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Prisons Research Centre

The prison and the city: A tale of two cultures


Deborah is a finishing PhD student, supervised by Alison Liebling. Her research explores the relationship between personal biography, institutional culture and locale in the personal and professional narratives of prison officers.

Previous research (for example Liebling 2008; Crawley 2004) has shown that prison officers share certain occupational traits such as a sense of camaraderie and social cohesion, and an appreciation of humour and ‘straight talk’, as well as a cynical outlook, sense of nostalgia for a shared past, and mistrust of people outside their group. However, research has also shown that there are distinct ‘schools’ of officers, whose philosophies affect their approaches to care, punishment, management, and other such matters (see, for example, Tait 2008; Liebling and Kant 2017), which are influenced by broader institutional cultures specific to the prison. Deborah’s research explores this distinction and analyses how the professional role and self-definition of uniformed staff have developed within the context of changing socio-economic contexts and prison officer demographics, and the cultural norms associated with occupational communities and distinct places.

Deborah’s research focussed on frontline staff and managers at two large and busy men’s Category B local prisons in the North and South of England. Her findings suggest that officer cultures are informed by a complex interplay of individual agency and structures of the penal field, their work role, and locale. The internal organisation of each prison in this study was influenced by broad economic and social shifts experienced at a national level. However, layers of history, labour relations, kinship and community ties unique to the cities (and regions) in which these prisons were located lent a distinct character to each locale. Officers’ motivations, experiences, and narratives were coloured by these ‘local flavours’ and contributed to distinct organisational cultures. Their sense of place figured strongly in how they understood and performed their work. These findings suggest that the concept of the ‘total institution’ needs to be re-evaluated in the context of the late-modern prison. In the words of the late Doreen Massey, ‘Geography Matters!’.

Together with Alison Liebling and colleagues from the Freie Universität Berlin and Universät Köln (Germany), and Universität Bern (Switzerland), Deborah has been working on an adaptation of MQPL+ for the Swiss and German contexts. In 2019-2020, she presented on MQPL+ at the 16th Wissenschaftliche Tagung der Kriminologischen Gesellschaft in Vienna, and fed back on her findings to the Public Sector Prisons South management team.

Deborah previously worked as a research assistant at the Institute of Criminology Prisons Research Centre, and served as the editorial associate for the international penological journal Punishment and Society from 2009 until 2012.



  • PhD Candidate, Criminology, University of Cambridge
    Thesis: ‘The prison and the city: A tale of two cultures’
    Supervisor: Prof. Alison Liebling
  • MPhil, Criminology, University of Cambridge, 2008
    Thesis: 'Daisy Hopkins and the Proctors'
    Supervisor: Dr. Manuel Eisner
  • BA (Hons), Philosophy, Anglia Ruskin University, 2005



Key publications: 

Liebling, A. and Kant, D. (2017) ‘The Two Cultures: Correctional Officers and Key Differences in Institutional Climate’, in J. Wooldredge and P. Smith (eds.) The Oxford Handbook on Prisons and Imprisonment, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

PhD Student
Not available for consultancy