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Entering Without Breaking: Challenges and Strategies of the Qualitative Criminologist Investigating Carceral Spaces

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Published onNov 24, 2022
Entering Without Breaking: Challenges and Strategies of the Qualitative Criminologist Investigating Carceral Spaces


Although qualitative methodology courses in criminology make it possible to gain theoretical and practical training in the collection, analysis and interpretation of data gathered using qualitative tools, these more rarely help address more targeted questions and concerns. Without making any claim to offer definitive solutions beyond the status of “tip,” this article attempts to tackle “things they don't really teach you how to handle in your qualitative methodology class,” concerning research in a carceral environment. By characterising carceral space as an opaque, all-encompassing environment pervaded by spatiotemporal constraints, it describes strategies that can be implemented in the face of organisational, relational or emotional obstacles, based on my experience conducting prison research. Ultimately, it encourages qualitative criminologists to show flexibility and open themselves to the unexpected, so that the scope of their research is not restricted by technical constraints.

“Could you speak about your research experience in prison, and tell me how you’ve gone about gaining access to the institutions you’ve visited?” I have heard this question more than once at scientific conferences, methodology seminars, or simply passing someone in the hall at the École de criminologie in Montreal. I have also found the question in messages sent by students from Canada and elsewhere, who contact me for tips on how to develop their fieldwork. Although the experience of conducting research in carceral spaces is subjective and strongly affected by issues of identity, I have always enjoyed answering the various questions sent to me and sharing the emotions and feelings connected with preparing fieldwork: excitement, fear, fascination, and various worries. These feelings never go away as the researcher slips their field notebook and voice recorder into their bag, whether they are a novice or have long experience. Most of the time, those “young” researchers are hoping to get concrete practical tips, the kind that are little discussed in methodology courses: How do you get authorisation to conduct research within a carceral institution? Is it necessary to obtain a certificate of ethics? How do you prepare a research proposal and fill out the forms that accompany the request? How do you recruit participants? Although these strategic questions are important to resolve in the project-development phase, the experiential and emotional component of fieldwork is just as important and should not be neglected, as many contributions have emphasized, particularly those from the British academic world. This growing trend stresses the auto-ethnographic dimensions of qualitative research, recognising the important role that emotions play in criminology, not just in the context of conducting fieldwork, but also in producing data (Liebling, 1999; Jewkes, 2011; Sloan et al., 2015). Following the call by Liebling to engage with our emotions as prison researchers, numerous academics have written and theorized about it adding depth and complexity to qualitative methodology. For example, Garrihy and Watters (2020) suggest to embrace from the beginning of the research process the idea that researchers are emotional agents and to engage with it through an integrative methodology.

Whether in literature or through the questions considered by novice researchers, the carceral setting stands out as a fieldwork site that, fascinating though it may be, is difficult to apprehend. More and more academics are opening up about their personal experiences of prison research, addressing the various challenges encountered in gaining access to carceral spaces (Piché, 2012; Ellis, 2021b), conducting research inside them (Schlosser, 2008; Drake & Harvey, 2014), building trust with participants (Gomes & Granja, 2021), managing and negotiating the researcher identity (Rowe, 2014) or all these aspects at once (Gomes & Duarte, 2018). To identify the systemic problems inherent in research conducted in a carceral environment, and understand the issues it raises on the organisational and individual levels, and then suggest possible solutions (or circumvention strategies), this article explores the general experience of research in a closed custody facility, by understanding the investigated field site from the perspective of the concept “carceral space.” In recent years, geography has been appropriating this concept and considerably broadening our understanding of it (for a review, see the work of Dominique Moran (2015) in the following book: “Carceral geography: Spaces and practices of incarceration”). Taking inspiration from concepts and theories at the intersection of geography, criminology, and the sociology of prison, carceral geography encourages us to go beyond a traditionally temporal analysis of prison and of the experiences within it, in order to also conceive of it as a spatial punishment (Moran, 2012); to get away from a rigid approach to prison, restricted to its interior and its internal dynamics (Turner & Peters, 2017); and finally to understand the carceral in all its complexity by taking into consideration the extension of the penal project beyond the walls of correctional institutions (Moran et al., 2018). Through this approach, carceral space is perceived as opaque, all-encompassing, and driven by temporal logics that shape the individual experience. It is certainly a site of constraints, but within which expression of one’s agency is possible (Gill et al., 2018). In carceral space thus defined, organisational and emotional aspects are closely linked: on such a field site, how can one conduct qualitative and methodological research, characterised by trust, empathy, and listening to others?

My outline of the strategic, organisational, and emotional components of research in carceral space will be based on my experience. Although it began in the French correctional context, it is mainly rooted in the Canadian context, and is based on a qualitative approach involving the use of interview and observation methods. My remarks are mainly based on a research project in the context of my PhD thesis, for which I conducted semi-structured interviews with 44 incarcerated women and men in five provincial prisons in Quebec, focusing on the theme of privacy in carceral space. I will be referring to my experience of investigating the field site and implementing the research project, as well as to informal observations made within the walls of the institution, recorded in a field notebook. My thought is also inspired by research conducted in other carceral institutions: youth centres in Quebec and correctional institutions in France. An approach by means of the “carceral” is useful because it enables the posited reflections to be transposed onto any restricted confinement space that involves a loss of autonomy.

Taking inspiration from works on carceral geography, I explore three integral aspects of “carceral space” that present the researcher with challenges in terms of structure, organisation, relations, emotions and identity: carceral opacity, carceral space-time, and carceral liminality. For each aspect, I will review my own experience before pointing out an issue it raises and suggesting solutions.

Carceral Opacity: on the Difficulty of Entering the Porous Prison

Despite a still strong attachment to Goffman’s concept of “total institution” in prison sociology, some academics dissociate themselves from it, by considering the prison as a porous institution (Farrington, 1992; Moran, 2013; Cunha, 2014; Ellis, 2021a), as I myself did in my PhD thesis (Tschanz, 2018). Carceral geography has also seized this debate, by highlighting the symbolic and material interactions between the inside/outside border of carceral settings. For example, Turner (2016) shows that the border that separates the prison from the outside is just as much one that connects, particularly through flows of people, practices, or goods and services. The idea of prison as a porous institution can also be found in the notion of the “carceral circuitry,” developed by Gill et al. (2018) to designate the various forms of connections that are established between prison and the rest of society. This circuitry is also one of knowledge, manifesting through the possibility of doing research inside carceral institutions and to share our analyses with the outside world. This permeability has paradoxically reinforced an opacity of sorts through the need to obtain access authorizations which can be seen at best as ethical gatekeepers and at worst as political and institutional filters. Although porous, the opacity of prison remains, as every researcher seeking to start a field study in prison will sense.

In addition to being a pivotal step in the conduct of any investigation in a carceral setting, without which access to the desired field site will be compromised, obtaining the authorisations needed to access the investigated site is described by Patenaude (2004, p. 73) as “the greatest challenge facing qualitative researchers doing prison research,” and should therefore not be taken lightly. Several researchers have warned about the opacity of prison and the resulting barriers to accessing a carceral field site, in Canada and in other Western countries (Patenaude, 2004; Piché, 2012; Sloan et al., 2015; Jewkes & Wright, 2016; Ellis, 2021; Michalon et al. 2021). To get around – or merely manage – this opacity, several steps must be taken.

Depending on the geopolitical context in which the research is conducted, the process to gain access to carceral settings can oscillate from a hard-to-access environment, like in the US (Wacquant, 2002; Ellis, 2021a) to one that allows unrestricted access (Cunha, 2014; Michalon et al., 2021). In France, for example, while the European Union General Data Protection Regulation has established the importance of research ethics and scientific integrity, ethics committees are still rare. The prison field can be accessed with a simple authorization granted by the administration of the institution, similar to Portugal, as discussed by Gomes & Granja (2021). In Quebec, two authorisations are needed to conduct research within carceral institutions. The first is that of the ethics committee which is responsible for ethically evaluating every research project involving human participants. It ensures that the research respects participants’ rights and dignity, and that it guarantees not only their free, informed consent, but also that the data remains confidential and anonymous. Later we will see that although these ethical considerations remain essential, they are nevertheless “idealised” when confronted with the carceral environment and its own ways of operating. The next step is a pocket door-opener, consisting in obtaining a research authorisation from Quebec’s correctional services, something that is not necessarily easy. According to Piché (2012), the researcher often has to make concessions and use negotiation strategies, obtaining field site access authorisation by means of the path of least resistance. Since acceptance of the research project can depend on its utility in the eyes of the correctional services (Ellis, 2021a), one of the main negotiation strategies is to highlight how the planned study can contribute to the mission of the correctional services themselves, while being careful to preserve the researcher’s independence. This is not a matter of reformulating and changing the research to satisfy the institution, nor of reducing the researcher’s work to that of a policy “influencer,” but rather of showing that its objectives could intersect with those of the correctional services by providing answers to questions they are considering (Sloan & Wright, 2015). If acceptance of a field site access request depends on obtaining authorisation from different accrediting organisations, the researcher is not passive, but has a role to play. They must collect information beforehand, learning about the site they wish to investigate. This preparation can be done in several ways, including reading specialised books, reaching out to experienced researchers, and getting initial experience on the site, through volunteer work for example. Several factors are also independent of the researcher, but can be anticipated. The possibility of having one’s research project rejected is lower when the proposed study does not involve considerable interference in the institution's operation and presents it with a minimal challenge in terms of organisation and security. Under these conditions, proposing to use observation as an investigation methodology can increase the risk of rejection, as was the case for Beauregard (2012) in the context of her PhD thesis on gambling in federal penitentiaries: her proposed in situ observation method was rejected on the grounds that it would have required too much involvement by security personnel.

Another aspect of gaining access to the prison field is to overcome the growing distance between them and the city. As carceral geography has discussed (Martin & Mitchelson, 2009; Moran, 2015; Milhaud, 2017), carceral institutions tend to be remoted to rural areas following a policy of invisibilization and their geographic distribution creates discontinuities which exacerbate the distance between us and them, like I have experienced in Quebec (Tschanz, 2018), having had to travel more than 600 miles round trip to visit one prison. The distance is unquestionably hard to overcome for families of incarcerated people, creating “forced mobilities” (Touraut, 2009) which can lead to temporarily end inside/outside relationships due to the cost and the duration of travel. But it can also prove challenging for researchers, raising organisational, logistic, economic, (and even ecological) concerns. Site access can also be conditioned by the researcher’s potentially precarious student status and the time and money considerations that stem from this. In my own case, having no financing, my access to field sites was limited, particularly when it came to institutions located beyond a certain distance from my home. I had to employ various strategies to limit the financial impact, including collaboration with friends, unpromising accommodation, and many journeys by bicycle.

It is also necessary to keep in mind that the opacity of prison extends inside, since one has not really penetrated a prison as long as one has not passed the institution’s reception desk, as well as its metal detectors in some cases. This implies bringing only what is strictly needed (it might seem obvious, but do not forget to leave behind your cell phone, cigarettes and coins before entering the prison!) and making sure to get each institution’s prior permission to use a voice recorder on the inside. One important point needs to be mentioned here. Regardless of the authorizations obtained, no matter the internal perimeters crossed and the surface of the prison scanned, it is not enough to physically enter a carceral space to remove an opacity that is not only characterized by the walls of the institution but can be more vaporous. It is crucial to be aware that, depending on the degree of autonomy given inside the institution, what you will see or hear, who you will meet (despite all your efforts to find volunteers), where and when, is most of the time edited and controlled by the institution, as I will discuss later.

Finally, I received a valuable tip from the late Carlo Morselli, a professor at the University of Montreal’s school of criminology in charge of the thesis seminar during the first year of my PhD studies: always have a Plan B, as frustrating as it might be to imagine the failure of a much-hoped-for Plan A. Faced with the opacity of carceral institutions, it is necessary to be aware that being denied access to them is a possibility. In order to avoid having to redevelop a research project following a negative decision that might arrive at a late stage, it is useful to consider whether or not another field site could be suitable for the posited problem. For example, in the case of research planned in prison, it could be transposed into a more accessible institution (such as halfway houses in Quebec) or could be conceived in the community, among professionals or people with experience in carceral environments, who could be contacted more easily through community organisations. Another solution is to rely on secondary sources of data such as prisons records, archives, legal documents, etc (Ellis, 2021a), with the unsatisfactory counterpart of taking away the much hoped-for research field that every researcher in social sciences has dreamed of.

How can one make sure to be able to conduct research within a carceral institution?

  • Be prepared and well-informed

  • Implement presentation and negotiation strategies to obtain the necessary authorisations

  • Be aware of one’s own limitations

  • Always have a Plan B (C, D)

Carceral TimeSpace: Organisational Constraints and Management Strategies

Once access has been obtained, one of the most difficult but crucial tasks in the field site negotiations arises: organising interviews and determining how these will operate, a step in which the researcher faces considerable spatiotemporal constraints. Whereas qualitative research involves creating an atmosphere of trust and confidentiality, particularly in the context of interviews that should ideally be conducted in a place and at a time conducive to their realisation, these aims are hard to reconcile with research in a restrictive setting. Confronted with the reality of the field site, the research project is sometimes impeded and often adjusted, in a world where the researcher must adapt to the environment and its internal organisation. Consequently, these constraints can raise questions relating to respect for ethical considerations.

In a 2012 paper, Moran suggested an understanding of space and time in carceral settings as co-constitutive and analytically interdependent, forming the concept of TimeSpace. By considering the researcher experience of carceral TimeSpace it allows us to discuss its dynamic and spatial dimensions, addressing the fixity and inertia but also the movement and agency that constitutes it.

First, the researcher faces spatial constraints. Although it is necessary to make sure the room allocated for interviews respects ethical research requirements as much as possible and guarantees that the words spoken there remain confidential, the researcher who enters a meticulously organised world has limited leeway. The choice of room is hard to negotiate, inasmuch as it runs up against the limited space available, particularly in small institutions. In the context of my PhD research, I conducted interviews in various spaces within prisons, each presenting its own characteristics and dynamics.

One of the allocated spaces was a large classroom situated at one end of the training centre, guaranteeing a certain level of quietness that would ensure good interview conditions. In two prisons, it was the offices of correctional and probation officers that served as interview rooms. These spaces adjoined the living units, from which they were separated by bars or gates. The main difficulty presented by these interview spaces was the reciprocal visibility stemming from the requirement to stay in front of the glass doors and remain visible to officers at all times for security reasons. This configuration, where the office window gave onto a sometimes busy and noisy hallway, enabled circulating personnel and incarcerated people to see the interview in progress, and allowed interview participants to hear or see these various movements, which could have contributed to destabilising them or disturbing their concentration, in addition to compromising their anonymity.

The visiting rooms constituted the most restrictive scenario. Located midway between the inside and outside, they do not allow the researcher to conduct interviews in the heart of the prison, unlike the configuration of the preceding spaces. This makes it more difficult to sound out the prison and shake off one’s outsider status. Called to the visiting room without being told why they were being summoned, many participants expected to be dealing with the police, and this instilled a certain mistrust, even after they had been reassured about my status. One of the visiting rooms, normally used for contact visits, had at its centre two chairs facing one another on either side of a table. With two large windows on two if its walls, the room once again put the interviews on display for inquisitive external eyes. The second visiting room, a kind of booth intended for lawyers or family members when contact is not authorised, imposed physical separation through a window placed between the sides reserved from imprisoned individuals and the researcher. A slot at the bottom of the window allowed information documents to be passed to participants, while three holes above the slot permitted the interviewer and interviewee to communicate. Though it ensured a confidential interview situation, this type of room presented several problems. On the one hand, although it was a closed visiting room surrounded by hermetic walls, the two glass doors (one on the visitor’s side, the other on the prisoner’s side) once again presented a visibility problem. On the other hand, the thickness of the glass barrier as well as the room’s resonant echo made conversation very challenging. A lot of contortion was needed to bring ears and mouths close enough together to conduct an audible discussion. Although I had started out trying to use a gentle tone to encourage research participants to speak openly about sensitive subjects, in that configuration I was forced to raise my voice to make sure I was heard. Finally, the barrier that imposed physical distance between the interviewer and interviewee did not facilitate the establishment of a relationship of trust.

In cases where spatiality is imposed on the interview, the researcher nevertheless has agency to reduce this intrusive visibility by playing with the surrounding space. For example, sometimes I was able to partially lower the blinds on the door windows, blocking the view into the room as much as possible. With permission from a staff member, I also took the initiative of rearranging the furniture in some rooms, for example moving the interviewee’s chair so that it would no longer be facing the door. However, these strategies did not prevent a few physical intrusions occurring during interviews. This was particularly the case in offices containing printers or photocopiers, or those in which files were stored, which officers had to be able to access occasionally. While some officers warned us before entering, others eschewed formalities, arguing that “this is also our office”, as one of them said to me. In order for confidentiality not to be compromised in such cases, it is essential to interrupt the conversation and stop the recorder when an officer enters the room. Finally, in order to reassure participants who were reticent after seeing the configuration of interview rooms that were supposed to foster trust, they were told that the interview location was not my choice.

Secondly, the researcher must cope with time constraints, particularly interview schedules that are imposed according to the prison’s own routines. Meal and prisoner-count times were excluded from the researcher’s timetable. The allocated timeslots are limited and are sometimes interrupted by long waiting periods, as shown by these field notebook extracts:

Friday 29 April

I sat down in the office at 8:30am and the first participant arrived at 8:45am. The interview lasted until 9:45am, but there wasn’t enough time left to do a second interview, since the imprisoned people all had to go back to their wings at 10:30am… I waited patiently for lunch with the teachers at 11:30am… […]. I was asked to try to do two interviews in the afternoon, even though I’d only been allocated three hours, and knowing I had to deduct the time needed for a participant to be brought here (around 10-15 minutes between meetings). Time is tight…

Monday 11 July

I’ve been allocated very little time for my interviews, forcing me to complete three interviews per day over three days if I want to meet my goals, since the prison is unable to guarantee access after Wednesday. Timeslots for my interviews: 9am-12pm and 1pm-3pm.

In some cases, the interviews were interrupted by participants being called back to their prison wing. When this is a possibility, it is necessary to develop time-management strategies to optimise the interviews and their organisation, without neglecting to communicate information essential to the research or establish a relationship of trust. For example, it might be necessary to constantly readjust interview schedules or durations, adapting to time constraints as they arise (Janesick, 2000). The interviews ranged from 30 to 90 minutes, with an average duration of one hour, a recording time I tried not to exceed in order to respect my allotted timetable. To economise on time, I kept in mind the principle of empirical saturation, indicating when I had gathered enough information on certain themes, so that I could then focus the remaining interviews on little-explored themes instead of those that were already saturated.

Adapting to the organisation of the prison also implies taking the interviewees’ own schedules into account. Calling participants to the interview could interrupt them in the middle of an activity (a course, lecture, sport, etc.) or during their rest period. Furthermore, it happened several times that summoned participants knew neither why they had been sent, nor who they would be speaking with. While some were expecting to meet me, others had hoped to be having an eagerly awaited meeting with the person responsible for their case file (prison counsellor, probation officer or intervention officer), while still others were afraid they were going to have to deal with the police. These restrictive aspects to which incarcerated individuals are subjected raise questions about the voluntary nature of their participation. Even though the individual may have expressed some initial interest in the research, informed consent requires that he or she be open to participating in the research at the time when the interview is conducted. Discovering that I was the person they had been summoned to meet, some seemed annoyed to be missing an activity, or no longer showed any interest in taking part in the research, even if none of them formally expressed a desire to withdraw their participation. Despite the fact that reorganising interviews can cause time to be lost under a tight schedule, I systematically took a moment to make sure that participation in the research was voluntary, even if this meant losing participants:

Monday 11 July

A woman appeared without knowing why she had been summoned. I reminded her about the research subject and pointed out that I was meeting her because she had volunteered to participate. Seeing her obvious tiredness and lack of interest, I suggested we meet again later in the week. An appointment was made for Wednesday.

Wednesday 13 July

As planned on Monday, the woman was summoned at the agreed time. She seemed no more enthusiastic about participating in the interview. So I told her she was under no obligation to meet me, and could go back to her wing at any time. She then told me she no longer wished to take part in the research. The interview was cancelled.

The conduct and smooth organisation of interviews can also depend on the goodwill of prison officers, who are sometimes weary of interference from an outsider:

Wednesday 13 July

I wanted to go to the toilet. To do so, an officer has to come and open the bathroom door for me, since it is locked. I waited at the door for over 20 minutes. An officer—with whom I get along quite well—finally arrived to unlock the door. Quite annoyed, he said that this situation was typical of the behaviour of certain members of staff who could be more ‘foolish’ than others. Was he implying that I’d been deliberately made to wait?

Twice, interviews were interrupted or delayed because someone had been pepper-sprayed, and the product had spread into other wings of the prison. In addition to earning me the nickname “the young lady who got gassed” (because I had directly suffered the effects of the cayenne pepper), one of the interviews was interrupted before the end, and I was unable to meet with the interviewee again. 

Navigating the carceral space-time implies movements and circulations, as opposed to the traditional view of prisons as sites of fixity and immobilism (Martin & Mitchelson, 2009). The degree of autonomy given to a researcher in the way they can access and walk the prison spatial perimeter can be quite informative about the institution dynamics and policies. The accesses I had during my field work in Quebec prisons was limited to a very restricted number of premises, given me a partial view on the realities of the carceral spaces I visited. I was always accompanied by a member of staff and escorted directly to the room where the interviews would take place. My experience is therefore quite different than Ugelvik’s (2014) in Norway or Scheer’s (2017) in Belgium, who have been allowed to conduct long-term ethnographic immersions with a relative freedom of movement.

How does one navigate carceral space-time?

  • Implement time and space management strategies

  • With the institution: negotiate without making demands

  • With incarcerated people: be transparent, accommodating, and listen attentively

The Liminal Carceral Space: From Identity Negotiation to Sharing Zones

Immersing oneself in the environment as much as possible (as qualitative methodology recommends) and facilitating the research requires the implementation of an integration process that is not simple, especially in a low-trust carceral environment, characterised by strong antagonism between its actors and where the process of gaining trust is not an easy one (Drake & Harvey, 2014; Gomes & Granja, 2021).

Usually applied to understand the carceral experience of incarcerated people (sources), the concept of liminality can be useful to address the complex and non-linear transitional phase that the prison researcher goes through. Feelings that incarcerated people sense during the liminal phase of incarceration – uncertainty, loss of control and autonomy, concerns about their safety (Harvey, 2005) – can be similar for a researcher entering prison and having to negotiate between two identities: one that they are in the process of losing and the other that will be assigned to them. Drawing from the work of van Gennep and Turner, carceral geography has therefore described prison as a “liminal carceral space” understood as “a space of transition between two distinct forms of being” (Moran, 2013, p. 340) in which the individual belongs not yet to this new environment, nor to their previous one. This "area of ambiguity" or "social limbo" (Turner, 1974, p. 57) demands that the researcher manage their identity, present their role and the purpose of their presence, to both prison personnel and incarcerated people, in order to establish their credibility and foster an atmosphere of trust. To understand the different layers of liminality, I will draw from Jewkes and Laws (2021) who discussed it as a “fluid concept, with temporal, spatial and experiential logics” (p. 397).                                   

As discussed by Gomes and Granja (2021, p. 10), even when they are not the focus of the research, prison professionals’ “perceptions, actions and decisions clearly affect the negotiation of access to infrastructures and to prisoners, as well as the broader relational conditions in which fieldwork occurs.” However, “researcher” is a vague status that can lead to some defiance and be associated with a pretentious image, as pointed out by a teacher at a prison I visited (with whom I got along very well) who explained that he did not really like the researcher “type”: “we normally don’t see you; you keep close to the walls.” As for the incarcerated people, their mistrust in prison can extend to the researcher and their research, due to their feeling of having no control over its ins and outs. This was the case with one imprisoned individual who questioned me about the reasons for my presence. When I answered him, he retorted: “we’re not guinea pigs, we’re human beings.” For others, this scepticism stems from bad experiences with researchers. One participant who exhibited a marked mistrust at the beginning of the interview explained that following a past discussion with a researcher, she had got the impression that this person had altered and appropriated her words in a way that deviated from her own interpretation. This distrust is reinforced by their perception of the researcher as a “spy” (Hammersley, 2015) whose research is conducted for the benefit of the correctional services, something that is not exactly refuted by wearing a badge bearing the name of the prison. Furthermore, it is particularly difficult to shake off the visitor label when the fieldwork does not involve a prolonged presence in the studied environment. Consequently, blending into the prison landscape is not very conceivable, insofar as the badge around your neck, the recorder bulging in your trouser pocket and the field notebook in your hand are reminders of your status as an outsider, or investigator more specifically.

Despite this, the researcher is not powerless in the face of hesitations surrounding their status, and can implement strategies to negotiate their identity inside the carceral liminal space.

With a view to reducing the initial distance between the outside visitor and inside actors, the first strategy is to draw on one’s past experiences. For my part, a previous field study conducted in a French correctional institution—involving contact with incarcerated people and professionals of the custodial sector for almost a year—enabled me to familiarise myself with the special world that is prison, and with the codes connected with it. Thanks to this first immersion, I was able to gain awareness of the vocabulary proper to the carceral environment, and understand the general operation of a prison, and also avoid the “carceral shock” (Sloan & Wright, 2015) that a researcher can experience when going inside a prison for the first time.

Secondly, in order to avoid widening the gap between the researcher and the professionals in the environment, it can be preferable, in my experience, to identify oneself as a “research student.” This preserves the credibility and legitimacy connected with scientific research, while making it possible to assign oneself a more generic and accessible role associated with open-mindedness and modesty, qualities which favour relations of trust, help, and assistance (Bizeul, 1998). In the present case, the curiosity and naivety I have endeavoured to voluntarily display favoured the benevolence and helpfulness exhibited by most of the individuals I met.

Finally, it has been really helpful for me to identify zones of sharing where I, from the outside, and them, from the inside, could emancipate from the identity assigned by the institution during the time of our meeting. These zones can be viewed as micro-liminal carceral spaces where “bonds are formed and individuals behave in a way which belies the structural constraints under which they usually operate” (Moran, 2013, p. 345). Several times, I had the chance to take meals in the prison cafeteria with staff members (correctional counsellor, teacher, correctional officer) located outside the detention area. It is therefore where staff members momentarily pause from the seriousness and the pressure of their work for the duration of their lunch and feel more comfortable talking about their professional life or to share personal opinions on a carceral matter. In addition to enabling me to share a part of their everyday life, these moments presented opportunities to discuss the research. Staff members were quite willing to give their point of view on the question of privacy in prison, and their remarks were richly informative.

With incarcerated persons, spaces of liminality where materialized by the place in which the interviews took place. To get the people I met to allow me into their private bubble, by helping me get past the resistances they had erected in the form of mistrust and distance, the key was the manifestation of empathy—that is to say the ability to feel, identify and get involved. For if the meeting’s place is important in the sense that its location and its original vocation can affect the exchange as seen previously, the way in which this space is animated by the researcher can enable the fluidity of the exchanges that take place there, by allowing the other to be as close to themselves.

Although initially, like a young, inexperienced researcher pursuing an ideal of methodological rigour, I constantly attempted to steer the interview back towards the subject that interested me—privacy within the prison walls—I quickly realised two things. On the one hand, I could not insist that participants speak to me about privacy without giving them room to share a part of their private life with me, even if this was not confined to carceral spaces. Positioning oneself as a confidant implies letting interviewees express themselves freely, so as not to compromise the established relationship of trust, and to avoid projecting the image of a utilitarian researcher frantically trying to fill up their interview grid to the detriment of the individual placed in front of them. More than once, the discussion, therefore, deviated from the formalism imposed by the interview grid. Because asking another person to reveal a private aspect of themself also implies opening oneself to this act of sharing, something that decreases the perceived social distance between the researcher and their participants. The interviews, therefore, generated personal questions from the individuals I met, concerning themselves or myself. I was questioned about what motivated me to do research in prison, but also about my marital status; my opinion was solicited on subjects relating to politics, law, current events or family matters. One participant I met asked for love advice for the future: how could he meet a woman with whom to share his life after his release? Should he be honest with her and admit having done time in prison?

In addition to sharing part of oneself, connecting with incarcerated persons also involves listening to stories about sensitive past experiences. Most of the interviews with imprisoned people were therefore sprinkled with tears that came with the mention of painful memories. Faced with the distress of some of them—as they spoke about experiencing violence and rape, about a difficult childhood or repeated suicide attempts, about angry feelings of injustice, about mourning that is impossible to live with, and about families torn apart by the separation—I had to recognise that the management of my own emotions was at play.

Being aware of the emotions one feels, accepting them and placing them in perspective is a process that continues throughout the research and beyond the liminal carceral space. Even though it can be difficult to enter a prison, sometimes it is even harder to leave, mainly because of the intensity that characterises research in a carceral environment, which is above all a human environment (Jewkes & Wright, 2016). This is a positive intensity in one sense, since prison research is a source of learning, exchanges, listening, and memorable encounters. It is difficult to come to terms with the end of a study that is so fascinating and all-encompassing, because a study in a carceral environment also involves an emotional intensity, insofar as the people the researcher meets can have an impact on them (Sloan & Wright, 2015). Sharing in an individual’s private life means establishing a relationship in a context that requires it to be undone as quickly as it is built, as soon as the prison gates have been crossed for the last time. It will, however, take a while before the researcher can step back from their field experience and from everything they heard, saw and felt.

How does a researcher go through the liminal process in the carceral space?

  • Know the studied environment, its professional and relational dynamics

  • Establish relationships of trust by negotiating one’s identity as a researcher

  • Identify zones of sharing – or micro-liminal spaces – where it is possible to open to each other

  • Take one’s own emotions into account and accept one’s own vulnerability


Entering into a prison, the researcher briefly becomes an actor in the carceral world. For the duration of the research, they find that they too are forced to come to terms with the carceral nature of this space which spread to the opacity of its walls, its internal restrictions, and with its relational and identity issues. Like the protagonists of this environment—for a comparatively limited time—they confront the systemic obstacles and intrusions of carceral space, but these do not make the researcher totally passive, since he or she retains the possibility of employing circumvention, negotiation and presentation strategies. When being studied, the carceral institution, therefore, remains restrictive but adjustable. This consideration leads me to ask the following question: does taking account of the emotional and structural challenges of research in carceral space not involve taking into consideration a carceral experience that extends to the researcher? The carceral experience can be defined as that which, in a situation of confinement and loss of autonomy, “generates subjectifications, constraints, and action logics that embrace, circumvent and sometimes transcend these constraints; in return, these action logics remodel and redefine the situation itself” (Chantraine, 2004, p. 12). Although it needs to be strongly qualified—particularly with regard to the intentional and limited aspect in terms of both time and its effects, when conducting research within the walls of an institution—it seems worthwhile to reveal the complexity of this experience by characterising it as “carceral,” in order not only to understand the forms of constraint to which the researcher can be subjected, but also to recognise the leeway they have at their disposal for navigating the institution, and finally to understand the effects it can have on them.


Considering that the researcher is also living – although in a much more nuanced, less painful, violent and coercive way – a carceral experience can give a new complexity to doing qualitative fieldwork in prison. For the researcher to consider the spatiotemporal constraints met, their experience of liminality, their feelings and management of the self, can contribute to extend the scope of a reflexive perspective and the awareness of what their presence and behaviour can produce inside the investigated space. Through the lens of their own experience as a researcher, they can understand the carceral environment differently and gain precious insight on the everyday life inside.

This approach invites qualitative researchers to keep trying to enter carceral spaces, in order to observe mechanisms of power and social interactions, to learn from direct experiences but also to discuss the meaning and effects of the restrictive nature of prison depending on the degree of control or autonomy given to access prison and to circulation inside them, which quantitative methods do not allow to grasp in the absence of direct confrontation with the field. The spatial constraints met by the prison researcher and the varying opacity of the porous prison, from one institution to another, from one geopolitical context to another, should initiate social and political debates on the sometimes-blurred line between censorship and ethics, the latter being sometimes used to justify the former, in a world in which the respect of human rights is more than fluctuating.

Being aware of the carceral experience of the researcher who conducts a study in prison can also make it possible to understand and accept sometimes-unavoidable forms of departure from qualitative methodology as taught in university. Although those courses are essential for learning the technical aspects of research—from the construction of a data collection tool to the verification of the saturation principle—to me it seems imperative to be able to free oneself from their formalism and adapt them to the investigated field site. Although this article is full of problem resolution (or minimisation) tips and strategies intended for novice researchers (but potentially of interest to those with more experience), I will conclude with a more general recommendation: in qualitative methodology, it is essential not to confuse rigor with rigidity, but instead to show flexibility by sometimes going outside of imposed “frameworks” when the situation demands it, leaving room for the unexpected, and attempting to draw inspiration from this. The rigor and validity of your research will be compromised neither by occasionally deviating from an interview grid, nor by varying the duration of interviews, nor by personal and emotional interactions. On the contrary, it can only be reinforced by taking account of the unpredictable, subjective, human aspects that drive qualitative research and constitute its strength.


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Anaïs Tschanz, PhD in criminology, is a Researcher and Lecturer at the French National Correctional Administration Academy (ENAP). Through a wide range of research interests (such as carceral facilities for adults or juveniles, prison transfer, probation, restorative justice, technologies of control) she analyses the carcerality of spaces or practices and discusses what carceral logics and discourses shape and reveal. Drawing from this framework, her work focuses mainly on the daily negotiation of carceral spaces and the individual and collective tactics deployed in constraining but flexible environments.

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