I am a Lifer: An ethnographic study of the impact of long-term incarceration on Lifers' identity.

Date of Award


Publication Type

Master Thesis

Degree Name



Social Work

First Advisor

Dietz, M. L.


Sociology, Criminology and Penology.



Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.


The purpose of this research was to investigate the impact of the prison environment on Lifers' identity. It was hypothesized that individuals exposed to a prison environment, especially for long periods of time, are likely to experience conversion, or transformation to a "convict" or "inmate" identity. Using a symbolic interactionist theoretical approach, and John Lofland's model of identity transformation as a guideline, processes of social interaction, which may produce transformation of identity were examined within the prison environment. The research was conducted in federal penitentiaries in Kingston, Ontario. The methodology consisted of face-to-face interviews with 40 Lifers. Data analysis focuses on the processes of identity transformation: Patterns of interaction, social processes relating to adjustment to prison, bonding with the prison environment and other prisoners, the nature of contact with family (extra-institutional bonds), family impact on the conversion process, and intensive interaction. Lifers experience tension at the beginning of their sentence. Efforts to neutralize tension involve learning the prison subcultural norms during initial periods of incarceration. As such, transfer into prison represents a turning point to Lifers. Lifers bond with the prison world, to the extent that they adopt a subcultural "code of behaviour." Friendships develop after a slow, strategic, and cautious process. Often, Lifers maintain contact with family members through visits, letters, and phonecalls. Administrative restrictions on visits, geographical separation, and selective dissemination of information by Lifers to their families, makes it impossible for family members to influence the conversion. Lifers also interact with other prisoners through direct and/or non-verbal communication. Information is relayed about prescriptions for behaviour and eventually, they adopt a set of attitudes which help them survive in the prison environment. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology. Paper copy at Leddy Library: Theses & Major Papers - Basement, West Bldg. / Call Number: Thesis1994 .M32. Source: Masters Abstracts International, Volume: 33-04, page: 1154. Adviser: Mary L. Dietz. Thesis (M.A.)--University of Windsor (Canada), 1994.