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Is it possible to find hope in a life sentence?
Research into the trajectories of hope and hopelessness among men and women in the late stage of a life sentence

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Hope and hopelessness

How do you find hope in the late stage of a life sentence? That’s the question that Serena Wright (@S_Wright_crim), Susie Hulley (@smhulley) & Ben Crewe (@crewebencrewe) set out to answer in a new paper which stems from their longitudinal, ongoing study of people serving life sentences (both in and out of prison) in England and Wales. The paper is based on interviews with 33 people within two  years of their tariff expiry date (or, in some cases, past that date).

What is hope?

The research team put their discussions of hope within the context of a “hope theory” developed by Charles Snyder.  According to Snyder, four conditions must be fulfilled in order for hope to flourish: 

  1. A clear aspiration, focused on a specific objective (goal);
  2. A sense of ‘goal-directed determination’ and a belief that a viable and accessible route to that goal exists (pathway); 
  3. Possession of a sense of self-efficacy which makes reaching the goal via the identified pathway feel possible (agency). It is the emphasis on specific goals (rather than an individual’s broader worldview) and the presence of agency that distinguishes hope from optimism. 
  4. An individually assessed probability of attainment. 
In non-academic language, hope is about having a goal, a way of achieving it and the belief that you can, and indeed are likely to, achieve it yourself.

Different approaches to hope

Most lifers are transferred to an open prison before being considered for release and the research describes how moving to open conditions and have Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) was a powerful mechanism for growing hope, making release feel much more tangible.

Interestingly, some people who had been refused transfer to open conditions and whose parole had been refused were able to cling to hope by another approach described as “relinquishing control”.  This meant, learning to accept their situation in the belief that release would come at some point and that they had little or no control over when.

Other people were able to be both hopeful about a possible future outside prison while at the same time maintaining the realistic belief that their next parole board appearance would not be successful.

Many lifers tried to live by the belief that it is much safer to “expect nothing and never be disappointed”.


Photo by Gabriel on Unsplash

Losing hope

While some lifers were able to maintain hope, most were unable to maintain a sense of positivity in the face of the uncertainty and setbacks encountered by people navigating their way through a life sentence. Instead, most individuals spoke about their chances of
release with a deep sense of pessimism, grounded in the unpredictability of the system and uncertainty of release. Many described that previously held hopes (about when they would progress to open conditions, when release would happen and how life would look beyond this) had been gradually eroded as they started to lose faith in the procedural legitimacy of the progression system.

One woman who had been waiting to hear whether she would be moved to open conditions for months (she should have been told within 14 days) talked about feeling that her time (as fractions of her existence) did not matter—or did not matter to prison staff. Another felt similarly and was frustrated by her inability to speed up the decision making process:

“The psychologist said to me, ‘Oh, it’s only time.’ [But] it’s not ‘only time’ – it’s my life. [They say] ‘Well, you’ve only been waiting a few months’, and I haven’t. No, I haven’t. They miss the concept that, for me, I’ve been working towards getting out from day one.”

Hope abandoned

The research team described most late stage lifers as “battle-weary”, having experienced countless setbacks on their pathway towards their goal of life at liberty, including recall following release, being repeatedly declined progressive moves to lower conditions and being sent back to higher security conditions from medium-security or open prisons.

They describe the frustration and anger of men who were many years past their tariff date and who had been stuck in open conditions for much longer than they had anticipated. These men described a painful disjuncture between previously held perceptions about
open conditions effectively being the ‘beginning of the end’ of their sentence and the ‘bittersweet’ and ‘tainted’ reality of a prison regime in which uncertainty, confusion
and fear appear in the guise of ‘freedoms’. Many found the illusion of freedom through the absence of bars to be a form of torment they found very hard to bear.

Equally bleak was the situation for lifers many years past their tariff date, but still stuck in high security prisons. Some of these individuals started to abandon their daydreams – of live outside, new romantic companions, holidays – because it was too painful to contemplate events which might never happen.

The researchers describe a “descent into apathy” among the oldest and longest-serving people. Some individuals stopped worrying about when or how they would be released but started to think of whether there was any point.

“Is it going to be worth me getting out at 65? […] I keep thinking ‘What life have I got when I get out? What have I got to make a life when I get out? Who’s going to employ me when I get out?’ […] Then it comes the obvious question, and you go, ‘Do I actually fucking want to get out?’ I’m still questioning it.”


The authors conclude by putting these painful individual narratives in the context of government plans to increase sentence length furthers (including whole life orders) even though we already have the most people serving life sentences in all of Europe.


Thanks to Dmitry Ratushny for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.

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3 Responses

  1. No one can help you in prison except God. If you will not turn to him, I do not what will happen to your life, same thing to all the people around the world. If you have God in you, you will have joy coz God alone suffices. “God will make a way when there seems to be no way, he works in ways we cannot see, he will make a way for me.” Don Moen

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