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The privatised lifer : an observation of a cohort of life-sentenced prisoners through HMP Wolds December 2003 – July 2005

Peake, Richard


Richard Peake


Peter, 1950 Young

Yvonne, 1966 Jewkes

A. Keith Bottomley

Anthea Hucklesby


This research proved a unique opportunity to observe a cohort of 20 life-sentenced prisoners that had already negotiated an often fragmented and difficult ‘system’. These prisoners were at the Category-C stage of their sentence (medium security) and looking to progress to Category-D (open conditions) and ultimately towards release on license. Unusually, they were attempting to do this at a private prison, HMP Wolds in East Yorkshire - the first private prison to open in Europe in 1992. Due to negotiating a new contract in 2001, it became the first private prison house a group of ‘lifers’ in a dedicated Lifer Unit.

The research details how progress was made and how this private prison, staffed with predominantly untrained specialised ‘lifer’ supervisors, coped with this type of prisoner and if the prisoners would progress on time. This qualitative research project examines issues such as conditions, staffing, education, work and programmes, mainly through the eyes of the prisoners but also by way of staff interviews and observation. Although no direct comparison could be made with a similar private prison, as no other private prison held lifers at that time, it is a useful observational study with a degree of longitudinal depth.

The prison certainly demonstrated that it could hold lifers in very good conditions, overseen by excellent quality staff and three quarters of the cohort had either progressed on time or were scheduled to progress to open conditions at the time the research concluded. From the Director personally, the staff made every effort to do things correctly, not only providing the minimum requirements, but providing pockets of innovation that could lead to universal improvements in the treatment of prisoners in England and Wales – most notably the decent manner in which prisoners were treated by staff, which leads to a much more relaxed atmosphere, and therefore a quieter prison with few disciplinary issues.

Cognitive-behavioural programmes were analysed and the research demonstrated that the whole rehabilitative idea, although well conceived, is poorly administered in practice, with no central coordination. The research questions whether lifers are suited to such programmes and whether they should actually take up much sought-after places on such courses considering their potential distance from release.

To bring this narrative account to life, the thesis highlights two prisoners and conducts a detailed ‘case study’ of each; one who negotiated the ‘system’ successfully and another who failed to engage. It follows their time at HMP Wolds and explores their experiences of the prison regime generally, conditions and staff and considers such issues as sentence planning, town visits, programme provision and delivery. These two prisoners commented lucidly on their time in HMP Wolds and although they were generally very positive about their experience, these comparative case studies demonstrate the difficulty in negotiating the prison ‘system’.

The standard of treatment in HMP Wolds was found to be high, backed up with external inspection reports, with most lifers making progress on time due to excellent staff diligence. The privatisation debate, morally and practically, is discussed at length and the holding of lifers sees an increase in not only numbers, but responsibility in the private sector. It could be argued that following almost two years studying this private prison; that if private establishments prove to be no worse that the public sector and no more expensive, then surely this is all that can be asked of them. There is concern as to whether the currently over-crowded prison system is working,
but private prisons have certainly not added to the problem, indeed privatisation may have improved some aspects and therefore relatively, privatisation can and should be labelled a success.


Peake, R. (2008). The privatised lifer : an observation of a cohort of life-sentenced prisoners through HMP Wolds December 2003 – July 2005. (Thesis). University of Hull. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date Aug 16, 2011
Publicly Available Date Feb 22, 2023
Keywords Criminology; Prisoners
Public URL
Additional Information Department of Social Sciences, The University of Hull
Award Date Jun 1, 2008


Thesis (1.1 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 2008 Peake, Richard. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

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