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Social relationships between prisoners in a maximum security prison: Violence, faith, and the declining nature of trust

Alison Liebling & Helen Arnold


Journal of Criminal Justice

Volume 40, Issue 5, September–October 2012, Pages 413–424




This paper describes significant changes to social relationships in a high security prison, including the prominent role played by faith identities and fears of radicalisation in shaping prisoner social life.



The study consists of a repeated sociological investigation of the nature of staff-prisoner relationships at a single site in the UK. Methods included extensive observation, the creation of a regular dialogue group with 14 prisoners, long, private interviews with 32 staff and 52 prisoners, focus groups, and surveys with 170 prisoners and 180 staff.



The study found a decline in already low levels of trust, with dramatic effects on the prison's inner life. Relationships between prisoners were fractured, more deeply hidden than in the original study, and the traditional prison hierarchy, formerly easily visible in long-term prisons, had dissolved. Longer sentences, fears of radicalisation, confusion about prison officer power, and high rates of conversion to Islam, reshaped the dynamics of prison life, raising levels of fear. Clear indications of the anxieties and social unravellings of late modern society were found.



Increased punitiveness, indeterminate sentences, the intensification of risk-oriented practices, and anxieties relating to terrorism, have deepened the tone and reshaped the practices of long-term imprisonment.



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