Ian O’Donnell is professor of criminology at University College Dublin and co-editor of Incarceration: An International Journal of Imprisonment, Detention and Coercive Confinement. He was previously director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust and research officer at Oxford University’s Centre for Criminological Research.

At the workshop on 27 March, Ian will talk about his latest book, Prison Life: Pain, Resistance and Purpose which won the 2023 Outstanding Book Award, given by the American Society of Criminology’s Division of International Criminology.

Prison Life offers a fresh appreciation of how people in prison organize their lives, drawing on case studies from Africa, Europe and the US. The book describes how order is maintained, how power is exercised, how days are spent, and how meaning is found in a variety of environments that all have the same function – incarceration – but discharge it very differently. It is based on an unusually diverse range of sources including photographs, drawings, court cases, official reports, memoirs, and site visits.

Ian contrasts the soul-destroying isolation of the federal supermax in Florence, Colorado with the crowded conviviality of an Ethiopian prison where men and women cook their own meals, seek opportunities to generate an income, elect a leadership team, and live according to a code of conduct that they devised and enforce. He explores life on wings controlled by the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland’s H Blocks, where men who saw the actions that led to their incarceration as politically-motivated moved as one, in perpetual defiance of the authorities. He shows how prisoners in Texas took to the courts to overthrow a regime that allowed their routine subjugation by violent men known as building tenders, who had been selected by staff to supervise and discipline their peers.

In each case study Ian presents the life story of a man who was moulded by, and in return moulded, the institution that held him. This ensures that his reflections on law and policy as well as on theory and practice never lose sight of the human angle. Imprisonment is about pain after all, and pain is personal.

To find out more about the book, check out the review symposium in The Prison Journal:

And Ian’s dialogue with David Skarbek in Incarceration:

This event is part of the Social Penalities Across Boundaries Workshop Series which has been co-organised by the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research and UNL in Agentina.