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Inmates looking out the window of the Inside Out trust workshop.
Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

The impact of long prison sentences

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New MoJ research explores what it's like to be sentenced to 15 years or more when you're a young adult.

Fascinating new HMPPS research casts a light on prisoners serving long sentences (tariffs of 15 years or more) who were sentenced when aged 25 or under. It describes the main experiences and problems reported by the high number of prisoners involved in the study, and the ways in which they coped with and adapted to their sentences. The study, “Experiencing long term imprisonment from young adulthood: identity, adaptation and penal legitimacy” by Ben Crewe, Susie Hulley, and Serena Wright is based on a survey with 313 respondents and 147 qualitative interviews.

Key findings

The problems of long-term imprisonment that were experienced as most severe related primarily to missing others outside prison (particularly parents and children) and feeling that one’s life was being lost or wasted; those experienced as least severe were emotional/psychological, relating to fears about mental health and psychological integrity. Specifically, the five most severe problems reported by the men (most severe listed first) were: 

  1. ‘Missing somebody’, 
  2. ‘Worrying about people outside’, 
  3. ‘Feeling that you are losing the best years of your life’, 
  4. ‘Having to follow other people’s rules and orders’ and 
  5. ‘Feeling sexually frustrated’. 

The five most severe problems reported by the women were 

  1. ‘Having to follow other people’s rules and orders’, 
  2. ‘Missing somebody’, 
  3. ‘Worrying about people outside’, 
  4. ‘Not feeling able to completely trust anyone I prison’, and 
  5. ‘Thinking about the crime you committed’.

The researchers found that early-stage prisoners experienced the problems of confinement as being more severe than prisoners who were further into their sentences; there was a clear, general pattern of diminishing problem severity by stage of sentence.

The qualitative data suggested that, in the first few years of their sentences, prisoners experienced a form of trauma, based on: receiving a very long (and often unexpected) sentence; having to reconsider their self-identity in light of their offence (murder); and having to re-think the futures that they had expected to have. The early years were characterised by feelings of shock and anger, and by a form of ‘temporal vertigo’, in which prisoners struggled to come to terms with the length of time in prison that lay ahead of them. The majority of prisoners sought to suppress, deny or deflect the reality of their situation. Most reported that they could not think about their futures, and instead managed their sentence ‘day-by-day’. Managing time was experienced as a significant burden. Most interviewees, during these early years, could find little purpose or meaning in life, and felt that they were ‘stuck in time’, ‘treading water’ or ‘just existing’. Most considered themselves to have very little control over their lives.

Prisoners who were further into their sentences were considerably more positive about their situations. Typically, they had come to terms with their circumstances and the need to build a life within prison. They had found ways of managing time – both its everyday burdens, and thinking about the amount of time that lay ahead – for example, through self-devised routines, and often via spiritual and religious practices. They had redefined control, in ways that enabled them to feel a localised sense of autonomy within their lives. Most stated they had also found ways of resolving their feelings of shame about their offence, which allowed them to ‘move on’ in their lives. This transition included establishing a new sense of self – often driven by a desire to demonstrate a personal ethic – making the sentence ‘constructive’, and finding some sense of purpose and meaning in life, often facilitated by practices and ideologies of faith and spirituality. Most felt themselves to have ‘matured’ during their sentence in certain respects (e.g. anger management; tolerance of others). However, this experience stood in contrast with the sense that time ‘out there’ had stopped at the point of the sentence and that key, developmental life events and years of ‘life-building’ had been missed.

© Andy Aitchison

Few participants mentioned the benefits of offending behaviour programmes in helping them to adapt to their sentences, although many reported retrospectively that such courses had helped them to ‘think differently’ about particular issues, and some spoke very positively about interventions involving forms of victim awareness as well as time spent in prison-based therapeutic communities.

With regard to social adaptations, participants generally described developing close but limited friendships with a small group of peers, bonded by a shared orientation to the sentence. However, participants were much less concerned with social relations and the prisoner social world than with their individual situation and processes of reflection and change. Meanwhile, the survey findings indicated that late-stage prisoners were less loyal to other prisoners, less hostile to staff, and less committed to an ‘inmate code’ than those at earlier sentence stages.

The experiences of long term women prisoners

While there were few differences between the male and female interviewees with regard to patterns of adaptation, the female prisoners reported consistently and significantly higher problem severity. This was particularly marked in areas relating to outside relationships (specifically, relationships with children), emotional and physical vulnerability, release anxiety, and overall mental wellbeing. Feelings of distress, powerlessness and concerns about trust were especially predominant in the narratives of the female interviewees, shaped to a large extent by their life experiences before imprisonment.

Implications

The researchers conclude their study by suggesting ways in which the management of long-term prisoners might be improved:

  • Improving the care of prisoners in the early months and years of the sentence, when feelings of anger, trauma and disorientation are most acute, assisting prisoners with the specific problems that they encounter, such as missing family (particularly parents and children) and friends, and feeling that their lives are being wasted. This might therefore include organising enhanced parental/family visits and giving this group of prisoners more opportunities to engage in ‘generative’ roles within their establishments, i.e. which enable them to find meaning in their sentence by ‘giving something back’ to others.
  • acknowledging the legitimacy deficits that can be relevant to this group, particularly their feelings about the unfairness of their sentence, and the difficulties of coming to terms with such long sentence lengths, which can affect individuals’ levels of distress, vulnerabilities and rehabilitation.
  • recognising that most prisoners serving such sentences experience deep feelings of shame, remorse and, where the victim is known to them, grief, and may need assistance in dealing with such emotions.

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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