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Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology

Loitering with intent: shadowing male and female prisoners is a methodological mixed bag

By Ben Laws

As part of my research on emotions in prison in HMP Send and HMP Ranby, I decided to shadow my participants around the prison for a day. After the shadowing, I interviewed each participant in some detail. My decision to shadow, or ‘loiter with intent’, resulted in a mixture of feelings: it was sometimes boring, but also surprising, sometimes awkward but typically comfortable, it raised ethical quandaries and revealed a few moments of genuine illumination.

My aspiration for shadowing was to try and capture prisoners’ emotions ‘in the moment’, and especially, in periods of transition to and from different prison areas. I was energised by Fineman’s (2004: 720) idea that emotions are ‘wrapped in the warp and weft of social practices’, and that there are inherent dangers if we try to extract or ‘de-situate’ them from their contexts. The main point of the method was to provide a point of comparison: exploring whether prisoners might display particular emotions in and around the prison, and then say different things about affective states during interviews. I imagined the productive discussions that we could share while wandering around the establishment, instead of being anchored to a barren interview room.

In practice, there were a number of occasions when shadowing resulted in awkwardness and boredom. For instance, I was in the hairdressers in HMP Send while the woman I was shadowing (Ellie) had a haircut. I could see that every time I tried to strike up conversation, competing with the loud blow-dryer, radio, and lively salon conversation, that I was causing Ellie some discomfort. At other times, I remember feeling distinctly bored and wondered whether sitting in workshops, alongside prisoners who had to focus on administrative or learning tasks, was a poor utilisation of research time. But perhaps this had a different kind of value: I’ve often heard prisoners talk about boredom, but getting to feel it first hand, instead of searching for ‘action’, was insightful. Many prisoners lead sedentary lives, and don’t have the autonomy to move around the establishment fluidly.   

At times, shadowing prisoners felt ethically problematic. Agreeing with participants in advance where I should, and should not, accompany them was easy. But thinking about the broader ramifications of ‘watching prisoners closely’, in an environment that already tracks their movements and behaviours intensely is more disturbing. Rebecka reflected that: ‘I think being in prison for a long time you kind of get used to the whole being watched thing. There’s always somebody around, whether you’re in a workshop or in the kitchens, there’s somebody watching’. It is unsettling that my research might have added to a kind of ‘institutional gaze’. Though I attempted to empower prisoners to take the leading role, and I did not have coercive goals, in some instances I may have unintentionally breached their privacy and added to their sense of being under surveillance.

Furthermore, while most prisoners felt appreciative, and even flattered, that I was spending time with them, I could not control the reactions of other prisoners. I was following one participant through the lobby of a large house block when a group of prisoners--who I’d come to know quite well—shouted insults at the prisoner I was with: ‘don’t spend time with him’, ‘he’s a rat!’, ‘what do you want to talk to him for?’ I wondered if I was compromising this prisoner through my research, in way that more generalised participant observation would have negated.

Thankfully, the shadowing did yield moments of insight. Stacey reflected that taking part in the process indeed felt like ‘someone seeing you in your real self, in the settings you’re in everyday’. Though I have reservations about phrases like ‘real self’ and claims of ‘authenticity’, this felt like positive feedback. I was seeing prisoners wearing ‘different hats’ as they moved around and performed their different roles in the prison. One prisoner, who was passive in the loud art classroom, became animated and expressive on the walk back to the wing, revealing subtexts to the dynamics of friendship in the classroom we had left. I was also put through some intense gym workouts by athletic male prisoners that felt like a form of initiation and bonding. In these moments, I felt I was also understanding prisoners better, not just through knowing them intellectually, but through being with them.

The shadowing also took me to parts of the prison that I otherwise might have overlooked: one prisoner led me to the ‘older men’s library’ that prisoners used to ventilate anything that was on their minds. This space felt exclusive, therapeutic and cathartic, though it is hard to imagine that prisoners would have vocalised it in these terms. It’s also hard to imagine how I would have discovered this room on my own.

Having left the field over a year ago, I can see that the shadowing was useful in distilled moments, rather than being a consistently valuable strategy. There was one, overriding exception to this summary. I feel convinced that spending extended time with prisoners before the interviews was relationally valuable. For example, while shadowing a prisoner who spent nearly all his time garrisoned away in his dark cell—because he was expecting a coordinated attack from a group of prisoners he had fallen-out with—I distinctly remember feeling sad, and acutely aware of the fear he was experiencing. These emotions undoubtedly orientated, and set the tone for, the interview we had the next day. Reflecting back, this ‘rapport building’ effect was more of an unintended by-product of the method, rather than my primary rationale for shadowing. ‘Loitering with intent’ enabled me to build rapport, understanding, and compassion for the lives these participants were leading in prison. It generated information about prisoners, and sometimes stirred feelings in me (such as empathy and sadness) which could be explored in much greater detail in the interviews.

Ben is a finishing PhD student researching emotions in prison at the Prisons Research Centre in Cambridge.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Laws, B. (2018) Loitering with intent: shadowing male and female prisoners is a methodological mixed bag. Available at: (Accessed [date]).

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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