The Lived Experiences Of Prisoners Criminology Essay

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Morgan and Leibling (2007) ask what precisely 'is the character of the growing prison population?'(in Maguire et al, 2007: 1100). With 85,009 men, women and children incarcerated in England and Wales the rationale for this topic is to narrow the demographic focus to evaluate the lived experiences of prison according to age - the youngest and the oldest. The mid-nineties witnessed a sudden escalation of children and young people within the prison population following the moral panic surrounding the Bulger murder which justified and legitimised the reduction in the age of being tried as an adult to ten (ibid: 1123). More recently the prison system has witnessed a sudden influx of older prisoners. Men over sixty are the fastest growing group within the prisoner population (PRT: 2008: 2). There has been a three-fold increase in men over seventy since 1996 (ibid).

Sources were drawn from the university library in the form of electronic journals I had difficulty getting anything from the HMSO although this was rectified in time. Drawing on research by Goldson (2004), Goldson and Coles (2005) and The HMIP these factors will be addressed to illustrate the impact of prison on different social groups.

The Research

Goldson's research funded by The Children's Society approaches child imprisonment from a poststructural perspective firstly by deconstructing childhood to assert that the care and control of victims or threats is discursively constructed in the past and re-enacted today in the form of the 'institutional fix' (2004: 100). Secondly, he anchors his claims by providing evidence from the very focus of the research - using the spoken word of the children and young people serving their sentence within Youth Offending Institutions [YOIs] and Secure Units via interviews with prisoners and staff using semi structured questions (2004: 78-197). Godson's research was Goldson's findings aside from the obvious neglect and abuse cutting into the very core of UK society was economic and material inequality that has attached the same assumptions as two centuries ago within the care-control, deserving-undeserving, deprived-depraved dichotomies that are sent to these places do not care and never will care because they are not meant to care (Goldson, 2004: 105). Goldson locates the roots of childhood incarceration within the welfarism of philanthropy in the Victorian era through to the current situation whereby boys are locked up to protect the community and girls are locked up to protect themselves from the community (2004: 100).

Goldson and Coles research funded by Inquest and the Princess Diana of Wales Memorial Foundation investigates the underpinning of the twenty-eight suicides committed by boys between the ages of fourteen and seventeen were committed whilst in custody in England and Wales (2005: 1). As the focus of their research is no longer with us there was 'no natural template' to work from methodologically (ibid: 5). However, observing inquests, examining case studies, interviewing the bereaved families and searching appropriate literature was the conventional means by which their data was collated (ibid.). Their findings highlighted that the children's 'failure to cope' is understood as a weakness of the child thereby 'blaming children for their own death' as opposed to the rectifying the shortfall of the system (ibid: 97). The lack of safeguards against bullying, intimidation, racism, sexism, and a general lack of care due to understaffing and under-funding provide a distinct lack of care for children located miles from home. Thus abolition is the only route (2005: 10)

At the other end of the 'age' spectrum is a study by Wahidin on behalf of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons [HMIP] on men over sixty and women over fifty serving time in eighteen state-led and privately managed prisons in England and Wales (Wahidin, 2005: 59). The methodology drew upon primary research findings within the previous ten years and statistical data from the Home Office and individual prisons (ibid: 60).

Methods implemented included observations, focus groups, interviewing prisoners and staff using semi-structured questions, examining prisoner records and sentence plans on the wing, examining their medical records and providing prisoners the opportunity to fill out a survey (ibid.). These were filled out by 81% (442) of the 544 males and 82% (47) of the 57 women (ibid.). The sample size reflected 38% and 31% of the total male and female prisoners over 60 and 50 respectively (ibid.).

The overall findings of Wahidin were that prison catered for younger more agile prisoners and apart from one pilot programme and three local initiatives there were no other means to cater for older prisoners (ibid, vii). Officers had very difficulties in meeting the needs of older prisoners, while disparities showed a shortfall in performance from the private sector (Ibid. 27). However, there were no differentials in healthcare between young and old prisoners.

The Critique

The PRT however argues this in a later study as many disparities regarding healthcare between ages exist (2008: 3). This is likely to be underpinned by the fact the Wahidin's research is for the government while the PRT's research is funded by Lloyds TSB (2008: 2). Another overarching weakness in Wahidin's research on older prisoners is the issue of sampling women who are only 50+ (2005: 59). As Crawley (2007) argues, this is to create a large enough sample to research but fifty-year-old women do not view themselves as elderly or older prisoners (in Jewkes, 2007: 115). In contrast, the fear of repercussions is evident as in a focus group the prisoners discussed how helpful the younger prisoners were whereas in the surveys 37% stated they had been victimised and bullied by them (1bid, 20). The reliance on notoriously unreliable statistics from prisons and the Home Office is another weakness that lacks empiricism. Most women were in prison for drug offences and 80% were foreign nationals. Men were mostly in prison for sexual offences which explains someway their age given the technology available to detect crimes from many years ago (ibid.).

The PRT's study did recognise that healthcare was differentiated as many had their medication confiscated upon arrival (2008: 3). Healthcare inadequacies such as waiting four weeks for a shower, allowing warmth and more comfortable furniture and threats from the younger prisoners who see the elderly inmates as easy targets Wahidin, 2005: 20). These issues are more prevalent in the private sector (2005: 27). Access to telephones and mobility were minor alterations made in some prisons while in most the absence of ground floor allocations and bottom bunks were lacking (ibid.). Arguably this is more than minor shifts to a disabled person however. Furniture did not cater for old bones and disabilities as was the case for sanitary issues throughout the night (ibid.). Only one prison recognised the Disability Discriminations Act [DDA]. There are no specific regimes for the older prisoners and most were excluded as access to the gym or education means getting past the bullying younger prisoners (ibid. 20). Prisoners past working age only have 3.25 a week (ibid. 16). Criteria for parole was beyond reach for many highlighting the American right realists shift towards indeterminate sentencing and conditions on parole that have saturated the Criminal Justice System in Britain (Garland, 2001: 63).

Goldson's qualitative research revealed some harrowing details of institutional neglect, abuse and fear such as 'everyday bullying happens. It's getting worser and worser. A kid just killed himself. I reckon it was through bulling' (Boy, 15 years, 2004: 104). Some of these emotive responses were backed up by statements that the staff made when Goldson interviewed them revealing that evidently the environment just breeds violence as 'You get kids bullying kids, staff bullying kids, staff bulling staff' (Female prison officer, 2004: 104). In the YOI however, Goldson's comment that 'in other settings such behaviour would be considered child abuse; in prison service it is simply "bullying"' is loaded with issues that remain unaddressed (ibid: 105).

Goldson's (2004) claims are evidently subjective and hitherto bias in favour of the inmates which, shapes the result. For the same reasons his research is overtly emotional and as with all the research, the sample sizes are small thus fail to reflect the experiences of all young prisoners without accusations of generalisation. However, given the nature of the research is understandable as gatekeepers are difficult to negotiate as ethical considerations are thorough. Similarly, the power imbalance between adult interviewer and child participant may impact on the outcome while the fear of repercussions may force some participants to withhold information. A further weakness is inherent in all historical research, because relying on historiographies which are drawn from the interpretations of other researchers.

A critique of Goldson and Coles' research is difficult to measure with the focus absent but that in itself is a weakness as it relies, to a large extent on hearsay and manipulated accounts particularly from the prison system thus cannot be absolutely certain that the truth is being told. As the focus of their research is no longer thus there was 'no natural template' to work from methodologically (2005: 5). The emphasis on the ethical issues in dealing with such a sensitive topic is well-handled and followed up by maintaining contact with bereaved families (ibid.).

Nevertheless, there are currently 2,220 children and young people in prisons and YOIs in England and Wales ( The latest inspection of prisons and YOIs containing children reveals damning evidence of routine strip searching of all new arrivals while inmates can expect a routing strip search on alternate months (Howard League, 2005: 2). ) As Goldson and Coles argue that the number of children between the ages of 12-14 increased by 800% and girls by 500% and that racism continues to 'permeate the Youth Justice System' (2005: 20). Indeed, nine black and two Asian prisoners under twenty-one formed 17% of the sixty-four self-inflicted deaths in 2005 which is vastly disproportionate considering their 2% presence in the overall population (2005: p.2). However, as Liebling and Morgan argue, recognisable suicidal prisoners are few and far between (2007: 1130). Mathieson's 1965 study revealed that prisoners are weak and isolated and dependent on the discretion of prison officers (in Morgan and Leibling 2007: 1128). Ultimately, the 'quality of life' for all prisoners in all prisons via improved regimes, healthcare and staff training is the only way forward (ibid. 1131).


In conclusion it is evident following a critical evaluation of the debates above that nothing one sees and hears can be taken as fact. Prison systems have their own separate agenda that is politically and economically defined. In evaluating the vulnerability of prisoners at both ends of the age spectrum, the experiences of the very young and very old within the prison population of England and Wales is at best detrimental, harmful and in all too many cases, fatal. The findings however, are discursively dependent on who is paying, as indicated by the different finding in healthcare by the state-funded HMCIP and bank-rolled PRT on healthcare. While all the research discussed have strengths and weaknesses they nevertheless provide a valuable contribution to the field as insight into the quality of prisoners lives both young and old are understood and ameliorated to prevent a continuum of marginalisation via such punitive penal policies.