Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

Doing Time with Lifers: A Reflective Study of Life Sentence Prisoners

Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

Doing Time with Lifers: A Reflective Study of Life Sentence Prisoners

Article excerpt

Introduction

Between 1996 and 1998, while serving a five year prison sentence I spent two years and six months integrated within the lifer community. Although I was not a lifer myself, I had requested to be moved from the chaotic landings--where hordes of short term prisoners created havoc on a daily basis--to a more stabilising environment where the bulk of the population was serving long term sentences. As I became more acquainted and accepted by the lifer fraternity, I began to learn of their individual stories. Also during this time and in no small part influenced by several of the lifers, I enrolled on an Open University social sciences programme. I immediately embraced my new student identity (Meek et al., 2012; Bilby, 2013; Pike, 2013) and began to use my current surroundings as a platform to practice my new research skills on my fellow prisoners. Because of my predicament, it was not possible for any formal ethical approval but still I felt that the oral histories of these men should be shared. I did however try to follow some formal research protocol that I had learned through being a social sciences student. I explained to them from the outset that if I got the opportunity to publish their stories I would use pseudonyms and also change the names of places they talked about and the prisons we were in so as not to allow their stories to be easily identifiable but at the same time keeping it accurate and truthful. Therefore, the names of prisoners, places--such as where offences were committed--and the prisons have all been changed. I did not have the luxury of a quiet room to conduct my interviews except occasionally we had use of the Chapel meeting room where we could talk in private--with the blessing of the prison Chaplain--without any intrusion from staff members and other prisoners.

I also took advantage of quieter moments during exercise and association periods either in mine or one of the lifer's cells or on the exercise yard where we were able to talk in depth. Because during exercise period, prisoners tend to walk around in groups, I was able to use this opportunity to converse with several at one time. Bonding with the lifer community was a slow process and it was not possible to bond with all of them. It was a very careful selectiveness. I had to be sure I was choosing the right group of people who I felt could be open and honest with me but also emotionally stable enough to share intimate memories of their life stories. As well as this there had to be mutual trust between myself and the men in order for them to feel comfortable. Once I had achieved this and had gained the trust of a selected few, there were few aspects to their personal lives and crimes that they would not share. It was not a relationship of researcher and participant. We were friends and fellow prisoners. As former prisoner turned professor, John Irwin had done for his study on lifers in 2009, I did not select my participants using any kind of sampling method. I just interviewed those I had got to know over time and it was because of this I was allowed to gain a unique insight into their lives. However, the difference between my study and that of John Irwin's is that I conducted my study while I was still a serving prisoner (Irwin, 2009). During this time, while I was collating prisoner narratives with the aim of sharing firsthand accounts of the lifer experience, a group of ex-prisoners turned academics in the USA with similar ideas of writing from an insider perspective was emerging called the Convict Criminology Organisation (see Newbold et al., 2014). They organised workshops, participated in academic conferences, and published scholarly work to build a perspective they called "The New School of Convict Criminology" (Richards & Ross, 2003). Fourteen years later I became acquainted with the Convict Criminology Organisation when I was invited by Professor Stephen Richards from the University of Wisconsin (an ex-convict himself) to submit a reworked chapter (Honeywell, 2015), from my autobiography, Never Ending Circles (Honeywell, 2012). …

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