Challenging existing systems of knowledge production
On the 5th of May 2023, The Good Prison Officer: Inside Perspectives will be on sale. This book is a unique and unprecedented approach that centres first-hand prison experience – inside perspectives – to improve prison officer practice with wider implications for the prison system. This guest post is written by Andi Brierley (editor) and Max Dennehy (author). The book is available for pre-order now. You can follow Andi (@Andibrierley) & Max (@dennehymax) on Twitter.
From our vantage points as both ex-prisoners – now professionals – within the criminal justice space, we believe criminology and penology literature and research seeks to extract first-hand experience, knowledge and lived realities of criminality and life in prison, which primarily benefits those with power and positions of privilege in comparison. Amid the volume of research conducted and literature produced on prison and prisoners, what has been most striking to us, is the significant lack of contribution from people with that first-hand experience of prison contributing to penology literature. This lack of inclusion of prisoners or ex-prisoner voices within the literature leads to what we recognise as misrepresentations of this marginalised group through extraction and appropriation and, in our view, impacts on the validity of the data and research outputs. The Good Prison Officer: Inside Perspectives – a book made up entirely of ex-prisoners now professional wounded healers – seeks to disrupt this imbalance of power that exists within knowledge production that has forever been embedded within mechanisms of institutional structures that create and maintain inequality.
Often, the discourse around the inclusion of lived experience of prisoners in practice and research is reduced to notions of co-production and participation of serving prisoners. Although a positive step in criminal justice practice, this does very little to address the imbalance of power or enable those with prison experience to make an independent and authentic contribution to literature which can influence policy. One example is that staffing is a significant problem for the prison service. Prisons are chronically understaffed and are consistently struggling to recruit and, perhaps more worryingly, retain new officers. Almost 1 in 6 prison staff left the service in the last year. Over half of those who left had only been in post for under three years, with over a quarter having served under just 12 months. The prison service has a problem. It has been reported that the everyday experience of prison life and prison culture has had a significant role to play in the poor retention rates of new recruits. Shadd Maruna, in the foreword to the book, points out that “…if you want to know what makes a great customer service representative, you need to listen to customers”. Yet rather than utilising ‘experts by experience’ – the direct and authentic inside perspectives of the previously imprisoned – almost axiomatic insight is albeit missing from the conversation around the current staffing crisis. Illustrating that certain forms of knowledge are privileged over others. And, more importantly, who it is that gets to be the bearers of ‘legitimate’ or ‘sanctioned’ forms of knowledge – those who subsequently have the closest access to power – are rarely those who are closest to the issue.
This book sits outside of this ever-evolving power dynamic that lies at the heart of our criminal justice system. It is written, produced, and edited by ex-prisoners who have now positioned themselves as justice professionals. This enables a fascinating dual vantage point that presents a constructive inside perspective of what makes a good prison officer from both a professional and axiomatic position of ex-prisoners. Although the authors have highlighted that this vital perspective of prison officer practice is absent from the literature, there is an argument that taking this progressive approach to knowledge production is just a start of dismantling the elitist and exclusionary infrastructure of education and power within the criminal justice sphere.
Constructing a Redemption Community
Lived experience can be a broad and subjective term that is contested and difficult to define. For the purpose of this book, the term goes beyond simply describing someone who has a prison experience. Moreover, the collaborators of this book were selected due to their previous intersectional experience of multiple disadvantages such as being an incarcerated female, the care experience, youth incarceration, racialisation, school exclusion and chronic addiction to ensure the most marginalised populations of the prison estate are represented.
Drawing together those who have experienced being on the margins of society prior to the prison experience with a shared ambition of improving the prison system constructed a bond that developed into a redemption community. During the production of this book, the collaborators had monthly meetings to discuss all decisions made about the book, which ensured a democratic process was taken throughout. A by-product of this regular face-to-face contact and a WhatsApp group was that we inadvertently created a community space for support that went beyond the focus of the book and into the realms of friendship. Having these disadvantaged experiences as professionals within criminal justice spaces can lead to tensions, frustration, and a sense of loneliness and pain through a shared identity and authentic connections with many caught up in the justice system. This project allowed each author to share their frustrations and personal challenges with a group that has an unspoken shared understanding of being a wounded healer.
The big question was whether it was possible for a team of ex-prisoners with not one doctorate between us – and some with limited academic experience – would have our work approved and published by a leading academic publisher. Once Routledge had the book peer reviewed and accepted the work for publication, the editor then had to undertake a tutorial on how to create and obtain an ORCID number – we would hazard a guess this is possibly not the case for most edited editions of Routledge books! We would therefore like to thank Tom Sutton as the editor for progressing this much-needed project.
Accumulating the reflections, considerations, and experiences of the contributions to this work has formulated twelve recommendations to improve the prison service for prisoners, prison officers, victims, and society as a whole. It goes without saying that an effective prison system that supports people not to re-offend post-custody is beneficial for society. These recommendations include:
- For clinical supervision to be provided for officers;
- an option to undertake an ‘on-the-job’ foundation degree;
- a clear aim to actively move towards a reduction of the prison population;
- to ensure that an understanding of childhood trauma becomes central to officer training and professional development;
- to have ‘lived experience’ perspectives integrated within the training that officers receive;
- for politicians to engage in more evidence-based and informed discussion on matters related to crime and prison – ensuring that government departments take ownership of how their policies influence the factors that directly increase the prison population and contribute to the decimation of the prison officer workforce.