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Not ‘just visiting’: research to inform policy and practice in prisons

Work by Professor Alison Liebling and the team at the Prisons Research Centre, Institute of Criminology at Cambridge provides insight into how conducting academic research led to the development of important relationships with practitioners, which has enabled meaningful impact of the research on policy and practice.


The Research, ‘authentic description’

Professor Liebling summarises her approach to research as “authentic description”. Through extensive research undertaken over a number of years in prisons, involving observation, ‘appreciative inquiry’, interviews and conducting quality of life surveys (MQPL, SQL), the team have been able to develop an understanding of prisons that can be used by policy makers and practitioners in a variety of ways.

In developing quality of life surveys for prisoners and staff, the teams’ goals were: ‘authentic description of the moral, relational and social climate in individual prisons, and explanation of their differences’. Using an appreciative method of grounded theory the researchers explored what mattered most to prisoners and prison staff and combined dialogue over time with quantitative evaluation; a methodology they describe as ‘ethnography-led measurement’. This approach led to convincing and reliable measurement of what are regarded as the most important dimensions of prison life and quality, namely: respect, humanity, staff-prisoner relationships, trust, well-being, safety, order and the use of authority by staff. 

The Impact, ‘performance and quality in prisons’

The work informs effective measures for standards in prisons, used by HM Prison Service to assess the performance and quality of establishments, and is also being used by international institutions. The work has influenced the ‘decency agenda’, by providing a language and methodology for evaluating and comparing aims of decency and quality in prisons; this evaluation agenda has had a positive impact on, for example, reducing prison suicides, by showing what qualities are present in prisons which have fewer, and lower levels of distress. Members of the PRC are frequently asked to advise HM Prison Service on a range of issues relating to the quality of prison life.

Reflections on Impact, ‘low-key, organic, long-term’

Professor Liebling and her team have developed expertise in understanding the prison world but at the same time maintain their intellectual credibility and independence and address their own underlying research questions whilst conducting research of direct policy relevance. The team have found that independent, academically rigorous research, often funded by research councils has the most impact on policy and practice, because it asks, and then answers, better questions than practitioners can ask. The long-term research relationship with the Prison Service has led to mutual understanding of this benefit to ‘trust-driven research’. This type of impact does not follow a ‘model’ and could not – indeed was not – planned to happen in a particular way. It represents low-key, organic, long-term engagement by researchers with the research environment.

In reflecting on the impact of social science more broadly, Professor Liebling suggests three ways in which research can support policy development and reform: in the direct reflection on practice it allows through challenging assumptions and placing action in context; in the presentation of evidence to policy makers and other organisations; in allowing ‘reflective space’ in a frantic [policy] climate to ask and answer questions about assumptions and frameworks. The flow from research into policy is sometimes indirect, or counter to researchers’ judgement. Researchers do not influence the politics of policy-making and research cannot compete directly with other forces shaping policy outcomes – the realities of operational decision making, financial constraints, the role of the media and public opinion. There are limitations to engaging with policy but ultimately the underlying purpose of the research is to be committed to ‘getting the description right’. Good description requires ‘courage, insight, effort, and exceptional degrees of access’. And in terms of long-term impact and the role of critical social science, the ‘right description’ can change the world.

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We aim to support public policy research across Cambridge University, working with colleagues in science, social science, the arts and humanities, to apply new thinking to public policy problems and promote research and analysis into the public policy process. We hope to connect and raise the profile of existing public policy related work across the University and support collaborative research that includes policy development in a range of subject areas. 

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