Lately I’ve been looking at the interview transcripts that I collected over a year ago in a prison in Portugal. While the reasons for the time gap between collecting data and analysis were many in this case, what remains odd to me isn’t the temporal distance from the interviews but rather the difficulty in ascribing faces, stories, and personalities to the interview scripts that I’m reading.

These interviews were collected as part of the work that I have been developing alongside Dr Sarah Turnbull and Prof Mary Bosworth. The project is funded by the European Research Council, and my particular sub-project within it is called The Postcolonial Prison: Citizenship, Punishment, and Mobility. The Postcolonial Prison intends to gain a better understanding of the experiences of foreigners in prison in order to understand the relevance of citizenship and migration to imprisonment. Particular attention is paid to matters of gender, race, and ethnicity. It’s a comparative study between the UK and Portugal, both of which have strong colonial legacies and similar profiles in their foreign-national populations in prison, yet very different levels of immigration enforcement.

HMP Huntercombe
I was granted different levels of access to prison in the UK and Portugal. In the UK I was allowed full access to the prison facilities. I was issued keys and could walk around freely through the facilities and engage with all prisoners and staff and observe their daily routines. In Portugal I was not granted access to the wings, but only to the administrative buildings of the prison, where prisoners would be ‘brought over to me.’ Access was thus limited to the collection of interview and survey data. I was excluded from the wings and the spaces that form part of prisoners’ lives, blind to the interactions and social relations that develop within.

Collecting data based on one-time interviews with people with whom I had no prior (or post) engagement means that now, as I go through the interview scripts, I can barely remember their faces. I recall stories that were told to me, of course, and a few faces, but I can’t connect one with the other. Reading interview scripts from my fieldwork in the UK is quite a different experience. I know who is ‘speaking,’ I know how they dressed, how they smiled, what their hair looked like, and how they moved about and interacted with me and with others. I know whether they were good natured, or defensive or welcoming, suspicious of, or curious about, my interest in them. I remember the jokes we shared, the misunderstandings that came between us. As I read their interview transcripts, I also recall the many engagements we had that were not recorded by the dictaphone. I can see the people who talked to me, and I miss them and wonder what has come of them. From Portugal, I can only read what participants once told me in reply to my questions. It makes it difficult for me to contextualise their words, to connect them to the actual person I spoke with. As the weeks pass I wonder if there’s a wider significance to my memories, and what impact it may have on how I analyse these data and write up the findings.  

Estabelecimento prisional do linhó
It’s not news that the kind of access that the researcher is granted in prison will influence not just the methodology that may be devised and deployed but also the engagement the researcher will have with people within. It also inevitably shapes the kind of data that are gathered. I knew this from the beginning. Yet, I what I’m finding―although perhaps not surprising―is that the different kinds of access I had to prison facilities in the two countries remains pertinent through all the stages of research, not just in data collection. This raises a number of questions while leaving me with two sets of data more distinct than I had first anticipated. And that in turn makes this comparative study all the more challenging.