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This year’s Roger Hood Public Lecture featured Dr Alison Liebling, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology, and Director of the Prisons Research Centre. In her presentation, ‘Prisons and the Problem of Trust: Contrasting Approaches to Risk, Radicalisation and Personal Growth in Two High Security Prisons,’ Prof Liebling presented key findings from a two-year ESRC-funded study undertaken in high security prisons in the United Kingdom along with colleagues Ruth Armstrong, Ryan Williams, and Richard Bramwell. Drawing on this current study and situated in the context of previous prison research Prof Liebling has conducted, the presentation highlighted a number of complex developments that have taken place in these facilities in recent years. Of particular importance she identified the shifting role of faith identities; an altered prisoner hierarchy; changing staff-prisoner relationships and sources of prison order; and increased risks of radicalisation and extremism among prisoners. The implications of these developments, Prof Liebling underscored, extend beyond the high security prison estate, into ‘regular’ prisons and the broader community, as the majority of prisoners will eventually be released.

Prof Liebling and her associates found low levels of trust in the establishments they visited. Staff were often suspicious of, or uncomfortable with, the newly diverse population in their care, while prisoners were angry about racism and the lack of cultural competency exhibited by the institutions and staff. Concerns around faith and diversity in particular have transformed prison order and staff-prisoner relations, coalescing with related preoccupations around risk reduction and institutional fears surrounding the radicalisation of Muslim prisoners. The ‘problem’ of trust, Prof Liebling noted, provides a useful conceptual lens for understanding these changes. The empirical focus on trust is reflected in the study’s ‘person-centred social science’ methodology which allows for consideration of the ‘moral self’ in the moral climates of high security prisons.

In addition to the person-centred social science frame, the methodology included ‘appreciative inquiry’ and ethnography-led measurement involving the administration of the MQPL (Measuring the Quality of Prison Life) survey. Researchers undertook a ‘slow entry’ approach involving authentic dialogue with prisoners and staff, to learn where trust is found, how it’s built, and what it does in the context of high security establishments. Fortunately, there was significant interest in the research, leading to high levels of participation. This methodology enabled rich descriptions of the key differences in the moral climates of seemingly similar high security prisons, HMP Full Sutton and HMP Frankland.

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The results indicate subtle differences in trust and mechanisms of social control between the two prisons, which created distinct levels of what Prof Liebling termed ‘political charge’ (that is, anger and alienation) and were associated with expressions of faith among prisoners. The lack of cultural competence, noted above, led to misunderstandings and ‘misrecognition’ in staff-prisoner and prisoner relationships, producing ‘disabling’ environments, which damage well-being and character, and ‘enabling’ environments, which support human growth and the reduction of risk.

Prof Liebling and her colleagues are currently continuing to analyse the findings of this study, which they plan to transform into their book, Prisons and the Problem of Trust, which they’ll be working on writing up over the next year. The annual Roger Hood Public Lecture provided a great venue to hear some of the preliminary findings of this work. There’s no doubt Prof Liebling’s research provides an original and valuable contribution to criminological and sociological understandings of imprisonment and the central role of trust in high security environments.

If you missed Prof Liebling’s lecture, be sure to stay tuned to Criminology at Oxford on Twitter or Facebook for details once the video and audio podcasts are available.