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The Fieldwork

Fieldwork was undertaken between the end of April and the start of September 2009 within an adult male category C institution. Thirty- one in-depth, semi-structured interviews were performed from a self- selecting sample of participants, each lasting on average approximately an hour (being scheduled in line with the routine of the prison), with various themes and questions that should be covered in the course of the interview, in addition to more flexible periods of conversation or narrative that emerged. The methodology of interviewing prisoners was chosen as this was felt to be the best (and only) real manner in which to investigate the experiences of men in prison in any detail through which gendered dimensions could be seen. Individual interviews by a female researcher with male inmates, whilst both ‘an opportunity for signifying masculinity and a peculiar type of encounter in which masculinity is threatened’ (Schwalbe and Wolkomir 2001: 91), were preferred to focus groups, where the need for individuals to undertake gendered performances for the other men in the group within the prison context, where the maintenance of a tough exterior in lieu of emotions and feelings is given priority, might have been greater.

By being present within the institution and showing a clear interest in prisoners as people, a better relationship was established with many participants, which resulted in a deeper understanding of the situation. In addition, by being in the institution, the extra layer of data regarding the researcher experience was obtained (though unexpectedly), which, albeit not contingent upon an interview methodology, certainly was linked closely with it in terms of the emotional responses to prisoners’ stories. As such, I tried to address Phillips and Earle’s argument for ‘greater inclusion of the positional subjectivities of the researchers, as well as those of the subaltern and marginalized prisoners’ (2010: 375).

The interviews were performed with determinate and indeterminate (life and IPP1) sentenced prisoners, spanning a 35-year age range with an average age of 31. The process of recruitment and sampling chosen began with the use of posters being displayed on the wings and in various other communal spaces around the prison, advertising the project to prisoners and inviting their expressions of interest using reply slips sent to the psychology department. This opportunistic sampling method did produce a good initial sample of prisoners, but had numerous drawbacks in terms of shaping the sample in favour of those who actually looked at the posters and who could read and understand them. In addition, the sample was made up of prisoners who wished to speak with me. Although ethically and emotionally this was the most appropriate group of people to interview, the individuals who did express an interest may well have had very different characteristics to those who did not, or may have had a particular axe to grind or experiences to share, and thus this may have placed a limitation upon the generalisability of the results.

Periods of time were spent on the prison wings, interacting with staff and prisoners and observing what went on and the general routine of the jail, with this data feeding into a reflexive diary. Various administrative tasks, including putting psychology files into order, collecting post, organising psychology book collections, helping to produce OMU[1] [2] identity/appointment cards for prisoner use, etc, were undertaken, all of which set up some rapport with staff, leading to enhanced access to areas such as the wings and the segregation unit. All of this helped with the contextualisation of prisoner narratives. Some prisoners volunteered for the study after they had had the chance to observe me, and I was even invited to try the food prisoners were serving and, more personally, to see what a cell was like by a prisoner, showing the importance of the human side of the research process, particularly within the prison setting.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was entering the realm of prison ethnography.

  • [1] Imprisonment for Public Protection—a sentence introduced in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 andabolished in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. It is similar to a lifesentence, in that it is indeterminate in length and requires the judgment of a parole board, but isin place for specified serious violent and sexual offences, and the individual can apply to have theirlicence conditions removed after a ten-year period following release.
  • [2] Offender Management Unit.
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