Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Distinctions and Distinctiveness in the Work of Prison Officers

Liebling, Alison (2011) Distinctions and Distinctiveness in the Work of Prison Officers: Legitimacy and Authority Revisited, European Journal of Criminology, Vol. 8(6) 484-489

Fresh from last month’s engaging debate on The Spirit Level, the Differential Association decided to turn our attention to something completely different: the prison officer. Professor Alison Liebling of the University of Cambridge has been at the forefront of research in this area, and her article 'Distinctions and Distinctiveness in the Work of Prison Officers: Legitimacy and Authority Revisited' which appeared in an issue of the European Journal of Criminology guest edited by Liebling in 2011, was selected for our discussion.

Admittedly we have quite a few fans of Prof. Liebling here at the DA, so a discussion of her work was always sure to make for an engaging evening. We were certainly not left disappointed; Liebling’s article evoked an interesting and energised discussion from all in attendance.

In this article Liebling examines the importance of staff-prisoner relationships, acknowledged as the heart of the whole prison system in the 1984 report of the Control Review Committee, and outlines the significant role that prison officers play in influencing the moral quality of life in prison. Outlining five key distinctions in prison work, Liebling attempts to construct a framework that explores this important influence that officers’ behaviour and beliefs exert on the prison environment.

Liebling begins with a discussion of authority and legitimacy, arguing that clarity about these concepts is of critical importance in articulating the highly skilled and distinctive nature of prison work. The exercise of authority is central to the work of a prison officer. Officers negotiate their authority on a day-to-day basis with a sceptical and complex audience in a context in which enforcing every rule ‘by the book’ would be impossible. Officers’ use of their authority is not always obvious; it is not only confined to disciplinary action but is also used in everyday interactions with prisoners. Turning to legitimacy, meaning authority used rightfully, Liebling explains that legitimacy is not a ‘fixed phenomenon’ but a ‘perpetual discussion’ between those who hold power and the recipients of this power. Liebling then outlines five important distinctions to be made in prison officer work: between ‘law in practice’ and ‘law in the books’; ‘good’ and ‘right’ relationships; ‘tragic’ and ‘cynical’ perspectives; ‘reassurance’ and ‘relational’ safety; and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ confidence.

Of the five distinctions Liebling proposes, DA members were particularly interested in ‘good’ v ‘right’ staff-prisoner relationships. The nature of staff-prisoner relationships is a growing area of research within the arena of prison work, and we were keen to focus on Liebling’s approach to this topic. Liebling explains that the question of what constitutes a ‘good’ or ‘right’ relationship requires careful analysis. When comparing results from a survey of prisoners with observational and interview data, it became clear that the meaning of a ‘good’ relationship could differ significantly. For some prisoners a ‘good’ relationship could be characterised by respect or having a good rapport with officers, while for others the term ‘good’ could mean that contact with officers was minimal. Right relationships are to be found somewhere between formality and informality, closeness and distance, policing by consent and imposing order. As Liebling puts it, ‘niceness and blind faith in social harmony or the avoidance of conflicts, and naivety, can lead to chaos’. Returning to the statements of the Control Review Committee in 1984 that relationships were at the heart of the prison, Liebling argues that it is staff professionalism and legitimate practice that lie at the heart of prison life, and that this is about more than just relationships.

Another area that DA members were eager to discuss was staff-management relationships. Quite a few of us had seen Prof Liebling’s engaging presentation at the Scribani Conference (video available here) in September in which she made some interesting observations about the nature of the relationships that exist between officers and senior management. While officers’ work is highly visible to its key audience, prisoners, it is low visibility in relation to senior management. In the article Liebling highlights the dissonance that exists between managers’ perceptions of officers’ roles and the reality of day-to-day prison work for officers. For example, senior management (and policymakers) may believe that officers enforce all rules at all times in their dealings with prisoners while in reality officers often forgo rule enforcement and discipline in favour or discretion and the legitimate use of authority in order to maintain order. The group was also keenly interested in the role and influence of unionisation on staff-management relationships. Aware that this is an area that has received fuller empirical attention in England and Wales, DA members wondered about the dynamic that exists between unions and senior prison management in Ireland.

As always, the group discussion turned to the Irish context. We considered the changing role of the Irish prison officer over time, reflecting on the move away from a loosely articulated caring ethos towards a regime more concerned with security and coping with an expanding population. Liebling often describes prison officers as the ‘invisible ghosts of penality’, and this is certainly true when examining the position of the prison officer in Irish research. While recent years have seen exciting work emerge from Liebling and her colleagues in Cambridge, as well as from others such as Elaine Crawley, Ireland has unfortunately not enjoyed the same burgeoning scholarship in this area. The DA wondered about the nature of Irish prison work and the vast potential for Irish studies of prison officers. Throughout the meeting our discussions kept returning to the same sentiment, a frustration at the empirical deficit in this area.

Prof. Liebling’s article undoubtedly provided an engaging and thought-provoking discussion. While it is somewhat disappointing that research in Ireland has fallen considerably behind the UK (and beyond) in this context, the enthusiasm amongst all in attendance for this area is certainly encouraging. If anything is to be gleaned from this meeting of the Differential Association it is that a definite appetite exists for further knowledge about this most interesting cohort.

This month's blog was written by Colette Barry.

The views expressed are the author's alone.

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