Guest post by Agnieszka Martynowicz, a doctoral candidate at the School of Criminology, Politics and Social Policy at the University of Ulster. She is currently researching the experiences of Polish men and women imprisoned in Northern Ireland. Her fieldwork started in September 2013 and has so far concentrated mainly on interviews with male prisoners in the high security Maghaberry Prison near Belfast.

Maghaberry Prison, Northern Ireland (Source: BBC News)
“Will you come to talk to me again?” he asks while we are walking out of the building into the rain of the central square of Maghaberry Prison. After spending their days surrounded by English-speaking prisoners and staff, an hour in the interview room with a Polish-speaking researcher seems like a respite. Mostly quiet and reserved at first, the interviewees relax into the conversation, generously providing the details of their lives before they were imprisoned. It's when we start talking about their experiences in prison that the tone changessometimes to one of resilience and resistance, often to one of quiet resignation. Negotiating daily life behind bars, with little information provided on committal or during sentence, is a real struggle. Where larger groups of Polish prisoners are on the same wing, they support each other, making sure that everyone knows how to write a request, how to book a visit, how to sign up for English classes or to book a phone call. For those who for whatever reason are not part of a group, the feelings of isolation and sadness dominate the conversation. When it all gets too much, the interview becomes more than part of a research process; as one of the interviewees put it, “Talking to you really helps, it really helps....”
Maghaberry is Northern Ireland's largest prison (Source: The Detail)
Much has been written recently about the need for a radical reform of the Northern Ireland prison system. Following more than thirty years of providing security-focused custody for large numbers of politically motivated prisoners, since 1998 the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) has had to face up to the challenges of provision for ‘peace-time’ populations. The on-going transition faces many obstacles, as documented recently by the work of the Prison Review Team in 2010-11.

What is less obvious is that in recent years the NIPS has been undergoing another transition. Since 2000, Northern Ireland has witnessed an unprecedented level of international migration. The 2011 Census figures show that around 4.5% of the Northern Ireland population was born outside of the UK and Ireland, an increase of 2.5% since 2001. In the last ten or so years, the population of foreign national prisoners in Northern Ireland prisons grew from single figures to around 7% of the overall population. The largest group of those are Polish prisoners.

While documenting their experiences of imprisonment here, my research also considers how new identities are negotiated in a system with little history of diversity amongst both prisoners and staffa system which still struggles with the legacy of a sectarian conflict where ‘identity’ was very much understood as the divide between ‘Green and Orange.’ At the time when any debate about integration of the ‘new communities’ or ‘multiculturalism’ is largely overshadowed by calls to protect the identities of the ‘two main communities’ in Northern Ireland, and when the number of racist attacks on ‘new migrants’ are on the increase, I'm also interested to explore if and how this wider social context is reflected inside the prisons. I'm aiming to conclude my fieldwork at the end of April 2014.

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