From the Field is Border Criminologies new ‘mini-post’ series featuring news from researchers currently in the field. In the fourth instalment, Marion Vannier, a doctoral student at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford, provides her thoughts on a day visit to prison with a fellow colleague.
Last Thursday, my friend and colleague Ines Hasselberg asked me to accompany her to HMP Huntercombe to conduct interviews with Francophone foreign prisoners. As a native French speaker and a fellow researcher, I was given the interview script and asked to conduct the interviews myself instead of merely acting as an interpreter. The idea was to increase rapport and avoid the breaks and interruptions of interpretation.
Afterwards, Ines invited me to my share my views on the day in this mini-post series. At first, I was tempted to write about the prison environment, my interactions with the guards, and the conversations I had with the interviewees. Such an approach somehow seemed a bit too ‘predictable’ or it just seemed to miss the point. While I fully acknowledge that conducting research in prison and on prisoners’ experience of imprisonment requires discussing and analysing these elements, in this particular case I just felt it wouldn't have grasped what really struck me.
When conducting research on prison and prisoners, academics often include their impressions on conducting research, including how they gained access, how they built trust with prisoners, and more broadly how they got a sense and understanding of prisoners’ experiences. I feel it’s rare, however, to read researchers’ observations about other researchers. It may seem irrelevant to describe how, from a researcher’s point of view, other researchers interact with prisoners, how prisoners react to them, and more generally how these individuals adjust to the prison environment. Yet, I found it to be particularly enlightening to step back and observe my colleague.
Let me thus tell you a bit about Ines.
Ines is from Portugal, and after having worked some time in Africa, she is now involved with Professor Mary Bosworth and Dr Sarah Turnbull on a European Research Council funded research project about foreign nationals’ experiences of imprisonment in the UK.
Ines is also pregnant.
If the pregnancy is only one aspect of who Ines is as a person, as a researcher or as a colleague, this element clearly shaped her interactions with the prisoners.
As we walked our way around the prison, it was telling that each and every male prisoner we met asked how she and the baby were doing. Inmates from Jamaica who were mopping the floor in the corridor turned to Ines as we went by and asked ‘how’s the baby mama?’ She smiled back and replied that ‘all was fine’.
We then reached the wing where I was meant to interview the French-speaking prisoners, Ines conversed with several inmates from different countries. Again, each enquired about her health, about her baby, and then asked about the research. The scene was actually amusing: Ines and her pregnant belly stood at the centre of a group of tall and large men, some having just finished their work-outs, still sweaty from exercising. As Ines responded to their questions, you could see them gently bend over to closely listen; they looked protective and caring.
One of the inmates I later interviewed specifically told me to ask Ines how the baby was doing. As the interview unfolded, he felt no shame or difficulty in sharing his moments of pain, where he shed tears and experienced loneliness and fear. I'm unsure and wouldn't be able to prove whether and to what extent Ines’ pregnancy contributed to his opening up, but I sensed that he clearly felt reassured by her presence.
To summarise, what struck me from my experience of going to prison with Ines is how her pregnancy brought a form of peace to the inmates. And in this particular environment, these men were keen to open up and to share their most intimate thoughts.
See also other mini-posts from the series From the Field: