Asking the question For many countries imprisonment is now the ultimate sanction requiring society broadly, and policy makers and practitioners particularly, to ask: what are the realities of life for people entering, in and leaving prison? What impacts, difficulties and challenges do they face? How do they manage and cope with these? Yet these are questions that are rarely asked, and even more rarely asked from the perspective of the people actually experiencing imprisonment. Rarer still are these questions asked about the experiences of people who work within such institutions (Flynn 2010). One might be forgiven for questioning why we need to go to such efforts to understand the experience of imprisonment from the subjective perspective of those either incarcerated or working within these institutions. The answer is in the question: because it is subjective. Open any textbook on marketing or business and we can understand that the success of any institution is dependent upon the relationship of the people within in it to each other and to the institution, as well as to their customers or clients. Furthermore, research on why people comply with the law also highlights the prime significance of people’s belief and agreement in the authority and legitimacy of instruments of the legislature, judiciary and executive – the central tenets of state power (Jackson et al. 2012). It is, therefore, impossible to consider the work of prisons or resettlement processes without considering how (ex)prisoners and staff working with them interact and view one another, and how they consider their position and role within the institution more broadly (Rowe and Soppitt 2014). The nature of these interactions may vary widely depending upon the type and nature of the institution, the ideological and political approach of the state to punishing offenders, the composition and cultures of the inmate population, and working practices and cultures of the staff. This text focusses on the day-to-day realities of life within carceral institutions: institutions concerned with the punishment and management of inmates. The authors consider a breadth of experience from violence, mental and physical health challenges, coping strategies and stress management, within the context of work to manage and support offenders to desist from crime who may have a range of complex needs relating to their personal or social characteristics.

Over the last few years there has been a small but significant resurgence in criminological research considering some of these issues, particularly drawing upon traditions set out by some of the ‘old masters’ in sociology, anthropology and criminology, such as Erving Goffman, Donald Clemmer, Gresham Sykes, Irwin and Cressey, to name but a few. Consequently, qualitative research, particularly that within the ethnographic tradition, has been re-discovered as a form of research methodology particularly well-suited to capturing the personal and subjective experience of reality, including emotional and behavioural responses to situations that may be difficult for participants to articulate or recognise themselves (Alasuutari 2010; Earle 2014), and so the research presented within these chapters is primarily qualitative and includes in-depth ethnographic studies. Traditionally such work has been less favourably regarded for funding or publication due to the often small sample sizes, the difficulty of generalising from an individual study or replicating the work, the challenge of researcher bias, and the intrinsically subjective nature of the fieldwork itself which makes it less attractive to policy makers (Alasuutari 2010). However, the researcher’s immersion in the field facilitates a depth of understanding and appreciation of life as experienced by inmates and staff that makes ethnography a vital method in the researcher toolkit. Nevertheless, the value of exploring daily realities through a range of techniques to gain different ‘levels’ of data is well recognised: from the observation of interactions the inmates and staff may not even be aware of; to their personal meanings, attitudes and behaviours; to patterns of experience. And so this text is not limited to one form of research type and includes contributions ranging from participant-observation based ethnographies, semi-structured interview based qualitative work to large-scale multi-national surveys, and combinations of approaches in-between. Thus, one of the strengths of such an edited collection as this is the ability to bring together these diverse forms of research, all taking a slightly different approach to looking at a particular aspect of the experience of imprisonment in order to provide a fuller picture of life in such institutions than any one study can do alone. Furthermore, by bringing together research from around the world (including the UK, Central and Eastern Europe, America, Canada, Scandinavia and Australia), across types of institutions (juvenile, adult male, adult female, therapeutic environments and semi-secure) and categories of offenders and staff (adolescents, sex offenders, those wrongfully convicted, parole officers, prison guards and older prisoners), this text is able to draw out commonalities and differences in the experiences of inmates and staff. It is posited that some aspects of the prison experience are universal in nature because they result from the housing of large amounts of, by definition, often dangerous people in restrictive institutions, however other aspects may be the result of a complex inter-play between personal, social, structural and cultural factors. Through exploring the experiences of inmates and staff across regimes and inmate populations it is possible to consider this universality but also to question if some aspects of prison life or practice are really as intrinsic to imprisonment as may be hitherto thought.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationExperiencing Imprisonment
Subtitle of host publicationResearch on the Experience of Living and Working in Carceral Institutions
PublisherTaylor and Francis Inc.
Number of pages4
ISBN (Electronic)9781317653486
ISBN (Print)9781138790469
Publication statusPublished - 8 Jan 2016


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