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Working Title of PhD: Prison, Policy and the Family – examining the constructive role of prison policy in the lives of families across England and Scotland.

 Year commenced PhD study: 2021

Institution/Organisation: University of Edinburgh

Funding Source (if any)  ESRC                       

Full or part-time: Full Time

 PhD Supervisors: Dr Steve Kirkwood, Dr Mullins, and Professor Richard Sparks

Synopsis of PhD:

Once called the ‘Cinderellas’ of penology’ (Shaw, 1987), there has been a significant expansion in research looking at families with a member in prison over the last two to three decades (Lanskey et al, 2019a). This work has exposed the complex financial, practical, emotional, and relational consequences of imprisonment for these families; as well as the ways in which the prison constructs families’ identity, sense of citizenship and assessment of state legitimacy.

Yet, despite the increase in academic research in this area, as well as the work of campaign organisations, there has been very little policy interest. These families are excluded from a range of health and social care policy domains in which one might expect to find them. Within prison policy, they are mainly constructed instrumentally, in relation to their ability to support penal aims such as rehabilitation and order.

The family as a social institution, while sometimes vilified (the troubled family), has been afforded almost magical status within some public policy discourse – held up as a source of social cohesion and tamer of the market. So, as Condry and Smith put it,

“Why would one want to construct and continue to uphold a mode of punishment that has the capacity to ruin families, which are otherwise considered one of the most important pillars of society?” (2018:5).

And why, in the context of imprisonment, is there so little care and consideration for families’ rights and wellbeing? My starting point, in addressing this why, is to bring greater precision to the how. That is, the rationalities which structure and justify the ways in which the relationship between family, prison and the state are positioned in policy discourse. How do we determine who owes what to whom? And what cultural and moral sensibilities allow these logics to prevail?

In focusing my empirical work on policy as the unit of analysis, my aim is to by ‘bend the stick the other way’ (Bourdieu, 1964), adding depth to the theorisation of power and the state, in a field which has thus far tended to focus, empirically, on families lived experience. My methods for studying the state include analysis of policy documents, work with civil servant and prison staff. Each provides a different view of the apparatus of the penal state, its cultural character and its logics.

Influenced by theories of Street Level Bureaucracy (Lipsky, 1980; Zacka, 2017), I am particularly interested in using the prison and prison staff as a vantage point to look upwards and explore the contradictory and fragmented nature of penal policy in this area. What is written in official prison policy documents and strategies on the family diverge and conflict with other parts of the penal state; prison laws, staff training, what is built, what is funded, what is audited, inspected and measured. Operational prisons staff bare these tensions most acutely.

The comparative aspect of my work is aimed at supporting my understanding of each jurisdiction as specific and situated, rather than to read across them or reach relative conclusions. Comparison particularly helpful in illuminating the intra-jurisdictional relationship between the national and the local.



University of Edinburgh

Research Themes

Punishment, Citizenship and Communities

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