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Prisons Research Centre

Penal/institutional legitimacy and power/political structures; institutional life and prison social climates; citizenship, democracy, and (dis)enfranchisement; penal and social policy; reform processes; Global South; organisational/cultural change; voice


Bethany came to the Prisons Research Centre in 2011 to complete her MPhil and PhD under the supervision of Professor Alison Liebling. She is currently working on converting her doctoral dissertation – 'Democratising Democracy: Reimagining Prisoners as Active Citizens Through Participatory Governance' – into a book. This study explored the work of the non-profit organisation User Voice and its prison-based democratic council model. Mixed methods were employed to examine the construction and operation of a council, which strives to give a voice to prisoners and to facilitate collaborative problem-solving with staff. The key research question was how council participation, and the democratic ethos and process that this entails, impacts individuals and institutions. The aims were (i) to appraise this model within a democratic values-oriented framework – focusing on inclusion, participation, deliberation, and legitimacy – as the council was implemented in three English prisons, and (ii) to understand the personal experience of participative and civic ‘enfranchisement’ with council members. This study of ‘democracy in unlikely places’ is distinct as it brings prison sociology and democratic theory together empirically.

The research was based on quasi-ethnographic fieldwork which included 112 semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders (council participants, prison staff and senior managers, and User Voice employees), as well as analysis of Measuring the Quality of Prison Life (MQPL) data. The findings suggest that fostering democratic principles in the prison setting has the potential to ‘civilise’ institutional practices, and more closely align them with democratic virtues that endorse community, inclusivity, mutual aid, empathy, and dialogical work towards collective objectives. They illustrate how the de-civilising process of incarceration can, in some ways, be ameliorated through participatory engagement, ‘political’ recognition and mobilisation, and the exercise of civic agency. The deliberative ‘free spaces’ created by council participation, and the practice of ‘everyday democracy’ through relational encounters were viewed as transformational and successful at consciousness-raising. But this model was not without some dangers and opposition from officers. Struggles over ‘power’ resulted in the obstruction of council activities and heightened policing of participants. There were also waves of prisoner unrest as expectations went unmet and injustices persisted. This micro-experiment in participatory governance is a study of prisons wrestling with their legitimacy and democratic deficits.

Bethany was appointed to the post of Research Associate in the Prisons Research Centre in January 2016. This role involved project management responsibilities for the conduct and development of ‘outreach’ MQPL+ activities, including international projects, and other projects which form part of the overall research activities of the Prisons Research Centre. In October 2020, Bethany was appointed to the three-year post of Lecturer in Penology in the Prisons Research Centre in October 2020. This role ‘replaces’ Professor Alison Liebling for the duration of her Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship. Bethany will take over much of Alison’s teaching and research project management responsibilities, in addition to the continuation of Bethany’s MQPL+ work.

Bethany teaches and supervises MSt and MPhil students. If you are interested in having her supervise your PhD, please get in touch.



Bethany's expertise lies in field-based prisons research, with a particular interest in the sociological intersections of democracy, citizenship, and punishment. She also leads the development and implementation of local and international Measuring the Quality of Prison Life (MQPL+) projects.

Bethany is currently engaged with two projects. The first, in partnership with Dr Andrew Jefferson from DIGNITY, is a longitudinal study of the quality of life in Tunisian prisons. Intensive ethnographic fieldwork has been carried out in four prisons, alongside interviews with former prisoners, and other criminal justice and NGO stakeholders. The study has explored several aspects of prison life in Tunisia: e.g., prison policy and the practice of punishment pre- and post-revolution; the gendered experience; the role of civil society and human rights in reform; terrorism; staff-prisoner relationships; and, how power and authority are exercised in this transitioning context. The second is a newly commissioned project from the Norwegian Correctional Service, which aims to assist five Eastern European countries in their reform efforts to improve prison provision and practice. 

Bethany, with Drs Kate Herrity and Jason Warr, have co-edited Sensory Penalties: Exploring the Senses in Spaces of Punishment and Social Control (Emerald Publishing, due out February 2021). The book contributes to the growing body of sensory scholarship by expanding anthropological practices and craft into the field of criminology and criminological research:


Key publications: 
  • Liebling, A., Schmidt, B.E., Beyens, K., Boone, M., Johnsen, B., Kox, M., Rokkan, T. and Vanhouche, A.S. (under review, International Criminology) ‘Doing team ethnography in a transnational prison’.
  • Schmidt, B.E. and Jefferson, A.M. (2021) ‘Sensing Transition: Exploring Prison Life in Post-Revolution Tunisia’, in K. Herrity, B.E. Schmidt and J. Warr (eds.) Sensory Penalties: Exploring the Senses in Spaces of Punishment and Social Control. Bingley, West Yorkshire: Emerald Publishing.
  • Liebling, A., Johnsen, B., Schmidt, B.E., Rokkan, T., Beyens, K., Boone, M., Kox, M. and Vanhouche, A.S. (2020) ‘Where two “exceptional” prison cultures meet: Negotiating order in a transnational prison’, British Journal of Criminology:
  • Jefferson, A.M. and Schmidt, B.E. (2019) ‘Concealment and revelation as bureaucratic and ethnographic practice: Lessons from Tunisian prisons’, Critique of Anthropology 39(2): 155-171.
  • 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?’, Howard Journal of Crime and Justice  58(1): 104-126.
  • Liebling, A., McNeil, F. and Schmidt, B.E. (2017) ‘Criminological engagements’, in A. Liebling, S. Maruna and L. McAra (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Criminology (6th edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 990-1009.
  • Barry, M., Weaver, B., Liddle, M., Schmidt, B.E., with Maruna, S., Meek, R. and Renshaw, J. (2017) ‘Custody to community voice: an evaluation of User Voice councils’.
  • Liebling, A., Schmidt, B.E., Crewe, B., Auty, K., Armstrong, R., Akoensi, T., Kant, D. and Ievins, A. (2015) ‘Birmingham prison: the transition from public to private sector and its impact on staff and prisoner quality of life - a three-year study’, NOMS Ministry of Justice Analytical Summary.
  • Ludlow, A., Schmidt, B.E., Akoensi, T., Liebling, A., Giacomantonio, C. and Sutherland, A. (2015) ‘Self-Inflicted Deaths in NOMS’ Custody amongst 18-24 Year Olds: Staff Experience, Knowledge and Views’. Study commissioned by the Harris Review.
  • Schmidt, B.E. (2013) ‘User Voice and the Prison Council Model: A Summary of Key Findings from an Ethnographic Exploration of Participatory Governance in Three English Prisons’, Prison Service Journal 209: 12-17.


Lecturer in Penology
Dr Bethany  Schmidt
Not available for consultancy