skip to content

ESRC funded Transforming Social Science - Locating trust in a climate of fear: religion, moral status, prisoner leadership, and risk in maximum security prisons

Religious identity is playing an increasingly prominent role in maximum security prisons in the social and emotional lives of prisoners and in the management of risk. Changing prison demographics and anxieties that under certain conditions prisons may become incubators for terrorist ideology, have fuelled concerns over the role and nature of religious ideology and practice in prisons. Simultaneously, the flow of information about prisoners has moved away from prison landings and into security intelligence reporting systems, obscuring possibilities for faith as a source of growth, meaning, community, and trust.

This project explores how trust, risk, identity and prisoner leadership work in two contrasting maximum security prisons.The study aims to capture dynamics that encourage human flourishing, even in prison, rather than damage to character, which is an increasing risk. The methodology combines appreciative inquiry with ethnography-led measurement of key dimensions of the prison’s moral and social climate to explore where and how trust might ‘work’ in this contemporary setting. It uses innovative methods to study prisoner networks, hierarches and developing ideologies, to test the hypothesis that forms of identity expression take on a different character in different moral, social and trust climates.

You can read here the key findings from the project.

Project Members:

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.