The pains of parole for life sentence prisoners in Ireland: Risk, rehabilitation and re-entry

AuthorDiarmuid Griffin,Deirdre Healy
Published date01 December 2019
Date01 December 2019
Subject MatterOriginal Articles
891522EJP0010.1177/2066220319891522European Journal of ProbationGriffin and Healy
Original Article
European Journal of Probation
2019, Vol. 11(3) 124 –138
The pains of parole for
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
life sentence prisoners in
DOI: 10.1177/2066220319891522
Ireland: Risk, rehabilitation
and re-entry
Diarmuid Griffin
National University of Ireland, Ireland
Deirdre Healy
University College Dublin, Ireland
The number of people serving life sentences in Irish prisons has increased substantially
in recent years, such that one in nine sentenced prisoners is now serving a life sentence.
Critical attention on the release of life sentence prisoners in Ireland has tended to
focus on the political and informal nature of parole decision-making. Yet little is known
about the experiences of those navigating the release process. This article begins to
address the gap by offering a critical reflection on the parole process, focusing on
the potential ‘pains’ experienced by life sentence prisoners when seeking parole. The
analysis is organised into three themes that broadly fall under the umbrella of risk
management: dealing with a serious criminal past, engaging with in-prison rehabilitation
services, and reintegrating into society after release from custody. An analysis of this
kind is timely given the growing concerns both nationally and internationally regarding
the administration of life sentences and the appropriate mechanism of release.
Parole, risk, rehabilitation, re-entry, Ireland
Sykes (1958) coined the term ‘pains of imprisonment’ to capture the psychological and
material deprivations of prison life, including the deprivation of liberty, goods
and services, heterosexual relationships (which we could recast more broadly today as
Corresponding author:
Diarmuid Griffin, National University of Ireland, School of Law, Galway, Ireland.

Griffin and Healy
deprivation of relationships), autonomy and security. For Sykes (1958), imprisonment is
intrinsically painful because prisoners’ freedoms are restricted not only by prison archi-
tecture but also by an extensive array of rules and security measures. Additionally, pris-
oners have little control over their daily activities, which creates a culture of dependency,
though some scholars argue that the experiences of freedom and responsibility can be
equally painful (e.g. Crewe, 2011; Shammas, 2014). Sykes (1958) also highlights the
pains caused by material scarcity, observing that denial of goods and services is particu-
larly impactful in societies that measure self-worth by material possessions. Lastly, he
describes as painful the severing of ties with family and friends, along with the ever-
present threat of violence in prison environments. Crewe (2011) updated the theory to
accommodate the pains generated by contemporary forms of prison governance. He
argued that soft power operates through staff–prisoner relationships and policies that
encourage prisoners to self-regulate thoughts and behaviours. Because soft power lacks
transparency, prisoners are unsure how decisions (e.g. about release) are made and what
decision-makers require of them. Moreover, the widespread use of psychological assess-
ment tools means that prisoners feel their identities are shoehorned into narrow ‘risk’
categories that conflict with their self-image and prove difficult to escape. Finally,
responsibility for sentence management has been transferred to prisoners, creating the
pain of self-governance as prisoners try to navigate increasingly restrictive rules around
acceptable conduct.
Scholars have applied Syke’s (1958) framework to a range of topics including com-
munity sanctions (Durnescu, 2011), open prisons (Shammas, 2014), and desistance
(Nugent and Schinkel, 2016). To our knowledge, the parole process has never been
viewed through the lens of the deprivation thesis. This article attempts to address this gap
by offering a critical reflection on the potential pains experienced by life sentence prison-
ers seeking parole. The analysis is organised into three themes that broadly fall under the
umbrella of risk management: dealing with risk and a serious criminal past, engaging
with in-prison rehabilitation services, and reintegrating into society after release from
custody. The discussion is informed by qualitative research with Parole Board members
between 2007 and 2012 (Griffin, 2018), supplemented with research on the parole expe-
riences of life sentence prisoners (Milner, 2010; Richardson, 2012; Geaney, 2008). While
the Irish literature concerning experiences of life sentence prisoners provide useful
insights, it is important to acknowledge at the outset that research on this topic is scarce,
somewhat dated and small-scale (e.g. the sample sizes in these studies were three
(Richardson, 2012), 26 (Milner, 2010) and five (Geaney, 2008) prisoners).
Life imprisonment and parole in Ireland
Ireland’s life sentence prisoner population is high compared with other European coun-
tries (Council of Europe, 2017: 92–93). Although many countries have witnessed
increases in life sentence prisoners as a percentage of the overall prison population in
recent years, a considerable level of cross-jurisdictional variety exists in terms of its use
as a sanction (Griffin and O’Donnell, 2012). In Ireland, the life sentence prisoner popula-
tion increased by 158% between 2001 and 2017 (from 139 to 359). The overall prison
population increased by 18.25% during the same period (Prison Service, 2001–2017). In

European Journal of Probation 11(3)
2014, there were approximately 27,000 life sentence prisoners in custody in Europe (a
sample of 22 countries), an increase of 66% from 2004 (European Committee for the
Prevention of Torture (ECPT), 2015: 34–35). Ireland outstripped this rate with the life
sentence prisoner population increasing by 78% over the same period. At a global level,
van Zyl Smit and Appleton (2019: 87) note that the life sentence is the most severe pen-
alty in 149 of the 216 countries and territories studied and estimate that 479,000 persons
were serving a life sentence across the world in 2014. Interestingly, Ireland places fifth
when analysing life sentence prisoners per 100,000 of national populations across the
United States and Europe (following the United States, United Kingdom, Greece and
Turkey in this order).
There are a number of reasons behind the rise in Ireland’s life sentence prisoner popu-
lation. Ireland is among the few European countries with a mandatory life sentence for
murder, the impact of which has seen Ireland’s population increase alongside a growth in
the annual homicide rate (from an annual average of 10.3 from 1951–1960 to 61.6 from
2001–2010) (Central Statistics Office, 2013; O’Donnell, 2005: 103). There was little
parliamentary debate regarding the appropriateness of the mandatory nature of the sen-
tence when it was adopted as the alternative to capital punishment and the Supreme
Court has upheld the constitutionality of the mandatory life sentence, noting that murder
as an offence is ‘unique in nature’, thus validating the uniform penalty for murder (Lynch
and Whelan v Minister for Justice
[2012]). The release process has also contributed to an
increased population. Life does not ordinarily mean life in prison and most countries
have a parole process in place whereby life sentence prisoners can be released back into
the community having served a period of time in prison (van Zyl Smit et al., 2014).
Ireland has a system of standard remission, whereby those serving determinate sentences
earn a reduction of up to one third of their sentence (the practice is usually 25% accord-
ing to Rule 59 of the Prison Rules 2007). Standard remission is not applicable to those
serving life sentences. Instead, a practice of releasing life sentence prisoners through the
Minister for Justice and Equality’s power of temporary release developed and this
became the mechanism for releasing life sentence prisoners on a full-time basis (Criminal
Justice Act 1960). Determinate sentence prisoners of eight years or more are also eligible
for parole although many will be released through standard remission, which also applies
to their sentences.
There is little consensus as to the length of time life sentence prisoners should serve
in prison or the appropriate process of release. An examination of committal and release
figures in Ireland shows that the number of life sentence prisoners committed to prison
has not been met with a similar number of releases and, simply put, this is another cause
of the increasing population. An average of 19 life sentence prisoners were committed
annually from 2001 to 2017 with an average of four life sentence prisoners being released.
In turn, the low number of releases is due to an increase in the average time a life sen-
tence prisoner serves in prison prior to release, from 7.5 years between 1975–1984 to 19
years from 2008–2017 (Griffin, 2018: 5). Of course, many life sentence prisoners serve
time in prison far beyond the average. In 2019, 5% of those in custody serving life sen-
tences for homicide had spent 30 years or more inside (People (DPP) v Mahon [2019]).
Time served may have changed significantly since the 1970s but there have been few

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