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Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology

Distance and closeness – negotiating ‘soft power’ in a women’s prison

By Daria Przybylska


The prison is an institution saturated with power. As such, prisons are ‘exemplary sites for the study of power’ (Liebling and Crewe 2012: 895). Yet, whereas the subject of power has been interrogated at length within men’s prisons, it has remained peripheral to studies of women’s imprisonment. Alison Liebling emphasises that ‘studies of women in prison have tended to focus on themes relevant to their status as ‘women’ rather than on themes relevant to the prison: such as power, authority, and justice (Liebling 2009: 20, emphasis added). Based on an analysis of interview data from a semi-ethnographic study exploring the lived experiences of female prisoners in England and Wales, conducted by the Cambridge Institute of Criminology’s Comparative Penology Group (COMPEN), my MPhil research set out to contribute to existing research by foregrounding the perspectives of women on matters that are endemic and paramount to imprisonment, namely power and staff-prisoner relationships. Thus, I made the focus of my MPhil thesis the ways in which women incarcerated in England and Wales experienced and negotiated ‘soft power’ (Crewe 2009). Part of this involved exploring the nature of staff-prisoner relationships. These relationships were multi-faceted, complex, and rife with power – and the imprisoned women deliberately and carefully navigated them, negotiating the relational power yielded over them by their custodians.

The ‘softening’ of penal power that has taken place over the last few decades has corresponded with a reduction of distance and a blurring of boundaries between prisoners and prison officers (Crewe 2011b). Simultaneously, officers’ collective power has diminished, while they retain significant discretionary power – they ‘represent and implement [rather than embody] most aspects of institutional power’ (Crewe 2011b: 456). Through report-writing officers are also able to influence decisions about prisoners’ sentence progression, parole, release, and so on – what some prisoners refer to as the ‘power of the pen’ (Crewe 2009:115). As a result, staff-prisoner relationships matter a great deal – they must be managed carefully if prisoners want to avoid adverse consequences that can affect their status and progression through the system (Crewe 2011b).

First, I must note that the discussion in this blog post is based on an analysis of interviews from one specific women’s prison in England. It is also worth stating that in my thesis I identified two forms of ‘soft power’ in that particular prison: the first related to the long-term goal of reducing reoffending; the second was relational, concerned with quotidian existence and the short-term goal of maintaining order. This blog post will focus on the latter, where much of the power negotiations took place – often at the level of staff-prisoner interactions.

At this particular prison, women’s responses to relational power were contingent on and shaped by the power that officers exerted over them. Importantly, these responses were varied and dynamic, and women’s relationships with officers were never static, but rather constantly changing depending on individual and structural circumstances. For instance, many women adjusted their behaviour depending on which members of staff were present on the wing. Since rule enforcement was inconsistent and varied between individual officers, some women self-regulated accordingly. Others found more creative ways of negotiating power. Lottie, for example, was engaging in a form of ‘creative compliance’ (McBarnet 2003) by asking officers to be ‘locked in early’. What to an external observer – and the prison authorities – was a demonstration of ‘good behaviour’ was actually Lottie’s deliberate, covert tactic to regain a sense of control over her daily routine. While it is clear that the imprisoned women engaged in various forms of power negotiation, this blog post will focus on two contrasting strategies which some of the women in this particular establishment employed to negotiate relational and, by extension, institutional power.

The first strategy was closeness. For Maddison, who was eager to get out and get back to her children, it was imperative that officers held a positive view of her. This made it less likely for her to receive negative reports that could delay her family reunion:

I'm glad in a sense that I've got a good relationship with the officers so they know that I'm not that malicious person, I'm not a person that could be swayed whichever way. Because at the end of the day I've got too much to lose. My nose is out of the gate, my nose is to be out there for my children. Just having that good rapport with officers is a bonus.

Women who chose to be ‘close’ to officers did so mostly for instrumental reasons – they wanted to be seen by officers as amenable and rehabilitated in the hope that this would facilitate their progression and release. For them, officers were witnesses to their commitment to the regime’s demands. For these reasons, Layla also chose the strategy of closeness:

But really, like I said, I need to build a relationship with staff because they’re the ones, at the end of the day, that are going to be writing as report on me for parole. So I can’t be anti-staff all the time because (…) [if] they’re going to say I’ve got a problem with authority, then I’m not going to be allowed out in the community. (Layla)

On the opposing end of the spectrum were women who chose the strategy of distance whereby they deliberately limited their interactions with officers. Women in this group often described their relationships with officers as almost non-existent – courteous enough to not get them in trouble, but fundamentally reticent and aloof:

Don’t really have a relationship with staff, like I keep my distance and they keep theirs really. Like if I see a member of staff, I usually like go another way, like...I don’t associate with officers to be honest. I might say hi, but that’s it, but that’s the only thing I’ll say to them. (Ivy)

Distance often resulted from a mixture of distrust, frustration, and uncertainty engendered by being subjected to inconsistent and unpredictable use of power by prison officers. These women considered limiting their interactions with uniformed staff to be in their best interest. The uncertainty of how an officer would react and when they would choose to exert their power was enough for the women to strategically distance themselves from their custodians:

Do you trust them?

No. Not if I'm honest, no I don’t. Because even though they're got a job to do, you don’t know what they're doing behind their lines. They're unpredictable and you can't trust something that’s unpredictable. (Jasmine)

These examples are most illustrative of the two strategies of closeness and distance. In reality, most women oscillated between the two, and their relationships with officers changed over time, and with current needs and circumstances. Notably, levels of trust in staff were very low across the prison, even among women who chose to have closer relations with officers. Likewise, all women experienced subjection to inconsistent and unpredictable staff power. The phrase ‘if your face fits’ was used frequently to convey this inconsistency and the differential treatment some prisoners were accorded. Why then, if perhaps the most consistent quality of penal power in this establishment was that it was exercised inconsistently, have two antithetical strategies for negotiating relational power emerged?

Operating within the regime rather than outside it, by adopting a strategy of closeness some women sought to redirect the institutional power that flowed through their relationships with staff. By choosing to submit to and comply with relational power in order to achieve individual goals, they demonstrated that deliberate, agentic acquiescence could be as, or perhaps more, effective than subversion, because it offered empowerment unencumbered by the hazards associated with (overt) non-compliance. Rather than resisting it, some of the women adopted the strategy of closeness in an attempt to contain and subdue – through self-regulating their relationships with officers – the institutional power that bore down upon them.

In contrast, the strategy of distance was more defensive and risk-averse. While it minimised the risk of fallout lest the power negotiations went awry, it also curtailed the potential gains associated with the more pro-active strategy of closeness. By distancing themselves from officers and the relational power they yielded, these women sought to loosen the grip of institutional power altogether.

Both strategies are extreme examples of imprisoned women trying to control the reach and hold of ‘soft power’ on their lives. Arguably, such extremes leave little room for uncertainty and unpredictability on either end. Perhaps both strategies felt like reliable, safe, and familiar ways of bringing into focus and taming the naturally blurry and unpredictable ‘soft power’ to which the women were subjected. In so doing, the women could also try to alleviate some of the pains that these particular qualities of ‘soft power’ engendered (see Crewe 2011a).

Crucially, the loss of autonomy and control is experienced by women as one of the most painful consequences of their confinement (Crewe et al. 2017). Consequently, imprisoned women constantly seek to redress this loss by reasserting themselves as agentic subjects in an environment that is purposefully and perpetually disempowering (Bosworth 1999; Rowe 2016). The two strategies could be seen as expressions of agency, which took different forms because they were grounded in past experiences, current circumstances, and future goals that were personal and unique to each of the women. In Maddison’s case, being a mother and wanting to reunite with her children pushed her closer to officers; for Jasmine, distrust, suspicion, and apprehension formed a barrier that distanced her from them. However, the women were also inadvertently constrained in their negotiations of relational power by the penal regime. Ultimately, in addition to being a reflection of who the women had been, who they currently were, and who they wanted or hoped to become, the choice between distance or closeness was a balancing act that required the women to carefully navigate their structurally-circumscribed interactions with uniformed staff in ways that would be most beneficial – or least disadvantageous and risky – to them.





Bosworth, M. (1999) Engendering Resistance: Agency and Power in Women’s Prisons. Ashgate.

Crewe, B. (2009) The Prisoner Society: Power, Adaptation and Social Life in an English Prison. Oxford University Press.

Crewe, B. (2011a) ‘Depth, weight, tightness: Revisiting the pains of imprisonment’, Punishment & Society, 13(5): 509–529.

Crewe, B. (2011b) ‘Soft power in prison: Implications for staff–prisoner relationships, liberty and legitimacy’, European Journal of Criminology, 8(6): 455–468.

Crewe, B., Hulley, S. and Wright, S. (2017) ‘The gendered pains of life imprisonment’, The British Journal of Criminology, 57(6): 1359–1378.

Liebling, A. (2009) ‘Women in prison prefer legitimacy to sex’, British Society of Criminology Newsletter, 63: 19–23.

Liebling, A. and Crewe, B. (2012) ‘Prison Life, Penal Power, and Prison Effects’, in R. Morgan, M. Maguire, and R. Reiner, eds, The Oxford Handbook of Criminology, 895–927. Oxford University Press.

McBarnet, D. (2003) ‘When Compliance is not the Solution but the Problem: From Changes in Law to Changes in Attitude’, in V. Braithwaite, ed, Taxing Democracy: Understanding Tax Avoidance and Evasion, 229–243. Taylor & Francis Group.

Rowe, A. (2016) ‘”Tactics”, agency and power in women’s prisons’, The British Journal of Criminology, 56(2): 322-349.





Daria Przybylska recently completed the MPhil in Criminological Research at the Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge. She is currently working there as a temporary Research Assistant on the COMPEN project.


logo The Comparative Penology Group is led by Dr Ben Crewe and his research team who, since 2016, have been working on a five-year project titled: 'Penal policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis'.

The research is based in England & Wales, and Norway, and involves four inter-related studies of (a) penal policymaking and the penal field (b) the experience of entry into and release from custody (c) the daily experiences of female prisoners and imprisoned sex offenders, and (d) prisoners in the most secure parts of each jurisdiction's prison system.

This project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC).









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