This was the title of the Perrie Lectures 2014, which were held at the Prison Service College in Newbold Revel (near Rugby) on 13 June. For me, it was a great day out from exam marking: an opportunity to discuss with movers and shakers in the criminal justice world a subject which has been one of my central concerns for many years.

Copy of New-Hall-womanatgate-banner

Photo credit: PRT/Edmund Clark

The day’s lectures were chaired by Rex Bloomstein, director of a number of important documentaries on prison life. He has in recent years revisited some of his earlier films, with stark effect. In his 1982 series Lifers, life sentence prisoners had talked with extraordinary frankness about their crimes and the system that contained them. Two decades later, he traced many of those who had taken part in the earlier film: in Lifer–Living with Murder (made in 2003), eight of Bloomstein’s original lifers agreed to go back on camera. Some were still in prison or other custodial settings serving their sentence and some had been released and were living within the community on life licence. Their stories provide unique insights into the realities of living with a life sentence.

As the first speaker, I had the challenge of following straight on from an extract from Rex Bloomstein’s interview with Steve: it was dramatic and shocking to see how he had aged and changed in 20 years, now living in a secure mental hospital and not a prison. It was impossible not to be deeply moved by the way he spoke: an old man, talking slowly and laboriously about his experiences within the prison ‘system’; such a change from the thoughtful (and angry) young man of twenty years earlier.

My talk was more prosaic: pointing out how difficult it is to make sense of life sentences when the law is so bizarrely complex. I believe that there are prisoners in prison serving eleven different forms of life sentence: some, like Imprisonment for Public Protection, are now abolished for new prisoners, but there are many thousands still inside serving the sentence. Data is very difficult to access. It is not clear to me that the Prison Service even knows what legal regime applies to many prisoners. It is certainly not just murderers who get ‘life’: those who aid and abet murderers get a mandatory life sentence, and many thousands who are deemed to be ‘dangerous’ – variously defined over the years – get discretionary indeterminate sentences. Once inside, the prisoner becomes all too aware that the rules on tariffs, progress through the system, release and recall are all confusing and, I would say, confused.

Copy of newhallstairsandlanding

Photo credit: PRT/Edmund Clark

The other speakers were Sir Alan Beith, chair of the Justice Select Committee, Lucy Gampbell, former director of Action for Families and a member of the Parole Board, and Phil Copple, Director of Public Sector Prisons, at the National Offender management Service. All raised over-lapping issues:

  • The concept of ‘culpability’: many repeat offenders may be more culpable than those who commit a one-off ‘moment of madness’ offence.
  • The need for politicians and policy makers to get beyond the simplicities and the stereotypes which the media encourage.
  • The practical problems of prison as a setting for rehabilitation: how prisoners serving very long and indeterminate sentences can be supported and motivated to comply with the uncertain requirements of their sentence and of ‘risk reduction’.
  • The importance of staff attitudes, of empathy, and of maintaining a focus for staff on contact with prisoners.

The questions raised were hard-hitting and not just for those who work in the system. It was a great pleasure to see the annual Perrie Award presented to Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust . This is awarded to “the person who has done most to promote an understanding of the work of the Prison Service, and pushed forward the development of penal policy”.

Readers of this blog are warmly encouraged to explore the PRT’s website, and particularly perhaps their Bromley Factfiles. To make sense of life sentences, we need a lot more well-informed debate.

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>