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Maxing out in prison. A study of pre-release long-term prisoners.

This dissertation provides a first provisional answer to the following central research question:


Why do some long-term prisoners max out from prison, rather than obtain a modality of early release?


The dissertation includes a brief introduction, four substantive chapters and a discussion and conclusion.


The first chapter provides a sketch of the available empirical evidence about maxing out from prison. First, the focus of the study is introduced. This study zooms in on prisoners with a prison sentence over 3 years (here: long-term prisoners) who are legally eligible to obtain early release, but who serve their entire sentence in prison. Next, definitions are given about release modalities and release systems. Maxing out refers to convicted prisoners who serve their entire sentence behind bars in a discretionary early release system, in this case in Belgium. After this clarification, available statistics about release and sentence expiry are presented. Between the mid-1990s up to 2013, the number of long-term prisoners maxing out from prison has increased with a 23-fold factor. Then the literature search strategy is introduced. Based on the search strategy, a remarkable paucity can be observed about research that looks at why prisoners max out. Together with anecdotal evidence, available statistics and limited scientific evidence found in the literature study and expert talks with Belgian penologists show that the central research question tackles a knowledge gap.


In the second chapter, the study is introduced. In the first section, release regulations for long-term prisoners in Belgium are outlined (as they were at the time of the data collection). The discretionary early release system for long-term prisoners in Belgium has undergone a number of important changes. Since 2007, Courts for the Execution of Sentences (CES) have been introduced. From then on, the CES is the formal decision-maker with the authority to grant long-term prisoners a release modality. The Release Act provides a number of possible modalities, ranging from preparatory modalities (prison furlough, home leave) over transitory modalities (semi-detention or electronic monitoring) up to conditional release (or its counterpart for prisoners without a right to remain in Belgium upon release: provisional release aimed at the removal or expulsion from the country). The second section of this chapter zooms in on the study itself. In the research, particular attention is devoted to prisoners themselves, more specifically long-term prisoners in the highly secured institution of Andenne in the francophone part of Belgium. Next to the formal decision-maker, prisoners themselves are considered as decision-makers in their release process. Potentially, some prisoners voluntarily chose to max out, a decision that can best be studied when zooming in on pre-release (i.e. eligible for early release) long-term prisoners. Based on a theoretical model about maxing out, related to the CES and the prisoner as two decision-makers, 12 hypotheses are introduced. 8 hypotheses relate to  formal decision-making, 4 hypotheses relate to prisoner decision-making.


The methodology chapter contains an overview of the data collection phases. Details are given about the data collection. Next to administrative data related to the prisoner and his release status, the purpose sampling strategy for pre-release prisoners belonging to four groups is highlighted. The four groups are based on the sentence length, the sentence remainder, formal indications of maxing out and additionally also based on offence type (notably prisoners convicted for sex offences) and the right to remain in Belgium (or not). In total, 60 prisoners are interviewed and administrative data related to their release is gathered; 56 prisoners finally remain in the analysis. The max out group consists of 26 prisoners, a ‘last shot’ group is composed of 9 prisoners, the early release group of 11 and a comparison group of life sentence prisoners counts 10 prisoners. Administrative data and a check-up of the release situation of prisoners also allowed a provisional quantitative assessment of characteristics that are related to maxing out.


The results of the study are presented in chapter four. Each hypothesis is tackled in this chapter, with a summary of the empirical results per group and for all 56 cases. The hypotheses relate to social reintegration planning, the risk to commit new grave offences, having a conviction for sex offence, having a legally recognised victim, having temporary leave from prison, having applied for transitory release from prison, having difficulties or problems with the right to reside in Belgium, and whether prisoners have problematic detention trajectories. Next to these 8 formal release decision-making hypotheses, prisoner decision-making is looked at based on having negative release experiences, having had negative release decisions, the sentence remainder (especially in comparison with the minimum period under supervision in case they receive conditional release) and having social ties. The results of these hypotheses are linked together in order to assess whether particular combinations of elements surface more often for prisoners that are maxing out as compared to others. No single element jumps out as particularly important, and in terms of combinations, there are few that are recurrent. What also emerges from the data is a ‘tipping point’, a moment when prisoners indicate that their preference towards maxing out supersedes that for early release. The quantitative assessment, based on a slightly larger data set (n = 231), shows that the elements that could be assessed in a quantitative way, when put in a logistic regression model, can explain at least 50% of the variance of the dependent variable (maxing out or early release). Taken together, the qualitative and quantitative data provide provisional evidence for a mechanism towards maxing out, including a tipping point.


In the conclusion, the main results are highlighted again. The ramifications of these results are discussed, including the fact that explanations of maxing out are multifactorial and that no marked differences could be found between prisoners that are voluntarily maxing out and those that are not. Furthermore, the research as a whole also shows that the individual liberty of a convicted prisoner receives little legal and research attention: release decision-making shows little concern for type II errors, leading some prisoners to max out while they may be successful according to a predetermined standards (e.g. re-imprisonment, recidivism,…). The study also sheds light on the responsibility that prisoners are ascribed for preparing their re-integration, with the side-effect that some prisoners, often those with characteristics deemed problematic and in need of being addressed, will be refused early release on and on, until they finally decide to max out. The question arises whether the prisoner and society are served well by this ‘responsibilisation strategy’. Although not at the hearth of the current research, this study also calls into question the discretionary early release system as it currently exists; criticism against parole in the 1970s and 1980s, most sharply formulated in the U.S.A., also apply to the current release system in Belgium. These criticisms concern ‘sentence disparity’ (based on the preparedness for early release, two prisoners with similar offences and sentences may come to undergo a very different sentence), pushing prisoners into ‘the early release game’ (promoting inauthentic behaviour in order to get out early) and the ‘pains of early release’ (problems and difficulties that prisoners experience during the early release process).

Date:25 May 2010  →  18 Jan 2018
Keywords:prisoner release, maxing out in prison, long-term prisoners
Project type:PhD project