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The Prisoner SocietyPower, Adaptation and Social Life in an English Prison$

Ben Crewe

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780199577965

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199577965.001.0001

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(p.463) Appendix Notes on the Research Process

(p.463) Appendix Notes on the Research Process

The Prisoner Society
Oxford University Press

It's difficult to tell the truth about how a book begins. The truth, as far as it can be presented to other people, is either wholly banal or too intimate. Public accounts tend to have a fictional texture—this is not to say they're untrue, but they are writerly explanations, fished from the sea that is the book itself. (Zadie Smith, The Guardian 15/7/06)

Just as authors of fiction are inclined to produce the ‘writerly explanations’ that Zadie Smith identifies, accounts of the research process tend to be glossed with academic paint. To be truthful about practical miscalculations and intellectual cul-de-sacs is hazardous. But self-conscious transparency should be recommended not just as a corrective to the accidental imposition of subjectivity onto the data (Gross 2000), but to ensure an account of the research that serves as an open guide rather than a defensive justification.

The genesis of the study was somewhat banal. My interest in prisons developed towards the end of my doctorate, when I attended a seminar by Eamonn Carrabine at Essex University that pointed to the significance of masculine discourses in the penal environment. I had been researching the role of gender identity in the production of popular media, and was drawn to the idea of exploring this issue in a different institutional context, one that was presented in popular discourse as a masculine arena in extremis.1 The post-doctoral research proposal that I subsequently developed with Alison Liebling, rather grandly titled ‘A New Society of Captives: Masculinity and Modern Penal Culture’, married my ambition to explore prison masculinity with her enthusiasm to (p.464) see a revitalization of the tradition of prison ethnography that, at that time, was seen as a rather moribund enterprise (Simon 2000; Wacquant 2002; Morgan 2002).

Based on the proposal, I was awarded what was eventually a four-year Nuffield Foundation ‘New Career Development Fellowship in the Social Sciences’ (award NCF/00076/G). In the subsequent period, I received funding through the money contributed by the Prison Service to the Prisons Research Centre at the Cambridge Institute of Criminology. At no stage have my interests been directed or my findings suppressed. Indeed, the attitude of Prison Service senior managers towards my research has been enlightened and bears no relation to the more domineering, defensive, and manipulative attitudes that other researchers have reported (Wilson 2003; Hope 2004; and, Cohen and Taylor 1977). If this is making a pact with the devil, then, in my particular experience, he seems no less benign than the Research Council gods.

Access and Preparation

Wellingborough was chosen as a research site in consultation with senior practitioners, who decreed it an establishment with no obvious quirks or unusual characteristics but ‘plenty of masculinity’ (Wheatley 2002, pers. comm.). It was also a Category-C prison, and therefore more ‘normal’ (inasmuch as any one prison can be) than the higher-security prisons in which much recent research had taken place (e.g. Sparks et al. 1996; Liebling and Price 2001). Perhaps most importantly, Wellingborough's governor at the time, Peter Bennett, held a PhD in anthropology and understood the aims and requirements of ethnographic research. He was familiar with the prison sociology literature, citing it impressively and with ease. From the outset, Bennett was enthusiastic about hosting the research. In early discussions, he made clear that he would maintain a position of distanced support. There would be no expectations that I would ‘report back’ my observations or disclose confidential information, but he would be willing to comment on my findings and share his own perceptions. Assurances were given that an office would be set aside for the purposes of interviewing and note-taking, and that keys would be provided to allow full and unaccompanied access to all areas of the establishment.

(p.465) Some months before the fieldwork phase began, a meeting was held with members of Wellingborough's senior management team, a principal officer, and a representative from the establishment's POA committee, at which I outlined the aims of the research and solicited views on its conduct. Feedback was positive, although I was warned that the prison environment would be cynical and forthright: ‘People will tell you what you're like and what you're doing wrong. There's too much at stake for people to hold back’ (fieldwork notes). A twomonth pilot study was arranged at HMP Stafford, another Cat-C training prison, where I was given keys and let loose to familiarize myself with the environment and hone my research interests.

This was not my first experience of prison research—I had spent a few days in HMP Styal and HMP Manchester as part of another project—but the learning curve was still precipitous. Within a few days, I had been shown heroin, made the mistake of asking a prisoner for the inside story of a conflict between two other prisoners (and thus learnt how not to obtain information), been told by two prisoners that they were going to ‘set a nigger on fire’, and been approached in the gym by a huge, naked prisoner who demanded to know what I thought of his body.2 To some degree, these incidents were tests, although they were checks on character rather than organized trials. Following the incident in the gym, prisoners encouraged me to lift weights with them and ‘join us afterwards for the showers’, an invitation designed to gauge my belief in assumptions about prison rape. I did not shower with prisoners subsequently, but neither did I react to their suggestion in a manner that suggested fear.3

Little of the prison literature that I had consumed had primed me for these encounters. Nor had the reading prepared me for many important empirical discoveries, such as the role of drugs within the prisoner society and the significance of regional identity. By the end of the pilot phase, it was also clear that although (p.466) men's prisons were suffused with masculine discourse, their social structure could not be reduced to themes of gender. As the study developed, its focus broadened, and while masculinity remained a sensitizing concept, its role in the analysis became less substantial. Having entered the environment fairly naively, I also learned that the prison was a safe environment, that it was not necessary to clutch my bag tightly, and that the most valuable research tools were sincerity and respect. None of these things should have caused surprise, but perhaps it says something about the moral status of prisoners and our decontextualized notions of crime and criminality that to some degree they did.

The research phase in HMP Wellingborough began in August 2002, when, with a team from the Institute of Criminology, I carried out a Quality of Prison Life survey with prisoners and a separate staff survey over a three-day period. This was seen as an opportunity to publicize the research plan, as well as to take a quantitative snapshot of the prison's moral condition. Staff surveys were handed out during a full-staff meeting, ensuring high visibility and maximum participation. Comments among staff that the results might make ‘depressing reading’ were portents of some of the cultural problems that became apparent once the fieldwork progressed. They also signalled a perception that the study was to some degree evaluative, which proved hard to shake off. For staff and prisoners, the key questions were about the prison's quality and practical outcomes rather than its social anatomy, and I had to stress repeatedly that my concerns were not directly of this nature. One hundred prisoners, selected randomly, also completed the questionnaires on the wings in groups of around twelve. When the main fieldwork period began in October, many prisoners remembered me from having taken part in these survey groups.

In the meantime, however, circumstances at the prison had changed and Peter Bennett had vacated the governor's post. As Jim Lewis began his first in-charge governing post, he was landed with a research project that had been agreed by his predecessor and might well feel like an evaluation of his competence. This was a difficult position for all parties, made all the more delicate by the fact that Lewis was in the middle of a two-year, part-time Masters course at the Institute of Criminology on which I occasionally taught.4 (p.467) Gamely and decently, he proclaimed himself happy to allow the study to continue along the same terms that had been originally agreed and retained a supportive stance throughout. Early during his tenure, Lewis requested some informal feedback on my impressions of Wellingborough's deceptively difficult staff culture, and this required some negotiation of terms (e.g. that I would not disclose anything said to me in confidence or talk specifically about individuals). Lewis anticipated and respected these ground-rules, and I did not feel compromised by anything that was discussed at the meeting that followed.

The Fieldwork Phase

Once the main fieldwork period began, I visited the prison no more than four days consecutively. In part, this was to give me some time back in my department to teach, digest findings, and write up notes. It was also because I found myself flagging after several days in what was an intense and demanding environment. I staggered the times at which I was present, doing occasional twelve-hour ‘A-shifts’, but more often staying from 8am–4.30pm or 12.30pm–8.30pm. My presence over several weekends, bank holidays, evenings, and on Christmas day were noted; indeed, they were often mocked, with some prisoners indignant rather than impressed that I was choosing to be in the prison when I could be ‘down the pub’ or ‘with family’. Many scholars have argued that ‘being there’ is vital in prison research (for example, King 2000; Sparks et al. 1996), but it is also worth noting that being there all the time might not always garner respect.

Having consulted with colleagues, I chose to carry keys during the pilot study and in Wellingborough.5 I experienced no resistance or surprise from prisoners about this. If anything, I felt that my autonomy and mobility were seen as indications that I was trusted and self-sufficient (see Jewkes 2002). From the start of the research, I wore a badge identifying my name and institution,6 and carried a distinctive orange notebook (getting through nineteen by the end of the fieldwork) in which I scrawled contemporaneous notes. Only on one occasion was this approach (p.468) problematic, when a handful of prisoners in an association room (all of whom had taken heroin that evening and were somewhat on edge) insisted that I show them what I was writing. Initially, I refused, explaining that if I exhibited the notebook I would be breaking promises of trust made to other prisoners I had been speaking to. Eventually, under some duress, I showed them the two or three pages on which I had been writing only about them. My notes were more or less verbatim and were descriptive rather than analytical, so there seemed more to gain than lose in displaying their words back to them. My fears that other prisoners would start to make the same demands were not borne out.

Another important early decision was to take nothing into or out of the prison on behalf of prisoners (some researchers give away small amounts of tobacco, for example) and to make no promises of help that might make me vulnerable to exploitation or leave prisoners disappointed after an initial pledge of help.7 In the end, I felt no compunction about taking home a small number of items that prisoners had given me: a written life story, a collection of poems, and a copy of a sociology project on which I had offered some guidance. Refusing requests from prisoners to bring in innocuous items such as books or music was much harder.8 Although the idea was to avoid making power disparities the main dynamic of emergent relationships, the effect was sometimes the opposite. My reluctance to do things for prisoners that would have been easy for me and of great value for them actually brought disparities to the fore. As a result, I felt safe from being compromised and consistent in my treatment, but sometimes rather callous.9 Finding the right balance between making interactions with prisoners as egalitarian as possible without eliding evident discrepancies in power and liberty was a constant challenge.

As was consistent with my research stance, I did not offer any payment to prisoners either for talking on the wings or as an incentive to be interviewed. Only one prisoner objected to this condition, arguing that ‘no-one gets nothing for free in prison’, and (p.469) that I should not expect him to give up his time without pay of some kind. I maintained my position, confident that he would recognize its logic and that his repeated assertions that he would not talk to me concealed a strong desire to do so. This was a misjudgment. By the end of the study, he had become increasingly hostile, warning me that he did not trust me, that I was making him feel ‘off-key’, and that he would no longer interact with me at all. Significantly, two other prisoners on this wing (although none on any others, as far as I knew) also expressed hostility and cynicism towards me. One—a prisoner with some influence—accused me of being a ‘spy’ and refused even to hear me explain my position.10 The other pointed out to me that hanging around on the landings was the equivalent of him coming to my house and standing in my living room.

It was hard to dismiss this observation. As Feldman notes, in ‘a culture of surveillance, participant observation is…a form of complicity with those outsiders who surveil (Feldman 1991: 12, cited in Rhodes 2001: 73; and see Wacquant 2002). I felt increasingly uncomfortable about my presence on the wings as an ‘uninvited’ observer. By this time, I had been chatting, joining in, hanging around, and taking notes for around three months (doing what Liebling (1999) calls ‘reserved participation’ and Owen (1998) refers to as ‘quasi-ethnography’). Faced with this dilemma about ‘intrusion’, it seemed a good time to begin more formal interviews and to reduce the amount of time I spent on the wings. As one experienced researcher pointed out (Sparks, pers. comm.), many prisoners might interpret a long period of unstructured engagement as somewhat passive and might respect a more dynamic approach to fieldwork. Meanwhile, in an attempt to build trust and credibility on what was proving to be a difficult wing, I invited a prisoner for interview who I knew to have influence. This strategy seemed to work, and I experienced no subsequent problems of note anywhere in the prison.

Nevertheless, minor challenges and questions remained a daily and demanding occurrence. Many of these related to the basic aims of the research: who and what it was for. At first, I took these to be inquisitions about my independence, and would (p.470) emphasize my university status and Nuffield Foundation funding as guarantees of my credibility and impartiality. It became apparent, however, that most prisoners wanted some sense that the study would ‘make a difference’ and was not just an exercise in intellectual curiosity. Many prisoners respected the notion that research was sometimes ‘for your studies’ or ‘for a book’, but for others this implied careerism and practical impotence. Negotiating such concerns was tricky. I did not want to mislead or promise too much by suggesting that academic research is always a source of transformation or that my work would lead to all of the changes that prisoners desired. Instead, I stressed that the trickle-down of academic knowledge was often slow, but that many practitioners as well as academics were (or would be) interested in my study. I also emphasized that the book hoped to provide a fuller and more accurate sense of the realities of imprisonment than was normally available.11 Prisoners often responded most positively to this latter rationale, noting that members of the public had no idea what prison was really like and took their images from media portrayals that bore little relation to reality.

Questions about loyalties and ‘whose side’ I was on were raised surprisingly rarely, possibly because the research had no obvious policy focus. But I was often asked by prisoners what I thought of ‘nonces’. My first response in such cases was to assert intellectual neutrality, that I was ‘not judging anyone’, but this was clearly inadequate given that the precise aim of the question was to probe my personal morality rather than my professional integrity. On several occasions, I reached an impasse with prisoners, where I insisted that offering opinions was beyond my role, while prisoners demanded a more personal engagement with their enquiry. Since I have always believed that researchers cannot expect personal disclosure without being prepared to give something (p.471) away of themselves, and since I had been open when asked about my marital status, politics, religion, and (most often) salary, there were limits to the immunity I could claim in other areas. The position on which I settled, and which fulfilled a need to be both honest and pragmatic, was to state that I did not like the offences committed by sex offenders, but that the same could be said about the crimes of lots of other prisoners, and that I did not believe that people who did bad things were necessarily bad people.

Other dilemmas raised conflicts about my ethical responsibilities. Many of the moments when I felt most confident of having penetrated the public impression of the prisoner community were also the times when I was placed in the most awkward situations. On the occasions when prisoners offered me hooch, smuggled food in front of me, blocked off a doorway to prevent officers from running to an incident in the visits room, and—without my full understanding of what was occurring—swung drugs on a line from one wing to another, my main reaction was to feel thrilled at being ‘inside’ the situation. Only later did I consider that knowledge of this kind could be dangerous, that it made me complicit in incidents that could have serious implications. It was hard to know whether they threatened the terms on which I had agreed the study. I was confident that governors understood that I could not be expected to report illicit activity, but I was less sure how officers would feel were they to know all of the things that I knew and had seen. Because they never asked me, I was able to exist in a convenient state of academic purgatory, where my knowledge remained in private storage where it was unprocessed and unjudged.

Of more concern was the potential for prisoners to associate me with disciplinary interventions. On one occasion, as I stood at the end of a spur chatting to three prisoners while they took turns to smoke heroin in a cell, an officer came into view and approached us with suspicion. Unconvincingly, the prisoners explained that they were doing nothing more than standing around talking. I maintained an awkward silence. The next day, two of the prisoners were called up for targeted drug tests, for which they tested positive and were placed on report. I emphasized to them the next day that I had said nothing to officers after the incident, but, despite their reassurances of faith, I was anxious for several days that they would think I had been pressured into disclosure or simply that my presence had drawn staff attention to the landing.

(p.472) Research identity and loyalties

The incident—about four months into the research—precipitated a candid discussion with Callum about how I was perceived by prisoners at that time:

Not everybody is too sure about you. It's because you're an outsider. You know I got that piss test the morning after you saw me smoking that gear, people turned around and said: ‘That was Ben’. I said: ‘Really, no, it wasn't’; ‘How do you know that?’; ‘Trust me, Ben has seen me doing a lot of things that I haven't got into trouble for’.

Does that mean that when I'm on the landings people stop doing the things that they would be doing?

Some do. You know how people sit in their pad with the door open slightly and they're in there playing cards. [When] you go by, some people push the door to a little bit so you can't quite see what's going on. That's just the suspicious nature of inmates. Nobody is quite sure where you stand, you're not an inmate and you're not a screw, so what the fuck are you doing here? A lot of people can't understand why you're here and when you say you're writing a report they all think, ‘Shit, the screws will read it’.

But it's not a report where I'm going to mention people's names‥

…I know and I tell that to people but they're just suspicious. A lot of people are in here because they weren't suspicious enough. It's how it goes. Some people do tone it down when you're around. [You're] Trying to research something that don't really want to be researched.

Well, keep telling them on the wing I'm a good guy.

Tyler is fighting your case, [and] Tyler is a respected lad.

I'm surprised people talk about this.

We were talking about it this morning: what the fuck are you doing [it] for?! It's sad, man!

The exchange shone light on the kinds of backstage discussions that must occur in all research contexts. It also highlighted the intrinsic difficulties of conducting research in an environment where caution and mistrust are deeply embedded and where volunteering one's presence seems peculiar. Gaining trust was an iterative process. Prisoners like Tyler and Callum, who were among my early ‘sponsors’, tended to be among my first interviewees. Their willingness to be interviewed was based on observing my style and judging my credibility on the wings, as Tyler explained when I asked him why he had agreed to the interview:

I don't know, I spoke to you on the wing a few times, innit. Thought you were alright, not heard nobody say: ‘Oh yeah he's said my business to (p.473) somebody else’…. You know, it just happens that we've spoke a few times on the wing and I find you a pretty sensible fella. You know, so I don't really mind—we've spoke on the landing, I see how you've spoke with other people, I've seen how you've dealt with them: you've heard them, you've listened to them, you've got your own points of view.

By the end of the fieldwork phase, I felt very comfortable in the environment and familiar with a large proportion of prisoners. If I stood along the education corridor during movement to work and activities, around half of the prisoners who passed would give me acknowledgement of some kind (‘How ya doing?’, ‘Wha g'wan Ben?!’, or just a nodded hello). Most of the others I knew by face, if not name. I derived considerable satisfaction from this level of acceptance and from having such a clearly defined identity. Whether this represented trust was harder to tell, but I certainly felt I had become part of the prison's everyday furniture. When a prisoner who resembled me entered the prison after several months of my presence, he was given the nickname ‘Ben junior’.12

Prisoners recognized that my class roots and experiences were very different from theirs. I was ‘straight’ (i.e. law-abiding), a ‘college boy’, and was often reminded that my accent and demeanour conveyed important social distinctions. When I asked questions using myself as an illustration, prisoners would often dismiss the plausibility of my examples: ‘You're not the same as us, Ben!’ (Danny); ‘Street life is a whole different ball game to working a job from sixteen to thirty’ (prisoner, fieldwork notes). Questions about my background often led to comical acknowledgements of the different worlds that we inhabited. When I told one prisoner that I had once lived in the Barbican, he responded with delight: ‘The Barbican?! I used to burgle around the Barbican!’ Another prisoner talked of the wonderful cheese that was served in King's (p.474) College, Cambridge, before admitting that he used to steal it from their kitchens. But these distinctions did not seem to be a barrier to disclosure or rapport, and they often allowed me to ask questions from the position of the informed outsider.13

Prisoners ascribed to me three main roles beyond my position as a researcher. The first of these was that of the ‘expert’: an advisor on matters about which I almost always had less expertise than they assumed, such as how to obtain housing or benefits on release. After interviews, a number of men asked me forlornly whether I thought there was anything ‘really wrong’ with them. I always said no to these questions, while pointing out that I did not have any psychological or psychiatric qualifications with which to provide reliable insight.14 The second identity was that of the ‘straight guy’, someone whose views and ambitions were of value to men seeking to go straight. A number of prisoners enquired about the time and commitment it would take them to obtain further qualifications. Others asked questions about ethical dilemmas (such as the circumstances when informing to staff might be the right thing to do), using me as a benchmark of pro-social conduct. The final role was that of the ‘fellow scholar’ (Jewkes 2002), someone with whom personal theories of crime and criminality or broader intellectual interests could be discussed. My ignorance about some of these topics—which ranged from Shakespearian poetry to Nordic mythology—often came as a disappointment to prisoners, but I tried hard to provide a sounding board for men who were otherwise mentally isolated.

In relation to staff, my research identity was friendly but ‘professional’. Officers certainly accepted me and were extremely welcoming, but there were limits to the degree that I was embraced by them. Unlike other researchers, I was not invited to birthday parties or retirement drinks, or confided in about personal issues. In truth, I was not especially eager to spend my free time at (p.475) prison-related functions, but I certainly did not seek to place distance between myself and prison staff. Nor would they have perceived me as unfriendly, I am fairly sure. But officers rarely asked me questions about myself: my marital status or what I did with my weekends. I suspect that I was seen as a rather self-contained researcher, there above all to ‘do a job’. In this respect, I think I was also fairly successful. Staff often joked that they had stopped noticing me and that I ‘ghosted’ across the wings. One senior offi cer, not known for readily giving praise, introduced me to a new member of staff as someone who ‘we treated with the scepticism that we treat every outsider with, but who has earned our respect’. I had ‘not pissed people off’, which was unusual for a ‘civilian’, and, most importantly, I had ‘known when to piss off –when you might be better off just leaving it’. No doubt, with more tenacity and bravery, I could have probed staff cultures and perceptions more deeply, but these were not my main concerns.

I had few moral anxieties about trying to uphold multiple loyalties and extending empathy both to the prison's sub- and super-ordinates (Liebling 2001), but I had some practical concerns about maintaining neutrality in such a binary environment. In fact, this was less problematic than I had expected. Prisoners recognized my reliance on staff goodwill, while staff knew that my primary interest was the world of prisoners. Both groups appreciated that I could not understand each without the other. Wellingborough's staff-prisoner relationships were not so antagonistic that they compelled the taking of sides. On occasions, however, the occupational culture of officers did test my ability to restrain my outrage. Early in the study, two officers joked in front of me about the recent suicide of a prisoner (‘Can I hang around for the morning?’—‘I wouldn't ask that on G-wing!’). On another occasion, when one officer moaned about having to check on a prisoner who was known as a prolific self-harmer, another joked that the prisoner might be busy ‘having a slash’.15 It is normal for researchers to have ‘well-bitten tongues’ (Gelsthorpe, pers. comm.), but at times I felt ashamed of the collusive silences that I (p.476) maintained. I found myself more at ease socially with the prison's teaching staff and management team than I did with basic grade staff. But like other researchers (Jewkes 2002), I also felt considerable sympathy for most officers given the emotional demands of the job, and marvelled at the patience and humanity with which many of them operated. When a member of Wellingborough's POA committee died suddenly during the fieldwork period, I was moved by the strength of camaraderie that officers displayed.16

In truth, I was far more comfortable interviewing than observing. I found the latter activity an intrusive and insecure form of fieldwork. Often, I felt that the ‘real’ prison was eluding me, that I was missing what was going on, and that the action was ‘somewhere else’. In a prison with seven wings, plus workshops, classrooms, and other communal spaces, it was difficult to cover all areas without compromising the depth of understanding that makes ethnographic work distinctive. Meanwhile, the study's breadth meant that I had no obvious lens through which to concentrate my gaze, leaving my field of vision blurred and unfocused. I was also under no illusion that I was able to observe the prison in its ‘natural state’. As my exchange with Callum (above) indicated, many prisoners modified their behaviour in my presence, even if only modestly.

Despite these difficulties, I have come to see the observational phase as a much more vital part of the study than it felt at the time. In terms of its analytic detail, this book is fairly reliant on interviews, but the tones and texture of prison life that it tries to convey required direct and sustained immersion. The observational period also laid the foundations on which the quality of the interviews was built. By the time they were conducted, I was familiar with prison language, rules, and rituals. Rapport and understanding were enhanced considerably by my having been present in certain locations, such as prisoners' cells, education classes, the visits room, and the segregation unit. These were places where prisoners showed aspects of themselves that they suppressed on the wings, and where experiences were so particular or intimate that they enabled discussions of personal (p.477) issues such as family relationships, future hopes, and sentiments of pain or shame. I had paid particular attention to these areas at the beginning of the fieldwork, in order to become familiar to a small number of prisoners before entering the more impersonal and chaotic domains of the prison, such as the wings and workshops. This strategy seemed to pay dividends. In interviews, I frequently probed the discrepancies between public and private identities, and between stated identities and observed actions (see Crewe and Maruna 2006).

One of the claims of ethnography is that it makes possible a form of learning that is direct and experiential. It would be facile to claim that this is the norm in prison research, given the barriers to cultural assimilation, but prison researchers do soak up important aspects of the environment, albeit in diluted ways. Some experiences greatly accelerated and intensified my understanding of a world that I otherwise absorbed more remotely. On one occasion, having asked an officer to inform the prison gardener that I would be interviewing one of the prisoners who worked for him, I had a taste of the frustration that prisoners feel when officers make promises but do not deliver. The officer did not phone, and I was later called to the E-wing office to explain to an irate gardener why he was missing one of his prisoners.17 A more instructive lesson came during an interview with Callum, with whom I had struck up rapport early in the fieldwork. As I returned from the hot water urn, where I had refilled our mugs, I apologized for the mistrust implied in my obligation to lock him out of my office during what was an absence of no more than a minute. The interview resumed, covering questions about Callum's background and identity. The following extract captures the difference between my and his understanding of our relationship, and my surprise at being confronted with social realities that most prisoners took for granted. This was a direct lesson in the limitations of prison ‘friendship’ and it attuned me to the prison's emotional economy:

I ain't under no illusions or nothing, I ain't Robin Hood, robbing the rich to feed the poor. I'm robbing every fucker to feed me. And even if I've got enough food in the cupboard, I'm still gonna rob ya. D'you know what I mean. [laughs]…if you'd have left me in here, while you'd gone down (p.478) to [the urn], I'd have looked at that [minidisc recorder]. I wouldn't have taken that, cos I'd know that you'd notice that as soon as you'd come back. I'd have looked at that [radio] and thought, right, you'd have noticed that when you'd come back. So I'd have gone through all the drawers, seen what was in there, d'you know what I mean. I might not have took anything, but I'd have looked anyway. And I'd have probably took half the coffee.

Even though…?

…Even though we're friends…? [laughs]

Well [stumbling], I wouldn't necessarily have assumed that, but we get on, y'know, we've talked a few times.

Mm-hm. But it's the circumstances I'm in, y'know, I'm in jail, my canteen don't come in till Friday, I ain't got no coffee. You've got a great big jar of it, you're not gonna miss half of it. I'm not gonna take the whole lot, because you're gonna notice that, and that would just bring trouble on me. But you're not gonna miss a couple of cups of it.

Right, okay, if I came back and saw that you'd nicked half my coffee, I wouldn't tell anyone, and it's not going to break my bank—it's only a bit of coffee. But I'd think: ‘I thought we got on’. I'd feel like you'd broken our trust, or something like that. That's all. I'm not saying I don't understand…

I know, I know exactly what you're saying.

[Joking] Or I'd come to your pad and steal some back….

I'd offer! Feel free, it's happening all the time.

What, pad-thieving?

I've had loads of stuff stolen out my cell cos of the open-door policy here. It's never big things though, cos you notice big things going missing and you'd go fucking mental. Say I've got a bag of sugar on the side, one of those ounce bags, next to it I'll have a little jar where I've been putting all my sachets…. I'll come back in a couple of days and open my sugar and it's: ‘Hold on, I had about six in here, but now I've only got one serving’. You don't automatically think ‘I've been robbed’, you think: ‘Fucking hell, what's happened there’. But what it is, is somebody next door, who you get along with, is sat there and he's thinking, ‘Oh, I need a bit of sugar for this jug of tea—Callum's got a load’, d'you know what I mean: ‘Yeah, Callum won't mind. I'd better not touch [the big packet], better not open that, cos he'll probably go mad, but he keeps a bit in that barrel—yeah, yeah, take that’…. How did we get on to that?

We got on to that because we were talking about you stealing my coffee.

[Laughs] But it's nowt personal though, d'you know what I mean. It's nothing personal.

(p.479) But it might feel personal.

You're never gonna look at me in the same light again, are you? [Laughs]

No, no, that's not true at all.

Obviously I'm not gonna leave you on your arse, cos, like I says, you're not gonna miss a couple of cups of coffee, but it'll make my life that much more bearable.

As Paul Rock (1979) suggests, researchers should acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that, to some degree, they are mining their respondents for their analytic yield. Prisoners know that this is the case. They are much more likely to open up to people who treat them as equals, but they are all too aware that their relationships with outsiders are fundamentally structured by the essential difference between being captive and being free.


The inclusion of this extract is in part an attempt to provide an unpolished account of the interview process, a process that was most productive when it was messier and less disciplined than methodological textbooks tend to recommend. Rigid allegiance to an interview protocol is necessary in some contexts, but it is no substitute for the peculiar form of structured disorder that characterizes conversation. And while there are dangers in mistaking conversation for research or believing that equal exchange is likely in the research context, the skin of the environment is most likely to be pierced when the interview space approximates unfettered dialogue. Under such conditions, one has the feeling that ‘findings’ are evolving dynamically and collaboratively. The social experience is being made sense of, not simply downloaded from one person to another. Connections emerge naturally between apparently unrelated issues (low-level cell theft and friendship, for example), in ways that are theoretically signifi cant. This requires some level of affective engagement, and it often means intervening to clarify meanings, push for elaboration and check responses against what has been observed in the field.18 (p.480) None of this precludes the interviewer from periodically consulting the schedule, nor from ensuring consistency in the content and approach of the interview. But there may always be some tradeoff between strict scientific rigour and rapport, and thus between traditional notions of reliability and validity.

Interviews were conducted in a small office that had been converted from cell-space some years earlier on E-wing, the prison's induction unit. At my request, it contained a lockable filing cabinet (although, in fact, I removed all materials as I left the prison each day), a desk, two chairs, and a kettle, with which I was allowed to make tea or coffee for myself and prisoners during interviews. A small window looked out onto one of the prison's exercise yards, towards the VTU. A sign which read ‘Dr Ben Crewe, Criminolgist [sic], Cambridge University’ was placed on the door.19 I did little at first to decorate the room, only choosing to spruce it up with posters after one interviewee described it as ‘pretty fucking depressing’ and another highlighted the connotations of having a room that was essentially bare:

I was surprised when I came in here—you've got eight shelves and the only thing that's on them is paint. I was shocked. If you came into my cell, and you seen me with the same sort of set up with nothing in there, you'd think to yourself: ‘Hasn't he got any possessions?’ If you've been in two years, if you've got nothing you're either not quite well in the head, a bit of a tramp, or you're just a dickhead. (Tyler)

Before interviews began, interviewees were asked to read and sign a consent form. I explained the aims of the research, my powerlessness to influence their sentence conditions, the terms of anonymity and data use, and my responsibilities in terms of confi dentiality. As is standard, this meant stressing that I would be obliged to report any information relating to serious harm to self or others or a serious security breach (i.e. an escape). I had some concerns that this process formalized the interview situation unnecessarily, but was glad of terms that would offer protection and helped avoid compromising situations.

Two kinds of interviews were conducted with prisoners: a lifehistory interview and a prison interview. The former was conducted (p.481) with forty prisoners, and generally built upon relationships already established during the observational stage of the research. The prison interview was conducted with all interviewees with the exception of two prisoners, one of whom was released before we could organize a follow-up to his life-history interview and one who, having participated in the life-history interview, asked to withdraw participation.

In all then, there were seventy-two prisoner interviewees, of whom forty were interviewed about their life stories and their prison experiences, two about their life stories only, and thirty about their prison experiences with only brief biographical description. Both kinds of interview lasted on average two and a half hours—the morning or afternoon time-slot—such that forty prisoners were interviewed for five hours or more overall and some for much longer once supplementary interviews are accounted for. Thirty-five interviewees were chosen based on personal relationships developed in the field. The others were selected randomly or according to a stratified sampling technique that sought to ensure some balance between prisoners from different wings and ethnic backgrounds. Ten interviewees were Afro-Caribbean, four were of South Asian descent, and three had mixed-race backgrounds.20 Only two were foreign national prisoners, reflecting the low proportion of foreign nationals in the establishment.

The life history interviews were relatively unstructured. During the pilot study, I had used a modified version of the McAdams (1995) protocol, but had found the focus on events such as ‘peaks’ and ‘turning points’ too specific to capture the texture of prisoners’ lives. Some interviewees had struggled to organize their life descriptions as a series of ‘chapters’. Their lives had been chaotic, and imposing this framework constrained them into conceptual timeframes that did not capture their experiences. The format I therefore developed was more open and chronologically linear than the McAdams schedule. Before interviews began, I explained that we had the entire morning or afternoon available to talk, that I was interested in their life histories rather than their criminal histories, and that I was particularly keen to understand the key people and events in their lives so far. Interviewees were asked to start by describing their family lives and backgrounds, with (p.482) their responses used to help pace the rest of the interview (often, interviewees provided accelerated descriptions, upon which I then encouraged them to expand).

Subsequent questions focused on daily life, aims, personality, and key influences, with interviewees given relative freedom to elaborate as they saw fit and talk through their lives chronologically. Prompts were used primarily to encourage interviewees to reflect on their aims, motivations and key influences during significant life stages or events, and to cover questions around schooling, family and criminal career. Most interventions were clarifications, follow-up probes, or simply nods of encouragement and attempts at empathy. Towards the end of the interviews, a number of stand-alone questions were asked (some based on the McAdams schedule) about when interviewees felt they had become ‘a man rather than a boy’, what they were most proud of and most regretted in their lives, their current self-image, any key turning points, any social, political or religious issues which were important in them, and visions they had of the future.

The prison interviews were more structured and sought to cover a wide range of issues that would incorporate the concerns of the classic ethnographies, while taking account of the particularities of the institutional context, and some new concerns such as drug culture, relationships with female staff and masculinity. The main areas were: adaptive strategies and orientations, relationships with prison staff, social relationships, hierarchies and loyalties, everyday values and attitudes, drug culture, and the pains and problems of prison life. Inevitably, the interview schedule changed as questions were eliminated or rephrased. A form of language soon developed that translated abstract questions into more mundane terms. As is also usual, as I became more accustomed to certain pacings and patterns of response, I was more able to relax into the interview without nagging anxieties about whether all topics would be ‘covered’ within the limited timeframe provided by the prison routine.

Using a recording device undoubtedly altered the dynamics of the interaction. Some prisoners visibly formalized their demeanour when the minidisc player was switched on, and were clearly conscious of the microphone for an initial period. On a couple of occasions, when I announced the date and place as the interview began, prisoners joked that this reproduced the dynamics of the police station. Clearly, this was not the tone I was trying to create. (p.483) But interviewees quickly lost their self-consciousness and the benefits of verbatim transcription and being fully engaged within the interview room far outweighed the drawbacks of the initial hesitations that the recorder produced. Indeed, as other researchers have reported (Jewkes 2002), prisoners were remarkably, sometimes disarmingly, candid, frequently disclosing histories of personal abuse within minutes of starting to talk, and without any prompting on my part.

As each interview began to wind down, I asked prisoners whether they had been surprised by anything they had said, whether there were issues they wanted to discuss further, and whether they had any questions for me. The responses at this stage fell into three patterns, each implying a different role that the interview appeared to play. For some prisoners, it was an interesting diversion, a rare opportunity to reflect on a world that they had come to take for granted: ‘I know it might sound a bit daft’, said Darren, ‘but when you asked “what do you think of when you're banged behind that door at night?”, I'd never thought about that really’. These prisoners hoped that their contributions had been ‘useful’ or noted with satisfaction that the interview had given them new kinds of social insight.21 A second common response was for prisoners to observe that the interview had provided them with some kind of personal insight into their current situation or future ambitions: ‘It's made me look at where I am a lot more’, said Isaac.

For a larger group, the interview seemed to have a therapeutic purpose. It was ‘a good talk’ (Ian), an opportunity ‘to get things off your chest, to tell people how you feel, because it's a harsh environment really, it's not a caring environment’ (Rhys). Many prisoners expressed surprise at their own candour, noting that they had ‘never opened up to anyone like that before’ (Kieran). Tyler commented that he had been in prison for ten years, ‘and there's things I've told you today I ain't told no cunt, never. Cos I don't think I can trust them. Because they are part of the Prison Service.’ A large proportion of prisoners said that there was (p.484) no-one in the prison with whom they could ‘fully relax’ and talk about personal matters. It says more about the emotional deficits of the prison than about any skill on my part that my office seemed to be an oasis of relative trust. Prison researchers benefit in uncomfortable ways from their perceived neutrality and from their willingness to listen in an environment where information really is power, and sympathetic outlets are at a premium.

Once interviewees had left the wing, officers regularly offered their own views of them: ‘the biggest drug dealer in the prison’, ‘a bully’, or ‘a good lad’. As institutional accounts of how prisoners were perceived, these were useful descriptions, and were often consistent with what prisoners had disclosed. When they were incongruous, I had no means of checking competing versions. I did not consult prison files for three reasons: because they are so often inaccurate, because prisoners’ index offences and criminal histories were not especially relevant to my concerns, and because I felt it would betray prisoners if I were ‘checking’ written records behind their backs.

Leaving the Field and Writing Up

I was certainly affected by the research process, which was intense, consuming, and at times distressing. Good prison research demands considerable affective presence (Liebling 2001), and time is often (and rightly) spent putting one's research interests to one side while a prisoner describes how his parole hearing panned out or his anguish at losing custody of his children. Much of the distress in men's prisons is submerged beneath surface interactions, creating an environment that is superficially calm yet highly charged. This combination produces an oppressive consistency, whose basis is hard to identify, but whose effects I experienced as a sense of dread as I approached the prison and a sense of release as I drove away. It was the transition into the environment, from one world to another, which generated these feelings. Once I was inside the establishment, they quickly disappeared.

Watching my steps, justifying my presence, and trying to keep my practical and intellectual wits as sharp as possible was draining work. There were few opportunities for ‘down-time’. Once established in the prison, I became a lightning rod for complaints and grievances from staff as well as prisoners. The prison's sociology and philosophy classes served as valuable ‘rest zones’, where I could re-charge energy and ideas without having to participate (p.485) too actively in discussions. Outside the prison, I was often too tired to socialize on weekdays. At weekends, when letting off steam, I drank more than normal, and I was so hungry to make sense of my experiences that, in conversation, I leapt upon the slightest indication of genuine interest in my research.22 I did not reach the point of compassion fatigue that some researchers report, but I was aware that, after a day in the prison conducting lengthy, personal interviews, my capacity to listen was depleted. My ego was hungry for its own attention. As it is for prisoners to a much, much greater degree, the prison was isolating and allencompassing. It is still a total institution of sorts.

I left the field fairly suddenly, having let relevant staff and prisoners know that I was going. On one of my final visits, I presented E-wing staff with some matching mugs from Habitat, a present that overwhelmed them less than I had expected. Possibly, they were just not the sort of mugs that were appropriate to the environment—too small and too decorative. My intention was to return within a few weeks to conduct more staff interviews. In the medium term, I planned to maintain regular contact with the prison by reporting early findings to the sociology class and bringing in outside speakers for evening talks and discussions. Events and other demands intervened, but, in truth, once I returned to the routines of departmental life, the impetus to revisit the prison was lost. Normality was a relief. In the two years that followed, I negotiated research access for two MPhil students and organized several group visits, in which we toured the prison and discussed readings with the prisoner sociology class over tea and biscuits.23 The events reinforced my memories of the warmth of (p.486) the environment, although the turnover of prisoners meant that there were few faces I recognized. The prison was no longer mine, and other establishments soon took over as the research sites of choice.

The subsequent lag between fieldwork and publication has been considerable, and is of some regret. As time has elapsed, the feel of the prison, its everyday noises, language, and rituals, have become less vivid. At times, I have worried that my ability to see the prison has weakened. It has become much harder to conjure up the prison's strange combination of stupor and vitality, tension and conviviality. But as immediate impressions have faded, their lines have been redrawn in terms that are less descriptive and more analytical, less anecdotal and more sociological. This is a different kind of vision, perhaps even a different form of knowledge, but it is what academic accounts are obliged to provide and it requires conceptual digestion and rumination. This was a highly inductive study, with few initial hypotheses and very broad objectives, and these characteristics slowed the process by which the conceptual meaning of the data became perceptible.

To avoid collusion in what Cohen and Taylor call the ‘temporal fiction’ by which research is normally presented, some comments should be offered about the route to the final text. Following the fieldwork period, interviews were transcribed in full and coded using NVivo software. Earlier publications based on this study illustrated the futility of trying to describe prison culture as a uniform entity, but at their time of writing, the typology that structures this book had not been developed.24 Its emergence was sparked largely by the literature on penal order—in particular, Sparks et al. (1996), Carrabine (2004), Bosworth and Carrabine (2001)—and texts such as Abercrombie et al. (1990), Wrong (2002) and Scott (1990), all of which aided my reflections on issues of power, order, and resistance. Once the typology of adaptive styles emerged, it brought into relief the social fault-lines of the prisoner community.

Prisons are ‘raw, and sometimes desperate, special places’ (Liebling 1999: 152), and the language found in them—what Sykes and Messinger called the ‘pungent argot of the dispossessed’ (p.487) (1960: 11)—reflects these conditions. Terms are vibrant, direct, and decisive and, among prisoners in particular, they are unadorned by cliché. The extremity of the environment exposes values and priorities, and strips away extraneous and superficial forms of expression. Language is used economically, as if, by necessity, words really have to capture what they mean. It is curious that many of the classic prison ethnographies are written with minimal use of prisoner testimonies.25 The liberal employment of direct quotations in this book is, to some degree, an ethical decision.26 Prison researchers are rightly dismissive of prurient interests in the prison, but its intellectual attraction is undoubtedly linked to its extremity—the variation in human behaviour ‘from compassion and wisdom to abuse and life-threatening violence’ that it harbours (Liebling 1999: 152). The line between voyeuristic curiosity and ethical inquisition is not always clear, but one difference lies in the distinction between a tone that essentially distances and objectifies prisoners, and one that extends empathy and understanding (what Weber calls ‘Verstehen’). The marginalization of prisoners from popular notions of citizenship means that their views have become disqualified knowledge (Morgan 1999). To convey their basic humanity and represent their experiences is a moral obligation.

The second aim of including so many excerpts is to evidence interpretations and give flesh to the more abstract conceptualizations that sociological analysis requires. It is for this reason too that interviewees are referred to throughout the text through pseudonymous names rather than abstract designations (e.g. ‘male, 25, Midlands’). I hope that my use of case studies gives readers a sense of prisoners that goes beyond disembedded statements and demographic variables. No attempt has been made to disguise the identity of the prison, for I share King and Elliott's (1977) view (p.488) that, in single-prison studies, guarantees of institutional anonymity are pointless.

I have been reluctant to foreground myself in the analysis itself, not because I think my identity was irrelevant to the study, but because my identity was not what the study was about. To some degree, no doubt, the slant of my findings and the nature of my interactions were shaped by my subjectivity and positioning, but I do not believe that they were merely outcomes of these things. It is important to avoid the ‘reflexive spiral’ where self-examination spills over into anecdotalism and apologetic subjectivism. When undertaken carefully and critically, qualitative research can go quite some way in uncovering the objective realities of the social world. There is too much to lose in self-indulgence. Likewise, there is too much at stake for research interests to remain at a level of intellectual abstraction. The prison is fascinating in part because of its social and interpersonal intensity—the manner in which it concentrates social life into such a compressed space, and creates iceberg identities whose appearances are deceptive and whose depths are submerged. The human costs of this environment are massive. We overuse prisons blindly, at our peril.

Written contact was maintained with three prisoners, all of whom feature heavily in this book. George wrote careful, rather formal letters as he moved towards release. Some described the simple joys of being in an open prison after many years in closed conditions: ‘Being able to stroll through an avenue of trees with banks of wild grasses and flowers at either side down towards the lake to study the geese and ducks.’ Others offered comment on the process of reintegration into a society that no longer exhibited the ‘consensus/welfarism of pre-Thatcher days’. George's comments on the draft articles that I sent to him were tentative and humble, as reflected the self-effacing manner that long-term captivity had produced in him. By 2006, he had written to let me know that ‘after being constrained to live half of my life in prison’ he was ‘finally a free man!’, but contact was lost soon thereafter.

Like George, Nathan at first wrote mainly about the banal pleasures of a more open institution—walking on an uphill gradient, seeing the sky at night:

I sat out the back of the main housing unit, and stared into a cloudless night sky. There were stars. For the first time since I was nineteen, I could (p.489) see the stars. Tension gone. Fear gone. The weight of the years…gone! I don't think the profundity of that moment will ever leave me.

Both George and Nathan were struck by how accustomed they had become to the effects of confinement. Nathan described closed conditions as ‘an unmoving reality of oppressive greydom’, and was struck by the feeling of a ‘weight being lifted’ on arrival in the Cat-D environment. Both men felt reawakened from the identities they had developed in conditions they now portrayed as ‘tense’ and ‘infantilizing’. On release, Nathan returned to a supportive family and reintegrated with remarkable success, despite daily difficulties—not just in terms of finding employment or adjusting to a much-changed world, but in creating a plausible public narrative when strangers questioned him about his past. Still, the biggest surprise to him was that male toilets in pubs were no less revolting than when he had entered prison in the early 1990s.

Alfie and I corresponded only twice in the few months after the fieldwork before he was released. In his first letter, he described his family's doubts about his ability to stay drugfree in the community. The second letter struck a more positive tone, but, despite the pledge that he would write after a few weeks of his ‘sojourn into the “real world”’, nothing followed. With characteristic honesty, Alfie had told me that if ever I were to meet him on drugs in the community, I would hate him, so I had some ambivalence about the break in contact.27 But I assume with great sadness that he is either back on drugs, back in prison, or no longer alive. I like to remember him with the optimism of the sign-off from his second letter, an excerpt from Max Ehrmann's Desiderata:

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence…

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,

it is still a beautiful world. (p.490)


(1) Initially, I wondered if the only significant link between my doctoral research and the prison study was a concern with masculinity and a preference for qualitative methods. My feeling now is that both projects were fundamentally concerned with issues of structure and agency, and with the relationship between institutional constraints and individual narratives.

(2) One female colleague complained that she had spent a decade doing research in prison but had ‘never seen a naked man’ in prison during that period. The story was also, somehow, mistranslated so that a rumour emerged in my department that (for reasons that were unclear) I was the one who had stripped off in the prison gym.

(3) At the end of interviews, several prisoners expressed surprise that I had asked so few questions about rape and homosexual relations. When pushed as to why, they made clear that these were not significant issues in men's prisons, but that they had expected me to assume that they were.

(4) In some seminars, I was discussing Wellingborough in front of its governor and his professional peer group, a situation that was rather unnerving for all involved.

(5) These gave full access to all public areas of the prison, but not to cells.

(6) Officers did not wear name badges, so this strategy marked me out effectively.

(7) Some prisoners suggested that I could traffic drugs for them, although they did so in ways that could be defended as jokes.

(8) To have brought in anything would have constituted illegal trafficking.

(9) Consistency was vital because accusations of favouritism would have been very hard to disprove.

(10) It was not clear who he thought I was spying for, but the accusation did make me reflect on the research role and the practical reality that a researcher is engaged in a certain kind of sociological espionage.

(11) Most prisoners were flabbergasted when I told them not to expect the book to be published for at least a couple of years, but they understood that research needed to be rigorous and took time to process. Several prisoners expressed an interest in reading the final product and gave me addresses to which I could send the manuscript or give notice of its publication. Draft copies of articles were sent for comment to two prisoners, and, at various times, to members of Wellingborough's senior management team and to Phil Wheatley, Director General of the Prison Service, as well as to academic peers. Practitioners were told that their comments would be taken into account in any re-drafting but that I offered no guarantee of making editorial changes except where they identified factual errors.

(12) I was not aware of being given any particular nickname, but was often scrutinized in terms of my clothes and research role. I received occasional compliments about my clothing, but was more often teased for looking like ‘a student’, in smart casual clothing, rather than the preferred style in prison of comfortable tracksuits or designer leisure wear. One governor suggested that I ‘smarten up a little’ in order to differentiate myself from prisoners. I was the same age as many of them and my hair was very short. However, I was keen not to look like a member of staff or seem uncomfortable in my appearance. On several occasions, staff briefly identified me as a prisoner, including me in head counts in education classes for example. Prisoners enjoyed such confusions, while staff were needlessly apologetic.

(13) I suspect that my class identity also shielded me from being drawn into some of the kinds of misogynist discourse that other researchers have reported (e.g. Thurston 1996). I did encounter some very reactionary views, but perhaps fewer than I had expected. I was often asked about my own private life, but rarely in ways that felt intrusive. On the one occasion, on an exercise yard at HMP Stafford, when a prisoner began asking me explicit questions about when I had last had sex with my girlfriend, he was bundled out of conversation by his peers, who were both amused and embarrassed by the nature of his interrogation.

(14) Indeed, because of the mistrust that prisoners feel towards psychologists, I made a point of stressing as often as possible that I was a sociologist.

(15) The following discussion between officers occurred a few minutes later:

‘Is he alright?’

‘He's just manipulating staff. I don't think we should kowtow to him’.

‘He's a wanker’. [senior officer]

‘He doesn't even cut up properly, he just slashes’.

(16) I chose to attend the funeral because, to some degree, it was a prison event and an opportunity to show that I was more than just a research tourist. Nonetheless, it was difficult not to feel like something of an interloper given that I barely knew the man who had died.

(17) E-wing stafflater commented that they were pleased to see me get some sense of the pressures they were under not to make mistakes.

(18) I felt very strongly that it was important not to appear morally judgmental, and yet there were times when it would have been not just difficult but also rather unnatural to have repressed surprise and shock, or to have withheld opinions when pushed to give them.

(19) One day, I arrived to find ‘all you screws can fuck off’ scrawled on the sign, which I did not take personally (indeed, I did not think the comment was aimed at me, although it may have been) but which one of the prison governors was deeply apologetic about and insisted was removed immediately.

(20) Of course, many more prisoners from all these minority groups were talked to during informal interactions.

(21) Many prisoners expressed anxiety about whether their ‘answers’ were ‘good enough’ or what I was ‘looking for’. Two interviews had to be halted for short periods, when prisoners said they were feeling paranoid and insecure. In such situations, conventional notions of informed consent felt rather inadequate, but I did not believe that terminating the process entirely would have been any more helpful than continuing, with sensitivity.

(22) Much of the interest I generated was sincere but ill-informed, or sought out only the ‘juicy stories’ about prison violence or brutality. It was worryingly easy to be tempted into rehearsing these tales. I also ‘saw’ crime and its consequences everywhere, or, at least, felt much more sensitized to suspicious activity and the visible signs of the drugs economy.

(23) In a letter that I received following a student visit, the prison tutor reported that her students were ‘still buzzing about mixing with your students. I sensed that the whole event had a positive effect, but feedback has totally confirmed it—many aspire to continue studying sociology at a higher level. It appears that the visit made them realize what they were missing out on. It was quite a party and made a good afternoon “out” for them’. One prisoner had reported that, in all his time in prison, he had ‘never experienced anything as bizarre’ as what became a kind of mannered tea party, with one sixteen-stone armed robber volunteering to ‘be mum’ by taking charge of the teapot.

(24) I am referring in particular to Crewe 2005a and Crewe 2006b, in which attempts were made to differentiate prisoners' attitudes towards grassing and relationships with staff.

(25) The Society of Captives, for example, includes only a smattering of direct quotations, a decision which no doubt reflected the functionalist tendency to discount ‘meaning’. The preference for objective language does not prevent Sykes from conveying the feel of the prison with remarkable clarity and sensitivity.

(26) Where quotations have been edited in minor ways—the removal of ‘ums’, ‘ers’ or incoherent digressions, for example—no indication is given within the text. Where more significant editing has occurred, this is denoted by a short line of dots (i.e.….). Occasionally, excerpts from different stages of an interview have been spliced together in the same passage, but the integrity of meaning has not been altered.

(27) On one occasion, I bumped into two Wellingborough ex-prisoners in Cambridge town centre. I had interviewed one of them at length, and he had stated with certainty that he would stay off drugs on release. Both he and his friend were clearly intoxicated and were deeply embarrassed to see me.