Long term prisoners’ accounts of their sentence - PhDData

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Long term prisoners’ accounts of their sentence

The thesis was published by Schinkel, Marguerite Lucile, in September 2022, University of Edinburgh.


This thesis examines how long-term prisoners make sense of their sentence: what they
see as its purpose, whether they think it fair and how they integrate their sentence in their
life story. Its findings are based on narrative interviews with six men at the start of their
sentence, twelve men who were about to be released and nine men who were under
supervision in the community. The men interviewed felt the prison largely failed in its
purposes of reform, rehabilitation and deterrence, even though these outcomes were much
desired, as almost all wanted to desist. Reformative efforts were seen as overly relying on
cognitive behavioural courses in the prison, which, because they were compulsory for
progression within the prison, were attended by many who were not motivated to engage
with them. Furthermore, the men felt that they were treated as an aggregate rather than as
individuals with individual needs and that this meant the necessary supports upon release
were often not put in place. Meaningful communication about the relationship between
the offence and the sentence was largely lacking. Any moral communication in the
courtroom was hampered by the emotional demands on the men at the sentencing stage,
their wish to manipulate the outcome in their own favour and their perception that court
actors, too, manipulated processes, thereby lessening the moral standing of the court.
However, despite the common perception of sentences failing to achieve any desired
outcome and other complaints – about the inconsistency of sentencing, the standing of the
court to judge and miscarriages of justice – almost all the men nevertheless positioned
their sentence as fair (enough) in their narrative. While some referred to normative
reasons to explain the legitimacy of their sentence, for others their acceptance was
determined by their need to cope with the lived reality of imprisonment. This led to a
strategy of ‘getting your head down’, which included accepting the ‘justice’ of one’s
sentence, but also limiting thoughts of the outside world and minimising contact with
family. Others positioned their prison sentence as transformative in order to be able to
construct a progressive narrative and make sense of a desired future of desistance.
However, the men on license after release generally struggled to maintain a projected
upward trajectory and only felt able to desist by isolating themselves, thereby avoiding
further trouble. The thesis concludes that long-term prison sentences could be rendered
more meaningful through greater individual input and a dialogue about questions of
purpose and meaning, possibly initiated by community criminal justice social workers. In
order to promote desistance, it is important that those who are released have better
chances to secure an alternative identity for themselves so that they can move into a new
stage of their lives, rather than withdrawing from the world in order to desist.

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