Gender and the pains of long life imprisonment

Research by University of Cambridge: Dr Serena Wright, Dr Ben Crewe & Dr Susie Hulley


The Cambridge team: Dr Serena Wright, Dr Ben Crew, Dr Susie Hulley



‘Lifers’ on the rise

‘Lifers’ are a growing sub-group within the UK prison population. Dramatic increases in those serving indeterminate sentences and a reluctance to release such prisoners are central to this growth, as is the increasing length of what a life sentence means.

A lifer in the 1970s could expect to serve around nine years, the average is now 17.5 years..



Our study involved interviews with 126 men and 19 women who were serving life sentences with tariffs of 15 years or more, given to them when aged 25 and under. In addition, a survey on the ‘problems’ of long-term imprisonment’ was completed by 313 prisoners serving such sentences.

We wanted to look sociologically at how getting ‘life’ in young adulthood shapes individuals’ adaptations and responses to the prison experience, and respond to the academic lack of interest in lifers since a number of classic sociological studies of the 1970s and 1980s.

Female lifers have been almost ‘unanimously’ ignored in the criminological literature. Male lifers, however, have hardly fared much better, while comparative studies – which attempt to understand the experiences of female and male lifers side by side, and in relation to one another – have been more or less non-existent.


Three top findings:

1. ‘Life’ is more severe in its problems for women than men

The graph below shows that women in the study experienced the problems of long life imprisonment more severely than the men across all ten analytical ‘dimensions’.


Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 15.09.35


For each ‘dimension’ we asked how frequently a problem was experienced, and then how resolvable this felt. We then assigned a ‘problem severity’ score based on these answers.

Mental Wellbeing

These ‘problem severity’ scores were higher for women – when compared to the men – across every dimension. It is particularly striking that even for the ‘Mental Wellbeing’ dimension, the women’s severity score was almost twice as high as the men’s.

Some might question whether the men’s tendency to report their problems as less severe was connected to the culture of masculinity within prison. However, the frank and honest accounts of men during the interviews – which were often highly emotive, and occasionally tearful – makes us doubt that the men were under-reporting their ‘pain’ in the survey to a great extent.


2. Female lifers most struggled with a lack of control/autonomy, trust, and losing those close to them 

The women in our study were significantly more likely to struggle with ‘trust’ and the absence of ‘control’ over their life in prison than the men.

Sexual abuse

Almost all of the women we interviewed disclosed histories of sexual and physical abuse by ‘trusted’ others (parents, extended family, state carers), and described having “real attachment and trust issues”; it is likely that this fed into their hypervigilance regarding trusting others and controlling their own bodies in prison.

Stories of sexually threatening and inappropriate behaviour by male prison officers in women’s prisons also fed into feelings in relation to these issues; such stories very rarely featured in men’s accounts of their imprisonment.

Family contact

‘Losing contact with family and friends’ also ranked comparatively higher for women at 7th (out of 39 ‘problems’ in the survey) compared to 17th for men.

Interview data revealed that while male prisoners’ primary emotional relationships – often ‘natal’ (particularly son-mother) – tended to improve over the first months and years post-sentence, women’s primary relationships – most often ‘nuclear’ (parent-child) – tended to disintegrate.

As one woman said:

“Nobody told me how not to be ‘a mum’… I didn’t know how to switch that off”.

This gendered difference lay at the crux of this issue.


3. Male lifers: Better prepared, but suffering from sexual frustration

Just under half of the men had prior experience of ‘doing time’, compared to 10.5% of the women. To some degree then, the men might have already been better prepared to know what was coming (although arguably little can ever prepare one for serving a very long life sentence).

Sexual frustration

There was also one item, however, which men did report as experiencing with significantly higher severity than their female counterparts; ‘Being sexually frustrated’. Ranked 13th highest by the men (compared to 33rd for the women), one young male interviewee described the deprivation of sexual autonomy as:

“Really fucking with your head”

While the intensity of this feeling diminished over time, men facing imminent release were often preoccupied with whether or not “it still works”, and expressed deep anxieties and fears about being able to conduct themselves in an intimate relationship after so long without a sexual partner.


Concluding thoughts 

  1. The experience of serving a long life sentence has a gendered texture to it
  2. While all prisoners feel the ‘pains of imprisonment’, ‘gender’ represents a key differentiating variable in shaping this experience
  3. Different pre-prison experiences and relationships are central in shaping how men and women experience ‘life’ in prison.


We hope to report back to Prison Watch at a later date to keep readers apprised of developments within the study.

2 Comments on “Gender and the pains of long life imprisonment”

  1. Lucy Baldwin says:

    This is an interesting and useful study – women , especially as mothers and grandmothers experience custody very differently – ther is so much more ‘loss’ this is what I am finding in my research around the emotional impact of imprisonment on mothers and grandmothers…..


  2. Interesting article on how same punishment does not always mean equal punishment. Men and women undoubtedly experience prison and life in different ways, but what is often forgotten about is how the male might feel unable to express their pain in ‘the culture of masculinity’. It is conceivable they experience a lot more separation trauma from their family than they feel comfortable communicating to others. Females are expected to be ‘motherly’ and ‘nurturing’- this can be seen as a sign of ‘weakness’ if it is apparent in men but their pain can be very real too.


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