Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Working Lives of Prison Managers


Time to read

2 Minutes

Researching prisons can be a complex and emotional undertaking. That is particularly the case when the researcher is also an insider, working within the prison system. This is what I discovered when, as a prison manager for more than a decade, I embarked upon a research project which, a further ten years later, has now seen the light of day as the book The Working Lives of Prison Managers: Global Change, Local Culture and Individual Agency in the Late Modern Prison (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

The book is based upon ethnographic research, comprising observations and interviews, in two medium security prisons in 2007 and 2008, as well as additional fieldwork conducted in one of the original sites in 2014 and 2015. 

The central concern of the research is the impact of neoliberalism on prison managers, in particular the increasing use of target setting and information technology to monitor workers, as well as the development of Human Resource Management techniques to shape the ways that employees think about their work, enlisting them as corporate citizens. These trends have sometimes been described as ‘managerialism.’ Despite these attempts to increase organisational and hierarchical power, total control is not possible. Individuals still bring their own values, beliefs, and preferences to their work. It’s also important to recognise that whilst globalised changes have significant influence, local practices remain commonplace. In prisons, this can be particularly seen in the continuing relevance of prison officer occupational cultures with features such as masculinity, insularity, and a positioning of the prisoner as ‘other.’ The book argues that the rise of managerialism has been accommodated and adapted within the local circumstances of the prison, forming a blend that is described as ‘prison managerialism.’

The book contains a detailed description and analysis of this dynamic, illustrating how it permeates all aspects of prison management and the practice of prison managers. Attention is also given to the particular experiences of marginalised groups including women, and Black, Asian, and minority ethnic managers. An Afterword, which is based upon further research conducted in 2014 and 2015, examines how prison managerialism has evolved in an age of austerity. This provides a longitudinal aspect to the book. 

Undertaking research as an insider can be a complex, emotional, and even painful experience. The way that I was viewed by participants was often conditioned by my dual status as a researcher and a prison manager. More intimately, the observations and analysis generated by the research was not a detached assessment of an exotic group; instead, I was implicated and entangled in that world. This led to sometimes uncomfortable reflections upon my own practice.

This work attempts to offer an analysis of contemporary imprisonment from the experience of prison managers. At the same time, it is an example of the transformations taking place in employment more generally in late modernity. Finally, it’s also the outcome of a personal journey, one that has at times been fraught and disorientating, but ultimately one that has changed my perspective on imprisonment and the wider world.