Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Hope 1

There is a crucial difference between the longest of fixed sentences and indeterminate sentences.

A person serving a fixed sentence can go to sleep each night knowing that another day can be struck off the calendar. There is a certainty that, no matter how difficult and hopeless any particular day may seem, that there is an end to the sentence. Short of committing a further serious crime whilst in prison, there is a foreseeable, predictable release date.

Lifers do not have that certainty. Our existence is a profoundly uncertain one. This is deeply unsettling. It is a feature of regular life that the days make sense, that they are broadly predictable. Act A prompts Response B. When you throw open the curtains in the morning, you never imagine that the Sun could be blue.

All that brings predictability, meaning and certainty to life is absent from a Lifer’s existence. The length of the sentence is open ended. Sure, there is the tariff, but only newly sentenced Lifers regard that as anything more than a target to aim at, with older hands like myself treating it as an interesting legal footnote of little practical relevance. Every Lifer knows that he may only serve a decade, or that the only release may be death.

And unlike in other areas of life, the Lifer has little control or influence over the course of the sentence. Progress towards release rests in the hands of others, the reports written by staff. This rests on the very subjective view of staff of anything and everything the Lifer may say or do. Everything is reinterpreted according to the particular conceptual lens of report writers.

We exist in a superposition of states, ten thousand Schrödinger’s Cats, each tucked away in our little concrete boxes, each waiting to be collapsed into a particular reality according to whichever member of staff peeps through the Judas Hole in the door.

All that brings a semblance of meaning to life is uncertain. Work, relationships, career, forward planning... all rest in the hands of others and are allocated or withdrawn for few discernible reasons. The food we eat, the cell we live in, the placing of pictures on our walls - none of these are within our control.

This is a profound state of uncertainty, when human beings crave some predictability to their existence. Such can be the corrosive effect of this that some Lifers take drastic action in order to gain some predictability. Some commit further crimes or acts which ensure that they will not be released for many more years. Some, in the supreme effort to regain control of something in their lives, reach the point where all they can do is kill themselves.

It takes a particular inner resourcefulness to manage a life where everything is uncertain, and hope is central to survival.


  1. You've been reading quantum theory :) This is an area of research I have a great deal of interest in, but I will not say in what capacity in a public forum. My particular area of research concerns how quantum mechanics can be used to explain a multitude of features in avian brains and may be extended to include mammalian brains. Birds seem to have capabilities beyond their brain size. We have two possibilities, either birds have a denser brain matter or quantum mechanics is at work. Have I mentioned I am also facing a prison sentence of 7 years for fraud?

  2. I would like to point out that not only is the prisoner in this awful situation so are his loved ones and supporters - believe me I know!