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Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology

Quid Pro Quo in Prison Research by Jason Warr

is Lecturer in Criminology & Criminal Justice at De Montfort University 

I have been, in my time, both a participant in a prison research project and a prison researcher. I have seen both sides of the coin, as it were. I was a participant in Ben Crewe’s research in Wellingborough prison and feature in his book The Prisoner Society. I have also participated in other research projects as a prisoner, as a student, and as a researcher. I continue to participate where I can, and where it is appropriate. I have also run my own research projects both within and without prison. I have struggled to recruit research participants, fearing that I never will get enough data. I have been amazed at what people tell me, how generous they are with their time, their energy, their thoughts and feelings. It is a comment I hear regularly from my fellow researchers: why do people participate in research whilst they are in prison?

For prison researchers, this is not only a philosophical question but also often an empirical fear. When entering the field we often worry that we will not be able to get prisoners to talk to us, to participate in our research, to give us the data we crave and need. Invariably this is an unfounded concern: we come away from the prison with the richest data. Prisoners often give us, generously, the research manna we seek – yet we have little understanding of why. This piece aims to provide some answers to this question, from a rather personal perspective.

There is a flippant answer that, I am sure, prison researchers will hear all the time. I have even heard it myself when conducting projects in varying prisons. The response is one of any variant of ‘Well, it gets you out of your cell, innit!’, as if people are participating in a project to pass or kill the time, to do something different in the long tedium of the prison, to seek distraction from the stultifying greyness of the carceral life. To be frank, there is truth to that. Prison is a deadening experience and prisoners will often seek out that which is novel in order to pass the time or to distract themselves, if only briefly, from their constrained reality.

However, it is a partial account, a half story. For the prisoner, participating in an interview/project with a researcher who has come from beyond the wall opens up a very different type of interaction and sociality. It is important to remember that, for the prisoner, every interaction, every account of himself or herself, is reported, recorded and laden in judgement that has the potential for negative consequence, whether that be from their prisoner peers or from the authoritarian interests of the prison. Every aspect of the self is rendered naked by the environment and becomes open to the panoptic judgement of the prison and those who inhabit it. This results in the person hiding many aspects of themselves from the prison and those who inhabit it. Yet a conversation or interview with a researcher is governed by different rules and expectations, because of the dual ethical diktats of anonymity and confidentiality. Here, then, is an opportunity to give an account of yourself, to tell someone your story, explain your issues and gripes, in a manner that is non-consequential, even if not necessarily non-judgmental. Openness here has few negatives. For the prisoner that is rare. Furthermore, a conversation with a researcher occurs with consent: there is no coercion, even though as a researcher it can feel as if there is. This makes it different even from a conversation that a prisoner might have with his or her peers, which can be fraught with coercive dynamics. It is entirely up to you, as a prisoner, whether you engage with a researcher or not. Here is a glimmer of the autonomy which the prison takes from you.      

There is a degree to which the research process in prisons is cast in an exploitative light. After all, prisoners are a vulnerable but data-rich population, and researchers are seeking to tap that resource. From the outside, it seems that the researcher gains everything and the prisoner gives up everything. This casting makes it seem as if the prisoner is used and gains nothing out of the experience of participation. This is, of course, not true. They may not get anything out of the long-term results or impact of the study but to extrapolate from that position to the conclusion that they gain nothing is wrong. It denies the reality of the research experience. It denies the agency of the individual participant. It also denies the complex sociality of the research process.   

There are a number of reasons for this perception, but perhaps the most significant is just how many researchers have not experienced the research process from both sides. Obviously, prison researchers cannot get themselves banged up in order to see how it feels to be a prisoner participant (though it might be more interesting if they did). However, they can participate in all sorts of other research projects. I encourage my students to do so, especially if they wish to conduct empirical research. Part of the reason for that is practical – you learn so much about your own practice by participating in someone else’s research. It is also to experience the freedom that comes from being able to be honest and open in a way that we are rarely afforded in our private lives. These constraints exist in all our relationships, for all of us: not just for prisoners. Think of this: could you really tell your mother, your children, or even your partner your darkest, most shameful thoughts? With a researcher, you often do. In talking to a researcher, you are unbound, and this allows you complete candour. This is the quid pro quo of qualitative research. This is what you get out of being a research participant – freedom.

This was certainly why I participated in an academic research project when I was in prison. In prison, you are not really a person. You do not exist as the person you are. In every interaction that you have, every relationship, every assessment, you are rendered the person you were, the person the prison want you to be, the person your family need you to be, or the person your peers can shape you into. There is no real ‘you’ in any of these: you are unable to be an honest version of yourself – for that is too fragile a thing. Furthermore, as a prisoner, more than anything, you exist as a quantum of some others’ utility. You are not an end in and of yourself – you are a means to some other’s end. You are a risk managed, a course completion, a number accounted for, a form of stock that is moved and catalogued. It is hard to express just how damaging this is, how much this pushes you inside yourself, or how much it shrinks you as a person.

When I encountered a prison researcher, a decade into my sentence, I was in a dark place – not one of depression but rather one of diminished personhood. I felt a remnant, a husk. Participating in a research project mitigated that. The reason for this is that the research relationship, when done properly (with concern, humanity, interest, honesty), requires you to be the person you are. Not what the prison wants you to be, not the person you were, but the person you are. The researcher wants to know what you think, what you feel, what you have to say. They do not want the simulacrum. They want the honest you. This is what I, and other prisoners, got out of participating in that study: a return to some semblance of personhood – even if only for a fragment of our time. That was precious.

Other facets of the research quid pro quo are also precious to the prisoner. Freedom, in any sense, is a treasured commodity. Related to this is the autonomy of the interaction. Yes, the researcher has their agenda and they wish to shape the conversation and the interview. However, anyone that has really done any prison research will know that the governance of what is spoken of, what is answered, what is revealed, what is shared, what is communicated, lies with the prisoner. This can be frustrating if you want to talk about complaints procedures and they wish only to discuss football, music, sex, Bilderberg conspiracies, or chemtrails and terraforming. However, the field is theirs. When you’re a prisoner participant, the power of revelation is yours. You get to decide. There is an exchange. The prisoner decides to give up some personal information or reflection in exchange for momentary respite from the deprivations of the prison. Not only does the prisoner trade data for a sense of freedom but also revelation for a modicum of autonomy: quid pro quo.

A last benefit for the prisoner is one of human contact. Every person the prisoner deals with on a quotidian level exists intramurally. They too exist within the walls, are of the prison. However, the researcher represents a different reality. Not only is the researcher able to breach the semipermeable membrane of the wall, they are of the world beyond. They are from the ‘out’, from ‘road’: a world that has retreated to mere abstract for the prisoner. Ordinarily, when you talk of hetero-sociability the relationship is one between genders – however, I think the term can be extended to mean between the inside and the outside. The researcher represents an opportunity to build a relationship (or at least an interaction) that is not entirely shaped by the interests of the prison. It is not a carceral relationship. It is not a relationship infused with disciplinary concerns. It is, simply, human contact. In this sense it is something new, something fresh, something craved. It is also something that can endure.

So, why would a prisoner participate in a research project? The reasons could be legion but for me the triple notions of freedom, autonomy, and human contact were key. However, even if it had been just to get out of my cell, would that have been such a bad thing?            

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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