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Prisons Research Centre



Judith is PhD candidate the Institute of Criminology (from 2015). She is supervised by Professor Loraine Gelsthorpe and Professor Alison Liebling.

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and supported by the University of Cambridge ESRC Doctoral Training Programme (DTP).

Judith holds a First Class BA (Hons) in Philosophy and Theology from the University of Oxford, a Postgraduate Certificate of Education from the University of Cambridge, and a Masters in Education (with Distinction) from the University of Cambridge. Her Masters dissertation, The significance of 'Recognition' in the life narratives of ex-offenders and former addicts in Higher Education, an ethnographic study of an educational project in South London using life-narrative interviews, was supervised by Dr Philip Gardner. She has many years' experience in education and educational research in the UK, Zimbabwe and Turkey, in Philosophy, Religion and English Literature.


PhD Title: ‘Books don’t judge you’: self and other in men’s experiences of reading in prison. An exploratory study in two medium-security prisons in the East of England.


The aim of this inquiry was to contribute to a better understanding of the role of everyday book reading as an activity in prison lifeworlds through examining the processes of meaning-making prisoners engaged in with books. The research approach was exploratory, using ethnographic methods to understand reading practices and experiences in context. Fieldwork was conducted in two prisons over a period of six months, involving participation and observation in prison libraries and other areas; semi-structured interviews with 50 prisoners who habitually engaged in book reading; and interviews and conversations with library staff, other prison staff and volunteers. Thematic and narrative methods of data analysis were used, with a process of ‘poetic distillation’ of individual interview transcripts for both analysis and presentation of the data.

The research found that the reading practices of almost all the men interviewed had changed considerably while in prison, and for many of them reading was either a new or a newly important activity. Changes in practice were often responses to the immediate need to cope with boredom or mental distress. Experiences of recognition and identification with particular books provided ‘hooks’ for the emergence of reading as a practice. Peer relationships and relationships with family influenced reading practices and preferences through shared interests and conversation, and, for some, reading became a means for sustaining and developing relationships. Intersubjective qualities were central to the role of reading in the task of psychological survival. Readers related to books as quasi-personal ‘others’: centres of agency, consciousness, perception, knowledge and emotion. Books offered refuge, through their power to remove the reader from the painful present and dissolve self-awareness. The appropriation of valued, powerful information fortified the sense of self of the reader. The reading practices of some participants were shaped by longer term personal projects, and they developed more dialogic, critical and reflective modes of engagement that offered hope, possibility, and the sense of a maturing self.

The research contributes to greater understanding of everyday book reading in prison through examining how intersubjective encounters with and through reading enable prisoner readers to address concerns of the self in contexts shaped by institutional demands. There are implications for understanding the importance of provision for reading in prison and its role in prisoner well-being and self-development.



Reading in Prison, Books in Prison, Reader-Response Theory, Recognition Theory, Prisoner Education, Literacy as Capability, Virtue Ethics, Prison Ethnography, Narrative Research Methods, Phenomenological Research  Methods.


Key publications: 

Liebling, A., Auty, K., Gardom, J. and Lieber, E. (2022). An Evaluation of the Experience and Meaning of Shared Reading in Psychologically Informed Planned Environments in Prisons. Ministry of Justice Analytical Series 2022.

Liebling, A., Laws, B., Lieber, E., Auty, K., Schmidt, B.E., Crewe, B., Gardom, J., Kant, D. and Morey, M. (2019), Are Hope and Possibility Achievable in Prison?. The Howard Journal of Crime and Justice, 58: 104-126.

PhD Student (Part Time)
 Judith  Gardom
Not available for consultancy