As the UK continues to adjust to the new Tory government, which has seen prison-reformer, Michael Gove replaced by MP Liz Truss, the authors of this post reflect on one of our key celebrations in 2016, the May 24 event on ‘Transforming Incarceration.’ Mia and Emma are both conducting research with prisoners about their experience of incarceration. While Mia concentrates on LGBT individuals, Emma’s work concerns those who claim to be wrongfully convicted. Through letter-writing and interviews, Mia and Emma are pushing at the boundaries of prisons research, opening up whole new areas of inquiry. Mia tweets @Mia__Harris

On 24th May, Oxford’s Centre for Criminology celebrated its 50th anniversary with a drinks reception, generously hosted by prison philanthropist, Lady Edwina Grosvenor. Symbolic of the Centre’s connectedness with the world outside of Oxford and the academy, the event was held in the global city of London. The reception, centered around the theme of ‘Transforming Incarceration’, attracted students, academics, policy-makers and practitioners, all with an interest in the penal estate. Drinks and canapés provided and served by members of the innovative Clink Charity helped to fuel vibrant discussions amongst the guests on the current state of prisons, its history, and our hopes for the future.

Professor Mary Bosworth began the presentations with a whistle-stop tour of the broad array of research being conducted by current staff and students regarding the prison. She detailed the importance and value of the work undertaken and highlighted the prominent role that such research has had in the 50-year history of the Centre for Criminology. As she made clear, the Centre has always attracted prison scholars whose research has not only contributed to discussions regarding the roles and realities of the modern prison, but also altered the parameters of the debate, to encompass more than just the traditional prison. Such research has contributed to teaching at the undergraduate, masters and doctoral level, while also informing policy work in a range of areas.  Her own research, on immigration detention centres, through the work of Border Criminologies, is just one example.

At the end of her talk Mary introduced Dr Stephanie Covington, the guest speaker of the evening. Dr Covington, who is working with Edwina and the Ministry of Justice in the UK, to champion trauma-informed practice with criminalised women, gave a passionate and thought-provoking speech on the importance of recognising and managing trauma amongst female inmates. She described what it means to work in a trauma informed environment demonstrating how to educate prison staff to better understand and identify trauma in the women they are working with. Dr Covington explained how widespread trauma is within the female estate and emphasised that in any given society it is the most vulnerable women who make up the majority of the prison population.

The response to female offending, she claims, cannot be simply to transplant women into a system designed for men, one that often only serves to exacerbate disadvantage, mental health problems and relationship inequality. Women enter prisons with different experiences and issues, they respond differently to intervention and many just simply do not belong there. The dangerous impact that incarcerating women can have also extends beyond the individual into the familial, disrupting entire family networks and displacing dependent children, often with highly damaging consequences. Dr Covington concluded by suggesting that positive development for female offenders can only be achieved by severely restricting the use of imprisonment and by providing specifically designed services within communities.

The reception provided the chance for robust discussion in an informal and relaxed setting whilst allowing guests to reflect on the important prison-related research produced by academics at the Centre for Criminology. It is obvious that the prison has always occupied a central role within the Centre and continues to do so to this day. As Lady Edwina Grosvenor highlighted, in order to ensure that this work may continue, the Centre has launched an ambitious development campaign, to, among other goals, secure the place of prisons research within the Centre for the next decade.  Academics, Edwina made clear, have an important part to play in understanding and critiquing penal policy.  As our own work shows quite clearly, prisons remain difficult places to endure, and those within both staff and prisoners, continue to raise important ethical, legal and practical questions that demand attention. Here’s to the next 50 years of investigating imprisonment