Changed lives, continuity in sentencing

One thing that is striking about the lives of those I have interviewed is how their lives are full of turn-arounds and moments where their offending comes to mean something different, or even stops for years. A few examples:

A woman who was addicted to drugs, in prison multiple time, but then managed to come off drugs with the help of a Drug Treatment and Testing Order. She stopped offending for some time, but after a traumatic rape started drinking heavily to manage her mental health problems. This led to further offences (breach of the peace, shoplifting, assaulting police) and further imprisonment.

A man who often had confrontations with the police when drunk, resulting in fairly constant prison sentences. After his late twenties he started calming down, but also found himself homeless at a time when much of the homeless accommodation  in Glasgow had been shut down. Realising he was safer and more comfortable in prison than on the streets, he started to drink on purpose so that he’d have the courage he needed to seek confrontation with the police and return to prison. This strategy meant that he continued to be in and out of prison for a further ten years.

A man who had served several sentences and was addicted to drugs, but then met a woman and managed to ‘go straight’. Moving to a new area, they set up home together, had children, and he found a job that he was happy with and paid the bills. Several years went by before he accepted an offer of  free drugs, relapsed into a habit (as did his partner) and started dealing drugs to fund this. Their children were taken into care and later adopted when Social Work found out, and he returned to prison several times after.

Several women who stopped taking drugs and offending when they found themselves pregnant and managed to sustain a crime- and drug-free lifestyle for several years while their child was young. Having social work contact from birth (due to their drug taking), though, meant that when they relapsed their child was taken away from them (often to go and live with family members), with little of no hope of them being returned. To cope with their sense of failure and missing their child these women turned back to drugs and offending, serving further sentences (see also imprisonment as the aftermath).

Several men who started offending for the excitement and didn’t mind going to prison, as this was part of the life they chose. Somewhere along the line, they started using drugs and, even though the excitement of offending had worn off, now offended to fund their habit.

Despite these significant changes in their lives and different motivations/needs for offending, the criminal justice system did not recognise these changes. Instead, even after years of non-offending, these people were still being punished on their criminal record, in almost all cases receiving a prison sentence as soon as offending resumed. Interestingly, especially in the case of women, when they first started offending they had been given chance upon chance, breached probation order after breached probation order, in an attempt to keep them out of prison. If the criminal justice system was a bit more interested in what is going on in people’s lives, rather than just basing decisions on previous offending, it might become possible to have a second chance to avoid prison, and to access much-needed help (counselling for trauma, housing, help with addiction, help to regain custody over children) instead. This might well avoid a second phase of repeated imprisonment.


I’ve just started interviews in the prison, with men who have served many sentences. Yesterday, one of them said something that took me aback. He described leaving prison as ‘a holiday’ and said that this was a common way of describing release among short-term prisoners. Do they see their life in prison as their ‘real life’, just like others see their lives of  everyday responsibilities as ‘real’, and holidays as a temporary escape? If being outside is ‘a holiday’, then this automatically means it is temporary – seeing release in these terms almost precludes a move away from offending.

At the same time, this prisoner felt outside life was sometimes more difficult than life in prison. Having to cope with the demands of relationships, dealing with bills, having to buy food and cook, just the kind of things that make our lives normal, made his life outside stressful. Like the long-term prisoners I spoke to for my PhD, he described being in prison as respite (a holiday?) from all the stresses of ‘normal’ life. Seeing the outside world just as a place to ‘go mental’ before a return to prison (and normal life) avoids its more difficult aspects. Getting drunk, using drugs and partying  – the outside world as some sort of strange Ibiza for people who otherwise live in prison.

Lessons from prison staff

I went to the prison yesterday to speak to staff there about my research. Relying on staff, as I do, to explain my research to prisoners, I thought explaining it to them face to face  would be a good idea. And it was. Although it was awkward, sitting across from seven burly guys, all with their arms crossed, leaning back in their chairs, and more than a little skeptical about this being the best use of their time.

There is such a disconnect between the academic world and those who work in prisons. Much more so than between the academic world and social workers, or health staff. One explanation is that most prison staff have left education early, and are therefore weary of academic outsiders coming in. The overwhelming majority have not been to university, and there are very few officers on the wings who also write articles in academic journals or briefing papers for the wider world, as social workers sometimes do. There is a will, in Scotland, to change the way prison staff are trained, and to offer further education to those who are interested. But maybe it shouldn’t all be one way, with universities bestowing academic learning on staff.

I’m aware that experienced prison officers will have heard many more prisoners’ stories than I ever will. During my research on the experience of long-term imprisonment, staff told me from the start that prisoners would not want to consider the fairness of their sentence in the abstract. They knew that prisoners needed to put such questions out of mind in order to ‘get on’ with their sentence. It was a total surprise to me.

At yesterday’s meeting, despite their air of skepticism, the officers I talked to gave me ideas and pointed out possible difficulties I would not have thought of. So, while meeting me might not have meant much to them, meeting them was very helpful for me. Today I have heard that they have already recruited seven interested prisoners. The question for me now is, how do I tap into the wisdom and knowledge of the people who have the most contact with prisoners, without asking too much from them?


In the news

Monday was an interesting first day back at work for me. Before the holidays, I had spoken to Lucy Adams, chief reporter at the Herald, and she had said an article describing my PhD research would be published over the holidays. So, even when I was at the back of beyond in Lochinver, I tried to check the Herald website every day, to no avail. Then on Monday (January 6th) I had an email from BBC Scotland, asking if I was willing to be interviewed about my research that afternoon. Figuring they must have read about it in the newspaper, I checked the web again, and there was the article I had been waiting for. On the internet it didn’t look like such a big deal, but seeing it in print, on page 4, with two pictures, made me see my findings in a new light – I’d never considered them ‘news’ before.

Being interviewed was also a bit nerve wracking, but less so than I expected. I did make a few mistakes, but no matter (although I have to admit I haven’t actually listened to myself, because my accent is SO much stronger than I think, which is worse when it comes from the radio than when listening to interview recordings, for some reason). The programme is available here, but only for another 3 days. My bit is around the 40 minute mark, and lasts all of two minutes (or maybe not even).

The whole process made me realise a few things about engaging with the media. First of all, even when you speak to a friendly and sympathetic reporter, it’s in the nature of newspapers to grab the most attention-seeking headline possible. I’m not sure that ‘Scots prisoners find life behind bars easier than being released’ is the most accurate way to describe my findings. Even though some of my interviewees expressed something like this, I could never claim that they speak for ‘Scots prisoners’ in general and even for them it was only one part of their (often contradictory) story. Second, it seems like there will always be a few inaccuracies. Even though I had corrected the draft article, which mentioned life sentenced prisoners, the article still described my participants as ‘ serving the longest ­possible sentences’. It also said that the research had been conducted by Glasgow University  academics, when it was really just me, as a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, but I quite like to think of myself as a group of learned people.

The most disappointing thing has been that, even though the article mentioned the Lives Sentenced project and asked potential participants to get in touch, only one person has done so. I am hoping that Positive Prison Positive Futures, a group of people who have been through the criminal justice system and are now helping others to turn their lives around, might help me to find more participants in the community.

Just in case, I thought I’d also appeal to the readers of this blog: if you, or anyone you know, has been punished over at least 15 years, and most recently has served a community or short prison sentences, please have a look at this: Information sheet community. It explains what the research is about, who I am looking for and what participation will mean. It also gives my contact details, so anyone interested – please get in touch! I am hoping to start interviews in February/March.




About the research

Little is known about the effects of repeated imprisonment. Very few research studies have examined how those who are punished by the criminal justice system experience and interpret their sentences. Research that does exist, like my PhD, has largely focused on one single sentence. But people who have served many sentences (in other words, who have long punishment careers), are likely not to experience criminal punishments in isolation, but in the context of their wider lives and previous sentences.

The aim of the Lives Sentenced project is to address this gap in the knowledge base by examining the life stories of 35 people with long punishment careers. Hopefully this will help me to:

  1. Understand the significance of individual and cumulating experiences of punishment within and  across the life course; examine when punishment is experienced as just, as having different purposes, as being meaningful and life changing
  2. Examine the experience of first convictions and sentences, and impacts for the punished
  3. Analyse how ex-offenders’ manage to break the cycle of offending and punishment, their understandings of this process, and their view on whether and how their experiences of punishment helped and hindered them to do so
  4. Explore how perspectives on justice and punishment change depending on whether people are in prison and across possible ‘turning points’ (such as getting married, becoming a parent, finding a job)
  5. Explore if it is possible to identify patterns of ‘progression’ through punishment careers and the meanings people give to their sentence

In early 2014 I will be recruiting participants: men and women who have been punished over a period of at least 15 years. I am focusing on those who most recently have served (or are serving) a short-term prison sentence, so that I can compare the results of this research to my PhD interviews with long-term prisoners. Recruitment will hopefully happen both in the community and within prisons, so that I can get both the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ view of repeated punishment. I will try to interview the participants again around a year after the first interview, to see how their views have changed over this time. If I manage to get funding to continue the research past 2016, further interviews will also take place, so I can follow people through a portion (and hopefully the end) of their punishment career.