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Bethany Schmidt

Bethany Schmidt

Ph.D Student

Research Associate

Penal/institutional legitimacy and power/political structures; Institutional life and prison social climates; Citizenship, democracy, and (dis)enfranchisement; Penal and social policy; reform; Community organization and mobilization; Organizational/cultural change; Justice and voice


Bethany is a finishing PhD student, supervised by Professor Alison Liebling. Her research explores the work of the innovative non-profit organization User Voice, and its ex- offender-led prison deliberative democratic council model. It employs both qualitative and quantitative methods to examine and understand the processes at work when a prison-based council, which aims to give a voice to prisoners in order to facilitate collaborative problem-solving with staff, is established in the prison environment. Three English prisons with User Voice councils were selected for observation and Bethany has continued her fieldwork within them, including the collection and analysis of MQPL and SQL data (Measuring the Quality of Prison Life for prisoners and staff). Her focus is on the impact of democratic participation on institutional life, staff and prisoners’ perceptions of procedural justice, legitimacy, and how these intersect with humane care, decency, and order.

Bethany’s findings suggest that fostering democratic principles in the prison setting has the potential to ‘civilize’ individuals and institutional practices, and more closely align them with democratic virtues that endorse community, trust, and dialogical work towards collectivist objectives. Her study illustrates how the de-civilizing process of incarceration can, in some ways, be diminished or mitigated, through the establishment of a normative pattern of civic reciprocity through responsibility and inclusion. For prisoners, council participation promotes civic skills, positive identity transformation, and encourages responsibility within their ‘community’. This in turn strengthens penal legitimacy through fair proceedings and justifiable decision-making. Re-enfranchising prisoners through forms of participatory governance and agential engagement could therefore lessen exclusion and marginalization and in turn, possibly strengthen civic culture and democratic character.

Bethany was appointed to the post of Research Associate in the Prisons Research Centre in January 2016. This role involves 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. The aim of the post is to maximise the Centre’s efforts to diagnose and describe prison cultures, and to conceptualise and measure changing aspects of the quality of prison life.

Bethany (in collaboration with colleagues at DIGNITY, the Danish Institute Against Torture) also recently completed a one-year pilot study of the quality of life in two Tunisian prisons. The research involved two intensive periods of fieldwork in one men’s and one women’s prison, interviews with former political prisoners and other criminal justice stakeholders, and some archival analysis. The study explored several aspects of prison life in Tunisia: e.g., prison policy and practice pre- and post-revolution; the gendered experience; identification of what is specific to Tunisian prisons and what is universal; the role of civil society; and, how power and authority are wielded. Along with colleagues from the University of Strathclyde and Queen’s University Belfast, Bethany also recently completed a two-year evaluation of User Voice’s Through-the-Prison-Gate Custody to Community Council project.


Subject groups/Research projects

Measuring the Quality of Prison Life - MQPL+:

Key Publications

  • Liebling, A., McNeil, F. and Schmidt, B.E. (forthcoming chapter, 2016) ‘Criminological engagements’, in Liebling, A., McAra, L. and Maruna, S. (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Criminology (6th edn). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  • Schmidt, B.E. (forthcoming, 2016) ‘Active citizenship behind bars: prisoners and participatory governance in three English prisons’, MoJ analytical summary. 
  • Barry, M., Weaver, B., Liddle, M., Schmidt, B.E., with Maruna, S., Meek, R. and Renshaw, J. (forthcoming Nesta/MoJ online publication, 2016) ‘Custody to community voice: an evaluation of User Voice councils’. 
  • 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 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.