Long term prisoners’ accounts of their sentence
Schinkel, Marguerite Lucile
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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.