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“Sedative coping” in life sentence prisoners
"Sedative coping", the capacity to suppress emotions to cope with decades inside, creates its own difficulties on release.

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Contextual maturity

The latest article to emerge from the longitudinal research conducted with life sentence prisoners by Professor Ben Crewe and his colleagues at the Institute of Criminology is particularly fascinating – and heart-breaking – to read. The article is entitled ‘Sedative Coping’, Contextual Maturity and Institutionalization Among Prisoners Serving Life Sentences in England and Wales and is free to access.

The article sets out to make sense of a new term “sedative coping”; the forms of emotion management and suppression involved in coping with the trauma of such circumstances, and the post-release impact of sustained forms of emotional self-preservation. The tragic bottom line of this exploration is that for many life prisoners; suppressing their emotions and making their day-to-day prison experience the entire focus of their lives is both an effective way of getting through very many years of incarceration and a recipe for a profoundly unsettling life on release.


A large number of the life sentence prisoners interviewed for this study described how, over time, they had become stronger, more mature and more capable of managing their emotions. Expressed in its simplest form, the majority of participants felt that they had ‘grown up’ and ‘calmed down’. They talked of becoming “less impulsive, more adept at controlling feelings of anger, more skilled in analysing situations, kinder, more tolerant, less selfish and altogether more self-aware.”

However, many people described how, alongside this new-found “maturity”, they had become hardened or emotionally blunt. Because they had so little control over their lives in prison and what happened to their families outside, many shut themselves down emotionally as these quotes from lifers demonstrate:

If you do sit and dwell on things then that’s when your mental health will get really low. So I do think, on some things, yes, I have to block things off. (Zara)

You can’t really afford to let that emotional guard down and be upset for that long because you’ll end up dwelling on it and it’ll end up eating you up. […] A lot of people, it breaks them emotionally, mentally. (Howie)

Emotions and life after release

The research team has interviewed many life sentence prisoners who have been released. Several talked about the difficulties of being with other people and needing time alone to replicate the survival mechanisms they learnt through decades being confined in a cell.

Others struggled to regain any sense of emotional connection to their loved ones or the world in general.

“As much as I want to be emotional, as much as I want to be normal where you feel things, I can understand these things, but they’re shut off’.”

Other people found that feeling strong emotions again was uncomfortable or even overwhelming:

“it’s like peeling an onion: each time you take that skin off you burn more and burn more and burn more. You start to get decent feelings, decent emotions again, but what happened with me is it started with getting the odd sort of flashback [too] “


Crewe admits that this is an exploratory article; the number of released life prisoners interviewed and the complexity of the issues discussed makes it hard to be conclusive.

However, he suggests, convincingly, that both core findings may be true – that human beings confined in prison for long periods of time can achieve significant self-development but still be profoundly damaged by the experiences of institutionalisation on release.

The concept of sedative coping is most convincingly made in the words of a life sentence prisoner:

[Prison has] made me emotionless […] It’s like a dark hole. […] I think that’s the most thing that jail has done to me, it’s just left me an emotionless person which I think is very damaging for me […] I just can’t grieve about anything. If someone just told me something, it’s just like “Alright,” nothing, the day just goes. […] I don’t feel it. (Mason)

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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