No. XXXIX (2017)

Prisonisation and Individuals Sentenced to Life in Prison

Joanna Klimczak
University of Warsaw

Published 2017-01-02


  • prizonizacja,
  • skazani,
  • kara dożywotniego pozbawienia wolności,
  • podkultura więzienna,
  • służba więzienna,
  • kryminologia

How to Cite

Klimczak, J. (2017). Prisonisation and Individuals Sentenced to Life in Prison. Archives of Criminology, (XXXIX), 231–248.


The article is based on my master’s thesis and addresses the issue of the prisonisation of inmates serving life sentences. Ever since Donald Clemmer introduced the idea of prisonisation, different interpretations of this phenomenon have been proposed. In particular, prisonisation has been described as a negative process, forcing a convict to become a ‘good prisoner’, incapable of fending for him or herself outside the penitentiary walls. According to Clemmer, long-term sentences contribute to a greater degree of prisonisation. Hence life prisoners are doomed to it. Is this a bad thing? In my view, prisonisation cannot be treated as a purely negative phenomenon. Given the unlimited duration of life imprisonment, I decided to formulate my own definition of this concept. By prisonisation I mean a process that the inmate has to face upon entering prison. It is a way of contributing to the conditions found on arrival: the inmate with his or her personality and past experiences plus the prison environment (other inmates and prison staff). Let me emphasise that everyone influences everyone else to some degree in a prison environment. The purpose of the research described in the article was to see how prisoners serving life sentences ‘prisonise’. My division of inmates according to the length of the served sentence was supposed to reflect the meaning of time in their lives – whether the inmates ‘blended into’ the penitentiary system as time went by.I assumed that the way prisoners sentenced to life coped in prison depended on how they assessed their chances of obtaining parole. This is important because looking ahead into the future determines how a convict serves their sentence, i.e. how the process of their prisonisation will unfold. Secondly, I assumed that in the case of ‘life’ prisoners, prisonisation was a desired process. Assuming that such inmates will spend all of their life in prison, it is difficult to conceive of prisonisation not taking place. Moreover, lack of prisonisation would pose a serious difficulty in serving the sentence. Taking into account the time factor in prisonisation, I determined that my research had to reflect the experience of inmates at different stages of their sentences. I divided a group of 15 convicts into five sub-groups of three. I set point ‘zero’ for my calculations at the date of the final judgment condemning each individual to life. Thus emerged a picture of inmates sentenced to life imprisonment across different time windows.I conducted 15 open interviews with inmates serving life sentences using my own questionnaire. I also examined the penitentiary records (part B) of inmates who had agreed to be interviewed. This was necessary in order to reconstruct the inmates’ ‘pre-sentence’ and prison past as well as their present circumstances.Assuming that the actions and behaviour of life prisoners are determined by their perception of how likely they are to be released on parole, I developed the following categories:A. Blending into prison – the inmate puts down roots in prison. He/she feels well as a prisoner and sees no other place for him/herself. B. Sponger – uses his/her time in prison as he/she likes, insofar as possible. Doesn’t want to talk about the future and has no specific view on this matter. Focuses on him/herself in the present; the future will bring what it will.C. Light at the end of the tunnel – the inmate knows that the tunnel he/she is in is very long. This is why he/she realizes that he/she must simply inch through it (or march forward). He/she may make plans or find activities to bide the time. Nevertheless, there is a light at the end of the tunnel – a distant one, but a light nonetheless. D. I’m not here – the prisoner does not agree with the nature of the sentence they are serving or even questions their guilt with regard to the crime. He/she does not accept him/herself in the prisoner role and does not see prison as a place to live. He or she devises plans that help him/her survive, while being in denial of having to spend the rest of his/her life in prison. Clings to the world of freedom and feels him/herself a part of it.The ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ category appeared most frequently (7 out 15 interviewees in every group, i.e. at every stage of their sentence). This shows that at every stage of serving their sentence and regardless of the time they have already spent in prison, inmates want to maintain and nourish the hope that they will one day be free. Of course they adapt to prison life and even become ‘good prisoners’, yet one cannot say unequivocally that prisonisation kills their desire to live beyond the prison walls. Further, I present four important factors related to prisonisation:• Time – when serving an unlimited sentence it is extremely important to be active in prison. It is also interesting how inmates change with the passage of time. • Prison subculture – being part of a subculture is supposed to be a factor that increases prisonisation, but it turned out that the interviewees were not interested in being part of such a group. • The Prison Service and the inmate – the interviewees receive positive assessments and are regularly rewarded by their supervisors. Meanwhile, in the interviews the inmates said that there was no point resisting the Prison Service and that they saw benefits to maintaining good relations with staff.• Contacts with the outside world – the inmates maintain contacts with family through every possible channel – by phone, via visits or letters. Family is important for most of them. Sometimes they also have contacts with new acquaintances from outside the prison. There is no doubt that all of the inmates in the studied group of 15 are ‘prisonised’ in some way. They have adapted to the daily prison schedule and learned the rules. What is important, it is not possible to pigeonhole them depending on the length of their sentence. We would do well to recall Clemmer’s position that the process of prisonisation (and its consequences) depend first and foremost on an individual’s personality. It is therefore extremely important to consider every case in its individuality when reviewing parole applications.


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