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The proposed research project, which is funded by an ESRC New Investigator Grant, is an ethnographic study of how young adult male prisoners (those aged between 18 and 24, as per the House of Commons Justice Committee, 2016) define and pursue a ‘good life’ while they are incarcerated.

Investigator: Dr Alice Ievins

Alice Ievins 150x150

The imprisonment of young people has long been a topic of scholarly and political concern, and existing studies have outlined the ways in which prisons can hurt young people, with a particular focus on bullying and peer violence, suicide and self-harm, and constraints on development (e.g. Liebling, 1992; Inch et al., 1995; Ireland, 2005; Harvey, 2007; Abrams & Hyun, 2009). Prisons are more than just places of pain, however; they are also places in which people try to live morally meaningful lives, and to find ‘goodness’ even in a context defined by stark power imbalances, severe deprivation, and complex social relationships.

As the first ethnographic study of a prison specifically focused on the ethical world of its prisoners, this project will significantly advance an emerging field in criminology and penology – a move towards ethics and its relevance for understanding crime and justice. Moral concerns have conventionally been overlooked by penologists, who have tended to see the prison as a site of power and repression to which prisoners respond with either submission or resistance, and to see the prisoner society as a deviant subculture dominated by violence. Penologists such as Williams (2017), however, inspired by anthropologists of ethics like Laidlaw (2014), Lambek (2010) and Mattingly (2014), as well as by  Foucault’s (1997) work on the technologies of the self, have argued that applying an ethical lens to the study of the prison helps us to look beyond these theoretical approaches and see its contours more clearly. For example, recent discussions of adult and young male imprisonment have presented their subjects as compelled by the irresistible forces of hypermasculinity to form a fractured, aggressive and violent social world. Applying an ethical lens would enable us to understand the ways in which hypermasculinity might embody virtues such as loyalty and courage.

As the House of Commons Justice Committee (2016) recently argued, young adults occupy a peculiar space in criminal justice policy, and are commonly described as morally deficient, and in need of guidance in order to become morally mature. Historically, young men aged 18-20 were sent to distinct custodial institutions (Young Offenders’ Institutions, or YOIs), and there continues to be legislative provision for a sentence in such facilities. Recently, however, practice has diverged due to concerns about high rates of violence and self-harm in YOIs and the ongoing decrease in the size of the young adult prison population (Ministry of Justice, 2013), and young adults are now held in a mixture of facilities: some holding 18-21 year olds, some holding 18-24 year olds, and 65 per cent in prisons integrated with adults (House of Commons Justice Committee, 2016). The Justice Committee, as well as the Barrow Cadbury Trust (2005) and the Harris Review (2015) into self-inflicted deaths in custody of 18-24 year olds, has criticised these developments and called for a more distinct and strategic approach to young adults in the criminal justice system. They argue that 18-24 year olds often demonstrate high-rates of immaturity, in part because they have not fully neurologically developed, and that this leads both to high rates of crime among this age group and the difficulties they face in adapting to the prison environment. As the Harris Review argues, ‘[y]oung adults in custody […] are young, vulnerable and still developing individuals who need to be nurtured and supported safely to navigate through the complexities of their lives into purposeful, mature adulthood’ (2015, p.5).

What is less clear is what a ‘purposeful, mature adulthood’ might look like, and who has the right to judge when it has been achieved. As Alexandra Cox (2017) has described, rehabilitative intentions often reflect governmental attempts to shape young people into particular ways of being. She has criticised juvenile justice agencies in the US for trying to promote a limited vision of ‘liberal citizenship’, one which rewards the virtues of responsibility, productivity and accountability, while simultaneously condemning as ‘ungovernable’ those who fail to live up to (or disagree with) these exacting ideals (see also Inderbitzen, 2006, 2007; Nurse, 2010, and Abrams & Anderson-Nathe, 2013). Prompted by these and similar criticisms of rehabilitation as paternalistic, this project will focus on prisoners’ own moral reflections and engagements – how they define the good life and seek to enact it.

Research Questions 

i. What does it mean to live a good life in prison? Where do prisoners’ conceptions of the good come from? How are they expressed, and how do they impact on daily life? To what extent are visions of the good gendered and racialised, and how do they relate to prisoners’ religious and class identities?

I am particularly influenced by Mattingly’s conception of virtue ethics, which she considers to be inherently ‘first person’ (2014): ethics is understood as a form of action and a process of becoming which foregrounds ‘the ordinary as a primary site of moral work’ (2012, p.167). Mattingly suggests that anthropological accounts of ethics should begin with experience-near ‘thick’ description of how people try to become good, and should then consider ‘the structural conditions that produce morality as a lived experience’ (p.27). These structural conditions are bleak for young adults in prison: their biographies are marked by trauma and multiple deprivations, more than a half of prisoners aged 16-21 have spent time in secure care, and people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are sharply overrepresented (House of Commons Justice Committee, 2016). This project will produce accounts of ethics which engage in and critique the real conditions which foster them.

ii. How do prisoners reflect ethically on their own social world, and how do their ethical reflections affect their engagement with it? How does the prisoner society shape, support and challenge prisoners in their attempts to pursue a good life? 

The prisoner society is a conventional subject of sociological discussion, and discussions of the so-called ‘prisoner-code’ are widespread (since Clemmer, 1940/1958 and Sykes & Messinger, 1960), but such discussions rarely consider what, if anything, is ethical about these rules by exploring ‘the ambiguous relation between the normal and the normative’ (Karstedt & Farrall, 2006, p.2013). If anything, the prisoner society is generally described as a deviant subculture which only acts as a barrier to goodness, rather than fertile ground for forms of moral engagement; young prisoners in particular are considered to be morally ‘at risk’ from the corrupting influence of gang culture (e.g. House of Commons Justice Committee, 2016). I suggest that prisoner society should not simply be conceptualised as a source of moral degradation, and this project will consider how young people in prison try to engage ethically with the people they live among.

iii. How do prisons as institutions make ‘the good’ possible, and how do they impede it? How do institutional forms of moralisation help and hinder personal explorations of morality? How do prisoners evaluate the moral standing of the institutions in which they are held, and the wider societies of which they are a part?

Bottoms (2002) argues that the most secure basis for compliance – whether with the law itself, or with the rules governing prison life – is normative acceptance of the rules in question, and a recognition of the legitimacy of the powerholder. Liebling (assisted by Arnold, 2004) argues that prisons come closest to legitimacy when they balance certain key dimensions, including respect, trust, support, fairness, order, well-being, authority, and meaning; YOIs consistently perform poorly on these dimensions (The Harris Review, 2015), raising questions about how young prisoners engage ethically with the institutions in which they are held. Furthermore, penal power in late-modernity is described as ‘tight’ (Crewe, 2011): it demands that prisoners actively engage with the institution, managing their behaviour and actively engaging their offending behaviour which ways which have been described as ‘neo-paternalistic’ (Crewe, 2009). This project will consider how young people live personally meaningful moral lives while also negotiating the complex behavioural demands the prison places on them.

iv. What relationship is there between the desire to live a good life and desistance from crime? What hopes do young people in prison have for their lives after prison, and how do their hopes shape their lives inside the prison?

Young adults have the highest reconviction rates of all groups of prisoners: 75 per cent are reconvicted within two years of release (House of Commons Justice Committee, 2016). But studies of life-course criminality indicate that the offending of most people peaks in the late teens and early twenties and then levels off (Loeber & Farrington, 2013), indicating that imprisonment affects young people in a way which makes them more likely to reoffend (House of Commons Justice Committee, 2016). For some young people, the attempt to do and be good might form part of a strategy of moving away from crime, as is suggested by a significant body of research on desistance (e.g. Maruna, 2001) and is reflected in the increasing popularity of the ‘Good Lives Model’ of offender rehabilitation. For others, engaging in criminal behaviour might be part of an expression of their developing moral identity (as a way of providing for self and family, punishing a wrongdoer, or displaying courage, for example; Katz, 1998; Little, 1990). This project will consider the different hopes young people can have for their future and will explore the role crime can play in a moral life.


Research Design 

The design of the project is currently in flux as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the intention is for it to be ethnographic in design, appreciative in tone and participatory in nature. It will involve periods participant observation, life history interviews, and the development of a Dialogue Group involving between eight and ten young men who are currently in prison.


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.