From the Field: Reflections from a First-Time Prisons Researcher



Time to read

7 Minutes

Post by Liz Kullmann, DPhil candidate at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford. This is the second installment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on how research changes over time, organised by Mary Bosworth

I am coming to the third year of my DPhil in Criminology. My research explores the experiences of Polish prisoners in a foreign-national only prison in England and Wales through the concept of belonging. I have studied criminology at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and during this entire time have had a particularly keen interest in prisons. I’ve read academic literature about prisons, policy documents, activist literature, attended conferences and talks about prisons and visited a few prisons in person. Until this year, however, I had not conducted my own empirical research and had not spent a significant time in prison. In this post, I would like to reflect on the process of getting permission to conduct research in a prison and about my first days as a ‘prisons researcher’ as well as share some thoughts on this period of fieldwork.

Last year, I was waiting for Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) permission to access a nearby prison in order that I could start my fieldwork. At that point, I was under the impression that the hard part was over - I had filled out, edited and revised the long applications for HMPPS and CUREC (Oxford’s research ethics committee). This process had taken a few months, with over 100 emails ironing out details related to consent forms, information sheets and data security. Some of this process was painstaking and frustrating - figuring out how to manage data using encryption that was analogous to that used by the Ministry of Justice was particularly difficult, especially for a technologically challenged person like myself! Other parts were humbling and insightful. For instance, some parts of the HMPPS application seemed to call for an existing knowledge of the internal workings of a prison, things that at that point I did not understand. I was unsure how to answer questions about issues such as the location of interviews, timings, staff allocation, resource implications.  At times I worried about seeming presumptuous. It seemed bold to demand keys and free access to walk around the prison when I had so little experience. In order to overcome these hurdles and concerns, I relied on support from peers and teachers who had already conducted research in similar settings. I was also very fortunate to have the support of the prison governor for some of these logistical issues.

The entrance to HMP Huntercombe

In February 2019 I received the email that I had been anxiously waiting for. My application had been accepted and I was given the go-ahead to conduct my fieldwork. More waiting followed, however, as I set up appointments with the Governor of the prison to meet and discuss the practicalities of the research. I had been relieved that the form-filling and bureaucracy was done and dusted (though more would come soon enough in the form of security clearance), eager to get in and start speaking to prisoners. The governor was very accommodating and helpful on my first visit, taking the time to introduce me to staff, take me around the prison to show me what is what. He also suggested that it might be best for me to be based in the chaplaincy section of the prison and, along with the head Chaplain, recommended a suitable person to shadow.

From this point onwards, the reins were handed over to me to arrange my days. Although this was the best possible outcome, I cannot overstate the extent to which I felt like a fish out of water on my first few days coming in to get to know the research site and the staff and prisoners. Simple things like where to leave my stuff, going to the loo and even leaving the prison had to be figured out and negotiated (this changed once I was cleared to carry keys – 3/4months later).  I quickly learnt that years of reading about prison life and prison regimes does not ready you to enter and spend time in a prison. I was ‘adopted’ by two wonderful women who agreed to be my gatekeepers and help me with my research. One had worked there for over a decade as a teacher and was incredibly organised and straight-talking. The other had started working for the chaplaincy department just a few weeks before I came in and so was still learning the ropes and seemed open to have me shadowing her. With the support and help of these women, I had two distinct insights into how the prison operates and a range of suggestions for potential research participants.

On my first full day of fieldwork, I was incredibly nervous. I had thought very carefully about what to wear - baggy trousers and a loose sweater, hair up, no makeup, not too much jewellery, no perfume, trainers. I had a notebook and a number of pens with me, though I wasn’t expecting to conduct any interviews on my first full day in prison. I had printed off and brought with me my interview schedule, information sheets, written consent forms, oral consent forms, debrief sheets. I’d written out a short introductory blurb that I’d also memorised. I’d written down questions that I anticipated being asked and some short answers to them (e.g. why are you doing this?). I woke up at 5am to be sure that I didn’t miss my bus (side note - fieldwork and the need to catch a bus that runs on an hourly schedule has definitely made me reassess my reluctance to drive!) and made my way to the prison.

After being sent back to the visitor centre twice to leave various belongings by gate staff, I went through security, had a pat-down search and was handed over to my gatekeeper, Alicja. At this point, the tone of the day shifted dramatically. Alicja and I got on well from the very start, as if we were old friends. She asked me lots of questions about my research, why I was only focusing on Polish prisoners (she is herself Polish), what I wanted to do that day, what I want from life, am I single or in a relationship, what do I enjoy doing in my spare time…? She took me around the prison to the wings to run some errands and introduced me to some of the Polish prisoners she knew. I hadn’t expected to start any interviews that early, however she quickly ‘scooped’ up a man that she thought would be an interesting participant and issued him with a movement slip that meant he could come to the chapel in an hour’s time to speak to me (and then another young man shortly thereafter). It was evident that prisoners felt comfortable around her and trusted her. This was helped by the fact that she was a Polish speaker. There was a lot of laughter and handshaking.

During my first interview, I was careful to follow the protocols, explaining the purpose of my research and my presence in the prison. I took time to explain the information sheet, go through the consent form, explain that he did not have to speak to me and that I was very grateful for his participation. Szymon laughed at me as I went through this process and told me to loosen up. He had time, he said, and was not going to say no to a young woman, however worried and nervous she looked. We talked for over an hour, and I asked him if he would be up for another meeting where I could ask some more specific questions. The second time we met, he again commented on my appearance and that he was happy to see that I was less stressed. As with last time, he often sidestepped the questions I asked, instead preferring to tell me stories about his life before prison, especially about his son and his love of cars and mechanics. During these first days of fieldwork I was eager to please and tried hard to make people feel comfortable enough to speak to me, so I did not object to his taking control of the conversation. Perhaps in hindsight, I was a little timid and too softly spoken, allowing the men to steer conversations rather than taking more control myself.

Over time, the interviews changed (and, at the risk of sounding cheesy, I changed too) but I do not think that I would have done it differently. I had set out with the hope of conducting interviews for a ‘life histories’ methodological approach, but as time went on, I realised that my method was much more ethnographic. Although I had intended to interview staff as well as prisoners, this also did not happen. Observation became a much more important tool than I had anticipated, and my interview schedule developed, changed over time. Our discussions became more detailed as I learned more about people’s lives and experiences as well as about the regime of the prison. On a personal note too, other things shifted. My clothing choices got less baggy, sometimes I even wore makeup. I walked taller and approached staff and prisoners with more confidence, often sharing anecdotes and comparing tv-show recommendations with prisoners.  I worried less about people-pleasing and more about maximising my time there and getting meaningful data (though still maintaining and nurturing good relationships with prisoners).

The main lesson from this first experience of field research is to adapt to the conditions. I didn’t know what to expect going in and so it quickly became clear that flexibility is key. I also learnt that getting people to speak to you is a process and that prisoners are not always willing to spend the time answering your questions simply because they have time to spare. It was often hard work and required time getting to know people (a factor which sometimes blurred lines between researcher-participant and friendship relationships). I was not ready to answer some of the difficult questions that prisoners asked me about my research, but I am grateful to them for their critical views of what I was there to do. One such question was about the exploitative nature of research. Many of the men I spoke to took issue - quite understandably - that in doing this research I would get a PhD qualification while they would get deportation (not causally, linked, but significant nonetheless).

As I come to the end of my fieldwork, I am eager to get my mass of field notes in order and to start analysing my data. At the same time, I find myself feeling anxious about returning to the notes and reading through the testimonies and stories that the men shared with me. These stories are often painful and angry, sometimes desperate and always deeply personal (some were also hilarious or plain ridiculous!). I cannot shake the concern of many of the participants that this sort of research is exploitative, and hope that as I get to the next stage of the DPhil, I will be able to make sense of this more and address this as a central theme in academic research.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Kullman, L. (2019) From the Field: Reflections from a First-Time Prisons Researcher. Available at: (Accessed [date])

Found within

Foreign-national prisoners
Prisons and Detention
From the Field
(Field) Research and Methods


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