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Alison Liebling on Successful Prisons

Speaker: | Interviewer: Duration: 00:27:05 Series: Online Publication Date: February 14, 2020 | Original Publication Date: 2019 Copyright: © 2019 SAGE Publishing
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What makes a good prison? For Alison Liebling, a criminologist at the University of Cambridge and the director of the Institute of Criminology’s Prisons Research Centre, the answer is the existence and the practice of trust. Liebling has years of going into dozens of individual lockups and believes that good prisons are possible. “A good prison,” she details, “is one where prisoners feel safe and the environment is not threatening—and therefore they can concentrate on their own personal development.”

In this podcast, Liebling discusses her ongoing research in the prison environment. In methodological terms Liebling has adopted an appreciative inquiry approach, which she came to almost accidentally while trying to discover a way to describe what works in a prison and how prisons differ from each other. Appreciative inquiry seeks to identify what is working well, analyze why it is working well, and then support people or organizations in building on these self-determined positives. “So instead of telling me about your offending,” she would ask, “tell me something you’re most proud of.”




DE: This is Social Science Bites with me, David Edmonds. Social Science Bites is a series of interviews with leading social scientists and is made in association with Sage Publishing. What is the single most important quality by which to gauge a successful prison? Listen on, and you'll find out. Alison Liebling, one of Britain's leading criminologists, has been researching prisons for decades. She hit upon the answer using a methodology called "appreciative inquiry." Alison Liebling, welcome to Social Science Bites.

AL: Thank you for coming.

DE: The topic we're talking about today is prisons. What's a good prison?

AL: Well, let me preface how I answer that by saying I'm not in favor of high uses of imprisonment. So even though my professional life is very preoccupied with trying to identify and describe what a good prison is, I think you find more good prisons where you use prisons less. But a good prison is a prison in which prisoners feel so safe, and they feel that the environment is, in general, not threatening. And therefore, they can concentrate on their own personal development. So in general, it's a prison in which they feel reasonably decently treated, they're not anxious about getting from A to B, the regime works in a fairly predictable and clear way, the staff are approachable. If all of those things are working reasonably well, then they can do things that are helpful in rebuilding their futures.

DE: And are there empirical ways of measuring that? I'm thinking of things like suicide rates, recidivism rates, and so on.

AL: Yes. Let's say there's outcomes. So some of the outcomes are internal, and some of the outcomes are external. So internal outcomes would obviously include things like suicide rates, violence and disorder, drug use. But then external outcomes-- the ideal, obviously, is that people come out of prison and can live a life-- so reoffending. There's problems with that measure because some of the levers are outside the prison. That's why we've tended to begin with the internal outcomes.

DE: So what is your methodology? You've spent years now going into dozens of prisons.

AL: Yes. Well, it's a bit of an accidental methodology. Part of what's worked about our method is that we didn't start out trying to measure outcomes, or even measure anything very much. Our question was different. It was, is it possible to identify and describe, and then, if possible, measure what really matters in a prison and the way one prison may differ from another? When we started doing this work, there was a lot of controversy about key performance indicators, staff saying they didn't recognize their prison if they just relied on external indicators. And also, there were some disputes about whether a prison was good or bad amongst those who were accountable. So for example, the Chief Inspector of prisons once described Wandsworth as having a culture of brutality, and the director general of the Prison Service said, no it doesn't. You're biased. And they had an argument. And actually, their arguments were about methods. Well, they did know that because they came to me and said, will you--

DE: Sort it out.

AL: Yeah. Sort this out. And so I was already interested in the question because we were in prisons all the time. And we were hearing staff saying we don't think these performance indicators get anywhere near the experience. And we also knew that prisoners didn't talk that language when they talked about their experience. So we tried all sorts of things. But one of the things that was a bit of a breakthrough was using a methodology called "appreciative inquiry." And that's really changed the whole way I think about doing social science.

DE: "Appreciative inquiry"-- you better explain what that is.

AL: Yeah. So appreciative inquiry is not a research tool, or at least it wasn't until I corrupted it. It's a term that is used in organizational or economic development. I discovered it through a colleague who was describing his use of it in very impoverished African countries, where it's possible to work with very impoverished communities getting them to engage their own energy and imagination in making their lives better. It follows something known as the heliotropic principle in biology, this idea that plants tend to follow the sun because that's the source of their life and energy. And so this methodology believes that if you put people and organizations in touch with what gives them life and energy, then they will grow in that direction. What it does, very creatively, is it reverses the typical social-science preoccupation with problems. And instead of, tell me about your offending again, you ask, tell me about something you're most proud of in your life.

DE: So this is a approach that you apply both to prisoners and to officers?

AL: Yeah, to everyone engaged in this world. And what it does is links people's experience to their energy, but also, to their values. So when a prison officer starts to talk to you about the best day I've ever had in the organization, you very quickly start to understand what motivates that officer, what matters to them. They might be rare experiences, but you find out when that prison officer felt most alive and rewarded.

DE: Presumably, though, it also works on a very basic psychological level in that it makes people less defensive. It just makes them open up.

AL: Yes. I mean, we didn't think of it as strategic or manipulative. It was more that I think it made me rethink what I had assumed was a very humanistic methodology. I'd studied suicides in prison many times, and so I was often interviewing people who'd tried to take their own lives about their experience. And I thought I was quite good at doing those sorts of interviews. You're empathetic, and people tell you all about their feelings and difficulties. But actually, it leaves both of you feeling pretty drained, and I realized this was incomplete without asking, what about the time when it felt OK? And if you add that in, the whole emotional tone of the exchange changes.

DE: What's their attitude to you? You're coming in from the outside world, they're stuck in here for months, years. What do they think of this outsider doing research on them?

AL: Yeah. It's an interesting question because first of all, I've been doing it so long that I don't quite qualify as an outsider. So some prisoners who I've interviewed in one project turn up in another. And sometimes there's a welcoming committee. But often I do get challenged and very thoroughly. And we always try to provide an opportunity to introduce the research to prisoners. And often, the immediate response is, what's the point of this? We've done research before. This isn't going to change anything. And our answer to that is, you're right. This isn't going to change anything. But let's talk about why we do it. So this is my job, and I'm really interested. We're kind of witnesses to your experience. You're not the only people we're going to talk to. We're going to talk to staff and governors. We're trying to make sense of the prisoners and institution. We're kind of trying to hold it to account for what it says it's trying to do. And there isn't any better method than research for authentically describing this invisible world. And I've actually been in a situation quite recently where a group of prisoners who I didn't know very well were putting us through our paces and challenging us about, why bother, sort of thing. And because of the mood I was in, due to some things that had happened in prisons over the years, I acknowledged to them that I sometimes wonder whether I can carry on, and I sometimes wonder why I'm doing this, and I sometimes feel like giving up. And I explained why. And they all said, you can't do that. So I said, why? Well, then, what else have we got-- sort of thing. So I think the dialogue has a sort of ritualistic nature to it, which I fully respect, which is asserting their own right to be free of researchers, talking very passionately about their need for action, and us acknowledging the purpose and the limitations of research.

DE: This is not typical ethnographic work in that some of these people you're talking to, presumably, are regarded as dangerous. And sometimes, presumably, you've got somebody sitting in with you. And I wonder whether that affects the interaction.

AL: No, I wouldn't have someone sitting in with me so. So my honest opinion is that people are more at risk out on the streets than they are in a prison and that not all prisoners are dangerous. And even if they have been dangerous, in a prison setting, things are very unlikely. It's probably one of the most controlled and supervised environments you can imagine. I've always felt very at home. Who knows why that is, but there might be reasons to do with my experience earlier in my life. My parents were both in the psychiatric profession. And when we were waiting for them to finish work, we were often in psychiatric hospitals. As a child, I made friends with schizophrenic patients who we played Scrabble with. It was very normal to accept people on their own terms. And I think I've probably carried some of that spirit into the prison-research community, but for good reason, because the first research project I ever did was in 1986, and it was in a young-offenders institution. And I didn't know what to expect. But I was interviewing young offenders about whether what they did in prison was linked to what they did outside. And on day one, I realized all my assumptions were wrong. The prisoners-- they were young, and they were frightened, and some of them cried. A lot of them reminded me of people I knew. And they were very ordinary and a bit scared. A lot of them had difficulty speaking in the interview because they didn't expect to be listened to. So I had to do quite a lot of work reassuring them that it was OK to talk, that they could be heard. So much for being dangerous. They were actually very vulnerable. The last thing you think about when you walk into a prison is danger. The human side of prison life is so dominant. People look after you. They make jokes. They offer you tea. They're curious about you. They're human institutions.

DE: Let's talk about your findings. I guess if they can be summed up in one word, it's "trust." So let's unpack that a bit. What is so important about having trust in prisons?

AL: I've come to the concept of trust cumulatively because we had an experience of returning to a prison that we knew very well after a 12-year gap. It was a high-security prison. We'd studied it very thoroughly in the late 1990s. And we described a lot of trust flowing-- what we would call "guarded trust" flowing between staff, and prisoners. And it turned into a study of prison officers at their best. We weren't conscious of the word "trust" being around in that study or it being a major part of what went on in the prison until we went back to 12 years later, and it had all gone. And we had to hang around in it for quite a long time before we worked out what was different. But we described it as "paralyzed by distrust." And so for me, that set up this puzzle about what the difference is between a prison in which what Onora O'Neill would call "intelligent trust" is flowing. It's a prison. I'm not saying everyone should just naively trust everybody else, but I think one of things that prison officers do that people don't appreciate-- they are very subtle readers of human behavior, and they learn a lot of that in the job. It's in their skin and bones by the time they've been doing the job for a few years. They read situations really well. And what they're doing is making fine judgments about gradations of trust. Can I let this prisoner out? Can I trust this prisoner to do something for another prisoner? Should I give this prisoner a job on the wing? They're continually making these kinds of judgments, and they have to know their prisoners really well. And if that stops, the whole prison stops.

DE: That sounds like trust is one way, but presumably, it flows in both directions, and that for a well-functioning prison, you have to have not just wardens giving some autonomy and trust to the prisoners, but likewise, the prisoners have to have some trust that the prison officers are not going to misbehave.

AL: Yes. This is fundamental. And prisoners will say it. If I give my letter that I've just written to an officer, I'm trusting that officer to make sure it's posted. And we know there are prisons where when prisoners fill in what's called "applications," those applications never see the light of day. So, of course, prisoners also have to trust staff. And we've started to measure these very important parts of prison life. And what's really important about trust is that if prisoners don't trust in the environment, if they don't feel safe, prisoners become very hard to survive. So one of the things that we've done over the years is translate a lot of this qualitative observation into quantitative measurement. And we found that these dimensions of prison life, like trust, and relationships, and humanity are the fundamental building blocks of a survivable prison environment.

DE: How do you measure it?

AL: The big trick was identifying the dimensions in the first place. So we used appreciative inquiry in order to discover what matters most to prisoners. We did this first study in five different prisons, and I think we expected different dimensions to arise in each prison. But to our surprise, the same dimensions were identified, and they were things like respect, humanity, trust, support, well-being. And then we worked very hard with staff and with prisoners to operationalize those dimensions. That is, to come up with items or statements that reflected what it's like to be treated with humanity. When do you feel like you are most human in here? And we've turned all of that into a tick-box questionnaire. So it's been this very creative and quite enjoyable process of reading the books, being on the ground, using these statistical processes, and working out how to translate these concepts into real life.

DE: That's how you measure it. How do you build trust?

AL: I guess it's all to do with engaging with the other person in a way that reflects the personhood rather than the criminality of that person. So Martin Buber would say, it's an important distinction between I-it, and I-thou relations. And we didn't go in with this theory, but having looked at the data and knowing what we know, we're finding that language makes sense of our data, that basically, I-it relationships are, I'm a prison officer, you're a Muslim, or you're black, or you're dangerous, or you belong to a gang. I know who you are, and I'll treat you on that basis. In other words, I'm not going to trust you. An I-thou relationship is you're a person, I'm a person. We don't know each other very well. Let's sit down and find out who we are. And you'll be lots of other things besides being a Muslim, and you may have a very positive relationship with your faith. And it's a much more curious and exploratory person-to-person encounter. And we're finding that the best prisons-- the staff wouldn't use this language, but we can see this is what they are doing. They see prisoners as people first.

DE: That sounds completely intuitive. But how do you make that happen? Does it help, for example, to have wardens who look like or come from the same communities that the prisoners come from? You mentioned somebody might be black or somebody might be Muslim. The prison population is not representative of the general population.

AL: Yeah. It's not that simple. Of course, prisoners point out when the prison-officer population is very different. They register that. And if you like, at an organizational level, that communicates symbolically. So I think it is a good idea to make an effort to reflect the population. But that isn't the answer. In our analysis of how people felt that they were treated according to their ethnicity and so on, religious affiliations, we found that culture trumped ethnicity. And the same is true with gender. So some people think putting more female officers in a prison will humanize it. Well, we found that only if the prisoner is already reasonably decent then gender starts to show up, whereas if you put loads of female staff in a culturally very negative prison, then those female staff become like the rest of the culture. So it's not as simple as, fill your prisons up with a particular profile of officers." There's got to be a led culture. And we've seen, in these very outstanding prisons, some common ingredients-- outstanding, very powerful, clear-sighted, credible governors who get stuff believing and their vision.

DE: Trust is obviously a strange word when we're talking about prisons because if you think of the archetypal untrustworthy individual, it's the individual who you expect to land up in jail.

AL: Yes. It's such important territory. And maybe I'll answer the question by talking about a prisoner who talked about respect. I told you earlier that I don't like to walk into a prison thinking I'm surrounded by dangerous people. It feels unethical and inappropriate. And one of the things that prisoners have said to us quite often is that, you're not afraid of me, and I find that quite respectful. Prisoners experience fear and being constructed as the dangerous other as quite painful. And it makes them very uncomfortable. So one prisoner, for example, who was category A, which is the high-security category, and he'd been deemed no one-to-one contact-- so so dangerous you couldn't be in a room with him. And for various reasons, I was in a room with him, and we got to know each other reasonably well, and he was talking about some of the difficulties of his situation and the way he was regarded. And he said it almost was unbearable to be in a room with a female officer, for example, because it made him feel nervous because he'd been constructed as so dangerous. I like Onora O'Neill's term "intelligent trust" because it's about placing trust appropriately and placing distrust appropriately.

DE: And they don't regard themselves as untrustworthy. They may have-- I don't know-- nicked a car or burglared a house. But in other parts of their life, they presumably take pride in loyalty and in dealing fairly with other people.

AL: Yeah. It's one of the frustrations that prisoners express, especially when they get caught up in long sentences. They want to be downgraded in security categories, and they want to apply for parole. How do they demonstrate trustworthiness? And they're always looking for opportunities to demonstrate trustworthiness. And they find it gets ignored, or overlooked, or it doesn't get written down. So the first thing they do in 14 years of a sentence-- they might smoke a cigarette when they shouldn't have. And that gets written in their files. I'll tell you this story because it's really important. In my first-ever research project, I was in a women's prison, and a woman officer had a fear of birds. And a bird flew onto the wing, and she jumped into a cell and pulled the door shut. And she'd locked herself in. And she called a prisoner that she knew who was on the wing, passed her keys to this prisoner, who unlocked her and let her out. And she looked at me. I was a baby researcher. And she said, don't write that in your notebook. And I didn't write in my notebook, but I've never forgotten it. That's real. And she trusted the prisoner, and the prisoner was worthy of her trust.

DE: With all this criminology and this ethnographic and sociological work on prisons, you would expect prisons to be getting better. Are they getting better?

AL: Well, you're assuming there's a relationship between how much we learn about prisons and how policy is devised. We did see prisons get better. Throughout my professional life, which is now quite long, I was very fortunate to enter the world of prisons in the late 1980s. It was about 1987, '88. And that was a turning point for the prison service. It had been in quite a bad place, and lots of things were done around that time, including some changes in the way prisons were thought about and managed. But also, in 1990, there were these watershed disturbances, the Strangeways disturbances in 30 other prisons. There were riots, and there was a major inquiry by Lord Justice Woolf, which was an absolute watershed, united almost anyone who knew anything about prisons. And in a way, over that-- I would say, more or less, 20-year period-- there were significant developments and improvements. Suicide rates were reduced, violence was reduced, there was a decency agenda. So there has been major improvement, and there's been a very good relationship between us, as a prisons-research center, the growing scholarship and understanding, and the field. The problem now is that there's been a threshold breached, a decline in quality across the board. And that's to do with finances. It's been to do with lots of things, but I think there's a threshold. Prisons were probably overfunded or badly funded in the 1980s. There's a whole kind of history of staff managing to demand larger numbers and managers not having the power, or the tools, or the knowledge to deploy staff efficiently. Then we introduced private-sector competition. And at first, the introduction of private-sector competition was about modeling alternative cultures. And that was a very interesting period. But there was also an effort made to use the private sector to drive down costs. And whilst I think there was some grounds for reducing staffing costs, what's happened subsequently is that the public sector have been forced to reduce their costs to just below the costs of the private sector. So there's a kind of competition on how low you can get your costs. And there's obviously public-financial reasons for that because in the meantime, we've also grown the size of the prison population. I think the agenda that's taken over is more imprisonment for less money. And I think we've gone too far in that direction.

DE: Can you be a good criminologist, a top researcher doing the kind of research you do and not care about the implications of your research?

AL: No. You don't do what you do by accident. And one of the questions-- there's lots, but one of the questions I think has driven my research career is this difference between an environment in which a human being can grow and flourish versus an environment in which the person is actually damaged and destroyed. I don't think it's exclusive to prisons, but I'm very interested in the relationship between human beings and their environments. What I've learned is what moral philosophers have been telling us for years, which is that values grow virtues and that human beings thrive and flourish in environments where the virtues exist. And this is an accident completely, but I've been rereading my Durkheim. And I think I might have been finding myself on the same track. Durkheim was very committed to this agenda of a moral science, and he thought that social science could help us understand how morality worked and that that would lead to a better society. I don't think that was my explicit agenda, but I think curiously, prisons are very helpful places in which to find out how moral values work. What I think, lies behind my own commitment to this area is the attraction of finding out that some of the things I would like to believe about human nature and societies seems to turn out to be the case.

DE: Obviously, policymakers are interested in your work. When they come banging on your door from the home office and elsewhere, is that a burden? Is that a pain because it interrupts your interesting research?

AL: Depends what day of the week it is. I mean, obviously, this is a privilege. We have a privileged relationship with the world of practice, and policy, and operations. And it's a privilege to be an academic who is in conversation with people who run prisons and think about prison policy. And so in that sense, the fact that there is a dialogue, I think, improves our work because they ask tough questions, and they only listen to real evidence. And it keeps us on our toes, and it also is very satisfying to do work that other people find interesting. But there's the downside. The world of policy has just got faster and faster. And actually, it's got further and further away from evidence. It's almost never the case that a policymaker can ask in a sort of blue-sky way, what would you do if? Instead, they'll say, my minister wants to do this. What's going to happen? Or they are so constrained themselves that they're not asking the question we want to be asked, which is, how do we make all prisons as good as this prison? Or how do we reduce the sentence lengths that have got a little bit out of control? So this relationship is a very constrained relationship. And they want answers tomorrow. We want three years to do the job properly. Our worlds are a little bit in conflict and tension. But it's better that we're in dialogue than we're not in dialogue.

DE: Alison Liebling, thank you very much, indeed.

AL: Thank you.

DE: Social Science Bites is made in association with Sage Publishing. For more interviews, go to

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