Skip to main content

Identity and Selfhood

  • 350 Accesses

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

Abstract

This chapter considers what we term the ‘dislocation of self’—the shattering of the prisoner’s prior sense of self instigated by the enormity of being party (or witness) to murder and by the prospect of many years in prison. The chapter begins by describing prisoners’ frequent references to ‘losing themselves’ in the early sentence stage. It goes on to describe how prisoners further into their sentence engaged in forms of existential reflection, during which they attempted to make sense of their experiences and their sense of self. In particular, those prisoners who considered themselves to be guilty of the offence were forced to ask themselves ‘who am I if I am capable of murder?’. The chapter elaborates three broad narratives that emerged out of prisoners attempts to re-narrate the self and construct a coherent life story: first, the ethical self, in which the individual is cited as an inherently good person who ‘made one mistake’; second, the ‘stronger, better self’, reflecting the idea that the individual has become a morally better person as a result of their trauma; and third, the ‘more mature’ individual, who believes that self-improvement is an outcome of natural maturation. The chapter finally considers the idea expressed by many prisoners that, as a result of their sentence, they had found and become ‘the real me’—a better and more ‘authentic’ person.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

Chapter
USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • DOI: 10.1057/978-1-137-56601-0_7
  • Chapter length: 37 pages
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
eBook
USD   29.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-1-137-56601-0
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
Softcover Book
USD   37.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Hardcover Book
USD   119.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)

Notes

  1. 1.

    For clarity, while the terms ‘identity’ and ‘self’ are often used interchangeably, here we apply them with a subtle distinction. ‘Identity’ is understood as ‘the traits and characteristics, social relations, roles, and social group memberships that define who one is’ (Osyerman et al. 2012: 69), while the ‘self’ is considered to be the individual’s view of the composition of those identities within themselves, so that ‘identities make up one’s self-concept variously described as what comes to mind when one thinks of oneself’ (Osyerman et al. 2012: 69).

  2. 2.

    This inability was no doubt compounded by their youth and relative immaturity (Criminal Justice Alliance 2011).

  3. 3.

    Only 13% of male prisoners in the very early stage of their sentence reported that they considered themselves to be guilty of murder, compared to 32% in the early stage, around half in the mid- or late stages of their sentence and 70% of those who were beyond their tariff point. The discrepancy between these figures was due to a number of factors, including the high proportion of joint enterprise prisoners in the very early and early stages (who were significantly more likely to dispute the charge of murder) and the tendency for some prisoners to maintain innocence in the early years of their imprisonment before conceding guilt at a later point.

  4. 4.

    On being convicted, prisoners lost sources of social identity besides established social and familial networks, including employment, the ability to demonstrate individuality through social artefacts such as clothing and shared cultural meanings. John (20s, mid), for example, described struggling to ‘learn to stop who I am’ within an environment in which his normal response to threat, in the form of violence, was institutionally unacceptable.

  5. 5.

    In surveys, of the fifty male prisoners who were late stage or post-tariff, only three ‘strongly disagreed’ with the statement ‘I have become/am becoming a better person’ and only five ‘disagreed’ with this statement. In interviews, this subgroup of prisoners suggested that they did not feel they needed to change and were maintaining their innocence or remained ‘deep’ in the system, as Category A prisoners. Of the six female survey participants who were at the latter stages of their sentences, only one strongly disagreed or disagreed with this statement. For this woman, any changes felt a natural part of growing up.

  6. 6.

    Joseph (2011) proposes that post-traumatic growth is more likely to occur when basic psychological needs are met, and it is telling that claims of ‘improvement’ were associated with more morally decent prison environments (and see Auty and Liebling 2019), such as prison-based therapeutic communities.

  7. 7.

    To minimise response bias, some statements were worded positively and some negatively. Items worded negatively were recoded during analysis so that a higher score on an item represents a more positive response, regardless of how each item is worded, with a score of 3.0 interpreted as neutral (i.e. on average respondents neither agree nor disagree).

References

  • Archer, M. S. (2003). Structure, agency and the internal conversation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Archer, M. S. (2012). The reflexive imperative in late modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Auty, K. M., & Liebling, A. (2019). Exploring the relationship between prison social climate and reoffending. Justice Quarterly.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cohen, S., & Taylor, L. (1972). Psychological survival: The experience of long-term imprisonment. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Corrigan, P. W., & Watson, A. C. (2002). The paradox of self‐stigma and mental illness. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 9(1), 35–53. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1093/clipsy.9.1.35.

  • Crewe, B. (2009). The prisoner society: Power, adaptation and social life in an English prison. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Crewe, B. (2011). Depth, weight, tightness: Revisiting the pains of imprisonment. Punishment & Society, 13(5), 509–529.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • De Viggiani, N. (2012). Trying to be something you are not: Masculine performances within a prison setting. Men and Masculinities, 15(3), 271–291.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Douglas, J. D. (1984). The emergence, security, and growth of the sense of self. In J. A. Kotarba & A. Fontana (Eds.), The existential self in society (pp. 69–99). London: The University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Erikson, E. H. (1959). Identity and the life cycle: Selected papers. Psychological Issues, 1, 1–171.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ferguson, T. J., Eyre, H. L., & Ashbaker, M. (2000). Unwanted identities: A key variable in shame—Anger links and gender differences in shame. Sex Roles, 42(3–4), 133–157.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Fleetwood, J. (2015). In search of respectability: Narrative practice in a women’s prison in Quito, Ecuador. In L. Presser & S. Sandberg (Eds.), Narrative criminology: Understanding stories of crime (pp. 42–68). London: New York University Press.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Foucault, M. (1997). Technologies of the self. In P. Rabinow (Ed.), Ethics: subjectivity and truth (pp. 223–252). New York: New Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Frankl, V. (1984). Man’s search for meaning. New York: Washington Square Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Stanford: Stanford university press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. New York: Anchor Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Heather, N. (1977). Personal illness in lifers and the effects of long-term indeterminate sentences. British Journal of Criminology, 17, 378.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Hulley, S., Crewe, B., & Wright, S. (2019). Making sense of ‘joint enterprise’ for murder: Legal legitimacy or instrumental acquiescence? British Journal of Criminology, 59(6), 1328–1346.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ievins, A. M. A. N., & Crewe, B. (forthcoming). Lateral tightness and ‘sex offenders’.

    Google Scholar 

  • Infinito, J. (2003). Ethical Self‐formation: A look at the later Foucault. Educational Theory, 53(2), 155–171. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1741-5446.2003.00155.x.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Janoff-Bulman, R. (2004). Post-traumatic growth: Three explanatory models. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 30–34.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jewkes, Y. (2005). Men behind bars: “Doing” masculinity as an adaptation to imprisonment. Men and Masculinities, 8(1), 44–63.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Joseph, S. (2011). What doesn’t kill us: The new psychology of post-traumatic growth. Philadelphia: Basic Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kernis, M. H. (2003). Towards a conceptualization of optimal self-esteem. Psychological Inquiry, 14(1), 1–26.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Laws, B. (2018). The return of the suppressed: Exploring how emotional suppression reappears as violence and pain among male and female prisoners. Punishment & Society. 146247451880507.

    Google Scholar 

  • Leary, M. R. (2003). Interpersonal aspects of optimal self-esteem and the authentic self. Psychological Inquiry, 14(1), 52–54.

    Google Scholar 

  • Liebling, A. (in press). The moral grammar of prison life and questions of politics: An inquiry. In A. E. Bottoms & J. Jacobs (Eds.), Morality, crime and criminal justice. Oxford: Hart Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  • Martin, K., & Stermac, L. (2010). Measuring hope: Is hope related to criminal behaviour in offenders? International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 54(5), 693–705.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Maruna, S. (1997). Desistance and development: The psychosocial process of going straight. British Society of Criminology conferences: Selected proceedings. Available at http://britsoccrim.org/volume2/003.pdf.

  • Maruna, S. (2001). Making good: How ex-convicts reform and rebuild their lives. Washington: American Psychological Association.

    Google Scholar 

  • Maruna, S. (2004). Desistance from crime and explanatory style: A new direction in the psychology of reform. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 20(2), 184–200.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Mathiassen, C. (2016). Nothingness: Imprisoned in existence, excluded from society. In J. Bang & D. Winther-Lindqvist (Eds.), Nothingness. New Brunswick, NJ and London, UK: Transaction Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  • McAdams, D. P. (1993). The stories we live by: Personal myths and the making of the self. New York: Guilford Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • McAdams, D. P. & Bowman, P. J. (2001). Narrating life’s turning points: Redemption and contamination. In D. P. McAdams, R. Josselson, & A. Lieblich (Eds.), Turns in the road: Narrative studies of lives in transition (pp. 3–34). Washington: American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/10410-001.

  • O’Donnell, I. (2014). Prisoners, solitude and time. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Osyerman, D., Elmore, K., & Smith, G. (2012). Self, self-concept, and identity. In M. R. Leary & J. P. Tangney (Eds.), Handbook of self and identity. New York: Guildford Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Park, C. L. (2005). Religion as a meaning-making framework in coping with life stress. Journal of Social Issues, 61(4), 707–729.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Park, C. L. (2010). Making sense of the meaning literature: An integrative review of meaning making and its effects on adjustment to stressful life events. Psychological Bulletin, 136(2), 257–301.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Presser, L. (2010). Been a heavy life: Stories of violent men. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Robinson, G. (2008). Late-modern rehabilitation: The evolution of a penal strategy. Punishment & Society, 10(4), 429–445.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Sapsford, R. J., & Sapsford, R. (1983). Life sentence prisoners: Reaction, response and change. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schmid, T. J., & Jones, R. S. (1991). Suspended identity: Identity transformation in a maximum security prison. Symbolic Interaction, 14(4), 415–432. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1525/si.1991.14.4.415.

  • Shapland, J., & Bottoms, A. (2011). Reflections on social values, offending and desistance among young adult recidivists. Punishment & Society, 13(3), 256–282.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Singer, J. A. (2004). Narrative identity and meaning making across the adult lifespan: An introduction. Journal of personality, 72(3), 437–460. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.0022-3506.2004.00268.x.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • van Ginneken, E. F. (2016). Making sense of imprisonment: Narratives of posttraumatic growth among female prisoners. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 60(2), 208–227.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Vaughn, M. S., & Sapp, A. D. (1989). Less than utopian: Sex offender treatment in a milieu of power struggles, status positioning, and inmate manipulation in state correctional institutions. The Prison Journal, 69(2), 73–89.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Warr, J. (2019). ‘Always gotta be two mans’: Lifers, risk, rehabilitation, and narrative labour. Punishment & Society. https://doi.org/10.1177/1462474518822487.

  • Williams, R. J. (2018). Finding freedom and rethinking power: Islamic piety in English high security prisons. British Journal of Criminology, 58(3), 730–748.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Zamble, E. (1992). Behavior and adaptation in long-term prison inmates: Descriptive longitudinal results. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 19(4), 409–425.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ben Crewe .

Copyright information

© 2020 The Author(s)

About this chapter

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Crewe, B., Hulley, S., Wright, S. (2020). Identity and Selfhood. 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_7

Download citation

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-56601-0_7

  • Published:

  • Publisher Name: Palgrave Macmillan, London

  • Print ISBN: 978-1-137-56600-3

  • Online ISBN: 978-1-137-56601-0

  • eBook Packages: Law and CriminologyLaw and Criminology (R0)