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.
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.
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:
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
Examine the experience of first convictions and sentences, and impacts for the punished
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
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)
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.