Lessons from prison staff

I went to the prison yesterday to speak to staff there about my research. Relying on staff, as I do, to explain my research to prisoners, I thought explaining it to them face to face  would be a good idea. And it was. Although it was awkward, sitting across from seven burly guys, all with their arms crossed, leaning back in their chairs, and more than a little skeptical about this being the best use of their time.

There is such a disconnect between the academic world and those who work in prisons. Much more so than between the academic world and social workers, or health staff. One explanation is that most prison staff have left education early, and are therefore weary of academic outsiders coming in. The overwhelming majority have not been to university, and there are very few officers on the wings who also write articles in academic journals or briefing papers for the wider world, as social workers sometimes do. There is a will, in Scotland, to change the way prison staff are trained, and to offer further education to those who are interested. But maybe it shouldn’t all be one way, with universities bestowing academic learning on staff.

I’m aware that experienced prison officers will have heard many more prisoners’ stories than I ever will. During my research on the experience of long-term imprisonment, staff told me from the start that prisoners would not want to consider the fairness of their sentence in the abstract. They knew that prisoners needed to put such questions out of mind in order to ‘get on’ with their sentence. It was a total surprise to me.

At yesterday’s meeting, despite their air of skepticism, the officers I talked to gave me ideas and pointed out possible difficulties I would not have thought of. So, while meeting me might not have meant much to them, meeting them was very helpful for me. Today I have heard that they have already recruited seven interested prisoners. The question for me now is, how do I tap into the wisdom and knowledge of the people who have the most contact with prisoners, without asking too much from them?