Still in the Field...



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3 Minutes

Guest post by Alison Liebling. Alison is Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Cambridge and the Director of the Institute of Criminology’s Prisons Research Centre.This is the final installment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on how research changes over time, organised by Mary Bosworth.  

Mary invited me to reflect on my long-term prisons research experience. What changes? What stays the same? How does the long-term nature of our engagement influence how we think, feel, act, write? There is such a lot to say … I have a few friends (and colleagues) who were once participants in my various studies, and who are now out; or they were staff or Governors, and I befriended them. Some left the Prison Service in traumatic circumstances. I have to be careful to keep my current interests in their former world to myself. I feel like I belong to a cohort (united by something like the ‘liberal consensus’ that existed around me then). There are not many of us left.

HMP Whitemoor

I have thought about this question most in relation to my two (now three) studies of HMP Whitemoor, each about 10 years apart. The experience of dramatic change – a marked reduction in safety and trust, and in staff professional confidence – between the first and the second studies haunts me still. I was thrown by the challenges of having to work out whether I had changed – was I more sensitive to violence? Did I see better, with trained eyes? Had life events, or the ageing process, interfered with my capacity to make connections with new groups of prisoners? Or was the prison simply radically different? How was I to be sure? This study was the first to make me doubt my ability to diagnose a prison, as well as my motivation to continue in prisons research. I recovered, in due course, but it took some strategic realignments, a return to Appreciative Inquiry, and a search for ‘better’ prisons, with trust flowing, to achieve that. I have had similar qualms in more recent years, watching prisons disintegrate in the wake of staffing cuts and shortages. I still look for ‘better’ prisons, only to be mostly disappointed. Some really are exceptional – even now – and I am always happier and more at home in these places. ‘Good’ prisons are bad enough to supply plenty of material for critical and theoretical analysis. The contrast between the best and the ‘others’, including the worst, has always been where the most interesting questions lie (for me).

I was in an interesting prison last week and, as usual, was happiest in a long conversation with an individual prisoner who was showing me his novel in the library, and some poetry he had submitted to the Koestler competition. We went off piste pretty quickly. His mate made me a mug of tea, and I was confident that this long, unstructured chat was both a good way of understanding this prison, and a way of showing respect for his personhood. I learned a few things about Caribbean cooking, and I left feeling what I have so often felt in prisons research: what a mixture of humanity and tragedy, hope and injustice, curiosity and sadness, human tenacity and defeat … the whole world is here, magnified. I have only ever had one style, and I stick doggedly to it despite the proliferation of constraints and the shortening of time: friendly. Why shouldn’t I be open, interested, flexible, in this world of human beings? The increasing pressure to nail down every question, avoid ‘talking to the men about their backgrounds’, and limit the ‘research transaction’ to a formality makes me want to be Cohen and Taylor, Tony Parker, and Kirsty Young (yes, Desert Island Discs) all rolled into one. Sticking to this style has caused me untold problems in the rest of my (mainly working) life – strain and frustration, absences from other and competing commitments, ridiculous working hours, an office full of notebooks I have never digested, the feeling that I need to stop, at some point, and write about it all. But it is all in there somewhere, and (I think) has made my teaching lively and heartfelt. It means I really do know what has gone on in prisons over the last 33 (eek) years. But there is so much unfinished business …

Moving up the academic chain (something I still feel was kind of accidental or unplanned) has the advantage that I can now take other people with me, rely on their skills when I can’t be there, get interested in their projects, and watch interesting research questions take on a different shape in a different person. But, like Mary, I also feel the burdens of multiple and unending commitments. Let’s face it, modern academic life is pretty gruelling at times, especially once you come eye to eye with the rapidly alienating nature of neo-liberal higher education. I sometimes go to prison for a rest. And for humanity.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Liebling, A. (2019) Still in the Field... Available at: (Accessed [date])

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