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Resisting the Eclipse
An International Symposium on Prison Ethnography

ICCCR Annual conference 2012

18-19 September 2012
The Open University, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom

Are reports of the demise of prison ethnography exaggerated? Find out at this international gathering of prison researchers. Speakers, panels and workshops will explore what prison ethnography has got to offer in an era of mass incarceration.

In 2002, Loïc Wacquant opened a special prison issue of Ethnography, with a piece entitled: "The Curious Eclipse of Prison Ethnography in The Age of Mass Incarceration". In his article, Wacquant expresses incredulity at the scarcity of ethnographic field studies of American jails and prisons. He is horrified to discover that at a time when such examinations are most urgently needed, they appear to be disappearing under the weight of more conventional 'correctional' research.

This symposium contrasts the dearth of ethnographic work in the US with another story - one of a vibrant, critical and engaged body of prison research beyond the US penal nightmare. In-depth qualitative research is going on in many prisons across the world, and the researchers undertaking this work are struggling to find ways of talking and writing about their work that will draw attention to the methodological and political difficulties associated with prison ethnography, the voices of their informants, and the findings of their detailed studies. Their work appears in a variety of different journals, spanning a range of disciplinary fields from criminology, penology, ethnography, sociology, and anthropology. While this diffusion is welcomed at some levels, the profile of this kind of research remains low within any particular field. Ethnographic researchers of prisons and prisoners, many of whom conduct their fieldwork work alone, can themselves feel isolated, unsupported and unheard.

At this symposium, prison researchers from around the world will come together to resist the silencing and invisibilisation of marginalised people that the relentless growth of imprisonment attempts to accomplish. We will discuss the tensions and challenges of conducting in-depth research in prisons and grapple with the methodological, ethical, analytical and political dilemmas that inevitably arise when we enter the closed worlds of prisons to conduct research. As Wacquant astutely observed, in an era of mass incarceration, the academic and political importance of prison ethnography has never been more pressing.

Conference report

On 18-19 September, the ICCCR hosted its 2012 annual conference. The topic this year was Prison Ethnography. The conference was an international symposium of speakers who have carried out ethnographic research in prisons across the globe.

The first day of the symposium, focused on aspects of the process of doing prison ethnography. It was opened by keynote speakers Professor Lorna Rhodes (University of Washington) and Professor Yvonne Jewkes (University of Leicester), speaking respectively on the 'Ethnographic Imagination in the Field of the Prison' (Rhodes) and 'What Prison Ethnography has to Offer in an Age of Mass Incarceration (Jewkes). Subsequent sessions on Day One included reflections on how prisons and ethnographers influence and impact one another (Rod Earle & Coretta Phillips, Abigail Rowe and ethnography scholar Martyn Hammersley); writing and reading the prison (Laura Piacentini and Ben Crewe); and sinking and swimming in prison research (Alison Liebling, Jennifer Sloan, and Deborah Drake).

Day 1

Day one was a rich, varied and candid exposition of the difficulties, complexities and dilemmas of undertaking ethnography in the closed, peculiar and damaging environment of the prison. Audience participation through questions, comments and the sharing of research stories enriched the texture of the collective discussions, building on and extending the themes identified by the speakers. Contributions from PhD student attendees reminded us of the anxiety, anticipation and curiosity that drew us all into prisons for the first time. Conversely, more seasoned prison ethnographers drew attention to the frustration, anger and pain of carrying out research within the structural violence of the prison environment.

Day 2

The second day of the symposium aimed to showcase the breadth and depth of ethnographic work completed or underway in non-English speaking countries. It opened with examinations of prison climates in the South, including Brazil (Sacha Darke), Ecuador (Chris Garces) and Uganda (Tomas Max Martin). The programme then moved on to focus on navigating prison spaces in India (Mahuya Bandyopadhyay); 'Non-Western spaces', including Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Liberia, Philippines, Jordan, Kosovo and Honduras (Andrew Jefferson); and Norway (Thomas Ugelvik).

The symposium was closed by Gilles Chantraine who reflected on prisons under the lens of ethnographic criticism.


The rich, varied and deeply moving exposition of non-Western prison ethnography that was considered on the second day was organised by Andrew Jefferson and Tomas Max Martin of the Global Prisons Research Network (GPRN). In keeping with the aims of the GPRN, the programme of speakers challenged the hegemony of the Anglo-American axis of comparison in prison studies and abundantly demonstrated how much there is to be gained by considering the ethnographic work carried out in prisons in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and the former Soviet States.

At this symposium, prison researchers from around the world came together to resist the silencing and invisibilisation of marginalised people that the relentless growth of imprisonment attempts to accomplish. We discussed the tensions and challenges of conducting in-depth research in prisons and grappled with the methodological, ethical, analytical and political dilemmas that inevitably arise when we enter prison worlds to conduct research. The large community of ethnographers who came together for this event (over 100 delegates from 12 different countries) are testament to the academic and political importance of prison ethnography.

Many thanks to all the speakers and delegates and to Julia Willan and Harriet Barker from Palgrave Macmillan. All those who attended and presented at the symposium enriched the content of the two days in ways that the organisers could not have anticipated or designed into the programme. We are in the process of setting up an email list so that we continue to build up the community of prison ethnographers. If you want to be added to this list, please send an email to

Read also Dominique Moran's blog post reflecting on her attendance at the symposium on her Carceral Geography website.

Symposium organisers

Deborah Drake, Rod Earle, Abigail Rowe (ICCCR, The Open University)
Andrew Jefferson and Tomas Martin (Global Prisons Research Network)
Jennifer Sloan (University of Sheffield)

Partners and supporters

The 2012 symposium has been planned and organised by the ICCCR in collaboration with colleagues in the Global Prisons Research Network (GPRN), a multi-disciplinary network of researchers undertaking confinement studies on different levels - from the everyday life of specific institutions, to the wider political impact of penal policy changes.

The symposium is also supported by our partners at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS). The March 2013 edition of Criminal Justice Matters, the quarterly magazine published by the CCJS, will showcase extracts from papers presented at this symposium.


The symposium took place at The Open University, Michael Young Building, Rooms 1-4 (lower ground floor), Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA, UK.

Day 1 – 18 September 2012

Time Sessions
10:30-11:00 Registration
11:00-12:30 Keynote
Prof Yvonne Jewkes and Prof Lorna Rhodes
Resisting the Eclipse - what has prison ethnography to offer in an age of mass incarceration?
View the video of this keynote
12:30-13:30 Lunch
13:30-15:00 Session 2
Panel: Rod Earle & Coretta Phillips, Abigail Rowe, Martyn Hammersley
What does prison do to ethnography? What do ethnographers do to prisons?
15:00-15:15 Break
15:15-16:15 Session 3
Speakers: Ben Crewe and Laura Piacentini
Writing and reading a prison? Dilemmas, opportunities and burdens
16:15-16:30 Break
16:30-17:30 Session 4
Panel: Alison Liebling, Deborah Drake & Jennifer Sloan
Thrown In or Drawn In? On sinking and swimming in prison research and ethnography
Evening Dinner and evening information (PDF document)
There is no formal conference dinner organised, so we propose that people have dinner in The Hub area of Milton Keynes.

Day 2 – 19 September 2012

Time Sessions
10:00-10:30 Tea/Coffee
10:30-12:00 Session 5
Panel: Sacha Darke, Tomas Max Martin, Chris Garces
Prison Climates in the South: Insider Views from Africa and Latin America
12:00-13:15 Lunch
13:15-14:45 Session 6
Panel: Andrew Jefferson, Mahuya Bandyopadhyay, Thomas Ugelvik
Prison Spaces
14:45-15:00 Break
15:00-16:00 An Over-view by Gilles Chantraine
Champ pénal/Penal field - methods, theories, struggles
View the video of this over-view
16:00-16:15 Closing Remarks

About The Open University

Open University, Berrill Building

The Open University is largest University in the United Kingdom, with more than 260,000 students, offering courses throughout Europe with a growing number of courses becoming available worldwide. The Open University's mission is to be open to people, places, methods and ideas. Students in the UK are supported through a network of 13 centres where they can meet with tutors, advisors and each other. These are complemented by study centres, often in other higher education institutions, that may be used for study, tutorials and examinations.

The Open University has its headquarters at Walton Hall in Milton Keynes, which is 80km north of Central London, midway between Oxford and Cambridge, and just off the M1 motorway, linking it to Birmingham and the north of England.

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About Milton Keynes

Milton Keynes is one of the fastest-growing cities in Europe. It includes a wide variety of entertainment and leisure facilities:

  • Over 30 hotels - including modern city centre hotels and traditional country house hotels
  • Over 350 restaurants, bars and cafes offering over 20 different styles of cuisine
  • In excess of 4,500 acres of parkland, woodland, lakes and rivers

Destination Milton Keynes

Last updated: 17 February 2015