Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Strain of Schizophrenia

While the wider world indulges in its obsession about our access to televisions and pool tables, the real pressures of long sentences are overlooked and unappreciated.
Long sentences, and life sentences, are increasingly common. While the popular perception is of short sentences being the order of the day, the reality is that sentence lengths are at an all time high and the tariff portions of life sentences are ever increasing.
The psychological pressures involved in surviving such sentences are rarely considered. Lifers themselves tend to live in a state of semi-denial, reducing their time perspective in order to avoid facing a terrible question - how to survive decades in prison. Even with the introduction of whole-life tariffs, you will search the literature produced by our keepers in vain for any thought as to how the individual must cope to serve such a sentence.
We must live in a state of schizophrenia, for decades. We must persuade ourselves that we have some control over our daily environment, when the reality is that all we do is controlled, or takes place within, parameters set by others. How else can one cope? If we appreciated, accepted, the full scale of our powerlessness, surely our minds would collapse?
We must perpetually nurture hope for the best, whilst simultaneously planning to deal with the worst. We must believe that we will, one day, be released into the world when the immediate reality is one of a concrete box. To dream, imagine, sitting on the beach, being at home, resting in the arms of love - when on opening one’s eyes the reality is bricks and bars.
Very long sentences comprise more than the passage of time. Life sentences must be worked at, progression measured and analysed. Each interview, each report written, each transfer, each parole hearing, provides another crucible for hope, and hope lost.
To balance the pain of hope, to have a vision that sees further than the length of the cell, is to suffer. To imagine and hope for more than what the day brings only throws the reality into sharper, greyer, relief. And yet it must be done. The alternative is to allow one's world, one's imagination and hopes, to become reduced to the dimensions of a cell for the rest of one’s life.
The powerlessness, the lack of control and the uncertainty leads to some prisoners adopting a deep intransigence. If they vanish down the Block for years on end and refuse to play the game, then there is little that "the system" can inflict upon them. Some refuse to engage with the parole process. These people willingly surrender all they may have, any hope, because the pains of those hopes being held hostage by another is greater than the painful choice to surrender them. If a person has given away all he has, there is nothing more that can be taken from him. That is the only path to tread that doesn't force us into living a mental life that is schizophrenic and has only the pain of certainty rather than the pain of perpetually unmet hopes.


  1. Most lifers are there because they refuse to engage with the system. Play the game, keep their head down and leave prison with the minimum term. But many lack the nonse to do so and it takes many years for them to cotton onto the fact. Meanwhile they come a statistic, nothing more, nothing less but a statistic

  2. I'm just not sure what to make of this.

    Whole life tariffs are extremely rare - about 50 in total. Of course coming to terms with such a sentence is almost unimaginable - but as a society we have decided that it is preferable to capital punishment. As a result the best we can do is encourage and support that person in making sense of their life in the full knowledge that release is not an option.

    In all other cases release is an option, allbeit constrained by certain parameters. But again in many instances this is an alternative to capital punishment. There always remains the possibility of redemption, and I use the word deliberately having watched the film 'Shawshank Redemption' only the other night on tv. A powerful film with lots of resonances for Ben and his situation.

    In my experience, the system will desperately want to find a way to release a person convicted of an index offence committed at age 14. The fact that it hasn't succeeded says to me three things. Firstly that the person was considerably damaged by the system. Secondly that the system has not found a way of repairing that damage and thirdly that the person is resistant to efforts by the system to facilitate release.

    In the final analysis it's a two-way process and requires movement by both parties.

  3. Probability OfficerJune 8, 2011 at 12:29 AM

    First time I have felt moved to comment on this blog. I work with Lifers every day, some at the start of sentenecs but most who have been up categorised because of absconds, security issues and recalls. Those very many who are over tariff and still stuck are in a very desperate position, but all seem to have one common trait. They struggle to take sensible advice and get frustrated that professionals can't agree with their point of view. The further a tariff disappears into the distance the worst this can become and I have seen people in really terrible straits about their lack of hope. What I understand of your position Ben leads me to think that you have become your own worst enemy and are resting your hope that some bigger empathy out there will secure your release. My reading of the Lifer (now ISP) manual is very clear - you are expected to take as much control over your sentence within the permitted boundaries as possible. I appreciate that post tariff this becomes increasingly difficult but you have to find a way of taking control but work in cooperation with Probation, OMUs and the wider prison system. You know the rules and should know that the Parole Board lke assertiveness but not self sabotage. There is a version of the Serenity Prayer that a Lifer once told me - "Give me grace to accept the things I can't change, Courage to change the things I can, and a Parole Board who knows the difference." In my opinion, all three lines of this apply.

  4. Great advice above Ben. Take it from the people who know. The line 'resting your hope that some bigger empathy out there will secure your release' is right.

    There's a small group of well-meaning people following you via this blog but they are not campaigning for your release and couldn't achieve anything if they were. The MOJ have approved your move to open now. There is nothing to campaign for.

    You just have to behave. Quit pretending. Start following the rules and start creating genuine empathy with your keepers. Then you can stop playing mind games with yourself (as described above) and see some genuine light at the end of the tunnel.

    All the best.

  5. Probability Officer,

    "Give me the grace to accept the things I can't change, courage to change the things I can, and a Parole Board who knows the difference."

    There's a lot in that and I'm going to steal it if I may for future use!



  6. This is a very poiniant and honest post Ben and it pulled my heart strings in places.

    What you are describing here can be more accurately termed 'melancholy', and one that sees or senses a looming insanity, a feeling that enhances the melancholy and actually does avoid insanity. But perhaps not altogether although I hate to say that. I base my saying that on the last sentence in your post which is confusing.

    Schizophrenia is highly deceptive in that once you cross the line into insanity you actually feel fine and fit, more fit mentally than you felt previously whilst sane, it really is a different bag than what you describe, and I think it would be a good step to see this mental state for what it is, or as close to what it is as can possibly be described, I would describe it as 'melancholy'.

    I hope this helps somewhat.

    Love and best wishes Ben xx

  7. Ben has had no choice but to 'accept' the things he cannot change, he's SHOWN the courage to change the things that he actually HAS, and the Parole Board are still taking the piss!

  8. @ Derby....I agree.

    To Ben, How I wish you could "play the game". Maybe it's time you should?.

  9. Intersting to read the comments by thsoe working in the system. My reaction was "wow< this guy has just expressed in a paragraph or two what I have been struggling to say in a Phd over about 3 years!A "sentence is much more than a passage of years" - something that offical discourse chooses to ignore and to ignore the role of an often intransigent, negative system in perpetuating resistance is foolish and unfair.
    Letter in the post, Ben, hope you get it.
    Keep up the writing, you have a real talent and a voice which is so rarely heard


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