Researching the prison

Authored by: Yvonne Jewkes , Serena Wright

Handbook on Prisons

Print publication date:  February  2016
Online publication date:  February  2016

Print ISBN: 9780415745659
eBook ISBN: 9781315797779
Adobe ISBN:


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Researching the prison can be a challenging, fascinating, fatiguing, exhilarating, exhausting, tedious, poignant business. Frequently all these emotions – and more – are experienced by the researcher in quick succession. Many of us are drawn to the prison out of a sense of curiosity about a world that is hidden to most, a fascination with human nature and what the human spirit can endure and, in some cases, out of a strong personal sense of (in)justice, or perhaps a conflicted relationship with power and authority (Liebling 1999). However, while we might have strong motivations driving our research activities in prisons, the process of gaining access, dealing with gatekeepers and entering prison for the first time can be daunting, and not a little frustrating. This chapter aims to ‘unpack’ this process, and in doing so make more transparent the development of research within the carceral, and engage with the practical and emotional experience of studying the prison, and those who live or work within its walls. It does this specifically with the potential first-time prisons researcher in mind, and in doing so has three main concerns. First, to provide a brief potted history of some of the ‘classic’ sociological studies of prisons, prisoners and prison staff, against a backdrop of the political and policy contexts in which they were conducted. Second, to take the reader through the process of doing research in prisons – frequently summarized as ‘getting in, getting on and getting out’. Third, and finally, to describe the emotional dimensions of researching the prison; what it feels like to observe and, to some degree, participate in the everyday, interior world of the prison. In this final section, we will also offer some personal reflections on our own experiences of researching the prison.

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