skip to content

Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology

Risk, rapport and research

One of the strangest things about prisons research is that even the most intimate conversations can take place in institutions in which very little is private, and they cannot help but be shaped by the priorities of the establishments in which they take place. Take a recent interview I conducted with a man in an English medium-security prison holding men convicted of sex offences. We had spoken quite a few times before he asked me to interview him, and our long interview was spread over three separate sessions. The first interview took place in a small room in which we had a limited choice of chairs. The second took place in a much larger space with lots of chairs in a row. I sat down in one and he deliberately sat down not in the chair next to me but with a chair in-between us. ‘I can’t sit right next to you, I’d be worried about what you might think, or what anyone who saw us might think I was thinking.’ I smiled and said he should sit wherever he felt comfortable. He then quite sheepishly said he was hungry and had brought some chocolate to the interview which I could share if I liked, ‘on one condition.’ ‘That I don’t think you’re grooming me?’, I replied. ‘Exactly! You’ve got it!’ We both laughed.

Our third interview took place a couple of weeks later. I sat down in the same chair I had sat in before, and I felt pleased with the progress we had made as he sat down in the chair right next to me. Ten seconds later, he stood up and moved one chair away. ‘No! No! I can’t do it! I tried it, I can’t do it!’ He said that after our previous interview, he had spent two and a half hours worrying about the chocolate:

I was thinking about ‘What will she think? How did that look? Is anyone gonna find out? Am I gonna get kicked off here?’ The thing is, I just really wanted some chocolate and I was brought up that if you eat it, you offer it to someone. And I quite like you, you’re a really nice person – I don’t mean anything by that, I’m just saying it – but even if I didn’t like you, I would have offered it to you. It’s just how I was brought up. But the thing is, it’s not about what you think. It’s about what other people might think that you might think that I was thinking. It’s so circular.

This incident was not particularly unusual. Prisoners quite regularly tell me that they are very conscious of how staff and other prisoners might judge them based on their behaviour around me. They talk about not wanting to be seen talking to me too much; sometimes they talk about being self-conscious about how they stand or where they look. The same is true for my female colleagues. These incidents raise a number of methodological questions: What does it mean to be a female researcher in an environment where womanhood is often assumed to mean vulnerability? Can we find an ethical balance between not objectifying our participants by creating distant and awkward relationships, but also not exposing them to other people’s damaging judgements? How can we grow rapport when rapport is seen as risky?

More importantly, these incidents show something of the situation in which prisoners convicted of sex offences in England and Wales find themselves, one in which apparently normal human interactions – sitting in one chair rather than another, showing basic manners by sharing some chocolate – are seen through such a lens of risk that they appear potentially threatening. But more than this, they show how much prisoners have internalised much of this risk thinking, distorting their own behaviour to avoid being seen the wrong way. Concerns about risk develop when it is assumed that people are dangerous but the signs of this dangerousness are difficult to identify; on the occasion described above, it would have been difficult for this man to prove that he was not trying to condition me by giving me the chocolate (although I am certain that he was just being nice), and so it would have been easy to judge that he was. But his anxiety about being judged developed because risk judgements are similarly hard to identify: had someone found out about the chocolate and thought that he was grooming me, he would not necessarily have ever found out. He was never disciplined for the chair he sat in nor for the food he shared, but the concern that someone else might think that I might think that he might have bad intentions was enough to worry him.

Alice Ievins is a PhD Candidate and Research Assistant in the COMPEN team, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge.

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).









Follow Us