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

Published 15/03/2015
Type Article
Author(s) David Honeywell
Corresponding Authors David Honeywell, Criminology Lecturer, Leeds Beckett University & PhD candidate, University of York

We constantly hear the public’s outcry that “life should mean life!” and that anyone convicted of murder should never see the light of day again. This reflective study is auto-ethnographic drawing from informal interviews, observations and life stories with prison inmates serving life sentences for murder with the aim of estimating the effect incarceration has on their lives during their time in prison and how they prepare for release through adopting new identities. Between January 1996 and February 1998 I spent two years living closely with several life sentence prisoners during which time I gained access and an insight into a secret world in which only a fellow prisoner would ever be permitted. The mirror image of their tragic existences also gave me an insight into my own disintegrating lifestyle which would eventually have the most profound effect on my own desistance journey. The lifer culture was like a secret society which separated itself from the rest of the prison subculture and hierarchy and yet was oppressed by and subservient to the Criminal Justice System. At the core of this study is the ‘self’ and the changing process that takes place throughout a lifer’s personal journey during the nurturing of their own identities while preparing themselves for the outside world. It is also about their views of the changing world around them and their relationship with the prison population from which they were desperate to disassociate themselves from in order to develop an identity that bears no resemblance to the identity they possessed before they were imprisoned. This introspective transition from killer to respectable citizen was easier than many would perhaps imagine because for these first and only time offenders, their most alarming factor was their ordinariness.

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 hanged. 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).

This gave me a framework from where to publish my work and by then the British Convict Criminology Organisation had also been formed (Aresti et al., 2012). At the time of writing this, the academic world seems to now be embracing auto-ethnographical writing. As Earle (2011) observes, prison ethnographers in the United Kingdom have offered rich and diverse accounts of prison life and prisoners’ views and experiences have been for the most part, reported with sensitivity, creativity and insight. However, the actual voices of prisoners, and of ex-prisoners who are now prison researchers, have been relatively subdued. This is echoed by Bennett and Crewe (2012), who claim: “Little of what we know about prison comes from the mouths of prisoners, and very few academic accounts of prison life manage to convey some of its most profound and important features – its daily pressures and frustrations, the culture of the wings and landings, and the relationships which shape the everyday experience of being imprisoned.” (Bennett & Crewe, 2012: ii, cited in Earle, 2011:32).

For reasons I outlined earlier, it was not possible to produce official field notes or recorded discussions, however I did make notes using Teeline shorthand which I had taught myself from a textbook over the first six months of my time in prison. I used shorthand to prevent scrutiny from prison officers during cell searches. I also made regular diary entries. All of the lifers were very supportive, giving their full consent with a shared view that the public needed to be made aware about the truth of their predicament of being a lifer. None of the men made excuses for their crimes or were claiming any injustice by the courts.

The participants’ demographic details
MIKE – had almost served 13 years of his sentence when I first met him. He projected a lot of self-confidence yet appeared somewhat aloof. His whole persona made me think he was a member of staff. Several months later we were to become cellmates when I revealed this to him. He gave me a broad grin. He took it as a compliment. His offence had been murder though he could have been sentenced to a lesser charge of manslaughter had he not been overheard threatening to kill his victim three weeks before shooting him in the arm with a double barrel shotgun. He said it was in fact his intention to just wound him. He did exactly that but later his victim died from his injuries. I felt that his example certainly puts things into perspective for those who publicly say things in the heat of the moment. He was so unlike most of the other prisoners that he was outcast by some of them and accused of being a ‘grass’ (informant). He had a certain rapport with staff members which is frowned upon by the general prisoner community – seen as fraternising with the enemy.

BEN – was very quiet but very approachable once you gained his trust. He had a wife who since his incarceration had started co-habiting with his now former best friend. He was loyal and trustworthy but his personal life and prison experience had embittered him over the years. He had explained how his so-called best friend had been the cause of this. Added to this, many years of long term imprisonment had added to his cynicism. He had become melancholy where he was so quiet and withdrawn, and at times, it was difficult to get him to open up. Ben found comfort from his faith as a Catholic and though I had no religious connotations myself, I found the Chapel community an excellent place to bond with several of the lifers. There seemed to be more lifers involved with the Chaplaincy than fixed termers and though many prisoners who turn to religion are accused of using it to try and get early release on parole, they seemed genuine in their religious pursuits at least while they were serving their Sentences. Ben was a very talented guitarist who had belonged to a band before his arrest 11 years earlier.

LES – was similar to Mike in that he had developed an image that was more akin with staff. I first met Les in the prison gymnasium where I approached him to ask how to use a piece of equipment. The reason I chose to ask Les was because I thought he was a member of staff – as I had Mike. They both exuded an air of authority which came from their own personal confidence. They held themselves with a certain poise and dignity and had kept their appearance neatly groomed, clean shaven and were polite in manner. Even their circumstances were similar in that both could have received the lesser charge of manslaughter but instead had received a life Sentence.

JOHN – had allegedly done his time as part of a biker’s pact – an innocent man who during his stint in prison had lost his wife to cancer. He was a very private person who I felt at total ease with. He didn’t display any signs of bitterness or anger towards the system. Sadly during the time I got to know John he contracted terminal cancer which mercilessly made its presence known for all and sundry to see in the form of a lump that grew from his neck to the size of a tennis ball. He was granted compassionate parole several weeks after his diagnosis but it was not the usual celebratory event as for most newly released prisoners. After serving 10 years in prison he was finally released and died only weeks later. I had been released myself when John died and recall one of the fellow lifers who had also since been released being quite angry towards the rest of the lifer community for not visiting John in hospital during his last days.

PETER – was serving life for a so-called ‘honour’ killing. He was a Sheik who used the English name, Peter. He had served eight years of his life tariff for taking his ceremonial sword to a family member and severing his head. When I approached the subject, this was all he was willing to disclose. His jolly demeanour and clean cut image again made it difficult to imagine him as a convicted murderer, though I didn’t mistake him as being a staff member as there were so few ethnic minorities working in the prison service. Peter used his time constructively spending his days on the education department. I would visit his cell most days. You could always have a good laugh with him and the others who used to congregate in his cell. It was hard to say where Peter would eventually end up but because of his ethnic background it would have most likely have been shaped by his community whether he was able to re-integrate or not.

SIMON – was 11 years into his life sentence. It was so hard to believe he was even in prison – for anything at all. Small in stature and of slim build, with a thick head of curly hair and softly spoken demeanour, he did not fit the mould of what is still perceived by many as ‘a criminal type’. This seemed a common thread with the majority of the lifer community. He came across as a gentle natured person and very well educated. He was studying for a degree through the Open University. He kept himself to himself. He’d had some trouble in the earlier stages of This sentence mainly due to his naiveté as many first time prisoners experience.

DANNY – was another unlike the rest of the lifer community and went against their collective norms and values as model prisoners. He was one of the longest serving lifers; a regular drug user who mingled mainly with fixed termers with the same addictions. His cell was always a busy hive of activity including drug use, and weekend partying. He was quite disruptive but then with just three months remaining of the 17 years he had already served, he absconded. He had been given the privilege of working outside the prison in a local café. The allure of a sexy waitress was too much to resist. They ran away together, eloping somewhere far away. It couldn’t have lasted though.

FRED – was a former gang member of 1960s London; a Kray associate, and the highest profile lifer I became acquainted with. He was famously jailed in 1967 for a crime I have kept anonymous due to the possibility of him being identified. The case was one of the most notorious killings and the first gangland killing of that area Sparking fears amongst the public. During my time in HMP Thorntree, I spoke to Fred many times but he was somewhat aloof from the other lifers. He was even unpopular amongst other lifers who felt he was afforded special privileges. For example, he was the only prisoner with a computer in his cell at a time when computers were still fairly new on the market.

The Lifer Community
One of the main reasons why the lifer community was so tightly knit was because they shared many of the same experiences that set them apart from the rest of the prison population. Those who didn’t conform to the expected norms and values of the lifer subculture were outcast as being liabilities – as in the case of Danny. Lifers who tried to buck the system were not only risking their freedom (McDermott & King, 1988), but were looked down on by their fellow lifers. This was a complete contrast to fixed-termers who revelled in trying to ‘beat the system’. Fred was another who didn’t fit the mould and chose to be aloof. He adopted the attitude of thinking he was above the rest because of his famous gangster status. He was a gentleman gangster and also anti-social – all of which rubbed the others up the wrong way. Ben was particularly vindictive towards him in his own passive way. And with all close knit relationships, familiarity can breed contempt and at times this could reach boiling point between individuals. Ben took delight informing me one day that when Fred left his cell door open while he went for a shower, his computer had been smashed to pieces. This was an act of bitter resentment and envy just because the others felt he was allowed more privileges than the others – such as being allowed a computer in his cell. This wasn’t the norm. Typewriters were permitted but because Fred had claimed he had arthritic fingers he was allowed a touch type computer. The others resented this. They felt it was more to do with who he was. Bad communication skills amongst prisoners were often the root of random violence. One day, Ben was brutally assaulted by his cellmate and friend, Sean, over nothing more than a misunderstood, innocuous remark. As usual – as most offenders do – Sean blamed it on something else other than himself. Quick to back him up, a fellow lifer friend of Sean used the tragic Dunblane massacre which had happened that day as an excuse for his outburst. He claimed that his mind was disturbed by those events being a father himself. This was a poor excuse as there were lots of prisoners with children who had not randomly attacked their cellmates. It was also highly unusual (as mentioned earlier) for a lifer to use such violence given the risk of losing privileges and spending longer behind bars.

Becoming a lifer
Preparing to spend the next 15 or so years in prison is unimaginable for most – as it had  once been for the men I was interviewing. All said they dealt with it by taking one day at a time and not looking ahead as this way your release date never arrives. Some were quite meticulous in arranging their personal lives from inside such as preparing themselves psychologically for the expected such as losing their spouses. Some would tell their spouses not to wait for them as they felt this was an unrealistic expectation. They all explained how the early stages of their life sentence involved spending several years in high security prisons such as Wakefield. They reminisced on how those early stages of their sentences were quite volatile. Mike had told of an incident where he accidently knocked a fellow prisoners arm, spilling his tea and how the other inmate reacted aggressively shouting at Mike. Mike explained that in these situations the best way is to not react back. He had apologised in this instance and defused what could have been potentially a violent exchange. And this is typical of prison life. The slightest incident or innocuous remark can erupt into to full scale brawl. When I asked one of them how they managed their time, he said he threw himself into education.

‘Whenever someone got ‘lifed-up’, the education department would come ‘round asking, ‘Do you want to do a Degree’?’ (Field notes, 1997)

The Open University seemed to have helped many lifers deal with their time of incarceration and it was evident that a lot took it on board as it wasn’t unusual for a lifer to have gained one or even two degrees in prison. Simon talked about education a lot and how it helped deal with the emotional difficulty of prison life.

‘I think the more intelligent you are, the harder it is [doing time]…I banged on the ceiling one night because the prisoner above me was playing his music too loud. He came down and punched me. I had a black eye. I couldn’t fight back…’ (Simon)

He explained the devastating consequences for a lifer who gets into any sort of trouble. There was an ongoing tension amongst the men who felt that the system was unfair towards lifers by the way they were so closely scrutinised while in prison to a degree that it was expected they would fail. McDermott and King (1988) express this perfectly in their paper Mind Games:

‘Lifers are continually under review as to how they are coping, their actions and reactions in order to judge their suitability for release. Lifers do not have a set release date because there is always an underlying risk that an incident could cause the Parole Board to reconsider, as there is always the possibility that lifers behaviour while on licence behaviour, could result in a recall to prison. This existence of being in limbo for the life sentence prisoner causes them to be peculiarly dependent upon the staff and on getting good reports. When faced with other inmates goading, the lifer cannot rise to them because he knows that whatever he does will be open to interpretation. If he explodes, his report may say that he cannot cope with frustration and then he may be transferred back from open to closed conditions or from a training to a local prison to cool off before he is ‘tested out’ again. If he does not respond, the reports may say that he is withdrawn and cannot come to terms with his offence. Searching for acceptance brings many lifers subserviently close to staff. Not surprisingly, lifers like to distance themselves from the absurd behaviour by short term prisoners. And not surprisingly, either, staff like having lifers around as a stabilising influence.’ (McDermott & King, 1988:365)

It could happen to anyone
Although all the lifers had been convicted of murder most were first and only time offenders and perpetrators of crime passionnelle. Most had killed their spouses during a brief moment of emotional weakness and it was because of this I was intrigued by their stories. For me as I developed an attachment to the men and began to analyse them more closely, I also began to analyse myself more as if through some kind of ‘looking glass self’ (see Cooley, 1986). It was this particular group of lifers I wanted to focus my attention on because although now convicted killers, it was clear to me that the public’s perception of all those serving life for murder was completely wrong and in fact they were no different to anyone else. It was their ordinariness that became the most intriguing part of my observations. None of the lifers I got to know most intimately were career criminals, persistent offenders or even bad people beneath the surface it seemed. It was this ordinariness that became the most critical part of my observations. Therefore, arguably, anyone could find themselves in their predicament and serving a life sentence. Mike and Les were perfect examples of this. Every lifer’s story could so easily have been mine and every other person who gets into a drunken brawl; domestic argument; or feud. We all take our freedom for granted but in a split second, lives can be lost and those responsible, imprisoned for decades. But it was clear that communication was at the root of many of their violent outbursts. When I asked Les about his offence he was quite emotional about it and angry with other prisoners who use violence to settle arguments.

‘You should never try and solve things with violence!…Sort it out! Shake hands and make up or walk away’ (Les)

Breathing heavier and faster as he became more anxious, he suddenly revealed to me he had killed a man over a spilled beer. It started after another man had accidently knocked his drink out of his hand. An altercation resulted in a punch up where his victim had hit his head on the pavement. I did not press him any further on the subject as I realised he was painfully re-living it and it was necessary to avoid causing him any psychological torment. I did wonder though why he was a lifer and not serving a lesser charge of manslaughter. Another aspect of Les’ story which intrigued me was his ability to maintain his marriage while serving a life sentence. When I pursued this he revealed that he and his wife had made a pact that whatever relationships she developed while he was in prison, there would be no questions asked but instead they would reunite once he was released. This was his way of psychologically managing his long term imprisonment without the added torment of worrying about his wife’s supposed infidelity. It also gave him hope of holding on to his family for when he was released. Ben’s example of not being able to communicate and thus eventually exploding was typical of many prisoners. He admitted that this was why he had killed. He said it was because he was incapable of opening up:

‘I just used to bottle everything up and allow it to fester’ (Ben)

When I asked him how he now dealt with his pent up anger, he said he was able to because he had done an ‘assertiveness’ course in prison. Ben explained he had benefited from interacting with such prison personal development courses. This demonstrated how such courses can benefit some prisoners and the importance of the Probation Services but of course not all prisoners will benefit because every prisoner’s experience is different to that individual. I wondered if this ‘bottling up’ that Ben had described was a common trait amongst violent offenders.

Differentiating from fixed termers and relationships with staff
Lifers tended to challenge probation staff and psychologists who were constantly scrutinising their behaviour but as McDermott and King highlight in their study, their association with prison officers was more personable than the rest of the population (see also Crewe, 2006). It was unusual to hear a prisoner address an officer by his/her first name but common for lifers to have that level of familiarity. One day I queried Mike why he and the officers were on first name terms:

‘We’ve gone through the system together for a long time and from prisonto-prison’ (Mike)

But I noticed they [lifers] didn’t have the same rapport with female officers. This could have been due to the fact that female officers working amongst male prisoners was a new phenomenon. For the most part of the men’s sentences, female officers had not been part of the prison culture the men had come accustomed to. It wasn’t until the early 1990s when the men were in the final stages of their sentences that women became a major part of a mixed prison officer culture. I decided to test if there would be a different response if I used the same familiarity so one day I addressed one of the prison officers – who Mike was on first name terms with – by his first name. The response was a disapproving look from the officer which confirmed to me that there was a unique rapport between staff and lifers. Usually when prisoners adopt that level of familiarity with officers, other prisoners automatically assume they are in cahoots which causes animosity leading to accusations amongst the prison grapevine. Mike seemed unmoved by their accusations as he was clearly distancing himself from the rest of the prison population anyway – except for a few close friends. He was adamant that he did not want to be associated with the rest of the habitual criminals or look like a criminal (meaning thuggish in appearance) and went to a lot of trouble to hone a self-image that reflected that of a law abiding citizen. He would never shave his head or muscle-up in the gym as he felt this gave off that thuggish appearance. Ironic I thought, that a prisoner who was serving life for the ultimate crime, shared the rest of society’s perception that criminals possess a certain image.

Self-identity and image
After years of incarceration, it was important to many of the lifers that their identity be transformed even to the point of being more akin with their jailers than their inmate colleagues. They were psychologically preparing for their release and gradually adopting a new ‘socially acceptable’ image (Giordano, Cernkovich & Rudolph, 2002:999-1002). One of the most basic yet significant attributes of the lifer’s personal appearances was their hair. Those who could, maintained a well groomed head of hair which distinguished them from the rest of the prison population – most of who chose to shave their heads. Such basic rituals were of huge importance to all prisoners. Clothing was also an essential identity statement for prisoners. At Thorntree open prison, prisoners were all allowed to wear their own clothes. Many of the inmates would go to great lengths to wear particular labelled clothing as a way of displaying their individualism and wealth. The whole importance of a wealthy image amongst prisoners was very competitive. By displaying wealth, other prisoners would view them as serious criminals. Mike was certainly no exception either but for him, it wasn’t about impressing other prisoners. He didn’t even want to be viewed as a criminal – let alone a serious one. For him it was about the opposite. Being smartly dressed in his own clothes made him feel less of a prisoner. He and I both knew that there was not really a criminal ‘type’ and that it was the public’s perception that he was pandering to.

Mike had spent many years cultivating a new identity to perfection. He was eager to know why and what it was about him that had made me think he was a member of staff. It was essential to him to nurture this identity and he was clearly very proud that it had worked on a fellow prisoner. His genuine determination to become accepted by others as a respectable family man was reassuring. For him, establishing the right impression was an essential turning point in starting a new life and a major personal transition from his prisoner identity to that of a family man.

This has been well researched by John Laub and Robert Sampson whereby a small number of factors are sturdy correlates of desistance (e.g. good marriages, stable work, transformation of identity, and aging). The processes of desistance from crime and other forms of problem behaviour appear to be similar (Laub & Sampson, 2001). The more relaxed regime of the open prison allows this careful transformation to take place with much more ease than it could for the prisoner who does not go through the resettlement process synonymous with open prisons. As with all lifers inside the open prison, resettlement is vital therefore, each lifer was permitted regular five day home leaves and weekly six hour community visits during which time they were able to be part of the community and of society. Perhaps it is through these continual interactions of ‘normality’ that their new identities begin to emerge. The difficulty on the other hand is holding on to this during the periods they are inside the prison where, while they belligerently hold on to their new personas, they must also be able to fit into the prison culture. While learning of their life stories, it soon occurred to me that one of the main distinguishing features of the men compared to the rest of the prison population was that none of them displayed aggression, machoism, or tested their masculinity compared to many of the fixed termers who continually displayed their masculinity and toughness while trying to gain a respectable position within the prison pecking order. Perhaps the lifers had done so in the past in order to survive the jungle of prison life but as they prepared for release, it became increasingly important to them to develop and nurture an identity that would be accepted by wider society. Their individual identities were not only important to them while in prison but as they neared the end of the prison term, they meticulously worked on developing a persona that distinguished their identities as being non-criminal.

Preparing for release
Lifers do not have a release date. They have an approximate length of time they must serve (tariff) before being considered for parole but nothing is written in stone (see Ministry of Justice, 2011). But as they neared the end of their term in open prisons, they were allowed regular home leaves where they got to spend five days at a time with their family. They were also allowed community visits every week where they were able to spend up to six hours on a Saturday with friends and family outside the prison. Sometimes the worry, strain and feelings of uselessness not being able to deal with family crises as they arose would cause some to abscond. For some lifers, the alternating lifestyle of freedom such as working in the community, spending days and nights with family and friends on home leaves while residing in prison was just too much to deal with. Another reason for absconding from open prisons is that prisoners are struggling to cope with the drugs culture or feeling threatened within open prisons. It has also been reported that too many violent offenders are being sent to open prisons far too early (Hallet & Lowbridge, 2014).

After I was released I felt it was important to stay in contact with some of the men. This was because we had become friends but also I was able to observe them in a different social setting to further my study of them. So for a short period of time I continued to socialise with those lifers who had been released but some of their  lives seemed more tragic after release than when they were incarcerated. During this period I would meet up with Ben whenever he was on home leave. Rather than spending time with his estranged family though, he would spend his days living in a hostel. He had become isolated and a mere shadow of his former self. Dave was a regular cannabis user and we’d had many debates over the harm it can cause. His stance was that it could not have any effect whereas I was adamant it could. He claimed I had been socialised in this way of thinking. I felt it was his only way of numbing the pain inside he felt since losing his wife to his so called best friend.

Mike’s predicament was in total contrast to Ben’s however. I met Mike several times in Leeham, sometimes arranged and sometimes just bumping into each other. He always looked happy and was always with his new wife. He had found something to cling on to that would launch him into a new and exciting life. One day we went for lunch at a local pub near Brydon, and Mike picked me up in his new car. He had learned to drive at the age of 45. He had developed a new zest for life which was aided by his new marriage and the support he had around him.

The lifer community consisted of mainly broken men with amputated spirits and Dave’s case was no exception. Most had lost families, wives, children who had either disowned them or died. I felt that none of the lifers would ever see the inside of a prison again unlike the rest of the population. Of all the lifers I studied, none ever showed any signs of aggression towards me or other prisoners. None were what you might expect to be your typically male violent criminal despite having committed the ultimate crime of murder. Instead they were people who had allowed their emotions -albeit usually fuelled with alcohol or drugs – to get the better of them. Once they had crossed this line there was no going back and their lives could never be the same again. Although I remained in contact with some of the men after release the bond was not as strong as what we had in prison which is usually the case once prisoners are released. It is a case of everyone pulling together while living in the same difficult circumstances. Once released everyone went their separate ways. Some had family support such as Mike with his new marriage; Ben continued to stay in probation hostels and some were given independent accommodation through local housing schemes. Apart from Mike each one continued to try and rebuild a new life without support from family and friends. Getting to know the men on suchintimate terms gave me enormous insight – not only into their lives but also my own. Their mistakes, impulsivity and how they had suffered as a result of their actions, forced me to take a long hard look at myself. And when the men saw that I was starting to look within, things took on a complete role reversal and they began to share their own analysis of me. At the dinner table one afternoon, I remember feeling privileged to be sat with five lifers as an accepted member of their group. During our conversation, Mike suddenly said to the others:

‘Look at Davy sat there with a big ‘L’ [learner] plate on his back!’ (Mike)

The others were amused at Mike’s statement and all seemed to agree as if with some kind of insight that I was completely oblivious of. The ‘L’ plate reference is prison slang for someone who is heading for the same fate as lifers. I now knew why the lifers had welcomed me into their fold so easily. It wasn’t just because they had wanted to share their stories with me; it was also because they regarded me as one of them – ‘a lifer’ in the making. This was supported by Ben’s comment to me that I had committed the exact same criminal act as he had – the only difference being – my victim had survived. Just the word ‘victim’ sent a shiver down my spine. My analysis of the lifer community had now turned full circle and revealed what it had observed in me. Their observations made me think very deeply about where my life could be heading and that there was an urgent need to make a huge transition. I embraced it. Through analysing lifers, I had been given a unique ‘looking glass’ view of my future, but unfortunately for the lifers they would never have this privilege.


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