18 January 2024

Growing up in custody – The long-term effects on young men

Young adults
A young white man wearing a dark hoodie cluthces his face with both hands.

We spoke to Stephanie Curtis, HMPPS Custody Improvement lead, about her master’s research project titled Growing up in custody: the importance of supportive relationships for adolescent men serving long-term sentences.

Steph recently completed a master’s degree in Applied Criminology, Penology and Management at Cambridge University in partnership with HMPPS. She has worked in the youth estate for many years, and a lot of her work focused on the transition period when young people move from the youth to the adult estate.

“It was always an interest of mine. In my first role, I got two phone calls about children in one day. One guy was 16 and he got a life sentence with a 25-year-old tariff. I just thought, ‘God, how will he cope with that? What must he be feeling?’

“I got a call about a girl later in the day who also received a long sentence. She was only 13 or 14. I remember thinking to myself that all those teenage experiences you go through, learning things from peers and family, they’re not going to get any of that.”

These experiences prompted Steph to undertake a research project into the experiences of young men who have long-term and life sentences. Her specific focus was on the importance of supportive relationships, and the key role they play in helping young men remain resilient and positive in custody.

“I interviewed 10 men, aged between 26 and 37, who had all served one continuous period of custody since the age of 18. The shortest was 12 years long, and the longest was 20 years plus.”

The interviews covered life skills, emotional and physical development, and identity.

“I knew how to cook before, but I believe I am better in prison. So when I first had access to onions and oil and cooking facilities, as you know in prison before you get to a spur, and in certain jails you have to cook in a kettle, as mad as that sounds you know the flat bit at the bottom you put oil, garlic and peppers, make sure its finely cut, turn it on, you might have to hold it on, and fry it up and add seasoning. (Ali, interviewee)

Nearly all the young men were passionate about exercise, which played a key role in cementing friendships with their peers.

“Most of the men I spoke to discussed weight training. There is quite a lot of research that looks at when you physically train with a friend, that the camaraderie you build is really strong. You get improved self-confidence and there’s a mutual dopamine hit that you get together and a sense of achievement.”

Stephanie was keen to investigate how a prolonged period of custody had affected these young men’s sense of agency. She found that there was quite a divergence in the interview group in their levels of independence and self-efficacy.

“I asked all the participants: ‘What was the biggest decision you’ve had to make in your life?’

“Some said, ‘I don’t get to make any decisions, I’m told what to do.’ But others had a real sense of agency and purposefully took courses, so they have a better chance of getting a job when they get out.

“The young men ranged from the fiercely independent, who often didn’t have family connections, to those with turbulent childhoods, who had often come to depend or rely on the rules. Some of the men interviewed struggled to deal with life in open conditions.”

“I first went to the TC when I was 21, but I didn’t, basically I just fucked about there so I left. I struggled, I tried to do it here twice, I came back, and I stayed out of trouble.” (David, interviewee)

All the participants were asked about their experience of the transition from the youth to the adult estate. Interestingly, most remarked that this hadn’t been a particularly formative or challenging event.

“When I pressed on the transition issue, the men reflected on the fact that they had moved around a lot, so it hadn’t felt as significant. The one person who did move only a few times felt that he was well prepared for that transition.”

Despite the challenges of living in custody long term, most of the young men had developed significant emotional and life skills.

“In an icebreaker I asked each of the men to describe themselves in three words. These came up repeatedly: ‘loyal, caring, family man, humble’.”

Positive family relationships provided the most valuable practical and emotional support, so ensuring these support networks are maintained is crucial. Steph believes that technology could be more effectively utilised in the future to help young adults with long-term sentences stay connected to their families.