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!

The world’s toughest prisons: Tucumbu in Paraguay

Tucumbu Prison in Paraguay, South America, houses some of the most dangerous convicted criminals in the country.

It is based in the middle of a slum, and is hideously underfunded and overcrowded – originally built to house just 800 inmates, it currently houses 4000.

The prison features in a recent Netflix documentary series: Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons in which Raphael Rowe spends two weeks inside the prison finding out what life is like for the inmates and guards.

This is an insightful documentary which should be of interest to students studying the Crime and Deviance Module as part of A-level sociology.

A prison of contrasts

There appears to be a very clear structure in the prison, with three main regions being explored in the documentary:

The first is a zone run by the catholic church which seams to be relatively safe and normal (by prison standards) – where prisoners can stay if they agree to abide by 50 rules laid down by the church. This is where Raphael stays, and like prisoners in this area he’s expected to work for 4 hours a day. Work seems to help prisoners as some of them are earning hundreds of dollars a month making products they sell, and they seem to be able to keep a good chunk of the money.

The second is the much rougher outside zone, in the open air, where it seems mainly drug addicts hang out – here one of the ways of making money is to scavenge through rubbish for old bits of food, and plastic bottles.

The plastic bottles can be sold as plates, which inmates used to get their daily food ration, which is the only thing they get for free from the prison authorities. Anything else has to be paid for.

The final reason is the ‘enterprise region’ – where prisoners run full on businesses, such as restaurants, there’s a tattoo parlour, barbers, and a laundry. in this section people can pay around $300 a month for a room – and a few do seem to be making that much money!

Relevance to A-level sociology

This is clearly most relevant to the ‘social control’ topic within Crime and Deviance – this prison offers an interesting contrast to the way things are done in UK prisons.

There are very few guards per prisoner, who mainly let the prisoners get on with their lives, and there seems to be very little in the way of surveillance or rehabilitation going on.

However prisoners are also allowed the freedom to set up businesses, earn money, and have a lot of freedom when relatives come in.

It seems to be a very liberal approach to punishment – individuals are left to rise or fall depending on their own individual efforts which the state doing nothing other than providing what seems to be just one meal a day.

You could also use this as a case study for qualitative research methods.

Does Prison Work? The Stats suggest not!

What can prison population statistics tell us about Crime Control in the UK?  Is Prison an effective strategy for controlling crime?

These are questions that should be of interest to any student studying the Crime and Deviance option within A-level sociology.

Scotland, England and Wales have high prison populations 

Prison population england.PNG

In England and Wales we lock up 40% more people than in France and almost twice as many people as they do in Germany, which are broadly comparable countries.

Yet there is no link between the prison population and levels of crime 

prison population and crime rate.PNG

  • England and wales have seen a rising prison population and a rising then a rapidly falling crime rate
  • Finland has seen a declining prison population and a rising and then a gradually declining crime rate.
  • Canada has seen a broadly level prison population and yet a relatively stable crime rate.

Most people are serving short sentences for non-violent offences 

what people are sentenced for.PNG

Nearly 70% of the prison population are in for non-violent offences – which means that 30% are in for violent offences. In those prisons where the two populations are mixed, this must be awful for some of those non-violent offenders.

People are getting sentenced for longer 

long sentences for serious offences.PNG

I’m not sure what’s underlying this rise in more serious offences …. the most obvious long-sentence crime of murder has decreased in recent years, so maybe this is for violent gang related and terrorist related crimes which involve in harm rather than death ? Something to research further!

Does Prison work?

In short, if controlling crime is what you hope to achieve, then no it doesn’t because nearly 50% of those sent to prison are recalled within 1 year of being released.

reoffending rates England 2019.PNG

However, there are more reasons why you might want to lock people up other than just rehabilitating them and preventing future offending – there is an argument that they just deserve to be punished whether they reoffend or not.

How do community service orders and suspended sentences compare to prison?

it seems that both of these are more effective at preventing reoffending, but the difference isn’t that great:

  • 63% of people who serve sentences of less than 12 months reoffend compared to
  • 56% of those who receive community orders and compared to
  • 54% of those who receive suspended sentences.

reoffending community service compared prison.PNG

HOWEVER, this may be due to the fact that those avoiding jail have different circumstances and/ or different characters to those who do go to jail – they might just be the kinds of people less likely to reoffend already!

Conclusions 

Overall these prison statistics suggest that while we like to lock people up in England and Wales, there is little evidence that doing so prevents crime.

Maybe we should be looking for cheaper and more effective solutions – such as early intervention (initially expensive but cheaper than several years in and out of jail), or public shaming for example?

Sources 

This post is based on data taken from ‘Prison the facts, Summer 2019‘, published by the Prison Reform Trust.

Official Statistics on Ethnicity and Crime

The Home Office records statistics on the ethnic backgrounds of people as they ‘progress’ through the criminal justice system, such as:

  1. Stop and search
  2. Arrest statistics
  3. Prosecutions
  4. Convictions
  5. Custodial remands
  6. Custodial Sentences
  7. Prison Population

The main publication documenting this data is ‘Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System‘, the latest publication date being November 2018 (next release November 2021).

The latest report notes that ethnic minorities, especially black people are over-represented at many stages of the criminal justice process – but especially in the stop and search practice.

The figures below show the percentages of different ethnic groups represented through stop and search to the prison population:

NB the percentages above do not show us the percentages proportionate to the numbers of White, Black and Asian in the population so on their own they are misleading. 22% of the population isn’t Black, for example, so black people are hugely over-represented in the stop and search statistics (something the England and Wales Police Force is well aware of as something of a ‘problem’!)

More than half of children in jail are ethnic minorities

The latest report also has stats on children moving through the criminal justice system.

The figures are even more skewed against ethnic minorities compared to the adult statistics.

It’s more than a little disturbing to note that 51% of children in prison are from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Official Statistics on Ethnicity and Crime – The Most Obvious Differences between Ethnic Groups… 

Proportionate to the overall numbers in the adult population as a whole…

  • Black people are approximately SIX times more likely to be stopped and searched and SIX times more likely to be sent to jail;
  • Asian people are THREE times more likely to be stopped and searched than White people, but have a similar chance of being sent to jail.

The rest of this post provides a little more detail on how the stats vary at different stages of the criminalisation process. 

Stop and Search Statistics by Ethnicity

Stop and search has long been an issue of concern by Human Rights campaigners in England and Wales

According to this BBC summary (2013) The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said in some areas black people were 29 times more likely to be stopped and searched. The commission said the disproportion between different ethnic groups remained “stubbornly high”.

The highest “disproportionality” ratios were found in the following places:

  • In Dorset black people were 11.7 times more likely than white people to be stopped
  • In West Mercia, Asian people were 3.4 times more likely than white people to be stopped
  • In Warwickshire, people of mixed race were 4.4 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched.

The report also looked at the use of Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act under which police can stop and search someone for weapons, without suspicion that the individual is involved in wrongdoing, providing that a senior officer has a reasonable belief that violence had or is about to occur.

stop and search.jpg

Under section 60, In the West Midlands, black people were 29 times more likely than white people to be targeted and Asian people were six times more likely than white people to be targeted, which is what the above spoof advert mush be drawing on.

EHRC chief executive Mark Hammond said “the overall disproportionality in the use of the powers against black, Asian and mixed race people remains stubbornly high.”

And the latest figures figures (from the 2018 report above) note that things have got worse:

“The proportion of stop and searches conducted on White suspects decreased from 75% in 2014/15 to 59% in 2018/19 and increased for all minority ethnic groups.

The largest increases were from 13% to 22% for Black suspects and from 8% to 13% for Asian suspects.”

As the table below shows the overall number of people being stopped and searched by the police has declined in the last five years, but the proportions of Black and Asian people stopped and searched compared to whites has increased.

It seems that when the police are asked to use Stop and Search more selectively, they select to stop and search less white people and more ethnic minorities.

Arrest Rates following Stop and Search

The rates are converging, which I guess suggests the police are ‘getting it right’ in equal amounts across ethnic groups:

Arrest Statistics

The total number of arrests have gone down over the last five years, in line with the declining crime rates. The arrest statistics have remained stable over time, with 77% of arrests being made of white people, 10% black and 7% Asian in 2018.

One stand-out trend for reasons for arrest is that Black people are less likely to be arrested for ‘violence against the person’ and more likely to be arrested for drugs than other ethnic groups – drugs is also the main reason for stop and search, so the two could be correlated.

Penalty Notices and Ethnicity

The main reason white people get given a penalty notice is for being ‘drunk and disorderly’, while for Black and Asian people the main reason is ‘cannabis possession’.

It’s interesting to note here that white people are getting notices for actually being offensive, while for black and asian people it’s merely possessing a drug the system has chosen to make illegal. There’s a significant link to interactionism here!

Prosecution and trial statistics 

The Crown Prosecution service (CPS) is responsible for deciding whether a crime or arrest should be prosecuted in court. They base it on whether there is any real chance of the prosecution succeeding and whether it is better for the public that they are prosecuted.

Ethnic minority cases are more likely to be dropped than whites, and blacks and Asians are less likely to be found guilty than whites. Bowling and Phillips (2002) argue that this is because there is never enough evidence to prosecute as it is mainly based on racist stereotyping. In 2006/7 60% of whites were found guilty, against only 52% of blacks, and 44% of Asians.

When cases go ahead members of ethnic minorities are more likely to elect for Crown Court trail rather than magistrates (even through Crown Courts can hand out more severe punishments), potentially because of a mistrust of magistrates.

Convictions

The conviction ratios are very similar for all ethnic groups, suggesting little racial bias at this stage of the criminal justice system:

Black people receive by far the longest sentences, but this seems related to much higher rates of repeat offending, while a much higher proportion of white people being prosecuted are first time offenders….

The 2018 report produced the impressive flow chart below, make of it what you will!

Personally my takeaway is that there seems to be broad equality in the way different ethnicities are treated, and a lot more repeat offending by Black offenders, hence their longer prison sentences.

Prosecutions and Convictions by Type of Offence and Ethnicity

To summarise to the extreme, White people mainly get convicted for theft, Black and Asian people for Drugs.

It’s also worth noting that Black people have significantly lower rates for violent crime than White or Asian people.

Prison Population by Ethnicity

The younger the age group, the fewer white people there are in jail:

And for the under 25s, the number of ethnic minorities in jail has increased proportionate to White people over the last five years:

Victim surveys

The British Crime Survey indicated that 44 per cent of victims were able to say something about the offender who was involved in offences against them. Among these, 85 per cent of offenders were said by victims to be ‘white’, 5 per cent ‘black’, 3 per cent ‘Asian’ and 4 per cent ‘mixed’. However, these stats are only for the minority of ‘contact’ offences and very few people have any idea who was involved in the most common offences such as vehicle crime and burglary. Therefore, in the vast majority of offences no reliable information is available from victims about the ethnicity of the criminal.

Self-report studies

Though not ‘official statistics’ because they’re not done by the government routinely, it’s interesting to contrast the above stats to this alternative way of measuring crime. Self-report studies ask people to disclose details of crimes they committed but not necessarily been caught doing or convicted of. Graham and Bowling (1995) Found that blacks (43%) and whites (44%) had similar and almost identical rates of crime, but Asians actually had lower rates (Indians- 30%, Pakistanis-28% and Bangladeshi-13%).

Sharp and Budd (2005) noted that the 2003 offending, crime and justice survey of 12,000 people found that whites and mixed ethnicity were more likely to say they had committed a crime, followed by blacks (28%) and Asians (21%).

Does Prison Work?

According to the government’s Prison Population Statistics – as of 31 March 2016 the total prison population in England and Wales was just over 85,400. The number of people in jail has been increasing especially rapidly since Michael Howard declared that ‘Prison Works’ in 1993 – a mantra adopted by successive governments. Since that time, the prison population has doubled, with an average increase of 3.6% per year. (In Scotland and Northern Ireland the increase was considerably less during this period)

 

prison population UK 2016

This trend would suggest that we have truly entered the era of mass incarceration (David Garland’s concept),  but does prison actually work?

Does Prison Work?

If your measure of success is rehabilitation and the prevention of re-offending then it appears not: the proven re-offending rate within one year is just under 25%, and about 37% for juveniles.

Prison UK
Prison Doesn’t Work

NB These are the ones we know about, and this is only re-offending within one year, the actual re-offending rates are more than double this figure and the National Audit Office, re offending costs us the equivalent of staging another Olympic Games every year.’

To put these figures in context, if a school had 25-50% of its pupils who achieved no GCSEs, OFSTED would be called in and the management sacked, yet for some reason we tolerate these levels of failure where prison is concerned.

Possible Reasons why Prison Doesn’t Work

Firstly, most (as in about two thirds) have no qualifications and many prisoners have the reading age of a 10 year old when they go into jail – and lack of educational programmes in jail does little to correct this. Basically most prisoners are unemployable before they go inside, and they are doubly unemployable when they come out with a criminal record.

Secondly, our prisons are crammed full of people serving sentences for non-violent crimes, many of whom come from troubled and complex backgrounds – for example, 25% of prisoners grew up in care and over 40% have no home to go back to when they are released.

Thirdly, at the same time as the prison population doubling, in the last five years the number of staff employed in the prison estate has been cut by 30%, with the prison budget being slashed by a quarter.

The result is overcrowding and terrible conditions. It is estimated that 1/5 prisoners spends 22 hours a day in their cells; violence and drugs are rife and suicide rates are at their highest for 25 years.

This means that many jails simply aren’t the kind of environments which are conducive to rehabilitation – this is the focus of many documentaries, most recently the BBC’s ‘Life in Wandsworth Prison

This documentary demonstrates how under-staffing has resulted in a lack of care for prisoners, with many being locked-down for 23 hours a day, with scant mental-health care provision where required (which many prisoners do). In addition to this the documentary also shows how drugs are readily available in the jail, with weed being openly smoked in front of the guards and it’s clear that many of the prisoners are victims of violence while inside.

It costs £36 000 a year to keep someone in jail, maybe this money could be better spent on social schemes to prevent offending?

 

 

 

Sociology on TV August – September 2016

There’s a couple of really useful documentaries relevant to the crime and deviance module which have been on recently, which you might want to grab for college estream if you teach Sociology – As I see it you can get a good three-five years out of a good documentary.

Life Inside Wandsworth Prison demonstrates how under-staffing and overcrowding have resulted in a lack of care for prisoners, with many being locked-down for 23 hours a day, with scant mental-health care provision where required (which many prisoners do). In addition to this the documentary also shows how drugs are readily available in the jail, with weed being openly smoked in front of the guards and it’s clear that many of the prisoners are victims of violence. Available on iPlayer intil Friday 16th Sept – So either watch it now, or you should be able to grab using estream connect for another 11 months.

Britain’s Most Wanted Motorbike Gangs? is available on iPlayer until February 2017 and is useful for evaluating the relevance of all kinds of theories of crime – subcultural theories and interactionism especially.

Finally, don’t forget Bake Off – You can use this to demonstrate how social control works through the Synopticon – through the many watching the few rather than the few watching the many. I’m not going to explain this here, more on that later, but THINK about it and you should be able to figure out what Bake Off’s really about, and it ain’t just biscuits.

 

 

Evaluate Sociological Perspectives on Prison as a Form of Punishment (Essay Plan)

1. Functionalists would point to the positive functions prison might perform in society –Prison could act as a deterrent – thus reinforcing social regulation; and it should also work to maintain equilibrium and balance in our society – making up for the failings of other institutions such as the family and the education system – restoring order through incapacitating those who break the law.

Ultimately however, one might criticize the effectiveness of prison – given that there is a 60% reoffending rate it isn’t really effective in restoring equilibrium in the first place – what prison does most of the time is resocialise people into criminal norms, in the extreme people become institutionalized and unable to reintegrate into society once released.

2. Marxists argue that by relying on prison, we ignore the failings of the system that lead to the conditions of inequality and poverty which lead to crime. Furthermore, the imprisonment of selected members of the lower classes neutralises opposition to the system; the imprisonment of many members of the underclass also sweeps out of sight the ‘worst jetsam of Capitalist society’ such that we cannot see it; and we may also add a fourth benefit, that all of the police, court and media focus on working class street crime means that our attention is diverted away from the immorality and greed of the elite classes.

Supporting evidence for the Marxist view comes from the fact that there are higher rates of imprisonment in more unequal countries.

Left realists criticise Marxists for absolving criminals from blame – people in jail mostly deserve to be there and their victims are most likely to be working class themselves.
3. Michel Foucault sees the growth of prison as a means of punishment as reflecting the move from sovereign power to disciplinary power – in traditional societies power was exercised on people’s physical bodies – punishment was harsh – it was a spectacle – today power is exercised through surveillance – the state no longer beats criminals – it just subjects them to increased surveillance – the theory is that people change their behavior because they know they are being monitored constantly. Prison seams more humane than physical punishment but in reality it is much more invasive as a means of social control.
One criticism of Foucault is that he fails to recognize that many prisoners do not change their behavior even though they are being watched!

4. Since the 1980s there has been a significant increase in the use of imprisonment in the United Kingdom – numbers have roughly doubled since 1990 with the total prison population now standing at about 84000 and we have one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the western world.

This increase has gone hand in hand with the implementation of Right Realist policies that emphasize rational choice theory as the cause of crime and zero tolerance as the solution to crime. The state claims that tougher penalties are one of the major causes of declining crime rates.

5. However David Garland points out that the crime rate has fallen in many countries over the last two decades, even in those that do not imprison as many people as the UK.

David Garland’s view the increasing use of imprisonment in the United States is that we now live in a era of mass incarceration – the United States locks up a massive proportion of the unemployed (Garland estimates as many as one third of all unemployed people are actually in jail in the USA) – and many of these become locked in a cycle of ‘transcarceration’ – where they shift between different agencies of state control and never fully reintegrate into society once having been in jail.

Garland actually argues that the reason the US and the UK lock up so many people is because of neo-liberalism – neo-liberal policies have made these societies more unequal and more individualistic – life has become harsher – and thus it is easier for the state to justify harsher penalties.

6. Critics of the ‘overuse of prison’ argue that we should employ alternatives – by using curfews, community service and treatment orders – because these have a lower reoffending rate – mainly because they do not remove an offender from society.

It is also worth noting that the characteristics of the prison population are very different to the characteristics of the population as a whole. People who are over-represented include ethnic minority groups, men, the underclass and the young. It is also worth noting that many female prisoners are likely to have suffered physical and emotional abuse and many claim they are in jail because of pressure to do criminal acts coming from their male partners.

7. To conclude, given the massive reoffending rate – and thus failure of prison to rehabilitate offenders – critical perspectives such as Garland’s remind us not to fall into the simplistic analysis of Functionalism and Right Realism who see prison as an effective means of social control.

The critical approaches of Marxism, Foucault and Garland are probably the most useful here as these remind us that it is the rise of neo-liberal hegemony since the 1970s and right realism since the 1990s that have lead to an increasing crime rate, and then to the increases in prison populations experienced in neo-liberal countries such as the UK and the USA.

Related Posts

The Spirit Level – how inequality effects the crime rate