Prison Research Network

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The Centre for Applied Social Research (ceASR) at Leeds Beckett University, has just launched the Prison Research Network. Details of the line up are here. The brain child of Bill Davies and Helen Nichols, the network is sure to provide a platform for a wealth of new research and new research collaborations.

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The papers were diverse and yet blended together as a panel so well. As fellow prison researchers know, sometimes our work can seem so futile, and the emotional labour of trying to explore such an oppressive environment can be harrowing. Then there’s the guilt of being selfish of even having such thoughts. To be able to mix with like-minded individuals committed to social and penal change was invigorating. Events like this are much needed to bring together diverse groups of practitioners, academics, students, community members and simply those who are interested.

Please click on photos to make them bigger.
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The first talk was by <Dr James Woodall, Reader in Health Promotion at Leeds Beckett University.

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James spoke about peer mentoring in prisons the positives and the negatives. He asked what is a peer, emphasising that prisoners are not a homogenous group and therefore a peer cannot automatically be any fellow prisoner, “a one size fits all approach does not work”. This is important to remember.

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Positives of peer mentoring can be that they offer an additional prison resource; improved prison culture; empowerment of prisoners and offer opportunities post release.

Negatives can include “setting a prisoner up to fail” with few opportunities available afterwards, security risks, prisons only using ‘token’ inmates.

James asserted that training for peer mentoring roles needs to consider the different contexts of different prisons.

I found James’ paper particularly relevant for my work and a project I am hoping to assist with over the summer.

Dr Jenny Randells and Dr Sarah James were up next, speaking from a Speech and Language Therapy perspective, looking at Young people and communication within the CJS.

This paper was excellent, emphasising the inherently complex language of the CJS and the problems this creates for the prison population, only 62 percent of inmates are at a Level 1 cognitive ability and language ability, yet the language used is aimed at a much higher ability. In this way language excludes.

Jenny also cited the paper ‘Punishing Disadvantage’ which I will be downloading asap.

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Jenny spoke about the difficulties of staff not identifying where and when there are comprehension difficulties., saying that many are hard to identify an clink to Burden and Dickens’ (2009) ‘ theory of mind’. For example on a Thinking Skills course, prisoners are asked to identify a ‘red flag, one exclaimed ‘fire’. It is essential to identify where prisoners are not able to understand what is being asked of them/ said about them.

Jenny also argued that due to this many prisoners allow people to talk for them, which is interesting in terms of my own research and my own chosen methodology.

Dr Mike Wragg
was up next talking about play work with children of offenders. Mike says that arguably it is only through play that children have direct control over from they do. Play is crucial for child development, and especially important when we consider what a socially excluded, stigmatised and marginalised group children of prisoners are.

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I was fascinated by this concept and paper, and wonder how it might be used with adults in prison as a research method.

Karl Lenton from Archiecture was up next, from Safe Innovations, talking about his development of the wellness pod, a portable space within prison that is being trialled at HMP Leeds. An ingenius pod that brings healthcare to the wings of the prison.

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Karl spoke about the current prison estate, the rise of the super prison, and ethical alternatives. This was interesting to me as a sociologist considering bodies and space and the symbolic violence that many space represents.

Karl stated that the UK prison system is based on the US model of punishment and suffering, and offered alternatives such as Holden Prison, Maggies Centre and West Kimberely Regional Prison.

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This paper was welcome additional to the line up, great to get a real inter-disciplinary perspective.

Up next we had Dr Philomena Commons from Physiotherapy who gave an impassioned paper on meeting health needs of prisoners pre and post prison, and her work with St. George’s Crypt.

Philomena spoke about poverty and social exclusion, and the need for representation such as writing a letter to hand to their Dr. It was particularly valuable to hear from a healthcare professional/ academic.

The keynote came from Nick Hardwick CBE, HM Chief Inspectorate of Prisons.

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I hadn’t heard Nick speak before, and was energised and inspired by his paper. Nick talk about he reality of prison life as opposed to the right wing press’ depiction of ‘holiday camps’. The grim fact of spending up to 20 hours a day in your cell. Nick stated how hard it is to understand prisons unless you have been there, that there is a “gulf of understanding” between hose who bear witness and those who don’t. Nick calls for evidence based policy which of course I argue for in both regards to penal policy and policy for sex work.

Nick says that prisoners will “tell you everything” and the best way to learn about prison is to touch it, smell it, taste it. “Data doesn’t tell the whole story” in order to understand the prison you must understand the context. Nick argues that the physical environment of the prison has a huge effect of what happens within it. Nick showed us a series of photographs depicting the physical filth in prisons that are deemed acceptable, from food trays to toilets. This was fascinating to me as a sociologist with an interest in dirt and bodies, and how the two can become aligned together and embodied.

Nick spoke about the Independent Monitoring Board (I am still waiting for a local prison to advertise a vacancy!) and the important work on inspectorates.

Nick spoke about the power imbalance of gaoler and prisoner, and the small violences that can occur that become normalised, such as refusing to allow a visit, or refusing to allow fresh clothes. This can have huge impacts for prisoners.

Nick asserted that a good prisoner dopes not make a good citizen, that we expect prisoners to obey, follow rules and lack initiative, whereas outside, we expect the opposite.

Nick also argued that just being there bearing witness has a positive effect in itself. You need to get under the skin of the prison, you will get improvements. And of course, as researchers know, the prison gets under your skin in an unimaginable way. Nick opened with a Mandela quote, about seeing the state of a society through its prisons. And it’s true.

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We need to remember these key facts and how prison is a frightening place, despite the Daily Fail headlines. Nick’s talk was brutal and yet uplifting, because good work is happening, and the more we can build upon our passion and networks, the more improvements will be made.

I blogged recently about the emotional trauma of prison research, and how it can often seem so futile and disheartening, but that’s just part of the process. If you’re a human, you will hurt when you visit a prison. As a researcher you will bruise as you transcribe, listening and (re) listening to the bleak narratives. But this is all needed.

It was a delight to attend the event and meet so many enthusiastic and dedicated people. My own research is ‘Sex Workers’ Experiences of Prison’ and I can be contacted via g.ahearne@leedsbeckett.ac.uk or @princessjack. I also love to connect with fellow researchers or any interested parties. Change is all the tiny things along the way.

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