Challenging oppressive practices – in any environment – is a difficult task. Doing so for people who are labelled as dangerous or violent can feel impossible. My interest in the experiences of long-term prisoners evolved over a number of years, beginning first with researching ex-prisoners returning to society after long term prison in Canada and then continuing as I conducted ethnographic research in men’s maximum-security prisons in England. Over the course of this work, I gradually came to understand the severity of harm inflicted on people through practices of imprisonment. The loss of liberty is an extreme form of punishment that, nevertheless, can be very difficult to fully appreciate unless you have experienced it or had the opportunity to observe it close-up, over a lengthy period of time. Additionally, custodial confinement and the maintenance of ordered prison regimes necessarily translate into oppressive routines, practices and interpersonal relationships (e.g. consider the Zimbardo experiments).
|Tapping and Reflection - HMP Long Lartin Original image found at Koestler trust|
The research on which this article reports, attempted to engage directly with some of the inherent problems of imprisonment. Conducted in three maximum-security prisons in England, the research attempted to incorporate action research-inspired dimensions to facilitate opportunities for prison officers to better understand the ‘pains of imprisonment’ from the perspectives of prisoners. In some respects, the project was an attempt to try to challenge the system from within. It aimed to disrupt existing practices enough to allow staff to question the way they were working. The challenges and limitations of the project were numerous. But there were also modest ‘successes’ in the moments when the officers with whom I was working began to fundamentally question their own practices or the more inflexible aspects of prison officer culture. Whilst the project, ultimately, ended prematurely and thus did not lead to successful systemic change, the research demonstrated the powerful capacity for change that an action research approach can inspire.
My experience of this project, coupled with my continued concern over the inherently harmful practice of imprisonment have led me to consider other possible ‘ways in’ to the criminal justice system in order to challenge the status quo. In my view, the most likely means of opening up new possibilities is through expanded and sustained action research approaches. A fundamental principle of action research is to aim to create spaces of possibilities through collaboratively designed and enacted methods. In a prison or criminal justice context, this may best be achieved through mobilising third sector groups, engaging in activism with prisoners and prisoners’ families or victims and their lobby groups and, crucially, through further work with prison staff and criminal justice authorities.
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