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Dr Ben Laws

Dr Ben Laws

Research Associate

ESRC New Investigator

Wolfson College Junior Research Fellow

Research Interests

Ben is a post-doctoral researcher in the PRC, working on a research project titled Prisoner Emotions at the Margins: Understanding the pathways to destruction and healing among prisoners in solitary confinement’. Funded by an ESRC New Investigator grant, this 30-month project, which began in March 2018, is now in its second year. The study explores the emotional dimensions of segregation units in England and Wales, based on a five-month fieldwork period in the segregation unit at HMP Whitemoor, talking with prisoners and officers informally and conducting semi-structured interviews.

Solitary confinement is often described in the academic literature as an ecology of cruelty and even a form of psychological torture. Yet, there is debate over the effects of segregation units in England & Wales, with some arguing that impacts are either short-lived or even enlightening for some prisoners. The first substantive output from this project is an article (under review) focusing on prisoners who orchestrated their own segregation in HMP Whitemoor (titled: ‘Segregation Seekers: An alternative perspective on the solitary confinement debate’). Around 60 per cent of the prisoners interviewed in Whitemoor felt more comfortable in segregation than in the mainstream population. But this was rarely spoken of as a ‘positive’ choice. Rather, prisoners described a kind of ‘negative benefit’ and sought out solitude because it provided relief from the strains of interacting with others, particularly relating to long-standing tensions organised around ‘Muslim gangs’ or ‘pressures to convert’. The main argument of the article is that solitary confinement cannot be easily separated from the broader context of the prison environment. While segregation units are often isolated from main prison quarters – in secluded parts of the grounds – they are not islands separate from it, and need to be understood within this context.

This taut research environment in Whitemoor has led, quite organically, to therapeutic reflection sessions with the Tavistock and Portman clinic. These sessions include the discussion of fieldwork notes and sometimes crossover into more personal explorations. The assumption is that psychoanalytical insights can offer an illuminating perspective in prisons research. In real terms, this means investigating how psychodynamic ideas such as ‘projection’, ‘suppression’ and ‘denial’ can be conceptually relevant, and empirically grounded, in understanding the daily operation of segregation.

Ben has recently secured a contract with Palgrave Macmillan to write a book called Caged Emotions, which will combine the findings from Ben’s doctoral thesis with his current project on solitary confinement. It will foreground the emotional dimensions of prison life and discuss what emotions can tell us about well-established themes of adaptation and control in prison. Ben has also published an article in Theoretical Criminology, about how we might conceptualise selfhood in more inclusive ways in criminological writing; and co-authored articles with Elinor Lieber in The European Journal of Criminology and Yvonne Jewkes in Punishment & Society. The first seeks to understand and share the various expressions of care in men’s prisons, and the second tries to ‘map’ the emotional dimensions of space women’s prisons.

Education and Background

Ben studied English (BA) at Leicester, Psychology (MSc) at St. Andrews and Criminology (MPhil, PhD) here in Cambridge. He has professional experience working in a range of mental health settings across the UK and US, mainly supporting those with autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) and young adults diagnosed with conduct disorders. 

Key Publications

Laws, B. (forthcoming) Caged Emotions: An alternative perspective on adaptation, control and solitude in prison. London: Palgrave.

Laws, B. (under review). ‘Segregation seekers: An alternative perspective on the solitary confinement debate’.

Jewkes, Y., & Laws, B. (2020). ‘Liminality revisited: mapping the emotional adaptations of women in carceral space’, Punishment & Society

Laws, B. (2020) ‘Reimaging ‘the self’ in criminology: Transcendence, unconscious states and the limits of narrative criminology’, Theoretical Criminology.

Laws, B. and Lieber E. (2020) ‘King, Warrior, Magician & Lover: Understanding expressions of care among male prisoners’, European Journal of Criminology.

Liebling, A., Laws, B., Lieber, E, et al. (2019) Are hope and possibility achievable in prison?. The Howard Journal of Crime and Justice.

Laws, B. (2018) The Return of the Supressed: Exploring how emotional suppression returns as violence and pain among male and female prisoners. Punishment & Society, 1-18.

Crewe, B., and Laws, B. (2017) 'Subcultural adaptations to incarceration', in J. Wooldredge and P. Smith (eds.) The Oxford Handbook on Prisons and Imprisonment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Laursen, J. and Laws, B., (2017) ‘Honour and respect in Danish prisons: Contesting 'cognitive distortions' in cognitive-behavioural programmes’. Punishment & Society, 19(1), 74- 95.

Laws, B., & Crewe, B. (2016) ‘Emotion regulation among male prisoners’. Theoretical Criminology, 20(4), 529-547.

Laws, B. (2016) Fronting, masking and emotion release: An exploration of prisoners' emotional management strategies. The Howard League for Penal Reform.



Prisons Research at Cambridge University

The Prisons Research Centre (PRC) was founded in 2000, under the Directorship of Professor Alison Liebling. The Centre has received funding from a wide range of sources, including the Prison Service/NOMS, the Nuffield Foundation, the Leverhulme Trust, the ESRC, KPMG, the Home Office and UKDS (now Kalyx).

The Cambridge Institute of Criminology Prisons Research Centre aims to provide a stimulating research environment in which a coherent strategy of high quality research can be pursued, and integration between funded and non-funded, and applied and theoretical projects can be facilitated. We investigate how prisons operate, socially, morally and operationally, how they are experienced, and the relationship between these moral and social qualities, and their effects.

Members of the PRC team carry out, individually and collectively, methodologically rigorous and theoretically relevant field-based studies addressing problems of human and social values, punishment practices, and the organisation and effects of aspects of prison life. We strive to forge links with other prisons researchers, scholars in the broader fields of criminology and sociology, and with practitioners. Our vision is to develop a rigorous and person-centred model of social inquiry.

You can read more about the latest projects in our Annual Reports.