Sociological Research on Life Imprisonment

A life sentence in jail is the most severe form of punishment the English Criminal Justice System can hand out, and the number of people serving life imprisonment in England and Wales has increased in the last few decades, but how do those sentenced to a Life-term in jail cope?

This recent Thinking Allowed Podcast features Ben Crewe, Deputy Director of the Prison Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, who recently published some research on this topic.

NB – A ‘life sentence’ doesn’t mean someone will spend their life in jail, they get a very long term (say 15 years) and then spend their life ‘on license’ meaning (as I understand it) they could be put back inside if they return to crime.

Why are there more people serving Life?

Crewe argues that there is no evidence that an underlying increase in very serious crimes (namely murder) is the cause, rather it is changes to the law and sentencing policy which has resulted in more people being sent to jail for life.

The 2003 Criminal Justice Act and a subsequent amendment changed the minimum jail tariff judges were able to give out for someone convicted for murder – as a result the average starting jail sentence when up from 12.5 years in 2003 to 21 years by 2016.

Jail terms for murder also increased because of the the introduction of ‘joint enterprise’, which means an individual can be convicted of someone else’s crime if the jury believe they believed the perpetrator was going to commit it.

So if there’s a group of three with two people watching the third person murdering someone else, the other two can also be convicted of murder.

Research Methods….

The researchers interviewed people who were convicted at 25 years of age or younger and had received sentences of 15 years or more.

They visited 25 prisons overall and interviewed 126 men and 21 women and issued surveys to more than another 300 inmates

They tried to get a spread of people near the beginning of their sentences, those in the middle, and those at the end or who had recently been released.

There were only 27 women who fit the above criteria, so they set out to interview all of them, a rare example of an attempt to achieve a ‘total sample’ of a research population.

Differences between Lifers from the 1970s and Lifers today

Today’s inmates serving Life terms are more likely to have been convicted younger, more likely to be from ethnic minority backgrounds and less likely to be ‘professional criminals’.

They typically come from chaotic backgrounds and weren’t expecting to be put inside for such a long time, and so they were in shock on being put inside, angry at themselves and at the Criminal Justice System.

There is a difference between male and female prisoners

The women’s live’s were typically saturated with abuse, often starting within the nuclear family and partners

Women experineced the problems of imprisonment much more accutely than men in nearly all areas

How did the prisoners construct a life while in custody?

How did the life term prisoners build a new life inside having left behind their life outside?

During the early years they were in survival mode – existing rather than living, drowning, with a feeling of having no control with very little hope or meaning.

They tried to suppress their experience of incarceration by sleeping a lot or drugs or suicide, with almost everyone considering suicide (so escape) and a lot of denial. Sounds very much like they were in a state of Anomie!

Those in the middle of their jail terms had found ways to construct a life – faith, education and therapy were ways in which they found purpose in the present, but also of making sense of the deep existential crisis they found themselves in, to help them deal with deep feelings of shame and guilt at what they had done.

Self improvement was also seen as a a way of making amends, and many had intentions to give something back to other prisoners or society. It was also important to them that they try to be good people going forwards.

How did they cope with outside relationships?

Very few had long term relationships outside, but those who did terminated them themselves pretty quickly and the women realised their previous relationships had been toxic, so there was a different dynamic between men and women in this regard.

Many men said they had improved their relationships with their parents, for women most had been abandoned, but those who had children lost them, which understandably was terrible.

How they coped with TIME

Those near the beginning of their sentences ignored time and just took it one day at a time – to think of all the time ahead in jail gave them a sort of ‘temporal vertigo’.

Eventually, those further into their sentences found more constructive uses of their time.

Ben Crewe says that this made them more mature in some ways but more damaged in others – distorted in some ways by the institution, lacking social connections in the ordinary sense of the word, and many switched off their emotions to cope, which doesn’t bode well for their ability to form ‘normal’ relationships.

It makes sense to have shorter minimal sentences

Because you can release early those who have shown themselves to be a minimal risk to society! And you can always put them back in if necessary!

Relevance to A-level Sociology

This is of clear relevance to the Crime and Deviance module, especially punishment and crime control, and useful for gender differences in the way women experience life more harshly than men, and a handy link to anomie as well.

There’s also a link to Interactionism and crime – it’s the change in the law that’s lead to more lifers, not the underlying seriousness of what they’ve done!

It’s also a great example of ‘researching the underdog’ as well – giving a voice to those normally forgotten!

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