MPhil Student Astrid Lambregts, reflects on Ben Crewe's All Souls lecture which explored the problems of long-term imprisonment.

On Thursday, 27 October 2016, the Centre for Criminology was delighted to welcome a key figure in penology and prison research to the All Souls Criminology Seminar Series: Dr Ben Crewe, Deputy Director of the Prisons Research Centre in Cambridge, joined us for one afternoon to present to a full house of students, researchers and fellows the results of his most recent study regarding the problems of long-term imprisonment.

This area of research is not only relevant to practitioners who discuss in concern the potential difficulties of long-term incarceration from a managerial point of view. The problems of long-term imprisonment, as Dr Crewe noted, raise a broader set of humanistic questions: At a time of increasing numbers of prisoners serving ever-longer sentences, what does it mean to be that person being subjected to “the most extreme sanction of the state”? Which challenges are unique to sentence lengths of 15 years and longer, and how do prisoners adapt to those?

In this seminar Dr Crewe presented the findings of his most recent study conducted in collaboration with Susie Hulley and Serena Wright attempting to answer those questions (see Crewe, Hulley, and Wright - in press). The study examined the effect of long-term imprisonment on both male and female prisoners aged 25 or younger and sentenced to 15 years or longer. Crewe, Hulley, and Wright applied a mixed-methods approach incorporating both an initial survey and in-depth interviews to discover the levels of severity with which prisoners experienced problems inherent to life in incarceration after having served different time periods of their sentence lengths.

The initial survey allowed prisoners to describe their experience using a broad set of problem statements as had been used similarly before (Richards 1978), but was expanded for this study so as to encompass problems (for example of mental health) that contemporary prison researchers have become increasingly aware of. Dr Crewe explained that while the survey results demonstrated some burdens that seem “inherent to long-term confinement” and were as such consistent with findings of prior prison research (e.g. social and relational issues such as missing somebody or feeling sexually frustrated; Richards 1978 and Flanagan 1980), the results differed not only for male and female prisoners but further remarkably for prisoners at different stages of their incarceration.

While female prisoners experienced every set of problems generally significantly more severe than their male counterparts, indicating that long-term imprisonment for women was “acutely more painful than it was for men”, the degree of severity with which prisoners experienced these issues further varied significantly depending on their stage of incarceration: Prisoners in their early stage of incarceration (i.e. the first four years) reported a higher problem severity than prisoners in their mid stage of incarceration (i.e. roughly half of the sentence length) or those at the later sentence stages (i.e. end of sentence minus two years) who both reported a lower commitment to inmate values, fewer mental health issues and lower problem severity in general.

As Dr Crewe pointed out, this is not to conclude that long-term imprisonment is not necessarily as damaging as it is often thought to be: Rather it is a confirmation that prisoners develop ways of learning to adjust to their circumstances and the challenges of life in isolation from the outside world by way of what Johnson calls “mature coping” (Johnson 1996:98), i.e. through self-sufficiency or learning respect for others, by "dealing with life's problems like a responsive and responsible human being, one who seeks autonomy without violating the rights of others, security without resort to deception or violence, and relatedness to others as the finest and fullest expression of human identity” (Johnson and Dobrzanska, 2005:8-9, 36-38).

Noting that the emotional content of these semi-structured interviews “went far beyond the pains typically featured in research literature”, Dr Crewe then explained the results of the in-depth interviews which explored in more detail the transitional stages prisoners live through during their sentences.

When comparing the prisoners’ different ways of coping with their incarceration experience at different stages of their sentence, Crewe, Hulley, and Wright found “remarkably consistent” patterns among the reported experiences that resonated with a number of key themes discovered by previous prison research: Participants communicated that the initial incarceration experience was tinted by entry shock, a sense that “time warped in front of them”, intrusive recollections (i.e. flashbacks of the offence), and undirected anger stemming from a belief that they did not deserve the sentence imposed on them or aggressions exposing underlying feelings of guilt for the offence committed and grief for the life and future they have since lost.

Dr Crewe then pointed to Margaret Archer’s modes of reflexivity to explain the participant’s differing perception of problem severity at different points of their sentence (see Archer 2003). Prisoners transition from the initial three emotional states of grief, shame, and anger as the result of - what Archer calls - “inner conversations” that reflect on how one should act with a set of self-designed end goals in mind. Although Archer’s research draws on interviews with university students finding their sense of self at a cross-ways in their lives, Dr Crewe interprets the experience of long-term confinement as a similar displacement from one life to another as prisoners are being dislocated socially (from existing relational ties), existentially (discovering a sense of self and morality), and temporally (awaiting an uncertain and unimaginable future). Therefore, Dr Crewe believes that Archer’s concept offers a “useful way of thinking of how long term prisoners deal with rupture in their circumstances, their sense of self and life possibilities”.

 As a result of such reflexivity, four transitional themes emerged, exposing a change in perspective from the early stages to the subsequent stages of long-term imprisonment:

  1. Adapting to the sentence. Unlike early-stage prisoners who still perceived their imprisonment as a temporary suspension of the rest of their existence, those at later sentence stages have come to terms with the sentence by accepting that the outside world was no longer the longed-for alternative and by viewing prison as the “only place where their life could be meaningfully lived”. Late-stage prisoners, therefore, had transitioned from perceiving themselves as “offenders doing time” to “persons living in prison” (Zamble 1992).

  2. Perception of time. While participants at earlier sentence stages found it impossible to contemplate the future and regarded the present as meaningless “non-life” in prison, those further along in their sentences aimed to manage the present via routines, faith, and/or spiritual practices such as meditation or prayer that allowed them to lift themselves out of the present, and tried to “tame the future” through segmentation and what O’Donnell refers to as “time anchors” (O’Donnell 2014).

  3. Control and self-control. Early-stage prisoners considered themselves to be in a liminal state, marked by a lack of control due to the loss of liberty and being at the mercy of the power of both prison officers and other inmates, whereas prisoners at later sentence stages were less guided by emotion and no longer viewed themselves as “passive agents” (Archer 2003:299). They realised a new sense of control over their own actions, their plans for the future, as well as over their own health and education, and they utilised this self-control to “cultivate an ethical self through the specific practice of ordinary ethics”: The practice of self-control aimed towards ethical interactions with others allowed them to prove themselves as “ethical beings” in a world that largely denies them this status. This perception of self-control was partly linked to the process of resolving guilt.

  4. Coming to terms with the offence. While the early stages of incarceration seemed to be marked with anger arising from questioning the legitimacy of the sentence imposed and sometimes resulting from underlying feelings of shame and guilt, the later stages revealed a greater degree of acceptance: Later-stage prisoners reported being able to take moral responsibility without being psychologically overwhelmed by the realisation of what they had done. This re-evaluation of themselves allowed them to take control over their own life’s narrative.

  5. Finding purpose. Unlike early-stage prisoners who could hardly see any meaning in existing in the isolated prison world, mid-/late-stage prisoners were able to view education and other ways of personal betterment as a means to give something back to society so that at least something positive could emerge from the tragedy they had caused.

Dr Crewe illustrated this apparent shift from a reactive agency at early sentence stages to a productive agency at later sentence stages with the following tidal metaphor: Reflexivity and the realisation that they “could not escape the water” enabled long-term prisoners to move from a n initial backwards-looking, passive “swimming against the tide” towards a productive, future-oriented use of the tidal water, allowing them to “go with the flow”.

Whilst this metamorphosis explains the higher levels of problem severity at the earlier stages as well as the higher levels of “emotional happiness and maturity” at the later stages, Dr Crewe remains doubtful that long-term prisoners will adapt well upon release despite these optimistic descriptions. After all, it has been demonstrated elsewhere that long-term prisoners exhibit symptoms of post-incarceration syndrome, and that released prisoners have described themselves as “institutionalised” whereas those still in imprisonment appeared not to grasp the full disabling effect of imprisonment on them, and therefore did not refer to themselves as “institutionalised” (Liem and Kunst 2013, Schinkel 2014). Moreover, what could be viewed as “post-traumatic growth” has been described by some participants as a “prison maturity”, a maturity attesting the vital adjustment to the prison environment that remains overshadowed by deficits in social maturity that would be essential for readjustment in the outside world. The results from this study are hence not to be taken at face value, as Dr Crewe warns.

And yet, the study provided valuable insights into long-term imprisonment within a European criminal justice system that is - unlike much of the long-term imprisonment research to date - not informed by a North-American (i.e. U.S.) sentencing policy embracing extremely long sentences. More importantly, the study introduced a humanistic perspective into long-time imprisonment research that all too often has been avoided by social researchers.

The seminar ended with what has become a characteristic of every All Soul seminar thus far: A lively dialogue between our guest speaker and his intrigued audience that began as a question and answer session and was then carried on over wine and nibbles, leaving no question unanswered and no input unheard.