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Prisons Research Centre



Alison Liebling is Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Cambridge and the Director of the Institute of Criminology’s Prisons Research Centre. She has extensive expertise in prisons, having carried out research on wide-ranging topics including suicide and self-harm, close supervision centres for difficult prisoners, incentives and earned privileges, staff-prisoner relationships, the location and building of trust in high security prisons, the work of prison officers, and conceptualizing and measuring the moral quality of prison life, including comparative work between public and private sector prisons. She has carried out evaluations of music (gamelan) projects and shared reading programmes in Psychologically-Informed Planned Environments for prisoners with personality disorders. The ‘moral climate’ survey she developed with Helen Arnold and others has been used or adapted internationally in many penal systems. Her books include Prisons and their Moral Performance: A Study of Values, Quality and Prison Life (2004, OUP), The Effects of Imprisonment (2005, edited, with Shadd Maruna, Willan Publishing), Legitimacy and Criminal Justice: An International Exploration (2013, OUP; edited with Justice Tankebe); Crime, Justice and Social Order (2022, OUP, edited with Shapland, Sparks and Tankebe) and The Prison Officer (2001, and 2nd edition 2011). She is the co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Criminology. She is a Fellow of the British Academy. She currently holds a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship (2020-23) to carry out the project, ‘Moral rules, social science and forms of order in prison’.


Professor Liebling has conducted a wide range of empirical research in prisons, including studies of young offender throughcare; an evaluation of two small units for difficult prisoners in Scotland; an evaluation of Wolds private remand centre; an evaluation of incentives and earned privileges; an ethnographic study of staff-prisoner relationships; a study of the decision-making process on discretionary life sentence panels; an evaluation of close supervision centres for difficult prisoners; a detailed study of values, practices and outcomes in public and private sector corrections (funded by the ESRC); and several studies on measuring the quality of prison life. She has carried out a detailed evaluation of the relationship between prison quality and prison suicide, a study of prolific self-harm at Peterborough Prison, and the development of a quality of life survey for prisoners and prison staff. She has recently completed a repeat of the study of staff-prisoner relationships at HMP Whitemoor, a study of the location and building of trust in Full Sutton and Frankland high security prisons, and an evaluation of the meaning and experience of shared reading in prison PIPES. She is currently carrying out a study on ‘Moral rules, social science and forms of order in prison’ funded by a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship (2020-23). 


Key publications: 
  • Liebling, A., Shapland, J., Sparks, R., & Tankebe, J. (eds) (2022) Crime, Justice, and Social Order: Essays in Honour of A. E. Bottoms Oxford: Clarendon Studies in Criminology, Oxford University Press
  • Liebling, A. (2022) ‘Penal Legitimacy, Well- Being, and Trust: The Role of Empirical Research in ‘Morally Serious’ Work’. In A. Liebling, J. Shapland, R. Sparks & J. Tankebe (eds) (2022), Crime, Justice, and Social Order: Essays in Honour of A. E. Bottoms. Oxford: Clarendon Studies in Criminology, Oxford University Press: 273-302.
  • Liebling, A. (2022) ‘The changing ‘regime of the custodians’: Visions of order and authority in high security prisons in England and Wales, 1988-2019’. In B. Crewe, A. Goldsmith & M. Halsey (eds), Power and Pain in the Modern Prison: Revisiting the Society of Captives. Oxford University Press Clarendon Series. 253-72
  • Auty, K., Liebling, A., Crewe, B., & Schliehe, A (2022) ‘What is Trauma-Informed Practice? Towards Operationalisation of the Concept in Two Prisons for Women’, Criminology and Criminal Justice
  • Williams, R., & Liebling, A. (2022) ‘Do prisons cause radicalisation? Order, leadership, political charge and violence in two maximum security prisons’, British Journal of Criminology.
  • Liebling, A., Auty, K., Gardom, J., & Lieber, E. (2021) An Evaluation of the Meaning and Impact of Shared Reading in Psychologically Informed Planned Environments in Prisons London: Ministry of Justice Analytical Series:
  • Tankebe, J., & Liebling A. (2013) (eds.) Legitimacy and Criminal Justice: International Explorations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.384.
  • Liebling, A. (2017). ‘The Meaning of Ending Life in Prison’. Journal of Correctional Health Care, 23(1), 20–31
  • Liebling, A. (2015) ‘A new ‘ecology of cruelty’? The changing shape of maximum security custody in England and Wales’. In Keramet, R., & Koenig, A., Extraordinary Punishment: An Empirical Look at Administrative Black Holes in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Palgrave MacMillan, pp. 91-114.
  • Liebling, A (2015) ‘Appreciative inquiry, generative theory, and the ‘failed state’ prison’. In J. Miller & W. Palacios (eds), Advances in Criminological Theory. New Jersey, Routledge Publishers, pp. 251-270.
  • Liebling, A., Arnold, H., & Straub, C. (2015) ‘Prisons Research Beyond the Conventional: Dialogue, ‘Creating Miracles’ and Staying Sane in a maximum security prison’. In D. Drake, R. Earle & J. Sloan (eds), International Handbook of Prison Ethnography. Palgrave McMillan, pp. 59-79.
  • Liebling, A. (2015) ‘Description at the edge? I‐It/I‐Thou Relations and Action in Prisons Research’, International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 4(1),18:32.
  • Crewe, B., Liebling, A., & Hulley, S. (2014) ‘Staff-prisoner relationships, staff professionalism and the use of authority in public and private sector prisons’, Law and Social Inquiry, 40(2), p.305-344.
  • Liebling, A. (2014) ‘Moral and Philosophical Problems of Long-Term Imprisonment’, Studies in Christian Ethics, 27(3), p.258-269.
  • Liebling, A., & Crewe, B. (2014) ‘Staff-prisoner relationships, moral performance, and privatisation’. In I. Durnescu, & F. McNeill, Understanding Penal Practice. New York: Routledge, pp. 153-166.
  • Liebling, A (2013) ‘Legitimacy under pressure’ in high security prisons. In J. Tankebe & A. Liebling (eds), Legitimacy and Criminal Justice: An International Exploration. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.206-226.
  • Liebling, A. (2011) 'Moral Performance, inhuman and degrading treatment, and prison pain', Punishment and Society, 13(5), p.530-550.
  • Liebling, A. (2011) ‘Distinctions and distinctiveness in the work of prison officers: Legitimacy and authority revisited’, European Journal of Criminology 8(6), p.484-499.
  • Liebling, A., Price, D., & Shefer, G. (2011) The Prison Officer (2nd ed.). Cullompton, Devon: Willan Publishing, pp. 256.
  • Liebling, A., & Maruna, S. (eds) (2005) The Effects of Imprisonment, Cullompton, Devon: Willan Publishing, pp. 492.
  • Liebling, A.; assisted by Arnold, H. (2004) Prisons and their Moral Performance: A Study of Values, Quality and Prison Life. Oxford: Clarendon Studies in Criminology, Oxford University Press, pp. 588.
Other publications: 
  • Liebling, A. (2021) ‘Women in our own Right or ‘Honorary Men’? Reflections on a Professional Life in Prisons Research’. In J. Schlosser (ed), Prison Stories: Women Scholars’ Experiences Doing Prisons Research Lexington Books, pp. 155-172.
  • Liebling, A., & Costa, J. (2021) ‘Being Human as a Method and Research Finding in Social Science’. In D’Maris Coffman, H. James & N. Di Liberto (eds), People, Nations and Traditions in a Comparative Frame: Thinking about the Past with Jonathan Steinberg Anthem Press, pp. 241-58.
  • Liebling, A. (2021) Foreword to Herrity, K., Schmidt, B.E., & Warr, J. (Eds) Sensory Penalities: Exploring the Senses in Spaces of Punishment and Social Control Emerald Publishing, pp. xv-xx.
  • Liebling, A (2020) Prisons, personal development, and austerity’. In P. Ugwudike, H. Graham, F. McNeill, P. Raynor, F. Taxman & C. Trotter (2020) (eds), The Routledge Companion to Rehabilitative Work in Criminal Justice: pp. 193-206.
  • Liebling,A., Schmidt, B. E., Beyens, K., Boone, M., Mieke Kox, B. J., Rokkan, T., & Vanhouche, A.-S. (2021) ‘Doing team ethnography in a transnational prison’, International Criminology
  • Liebling, A. (2020) ‘Finding George Eliot in Prison: Reflections on its Moral Life’, George Eliot Review 51: 80-88.
  • Liebling, A., Johnsen, B., Schmidt, B. E., Rokkan, T., Beyens, K., Boone, M., Meike Kox, B. J., & Vanhouche, A.-S. (2021) ‘Where two ‘exceptional’ prison cultures meet: Negotiating order in a transnational prison’. British Journal of Criminology, 61(1), p.41–60,
  • Liebling, A., & Williams, R. (2020) ‘More Mind Games: How ‘The Action’ and ‘The Odds’ have Changed in Prison’, British Journal of Criminology
  • Liebling, A., & Williams, R. (2018) ‘The new subversive geranium: some notes on the management of additional troubles in maximum security prisons’ British Journal of Sociology 69(4) 1194-1219
  • Auty, K., & Liebling, A. (2020). Exploring the Relationship between Prison Social Climate and Reoffending. Justice Quarterly, 37 (2), 358-381.

Recent Professional Reports