The Eclipse of Prison Ethnography? Reflections on the Symposium

I had the pleasure of attending the first day of the International Centre for Comparative Criminological Research (ICCCR)’s “Resisting the Eclipse: An International Symposium on Prison Ethnography” event at the Open University, and was lucky enough to hear terrific papers by eminent prison ethnographers.

The theme for the event was a response to Loïc Wacquant’s paper The Curious Eclipse of Prison Ethnography“, in which he expressed incredulity at the scarcity of ethnographic field studies of American jails and prisons, horrified to discover that, at a time when such examinations are most urgently needed, they appear to be disappearing under the weight of more conventional ‘correctional’ research. The response at the symposium was perhaps most strongly expressed by the lack of empty chairs in the seminar room at the OU – it was packed with people who either already engage directly in prison ethnography, or are planning to do so.

A theme emerging from the first day was of the ‘punctum’ as a point of entry into or heightened awareness of, a situation or context. In her keynote address Lorna Rhodes spoke about ethnographers in general and prison ethnographers in particular, identifying ‘punctums’ or punctuation points as a way of making known or understandable what is going on in a particular wider context. She used the example of a waste bin filled with discarded prison ID cards, each with the face of a prisoner staring out of it, as a punctum which had brought home to her the passage of time in prison and the aging of prisoners as their ID card photo remained the same. In her keynote address, Yvonne Jewkes observed that an ‘eclipse’ is a veiling or an invisibility, rather than an absence, and pointed out that prison ethnography is alive and well in contexts other than the United States, to which Wacquant referred. As a contributor to a forthcoming book in carceral geography, she drew attention to the prison scholarship going on outside of criminology. She also called for prison ethnographers to write and speak not only about their own experiences of research, but also about the sometimes unpalatable positive features of imprisonment, as a counter to a Critical Criminology discourse which tends to marginalise discussion of the humour, enlightenment, humanity and agency which can occur in prison, in what are often unrelentingly negative portrayals of prison life.

Rod Earle, Coretta Phillips, Abigail Rowe and Martyn Hammersley considered the actual experience of undertaking prison ethnography, speaking about the challenges they had faced whilst conducting research in prisons. Abigail Rowe’s experiences were particularly pertinent to the ‘punctum’ theme, as she described the numerous occasions on which she was mistaken for a prisoner whilst undertaking research in a women’s prison in the UK, and the insights this gave her into the way the prison operated when a researcher was not (thought to be) present – one small detail illuminating a wider system in uniquely useful way.

Ben Crewe and Laura Piacentini responded to their brief of ‘Writing and Reading a Prison?’ by discussing, respectively, the ways in which prison ethnography can delve deeply into prisoners’ backstories to illuminate their present of imprisonment, in that affording an audience for prisoners’ lifestories enables them to express thoughts and feelings which may often be suppressed in prison; and the integrity of prison ethnography, in terms of the prison ethnographer’s work flowing from a value system, and their work taking the form of that of an ethno-cultural specialist for their particular site, with appropriate insights into the context and consciousness in which penality exists.

Finally, Jennifer Sloan, Deborah Drake and Alison Liebling talked to their title “Thrown in or Drawn in? Sinking or Swimming in prison research and ethnography”, again drawing on their own experiences of researching inside prisons. The three speakers spanned the demographic of the researchers in the room, from Jennifer Sloan speaking as a new PhD graduate, sharing salutory lessons with the many PhD, masters and undergraduate students in the room, to Alison Liebling reflecting on returning to prisons she had researched within a decade ago, and reflecting on the changes which had taken place. Alison’s talk also recalled the ‘punctum’ theme, through her story of remaining in contact with a prisoner she interviewed some time ago, who had since been released, and whom she now knew as a free individual – drawing attention to the importance of the ‘front story’ in the same way as Ben Crewe had highlighted the ‘back story’.

All in all, a hugely successful, enlightening and positive event, with candid exchanges between people genuinely interested in, and supportive of, each other’s work. For carceral geographers, an encouragement to delve deeper into the work of criminologists and prison ethnographers, to learn from the enormous wealth of expertise and experience demonstrated by these speakers and the symposium delegates. I only wish the arrival of a new crop of undergraduates at Birmingham hadn’t prevented me from attending the second day!