Monday, December 21, 2009

Social History

One of my many peeves is the idea that prisoners are excluded from society. Prisons are like small villages; they may be remote from the Big City but we still have electricity!
The cultural shifts, ideologies, the currents that shape the wider society are as prevalent here as they are out there. Or so says the old 'importation' theory of prisoner culture. Whilst there is truth in it, to the extent that everybody in prison was first shaped outside, new factors must be included.
Prisons have a complex social structure, politics, power, and an economy. All that gives meaning to live outside also exists here. Although not in replica. Prisons are places of great material, political, emotional and economic shortage, all of which plays its part in moulding the culture. These scarcities imply that the importation of some new resource can have a disproportionate effect, as can the loss of some long standing feature.
Prison societies, though, are much neglected by sociologists and criminologists. I say this in the full knowledge of the mountain of material that has been produced, much of it of a quality I can only dream of aspiring to.
The neglect I speak of results from the motivations of researchers to date. They tend to be examining specific problems, mostly related to order, discipline, riots, violence and suicide. Excellent though this work may be, it is rather narrow in its scope.
No one is going back to the very fundamentals - just looking to see how prisoners’ society works. How we cooperate, have relationships, create economic alliances... Just as the original
generations of psychologists and sociologists took a wide scope of society to form initial 'laws', the same could be done for prisons.
My particular interest in this is social history. Having been here for a few decades, I have a historical perspective on our little society and the changes that have accrued.
A few years ago it struck me that it may be a useful sociological resource to have lifers like myself record our experiences. These could then be stored away in some university basement until the day comes when it may be of use to some historian or sociologist.
Such an oral history is all that there is. Much of what prisoners do, their interactions with each other, are semi-secret from the institution. And so, unlike a normal history, there are no documents, no diaries, no letters for the future to refer to. Our memories are all that there is and as each generation grows old and dies, that history is lost forever.


  1. Hi Ben. I think you and other lifers are the prison equivalent of the aboriginal african griots! Happy christmas to you, as much as you can,

  2. Ben your comments about the scope of much of the literature is a little unfair. The studies that get done are those for which funding can be both sought and won. If you can't get the funds to do the study then you can't do it so you do the one you can get funding for. This is just one of the eternal frustrations of academic life.

    If, when you get out you can find funding to do such a study then more power to you, but try and think of something someone else might also want researched to fall back on and pay the bills.

  3. An anthropological study would perhaps be in order.

  4. Peter in Dundee: When my funding was withdrawn in an attempt to control my study direction, I suffered but struggled on with the assistance of supporters and friends outside.

    As Ben says, if they are not quick a lot of my knowledge will die with me. Luckily, I have a house full of literature which will help those with a desire to learn inner secrets.

    Lord Falconer read law at Queen's College, Cambridge. Me at the "University of Crime". He tells the public what Hirst v UK(No2) doesn't say, when he had not read it to see what it did say. I would argue, even after reading it he fails to understand it properly.

    There is a difference between seeing something from an inside out perspective, and looking in from the outside.

  5. Anything that is reported in the media is not a reflection of prison life e.g. holiday camps, prostitutes going into prison and all the electronics that prisoners have, so someone like Ben should be writing for posterity. I visit a prison every week and am amazed at what I see in the media which is nothing like what I experience on a visit - so put the truth somewhere please Ben. Happy Christmas (if possible).

  6. Today I wear the grumpy boot: Peter of Dundee, I often find your comments are delivered with a paternalistic tone. This by my definition means condescending. Does it not occur to you that Ben may want to study something he cares about rather than just studying for the sake of studying?

  7. I'd love to do work on prison culture, sociological analysis of the structuring structure inside... but Corrections Services Canada makes it nearly damned impossible to access the prisons. They say it's for the sake of the prisoners, but really it's just that as the literal gate-keepers they make the rules.

  8. Good post, one place to start if you wish to learn more about the social history of prisons is ---->

    Far from perfect, at the very least, it allows for some interesting reading.


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