skip to Main Content

CJCCJ/Volume 62.4 (2020)

Life Imprisonment from Young Adulthood: Adaptation, Identity and Time

By Ben Crewe, Susie Hulley, and Serena Wright
UK: Palgrave McMillan UK. 2020. p. 340.

I know that writing a review of a scientific publication is supposed to be an activity where you distance yourself from the contents, try to make a more-or-less objective assessment of what the authors have decided was worth publishing among their results and how they chose to interpret these. I have worked as a criminological researcher for some 15 years, followed by some 30 years in corrections. You would expect me to be up to the job, gotten used to prison stories during a long career and a life focused on crimes, criminals, punishment, etc. So I set out to do this job with the right attitude.

It turned out I was not quite prepared for this book. I have lived and worked in Norway for the past 15 years, often presented as one of the ideal-typical examples of “good” corrections, and my experience here may have influenced my reading. Readers from other countries with a practice more similar to England and Wales may be less shocked by the frequency with which English courts somtimes impose life sentences on very young people. Life sentences that are, with tariffs implying a minimum duration of the incarceration, meaning you may be out after a couple of decades, but there is no guarantee.

All the interviewed prisoners had taken a life – or were present when it happened and have therefore been sentenced for “joint enterprise.” Nobody likes a murderer. Everybody agrees that society needs to respond. By far, most people think this should be done by punishing the perpetrator, and most of those believe it should be done by imprisoning – if not worse. And more-and-more of believe a prison sentence should be really long and preferably harsh. The mood around these – and other – kinds of crime is whipped up by media coverage and politicians and other people who depend on their public image for being elected. “Beasts,” “predators,” “devils” have become common descriptions in the tabloid press for people who have committed serious offences for a variety of reasons. This is true in many countries, and so in England and Wales, where the tabloid press screams moral outrage at anything but their standards of reporting, and in the process create an alleged public opinion that influences politicians and policy-makers in their choices. It may not be a direct causal link. Still, the country with the most aggressive tabloids in Europe, depending on daily street sales for their income and, thus, as sensationalist as they come, has over the years developed one of the harshest criminal justice systems in Western society. Such is the backdrop of what is presented in this book.

The authors start with a clear discussion of the development of sentencing for the past twenty years. The number of lifers and length of their tariffs is a story of doubling within a decade, sometimes just a few years. Consequently, the authors had no difficulty in finding respondents to carry out their research. They interviewed 126 men and 21 women and spoke to them about their life history, their time serving their sentence and their thoughts about the future. The material that was gathered has been used in two ways: firstly, in a large number of striking quotations, where the respondents tell of their experiences, their feelings and opinions in their own words, and secondly, in the criminological analysis. These two are related, but the quotes would make a publication in their own right, maybe for a broader public. Each quote shows the name, age category, and sentence stage of the respondent and the reader is tempted to search for the same name throughout the book to get a clearer image of the individual respondent – in case one has an electronic version like I did. In addition to direct quotes, there are seemingly casual asides like “Andre – who had been given an 18-year tariff at the age of 15” that leave you gasping. The names are aliases, and it must be said in this connection that the ethical approach of the researchers is in all aspects exemplary. Here you have a population that is so ridden with every kind of vulnerability and mental imbalance that the risk of disturbing something in a severe and lasting way is as significant as life. However, everything is done to prevent the interviewees from reliving hurtful memories or confronting them too forcefully with problems that have haunted them or still haunt them – without avoiding topics like guilt and remorse.

The quotes show the many aspects of the rise to the popularity of these life sentences, the uncertainties of the tariff system, the many painful effects they have upon those who are sentenced and the difficulty of dealing with them and finding ways of coping. Some people will cheer, and some will feel compassion. Some will be shocked while others will feel satisfaction. Their response will depend on their political or moral stance, as well as the degree to which this or another crime may have affected them. But the suffering is visible, almost tangible and that in itself already makes this book worth reading.

The other part is the analysis that is offered. Over the years, much has been published on coping strategies and adaptation during a prison sentence. Still, I am not aware of such an extensive study of prisoners with such long sentences, imposed at such a young age, and in various stages of their punishment. The last feature offers the opportunity to compare strategies used at the beginning of a period of long imprisonment – in some cases more extended than the time one has been alive up to then -, the middle part and the part close to the end of the tariff. A significant number of the respondents (17 %) were even post-tariff, so still imprisoned, overstaying their minimum sentence. These might have been worth a chapter of their own, though it might have broken the book’s logical build-up. On the other hand, as the authors admit in the section on methodological issues, this is a cross-sectional and not a longitudinal study, meaning that the respondents provide data on personal change based on their assessment. This is a feature that the authors return to in the closing chapter.

How do they deal with time, purpose, adaptation to prison life, and what do they expect after release? The first three questions are thoroughly addressed, and the analysis and conceptualization of the answers are fascinating for the criminologist in me. I highly recommend the very readable and well-referenced chapters to anyone who works in the field of academic penology and criminology. Yet, while I was reading, I became more aware of how my “administrative” mindset, the result of my work as a policy developer in corrections, began to make me wonder about the practical applicability of these academic endeavours. What do we who work in corrections do when we are made aware of the space-time dimension, the offence-time nexus etc. What does it mean to the prisoners that their experiences can be defined along such dimensions? Coping strategies are scrutinized and described in the form of concepts and processes, but how does outlining them benefit the situation in which these prisoners find themselves? It is no use writing a handbook for them, where they can decide whether they will choose denial, compression, suppression or any combination of the above for dealing with the fact that they will be forced to be inside for many years. Mind you; these are not sarcastic comments; there is a real question here, which is not limited to this book. Maybe prison staff should be made aware of these processes so that they may better understand them in their daily work?

These questions become extra pressing when in the concluding chapter, almost out of the blue, the authors point out change can be noticed in the attitudes and perspectives of their respondents towards becoming a “good person.” The authors suggest that the difference is the result of adaptation to prison life and does not necessarily provide support once they are finally released into the community. The development takes place in a secluded area – a metaphor with a chrysalis, made by one of the respondents, is quoted in the first and the final chapter – and one learns to function there – circumstances are different from outside, so what is it worth? This rather depressing question concludes a fascinating book. The final chapter underlines the importance of scientific research and policy development working together to deal with the overall issue of how we punish, how we reintegrate and how we restore.


Back To Top
×Close search