Sentenced to life: management of life sentence prisoners

Criminology Research Council grant ; (7/84)

The aim of the study was to establish biographical profiles of 250 life sentence prisoners, including 11 Governor's Pleasure (G.P.) detainees, so that any changes in prisoners' family and personal ties during incarceration could be examined. information about educational, training and vocational opportunities offered to lifers and G.P.s was collected and factors affecting the taking up of these opportunities were examined.

Members of the sample who were released during the period under study were surveyed so that their post-release experiences could be examined in the light of the aims of pre-release programs. The effects of imprisonment generally on these subjects were also examined.

The collection of these data became necessary when the New South Wales Department of Corrective Services adopted a policy of individualising sentences of those serving life and G.P. sentences. Reduction of security rating and progress towards release is heavily influenced by individual performance during incarceration.

From the beginning of 1981 until the end of 1983 the Indeterminate Sentence Committee operated as an advisory body to the Corrective Services Commission in the management of life sentence and G.P. prisoners. In February 1984 the Release on Licence Board was inaugurated and its responsibility is to make recommendations on the management and releasability of life sentence and G.P. prisoners. The final responsibility for Board recommendations rests with the Chairman, who is a Judge of the District Court.

Recent guidelines indicate that a life sentence in New South Wales is approximately 10 years and can be reduced to around eight years in exceptional circumstances. As the first four to six years are generally served in maximum security gaols it is important that appropriate counselling, educational and vocational opportunities are available.

The findings indicate that the majority of the prisoners surveyed in N.S.W. gaols were from city backgrounds, and the largest single group were from the Sydney/Newcastle/Wollongong area. Seventy-five per cent of the sample were reared by both parents and 5 per cent grew up in institutions. Approximately 25 per cent experienced family break-up; over 40 per cent were first-born children and approximately 38 per cent of the sample were members of families of five or more children. Many of the inmates experienced conditions of severe emotional and physical deprivation during their childhood.

Almost half of the sample were married or in defacto relationships at the time of the offence. For a high percentage of the men, defacto relationships are the norm and are regarded as akin to marriage by the parties concerned. Over 10 per cent of the men changed their marital status during imprisonment, entering marriages or defacto relationships. There is a tendency for marriages to break down with increasing length of sentence.

Over 90 per cent had left school by their fifteenth year. Almost 30 per cent had completed basic education and over 65 per cent were without formal educational qualifications. Nearly 80 per cent of the sample had been involved in manual work of all types, with over 75 per cent of the men having done unskilled manual labour. Almost 75 per cent of the men had a record of steady employment before coming to gaol. A detailed analysis of the remaining 25 per cent revealed that they had experienced some of a range of major personal - and environmental problems. Around 20 per cent of the men had trade skills but not all had completed their training.

Despite pressures which militate against the taking up of educational and/or vocational training in gaols it was found that those who lacked basic formal training the most interest in educational and trade training in gaol.

More than 2 5 per cent of the sample had no previous record and 75 per cent had records as juvenile offenders. Fourteen per cent of the men had been involved in serious crime prior to their life or G.P. sentence. Analysis of the lives of the men who were first offenders demonstrated that the majority had experienced serious problems in their personal and interpersonal understandings, especially related to sexuality and basic social skills.

Just over 40 per cent of the sample were aged 19-25 at the time of the offence. There is a decreasing tendency with increasing age for men to be involved in armed robbery and to a lesser extent, attacks on people other than family members. Offences against the family increase with an increase in the age of the offender, lessening after the 30s.

Over half of the survey sample was within the First eight years of sentence. Of those who had served longer than 13 years all were released during the survey period or subsequently, with the exception of the two who are contained at Morisset Hospital (which is a mental hospital). Over 72 per cent of the sample used a weapon against their victim and almost 25 per cent used physical force such as body blows and kicks. Very few offences were premeditated, coldly planned murders.

Governor's Pleasure detainees tend to serve shorter sentences than life sentence prisoners. Their progress and release is dependent on their receiving a satisfactory psychiatric report.

Experiences and reactions of those who had been released were as varied as had been their earlier performances. Post release problems included the difficulty of accounting for the gap in their life, adjusting to freedom, living with other people and sharing (prison life is very structured and disciplined). Complaints about the prison system range from the difficulty of living by strict rules when those rules changed often, to having to adjust when educational and/or vocational programs were terminated for what appeared to be reasons beyond the control of the inmate. There was strong support for counselling and group activities aimed at developing social skills, and almost all had favourable comments about the work release program.