Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

All Souls Blog: Do Prisons Make People Angry, Alienated and Dangerous? Reflections on Findings and Frustrations.

Professor Alison Liebling is Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice and Director of the Prisons Research Centre at the Institute of Criminology in Cambridge. Professor Liebling’s research focuses on different aspects of prisons and prison life–in particular prisoner-staff relationships, suicides in prison, as well as prison officers. Additionally, she has conducted extensive research on the measurement of the moral quality of prison life. Her work has been highly influential in the field of prison research as well as prison policy and penal practices. In her talk in the second All Souls Seminar of Trinity Term, Professor Liebling shared her thoughts on a chapter from a book she is currently working on and reflected on empirical findings of anger in prisons, its measurement, meaning, and implications.


Laura Haas


Time to read

3 Minutes

Anger and Political Charge

According to Professor Liebling, anger is a common emotion in prisons and has increased over the years. Above a certain threshold, Professor Liebling argued, it can lead to violence and moral corrosion. After her research project in HMP Whitemoor, Professor Liebling attempted to measure feelings of anger in the form of political charge. Mark S. Hamm, who originally used this term, linked political charge to radicalisation in prisons. Professor Liebling, however, argued that political charge has broader relevance. In contrast to Hamm’s use of the term–which focuses on difference–Professor Liebling emphasised the common causes of anger. She argued that, like thick and thin morality, there is thick and thin anger. Anger can be based on universally applicable constants of the human condition but can also be experienced in ways that are mediated by and inseparable from our identities. Professor Liebling suggested understanding anger through both a sociological as well as philosophical lens instead of only focusing on widespread assumptions about individual anger dispositions and pathologized understandings of anger. According to her, anger is not just a disruptive force but can also be a source of insight and clarification. It can be an understandable response to an unjust environment.

Empirical Findings in HMP Full Sutton and HMP Frankland

In her research in two high-security prisons–HMP Full Sutton and HMP Frankland–Professor Liebling observed high levels of anger that were linked to changing sentencing and risk assessment practices, as well as treatment by staff. In HMP Full Sutton, however, Professor Liebling found the highest levels of anger. The prisoners–having often been held in prison beyond their tariff–described themselves as forgotten, with progress not being acknowledged by prison staff. Especially the risk assessment scores were perceived as highly unfair. Furthermore, it became clear that the prisoners understood the current sentencing climate. Their accounts about the criminal justice system included descriptions of punitiveness, penal excess, injustice, corruption, and racism. Additionally, prisoners were frustrated by how they were treated by prison staff. They described prison officers’ attitudes as inflammatory and resentful. Resulting from distant prisoner-staff relationships, the knowledge about how to run the prison diminished. As a consequence, staff were more reliant upon prisoners, which led to changed prison dynamics and increased risk of violent incidents.

Measuring Anger in Prisons

To assess the extent to which anger was experienced by prisoners, Professor Liebling subsumed a number of items under the dimension of political charge–originally used by Mark S. Hamm–which she defined as anger, alienation, indignation, and reactivity. The concept of political charge can be understood as anger that is turning into action and has developed political undertones. It also includes indignation, which Professor Liebling described as righteous anger, evoked by a sense of injustice. The overall dimension score of both HMP Full Sutton and HMP Frankland reflected high political charge. However, in HMP Full Sutton levels of political charge were significantly higher than in HMP Frankland. Professor Liebling highlighted that HMP Full Sutton was an It rather than a Thou prison at the time of her research, with prisoners being considered experienced objects rather than experiencing subjects. In addition, she also stressed the importance of the local context in which the two prisons were embedded. HMP Frankland is located in a labour, ex-mining, impoverished part of the country, whereas HMP Full Sutton can be found in a liberal-democratic ex-military area. According to Professor Liebling, this influenced the prison staff’s attitudes and identities.

Consequences of High Levels of Political Charge

Professor Liebling described four interrelated consequences of high levels of political charge: (1) narrowed identities, (2) steeper hierarchies, (3) more serious violence, and (4) no transfer of information from prisoner to staff.

Narrow and Politicised Identities

Prisoners in HMP Full Sutton described how anger–produced by violent staff cultures–had shaped their identity. Prison staff often discriminated against prisoners’ race or religion. As a consequence, prisoners had to weaponise their identity in order to regain their dignity. Anger, arising from humiliating treatment, produced narrowed and more polarised versions of their identities, as well as more oppositional faith identities. As a reaction to racist staff attitudes, for example, some Muslim prisoners would say that they will be “even more Muslim”.

Steeper Social Hierarchies

A further consequence of high political charge was the increased visibility of an overt flow of power. In this context, Professor Liebling described how prisoners’ anger spilt over into instructions to others, leading to organised resistance. Prisoners in poorly rated environments described steeper power gradients and leaders that used violence more frequently to impose their own forms of order. This was often associated with polarised faith identities, with prisoners enforcing alternative norms and expecting strict adherence to those norms. Therefore, faith and power became fused.

More Serious Violence

Prisoners on highly politically charged wings described distant and fractious relationships to both staff and other prisoners as well as a significant increase in incidents of serious violence. A hostage-taking incident that appeared to be an act of extremist violence led to prison staff treating all Muslim prisoners as potentially dangerous individuals. The increase in violent incidents evoked ministerial interest and brought the issue of long-term imprisonment and the danger of situational radicalisation to the fore.

Transfer of Warnings to Staff

As a consequence of accumulated anger and disaffection, prisoners stopped warning prison staff about potential violent incidents, which led to a reduction in safety.

Concluding Remarks

Anger is common in prisons. Professor Liebling showed how anger can affect identities in prison, social dynamics, the treatment of difference, and ultimately, levels of violence. Her findings in HMP Full Sutton and HMP Frankland indicate that in orderly prisons with lower levels of anger, prison officers create rather than maintain order. In immoral climates without deep human regard, anger and violence will ensue.

Blog post by Laura Haas, current MSc student