity to reflect on and give voice to their experiences, or to use the interview as a kind of rehearsal for their changing self-narrative. As one young man said at the end of a long interview session, ‘it’s a chance for me to think about where I’m at, and I only see that as a good thing’. For this man, who was unusually ‘at peace’ with his predicament, reflecting on his situation was an opportunity to help construct a more positive future. Since we are also interviewing prisoners who are further into their sentences, and as we intend to apply for funding to follow-up our cohort every five years, we hope to get a better sense not only of whether this kind of existential optimism is typical but whether it can be maintained over the course of very long-term confinement.


A blog

One of the most interesting aspects of our study so far has been the high proportion of interviewees who are disputing their conviction, their sentence, or both. We have become particularly interested in how denying the offence and maintaining innocence function as coping mechanisms for prisoners given very long sentences, especially having interviewed a number of men who initially contested their guilt but subsequently acknowledged it. For some prisoners, denial seems to offer a shard of hope about not having to undergo decades of confinement. For others, it results from pledges of innocence made to family members at the first point of arrest and trial, which become very hard to withdraw. Contesting the conviction also provides prisoners who are otherwise facing a seemingly unending block of time in prison with short-term goals and targets.

We will say more about all of these issues when we begin to write up the study, and we want to do so without making any assumptions about whether those men within our sample who are maintaining claims of innocence are guilty or not. In previous studies, it has been possible to say in good faith that such matters have not been analytically important, but, in this piece of research, themes of guilt, shame, remorse and conversely injustice and resentment are highly significant factors in the narratives and adaptive decisions of our interviewees. Moreover, because all of our interviewees are convicted of such serious offences, and are sentenced to such long terms, it is impossible not to be struck by something quite fundamental: a number of our participants have either managed to maintain false positions of innocence over many, many years of custody - something which must require considerable psychological effort, and comes with a number of disadvantages, including making it harder to progress through the system - or they are the victims of gross miscarriages of justice.

In January, after what felt like a very long time in suspense, Dr Susie Hulley and I were informed by the Economic and Social Research Council that we had been successful in applying for a grant to undertake a study titled: Experiencing very long term imprisonment from young adulthood: identity, adaptation and penal legitimacy (ref: ES/J007935/1). The idea had first emerged several years ago from a conversation with the Director of High Security Prisons for England and Wales, who said that the nature of the long-term prison population seemed to be changing – becoming younger, less predictable, with fewer 'professional criminals' than in the past. Around this time, Susie and I were both involved in a comparative study of public and private sector prisons, during which we had both conducted interviews with men who had very long sentence tariffs. Both of us were struck by the sheer weight of these sentences – and, in my case, by the mixture of resentment and resignation that was expressed about them. In previous studies, I had interviewed a small number of men who talked eloquently about the difficulties of retaining a sense of ‘future identity’ after having been imprisoned for so long: how did you know who you really were, when the last time you were in a ‘real environment’ was when you were twenty years younger?

Our interest dovetailed with some of the findings emerging from a piece of research being undertaken by colleagues at the Institute of Criminology on staff-prisoner relations in HMP Whitemoor, a high-security establishment, where many prisoners fitted the profile in which we were interested (see http://www.justice.gov.uk/downloads/publications/research-and-analysis/moj-research/staff-prisoner-relations-whitemoor.pdf). Among other things, our colleagues reported that, compared to a decade or so earlier, the prison’s atmosphere felt very different, in part because there were so many more prisoners feeling desperate about and disorientated by the length of confinement that they were facing. Some of these men could barely talk about what lay in front of them, and were deeply alienated by their treatment by the state, both prior to their imprisonment and in terms of the sentences handed to them. Governors, too, were struggling to find ways of making life meaningful for this prisoner group i.e. giving them reason to feel any kind of hope about the future, particularly as prison conditions were becoming more austere and restrictive, in a number of ways. Some senior managers were concerned about the implications for control and security of having a growing number of prisoners in the system who appeared to be importing gang affiliations into the prison, and had – though the term is something of a cliché – 'little to lose'.

As we began to work up a research proposal, we were struck by how little research has been conducted on the long-term prison population in recent years. Psychological Survival, by Cohen and Taylor, remains a classic of prison sociology, but it reflects a different era of imprisonment, and it has not been superseded by a more contemporary account. The literature from the US on life without parole offered some interesting points of comparison, but – again – much of this work felt limited in value: many of the prisoners we expect to interview will serve huge sentences and yet they will be released with many years of their lives ahead of them. Susie and I have both recently become parents, in our mid-to-late thirties, and it is hard not reflect on the fact that our interviewees may be released at our ages, with the possibility – theoretically – of creating completely new lives for themselves, but having spent half of their lives in prison. What does this do to someone? How do they cope, maintain relationships, plan for the future? How does it feel to be at the start of such a long sentence, or near the end? How do sentence lengths of this kind shape prisoners' attitudes towards prison staff, the system, and the state?

These are the kinds of questions we will be pursuing, as our abstract (below) suggests. We would welcome any feedback, and we will be updating this blog regularly to provide detail of the build up to the fieldwork, its ins-and-outs, and our emerging findings.

This study will explore the experiences of prisoners who are given very long sentences (15 years or more) when aged under twenty-one. Around one hundred interviews will be conducted with prisoners at various stages of such sentences, as well a smaller number of interviews with prison staff and managers. The main aim is to provide a detailed account of the experiences of these prisoners, focussing on three main areas: first, how they cope with (and develop during) such long sentences, and how they manage issues of self and identity; second, how they adapt socially to imprisonment, in particular, their relationships with staff and other prisoners, and their levels of compliance, engagement and resistance; and, third, how their sentence conditions and lives prior to imprisonment shape their perceptions of penal legitimacy. The research will contribute to policy and practice in a range of areas, for example, by better informing relevant policymakers and practitioners about the consequences of new sentencing practices, about the needs of this group of very long-term prisoners, and about the operational challenges resulting from the growing number of prisoners serving very long sentences from an early age.

Signatures

Dr. Ben Crewe

Dr. Susie Hulley

Serena Wright


Comments

i was sent to prison when i was 17 for a GBH and it could have been a long sentence if id killed the man that was assaulted, so i always look at these sentences with a thought to what could have been.. - Gary

We who live in prison, and in whose lives there is no event but sorrow, have to measure time by throbs of pain and the record of bitter moments (Oscar Wilde) - Jason

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