Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Prisons and the Military

Dominique Moran is Professor in Carceral Geography at the University of Birmingham. She is also Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor for Research Impact. In her research, Prof. Moran explored the lived experience of incarceration in Russia, Scandinavia, and the UK. She is currently researching the impact of green spaces on prisoners’ and staff wellbeing as well as the relationship between prisons and the military. In the first All Souls seminar of term, Prof. Moran explored the notion of the “prison-military complex” by drawing on her research on ex-military prison personnel and (post)military landscapes.


Laura Haas


Time to read

5 Minutes

“I was in the Army, and then…”: From The Military to The Prison Service

In her exploration of carceral spaces, Prof. Moran interviewed prisoners as well as prison staff about their experiences of being in prison. In those conversations, she noticed that a remarkable number of prison officers had a military background. She was not the first to observe this phenomenon – other scholars have written about the high numbers of ex-military prison personnel (Morris and Morris, 1964, Crawley and Crawley, 2008). Traditionally, the prison service appeared to have been a popular choice as a secondary career for veterans. Intuitively, this makes sense. According to Prof. Moran, many veterans decide to join the prison service because of the similarities between the prison and the military, and the ease with which they can transition from one institution to the other. They are both hierarchical, uniformed, security-based services, characterised by high levels of camaraderie. While the high number of veterans in the prison service is a known and well-observed phenomenon, its meaning – for those living and working within the walls of prisons as well as for the wider carceral and military system – has not been sufficiently researched and understood.

Ex-Military Prison Personnel: How Many Are There?

The exact number of ex-military prison staff is still unclear. To get an estimate of the proportion of ex-servicemen and women working in the prison service, Prof. Moran and colleagues circulated a survey to current and former prison staff. They found that the majority of the 145 respondents had a military background, most of whom also experienced combat. Taking into account the possibility that participants self-selected for the study – meaning that people who served in the military might have felt particularly drawn to participate in this survey – Prof. Moran and colleagues estimated the current proportion of ex-military prison personnel to be at least 25 percent. This proportion is smaller than ten to 20 years ago, when ex-military personnel were said to make up more than half, if not most, of the prison staff population. Yet, the current estimate of ex-military staff still amounts to at least a quarter of all prison personnel. Despite the significant proportion of ex-service personnel in the prison service and the importance of understanding their role, the focus thus far has been on veterans in custody (ViC) only.

From Khaki To Blue: The Culture Of Ex-Military Prison Staff

To date, assertions about ex-military prison personnel remain anecdotal. Prof. Moran pointed to scholars like Morris and Morris (1964) who claimed that ex-military prison officers were only suitable for locking and unlocking prison cells and counting and re-counting prisoners. Other scholars have reiterated this observation (Crawley and Crawley, 2008; Tait, 2011). This stands in contrast to the Ministry of Justice’s perception of ex-military personnel, which attributes strong moral foundation, integrity, and discipline to veterans and, therefore, sees them as part of the solution to restore order in prisons (Ministry of Justice, 2016). However, a systematic empirical evaluation of these narratives is still lacking. In her article “Soldiering On” (2019) in the Howard Journal of Crime and Justice, Prof. Moran explored this complex relationship between the prison and the military and the various ways in which the two institutions are interconnected, using the concept of the prison-military complex. She pointed out that the entanglement of the prison and military is not only symbolised by the number of veterans in custody but also by the number of ex-Armed Forces personnel working in the prison service.

In an attempt to unravel some of the nuances of the prison-military complex, Prof. Moran – in collaboration with her colleague Jennifer Turner – explored how previous military experience might influence prison staff culture. To do this, they used Crewe’s (2011) categorisation of traditional-resistant and traditional-professional prison staff cultures, whereby the former is characterised by cynicism, a focus on control, an us-vs-them-attitude, and dismissive and punitive behaviour. Traditional-professional staff cultures, on the other hand, are marked by clear boundaries, fairness, respect, confidence, and competence. Their findings show that there is no simple answer to the question about the type of culture ex-military prison officers have. The results from the online surveys revealed aspects from both cultures. While they emphasised that ex-service personnel’s focus on safety, control, discipline, and an us-vs-them attitude was reminiscent of the traditional-resistant staff culture, their answers also demonstrated high levels of confidence, competence, consistency, an ability to maintain clear boundaries and to stay calm in stressful situations – all of which are typical of the traditional-professional staff culture. Against common beliefs, Moran and Turner also found that ex-military prison officers were very much able to show compassion towards prisoners. This was especially the case for grieving prisoners – presumably because of ex-military staff’s own familiarity with loss and bereavement in the context of deployment experiences. Prof. Moran also pointed out that their military training and deployment experiences seemed to have made them more resilient towards adverse working environments. This means that former Armed Forces personnel appear to be more committed to a career in the prison service and stay for longer than those who did not serve.

Notably, instead of generalising across ex-military prison staff, their results underlined the heterogeneity of ex-military prison officers. Prof. Moran emphasised how each prison officer brings a different skill set, regardless of whether they were in the military or not. Some individuals might be better equipped for the prison officer role than others – not necessarily because of their military background but because of the skills and personality traits they had before they joined the Armed Forces.

Soldiers dressed in army camouflage march in formation (Credit: Filip Andrejevic, Unsplash)
Soldiers dressed in army camouflage march in formation (Credit: Filip Andrejevic, Unsplash)

Prisons as Postmilitary Landscapes

In the last part of her talk, Prof. Moran spoke about a geo-sociological aspect of the prison-military complex – prisons as postmilitary landscapes. Her interest in this grew after she learned about the military camp Rollestone that became a temporary prison in 1980-81 for newly remanded and sentenced prisoners as part of a response to industrial action by the prison officer association (POA). Prof. Moran found the transformation of former military sites into prisons to be not just a phenomenon of the past. The transformation of former military sites into prisons has been a common practice. Prof. Moran problematised this continuing militarised nature of prisons. She identified various ways in which previous military landscapes are connected to and continued through current prison sites socially and materially. Firstly, Prof. Moran pointed to the retention of military buildings and infrastructure. According to Prof. Moran, at least 27 prison facilities were once military sites, be it former training sites, internment camps for Prisoners of War, or strongholds in urban conflict. It seems that no effort has been made to erase the traces of prisons’ military past - such as their typically military H block architecture or camouflage paintings on prison walls. In fact, staff appeared to feel positive about the retention of those military traces in prisons. In addition to the retention of military buildings, Prof. Moran also pointed to the continued presence of internal military infrastructure. In particular, she referred to dedicated wings for veterans in custody as well as military memorials. This material architectural dimension of the prison-military complex is complemented by a social dimension: veterans have commonly found themselves living their civilian lives in prison – either as prisoners or as members of staff who continue a career in the prison service. Prof. Moran described this transference of personnel, procedures, ranks, buildings and cultural attachments as “military overhang”. This deep-rooted connection between the prison and the military, expressed through both a material and social dimension, raises the question of how far prisons rely upon military forms of management, and to what extent the military relies upon carceral practices. It ought to make us think about the role of war and the military in developing carceral institutions, and how both institutions influence, perpetuate, and reinforce each other.

How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

L. Haas. (2023) Prisons and the Military. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/centre-criminology-blog/blog-post/2023/12/prisons-and-military. Accessed on: 01/03/2024