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Coping and Adaptation

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Part of the Palgrave Studies in Prisons and Penology book series (PSIPP)

Abstract

This chapter outlines the ways that prisoners coped with and adapted to their sentences in the years that followed the initial period following conviction. Building on Chapter 4, it describes the first few years of the sentence as a period of ‘coping-survival’, in which prisoners continued to exist in a state of ‘fractured reflexivity’, with a limited, defensive and reactive form of agency. It goes on to outline the ways in which, over time, precipitated and sustained by a range of factors, experiences and discourses, long-term prisoners began to find hope and meaning in their existence, establish some sense of control over their life, and come to terms with both their sentence and their offence. A significant part of this process involved finding ways of managing and processing the emotional burdens of their circumstances, and making use of educational, religious and therapeutic resources to rethink personal projects, purposes and priorities.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Fifteen of the 39 problems within the survey were reported as significantly more severe by participants who considered themselves to be not guilty of the offence for which they had been convicted, compared to those who considered themselves to be guilty. These included ‘Feeling that your life has been wasted’, ‘Feeling angry with the world’, ‘Feeling that you are losing the best years of your life’, ‘Feeling that the system is ignoring your individual needs’, ‘Feeling frustrated that you are not progressing through the system’, ‘Thinking about the amount of time you might have to serve’ and ‘Feeling that the length of your sentence is unfair’, which was the second most severe problem for prisoners who did not consider themselves guilty, compared to the 30th most severe among those who did.

  2. 2.

    RAPt: a drug treatment programme, delivered by the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust.

  3. 3.

    The preponderance of such narratives was, in part, the outcome of our decision to identify a sample of participants within Grendon, although this decision reflected the fact that it is one of the seven Category B training prisons in the England & Wales prison system (another of which, HMP Dovegate, itself houses a 200-bed therapeutic community). That is, while prisoners in Grendon were over-represented in our sample relative to the population, many prisoners serving long sentences enter its community, or ones that are similar (such as the smaller therapeutic in HMP Gartree), at some point during their confinement.

  4. 4.

    We refer to these discourses as adaptive, rather than as forms of denial, partly because they did not involve dismissal of the reality of the situation, and partly because they helped prisoners to ‘move on’ rather than ‘stand still’. It should be noted, however, that the causal and temporal pathway of these transitions and discourses varied or was unclear.

  5. 5.

    ‘Having to follow other people’s rules and orders’ (women: 20.50; men 14.71); ‘Feeling that you have no control over your life’ (women 14.58; men 10.17).

  6. 6.

    The connection between such experiences and feelings of powerlessness is well established (see Campbell et al. 1995; Finkelhor et al. 2007).

  7. 7.

    For prisoners at this sentence stage, the significance of legal appeal was that it was an outcome that, in a single step, would overturn current circumstances.

  8. 8.

    ‘Top yourself’: take your own life.

  9. 9.

    In discussing the activities that did produce a sense of control, being able to cook one’s own food was cited most regularly as something that provided a degree of choice, and some sense of normalcy and commensality: ‘it just makes a massive difference, you know, that being able to like socialise with someone at dinner time’ (Linwood, 20s, mid).

  10. 10.

    ‘YOs’: young offenders [prison/unit].

  11. 11.

    With great consistency, prisoners of all sentence stages commented on the limited or ‘very basic’ (Clark, 20s, early) nature of educational provision. Many reported with great disappointment having ‘exhausted’ (Neil, 30s, mid) their educational opportunities, particularly when the alternatives to seeking to further educate themselves were mindless forms of labour in workshops:

    I’ve come to the point where there’s nothing for me to do that’s educational, so now they just want to put me in workshops where you’re just sat there like a machine. […] I can’t do it. It just draws all the energy out of me. (Siffre, 20s, early)

    Prisoners who had served a number of years of their sentences often complained that they were being asked to repeat courses or qualifications that they had already completed. Those who were keen to engage in higher-level qualifications were highly despondent that funding for Open University degrees had been cut.

  12. 12.

    Many prisoners described having converted to religion while in prison, discovered spiritual practices and philosophies, or found that their existing religious commitments had strengthened as a result of their sentence. As noted above, the same was true of education: typically, participants’ experiences of schooling had not been positive, but, since re-discovering the benefits of learning, knowledge and self-knowledge, many had become passionate advocates for educational engagement.

  13. 13.

    For some prisoners, however, the sociability of places of worship was off-putting. John (20s, mid), for example, had stopped going to religious services because others were ‘going down not for the service, but for association, and they were laughing, taking the mick’; likewise, Jeremiah (20s, early) disapproved of some Muslim prisoners using services as a basis for social life rather than worship.

  14. 14.

    At the same time, many prisoners were cynical about the true functions of religion, particularly Islam. Ashley (30s, mid), for example, went on to explain his disillusion with ‘prison Islam’: ‘I realised that they’re just a big gang […] because it’s safety in numbers and it’s protection, and they’re looked after’. Errol (20s, early), a committed Muslim, no longer attended Friday prayer, because of his antipathy towards some other worshippers: ‘I don’t go down there. These terrorists, I fucking hate them, man. I hate them’. The idea that Islam was a screen for drug dealing, violence and radicalisation was expressed very frequently, particularly by prisoners who were within, or had been transferred from, high-security establishments (see Liebling et al. 2011).

  15. 15.

    Relatively few participants expressed hostility towards uniformed staff, but some late-stage participants recalled incidents of brutality in the past, and minority-ethnic interviewees who had spent time in some high-security establishments reported experiences of racism, directed particularly against Muslims. While we did not identify any overall difference in the adaptive patterns of white and minority-ethnic participants, in the survey, 17 of the 39 problems were reported to be significantly more severe by black and minority-ethnic prisoners compared to white prisoners, while severity scores were significantly higher for Muslim prisoners compared to prisoners with either ‘other’ or no religious affiliations for the items: ‘Feeling that the system is ignoring your individual needs’, ‘Prison officers making life harder’, ‘Prison psychologists making life harder’, ‘Feeling frustrated that you are not progressing through the system’ and ‘Thinking about the amount of time you have to serve’. Prisoners with no religion reported ‘Losing your self-confidence’ and ‘Being worried about your mental health’ as significantly more severe than Muslim prisoners and Christian prisoners, respectively.

  16. 16.

    To ‘kick the bucket’: to die.

  17. 17.

    For Rafe (30s, mid), the death of his father helped him achieve ‘some victim empathy […], to sort of think to myself I have made other people feel like this, you know’, but this was account of the positive impact of bereavement was unusual.

  18. 18.

    The aspiration to be self-employed or run one’s own business was partly explained by the desire to achieve ‘something on your own’ (Deena, 20s, mid), and partly by the knowledge that the stigma and disqualifications resulting from a life sentence would make it hard to find many other forms of paid work.

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Crewe, B., Hulley, S., Wright, S. (2020). Coping and Adaptation. In: Life Imprisonment from Young Adulthood. Palgrave Studies in Prisons and Penology. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-56601-0_5

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-56601-0_5

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