chapter  1
13 Pages

Introduction

ByBen Crewe, Jamie Bennett, Azrini Wahidin

Anyone embarking on a study of prison staff needs to ask themselves why they are doing it, as there are obvious risks in pursuing this course. First, particularly for prison staff researching themselves, there is a danger of partiality or even indulgence. Historically, prison staff have seen themselves as neglected and unappreciated (Thomas 1972; Crawley 2004), and as a result sympathetic students of prison staff may be drawn into taking sides, or becoming partial. Second, the study of prison staff may be considered marginal or a distraction. It could be argued that the primary focus of prison research should be prisoners, since they are the people who are most significantly affected by the prison experience. Third, it could be argued that the study of prison staff acts to reinforce existing power structures either by promoting their interests above those of prisoners, or, when research is critical of prison staff, legitimising the increased centralisation of power and undermining attempts to allow and develop professional judgment and discretion. However, these concerns bring to mind three main reasons why the study of prison staff is both important and legitimate. The first is the impact of prison staff upon those in their custody. To understand the prison experience – the difference between a regime that is decent and one that is unsurvivable, or one that aids reform or one that incubates social hatred – we need a refined analysis of staff cultures, practices and ideologies and the outcomes they produce. In other words, we need to understand the effects of prison staff. The second is that prison

staff, like postal workers or journalists, should be seen as a distinct occupational group (or set of groups), a topic worthy of study in their own right. Although we might argue that prison staff matter primarily because of their effects on others, it should not be forgotten that they also matter in themselves, as workers and members of the public. We know from recent research that prison officers experience exceptionally high levels of occupational stress (Arnold et al. 2007), that their work often spills over into their family lives (Crawley 2004), and that many are profoundly affected by their everyday experiences on the front-line of criminal justice. These consequences, the effects on prison staff, are of intrinsic concern. A third reason is that the study of prison staff can tell us about conceptual issues beyond the realm of criminal justice, such as the nature of power, punishment, order, inequality, care, discretion and resistance. Prison officials are representatives of the state and, as international and comparative studies illustrate (Piacentini 2004), they reveal a great deal about its power, means, resources and ambitions.