Research

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


Reflecting on Interview Styles

Interviewing is not all that difficult, but interviewing in which people tell you how they really think about things you are interested in learning, or how they think about the things that are important to them, is a delicate art.

(Wolcott 1995: 105, cited in Liebling 1999: 157).

In the time since the fieldwork stage of the study came to an end, we have been reflecting on our skills as interviewers. This has included self-reflection and a critical, but supportive, evaluation of one another's style, undertaken in parallel with the coding process - often the first point at which one gets to see how others go about interviewing, and to observe one's own style from a point of distance. The results have been relatively unsurprising, with each style reflecting distinguishing aspects of our personalities and temperaments. Still, the exploration has resulted in a keen discussion amongst the three of us about one particular aspect of our interviews: the extent to which we 'give ourselves away'. Here, we are not referring to how much factual information we disclose about our current lives (e.g. where we live, details about our families), which is often the concern for prison security departments, but how much of our opinions, experiences and emotions 'leak' out or are expressed in the process of our interviewing. It is clear that we are each located at different positions on a continuum: one of us is willing to give more away, another is far less willing, and the third is somewhere in between, but closer to the latter than the former. Discussing the strengths and potential pitfalls of each style - which we describe below - and thinking through the reasons why we are each committed to different, defensible interview techniques, has been a helpful exercise, and we are struck by how little has been written (or, perhaps, how little we have previously read) about different 'styles' within research teams.

Emotionally exposed: willing to give more away

This style of interviewing is informal, liberal and open. Such interviews read like a form of conversation, characterised by a two way, reciprocal approach. Within them are moments when the interviewer exposes aspects of their past, or reveals certain kinds of personal feelings that demonstrate empathy and understanding. Those who advocate such 'Responsive Interviewing' maintain that engaging with the interviewee in this way, on an emotional level, generates trust between 'conversational partners', and encourages the interviewee to speak more openly (Rubin and Rubin 2012). This can be particularly important where there is a perceived 'social gulf' between the two (Myers and Newman 2007: 12), as in prisons where prisoners may perceive there to be distinct cultural differences between themselves and university researchers. As one interviewee told us: 'Like, people like you. I'm not stereotyping you but you look… I don't know. You don't come across like you've grown up on a council estate'.

A two-way sharing of stories, however, can demonstrate an understanding of universal feelings, such as grief, trauma and anguish, which can act to close - or at least lessen - the gulf of perceived social or cultural experiences between the interviewer and the participant, and encourage a trusting relationship. Rubin and Rubin (2013: 73) go further to suggest that revealing a more personal side of oneself can be considered part of the 'obligation' that an interviewer has towards the now exposed interviewee:

When interviewees tell you about their experiences, fears, problems, or fantasies, they expose themselves to you and trust that you will not violate their confidence or criticize them. They deposit a part of themselves, an image of who they are, into your safekeeping, and in doing so, they end up feeling vulnerable. You, in turn, have a moral and ethical obligation to protect what they have shared, demonstrating that you will do so by showing empathy or possibly by exposing a bit of yourself in turn.

Still, as this quote suggests, exposing oneself emotionally is not the only way to 'show empathy' or to generate trust and rapport: demonstrating understanding is possible without employing personal storytelling. Miller and Glasner (2011: 136) note that it is not necessary for interviewers to 'engag[e] in confessionals either with one's interviewees or with one's readers, or boring them with excessive details about oneself'.

Less is more: giving less away

Those interviews that were characterised by giving less away emotionally were more direct and a little more formal in their approach, although they still read as relaxed interactions. They were effective - data was collected on the main themes of interest, without as much potentially superfluous information as in the interviewing style discussed above. This was not to say that these interviews were cold, or unemotional - emotions were evident and understanding was displayed, but the interviewer engaged in less personal exposure. Instead trust was gained by demonstrating professional interest and understanding, as well as treating interviewees' (often emotional) narratives with respect. The 'personal connection' necessary for effective interviews came from representing oneself as an honest, open, fair and accepting human being (Rubin and Rubin 2012), rather than as a fellow sufferer.

A strength of this approach is the reduced risk of 'contamination'. While all narratives are constructed in a particular way by the interview (Holstein and Gubrium 2011), they may be shaped or 'led' by some interviewers more than others. It is also a less 'risky' style of interviewing: by exposing personal feelings and opinions, the interviewer risks offending the interviewee on one hand (by, for example, stating an opinion which the participant is opposed to) and colluding with them on the other, in a way that can be particularly unwise in a prison environment. Instead the interview remains focused on the subject of enquiry, as Holstein and Gubrium (2011: 154) note: 'The seasoned interviewer learns that the so-called pull of conversation must be managed so that the 'push of the inquiry' (Converse and Schuman 1974: 26) is kept in focus'. Indulging in (potentially lengthy) emotional discussions risks moving away from the main research questions, or skipping other important subjects, in an environment which places obvious restrictions on researchers' time.

However this more formal approach may be risky in its own way: it may not delve deep enough into the heart of matters. It may only scratch the surface of painful and gruelling personal experiences. It may understate the deeply emotional impact of 'existing' for years behind walls, with no freedom, limited contact with family and the pains associated with the loss of (potential) futures. While all of our interviews included references to such 'pains' of long term imprisonment, those conducted in this latter style risked skimming over the kinds of subjective details that more emotive styles of interviewing help to draw out.

So, herein lies the debate for us as interviewers: does opening up emotionally encourage a richer, more 'truthful' interview? Does it help us to unearth more about the experience of long term imprisonment? Or does taking a slightly more detached approach ensure more valid results, ensuring that the interview is not 'led' by the interviewer, while helping to ensure that all of the important questions that the study needs to answer are systematically addressed?

Other points to consider

Before we finish, it is worth making three additional points which muddy the waters of this debate further. The first is that it can be difficult to detect more subtle emotional exchanges when reading an interview transcript. We all felt that we were committed to an empathic and responsive interview style, even when there were clear differences in the degree to which this commitment was manifested. Indeed, we were all told by at least one prisoner that they had 'never talked to anyone about this before' or certainly not in so much detail, with so much feeling (as has been found in other research - see Liebling 1999). The second is that, despite suggesting that 'giving more away' is likely to 'build rapport' or 'develop trust' most successfully, it is almost impossible to determine the extent to which this might be the case. After all, we cannot determine what is missing from an interview, or how it would have developed had it been executed in a different manner. As a related aside, it is important to note that none of the more emotional conversations we had with participants, regardless of interviewer, were undertaken with an explicit view to 'build rapport' or 'feign empathy' but were a genuine response to another human being divulging painful experiences or difficult emotions.

The final point is that, besides our interview style, our interactions with prisoners are likely to have been affected by other factors, including the context in which our interviews were conducted. For example, trust was offered differentially in different prisons. In high security establishments, it was more difficult from the outset to forge trust and a greater number of prisoners declined to participate in the study (with concerns about 'where this is going' and 'what you might tell staff' being much more pervasive). In contrast, in 'therapeutic' prisons, where prisoners are engaged in intensive therapy requiring openness and emotional disclosure, prisoners were often keen to discuss difficult experiences with (sometimes surprising) candour. It is also important that we do not ignore the potential impact on our research interactions of factors such as age, sex and class. As Liebling (1999: 160) noted during research she carried out within a mixed team:

The gender, age and background differences among us were also of significance as prisoners (and staff) took different members of the team into their confidence, or adopted different styles with each of us, and related different stories in markedly different ways during the informal (and probably to some extent the formal) stages of our research.

A democratic conclusion

While we are still debating the relative merits of the different styles of interviewing amongst ourselves, we all agree with Rubin and Rubin (2012: 73) when they say that:

Interviewing works best when you adopt a style that both fits you and makes interviewees comfortable. How much chat you engage in, how much sympathy you express, depends on your personality as well as the needs of the interviewee.

Is it about how we best 'connect' with people, whether we are the novice student, excited by conversing with interviewees and learning about their lives, or the serious academic - the 'expert' professional who wishes to understand the social world in order to pass that on information to interested parties. We are also daughters, sisters, brothers, sons, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers - we can engage with people on many levels and offer empathy and understanding based on all of these (Rubin and Rubin 2012) and ultimately, on a simply human to human basis.

We are an accumulation of our experiences and our (working and non-working) lives and we pull on all of those resources to be the best interviewers that we can be, at that moment in time. It is not to say that on a different day or in the future, when we have reflected further on our styles and learnt more about what works and what doesn't work, we can't be better.

References

  • Holstein, J.A. and Gubrium, J.F. (2011) 'Animating interview narratives'. In Silverman, D. (Ed.) Qualitative research: Issues of theory, method and practice (3rd edition). London: Sage Publications.
  • Liebling, A. (1999) 'Doing research in prison: Breaking the silence?' Theoretical Criminology 3, 147.
  • Miller, J. and Glassner, B. (2011) 'The "inside" and the "outside": Finding realities in interviews. In Silverman, D. (Ed.) Qualitative research: Issues of theory, method and practice (3rd edition). London: Sage Publications.
  • Myers, M. D. and Newman, M. (2007) 'The qualitative interview in IS research: Examining the craft.' Information and Organisation 17, 2-26.
  • Rubin, H.J. and Rubin, I.S. (2012) Qualitative interviewing: The art of hearing data (3rd edition). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Signatures

August 2014

Ben Crewe Susie Hulley Serena Wright

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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