Prisons, Ivory Towers and Social Research

‘You have been told to go grubbing in the library, thereby accumulating a mass of notes and liberal coating of grime… This is called ‘getting your hands dirty in real research’… But one more thing is needful: first hand observation. Go and sit in the lounges of the luxuryhotels and on the doorsteps of flophouses; sit on the Gold Coast settees and the slum shakedowns; sit in Orchestra Hall and in the Star and Garter burlesk [sic]. In short … go get the seat of your pants dirty in real research’ (Robert Park,  Unpublished).

Academics, and in particular social scientists, are often charged with being detached from the ‘real’ world. Many social scientists are not. Yet having studied at three universities, I have bumped into a few who most definitely are. Somewhat ironically, on paper, I am against the idea of this detachment. To an extent though, I too might be guilty of this. I have studied prisons in quite some detail over the last four years. However, until very recently I had never been to a prison. This article intends to share with you part of my experience, and to share with you my confirmation that ‘ivory tower academia’ alone will not suffice in understanding the social world.

The prison I visited was a category C institution (A being maximum security, D being open) housing approximately 850 male sex offenders who recognise their wrong-doing and ‘want to change’. There is thus a great emphasis on productivity, education and personal development within its walls. Consequently, whilst walking through the prison, I was amongst inmates who were doing various jobs:  sweeping the corridors, transporting laundry and refuse around the prison and so on (for the payment of £10 per week. This deserves more thought. However, with the want for brevity, I will leave you to think about it). This environment, according to the prison governor, created a positive atmosphere, especially for the purposes of rehabilitation.

However, this felt somewhat superficial. Staff spoke about the inmates in a polite manner but without dignity; I got the impression that they are offenders and nothing more. We were also allowed and encouraged to look into cells, as if the prisoners were a spectacle to behold. One elderly gentleman has stuck in my mind. He sat – head bowed and in silence – on his bed whilst we were encouraged to look into his cell, at both him and his living conditions. He clearly felt hugely uncomfortable with this and did not know how to react. Regardless of what he has done, such treatment is degrading and I too felt hugely uncomfortable.  We were later told that this man is terminally ill; that he will die in prison; and that it in all likelihood no one will attend his funeral. We were told all of this whilst stood in a palliative care suite, where he will be taken to die. It was truly harrowing. Importantly, the mass of notes I have acquired on various facets of criminal justice could not have prepared me for this.

Whilst this is all based on ‘first hand observation’, it is not ‘real social research’. This is journalism about social science- it is not social science itself. Yet, I gained an insight, albeit a slight one, into the real world of incarceration. I certainly could not have gained this from merely getting my hands dirty in the library. Whilst they might be unpleasant to behold, the ‘lived’ dimensions of social life are too important to be ignored. Now, more than ever, the words of Robert Park strike with me a resonance. If we are to gain a holistic overview of prisons, the lives of their inhabitants cannot be neglected. We must therefore get the seats of our pants dirty in real social research in order to ensure that this neglect does not occur.

By Edward Wright.
You can find out more about Ed on our contributors page.

This article was originally published here on the Interdisciplinary in Action Blog, University of Nottingham. It has been reproduced with the permission of the author.

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