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Current research

Here are some of the research projects that we are working on at the moment.


Systembusters Unite: A visual and collaborative look at exceptional prison practice

Penal policy in England and Wales seems to look more to the US than to Europe for inspiration. The Howard League for Penal Reform is working alongside Sarah Lewis, at the University of Portsmouth (Institute of Criminal Justice Studies) to turn attention to a different, perhaps more productive model, for prisons. Although not an uncritical look, this project seeks to explore the ideas behind what has been termed Nordic exceptionalism and signpost key ideas underpinning this approach which may have traction in England and Wales.

Bastøy prison is the site for the research. It is a humane ecological island prison in Norway which holds 116 male prisoners and focuses on the interaction between the individual and their surroundings. It is known for its low levels of reoffending (16%). This research project uses appreciative inquiry to capture what aspects of the prison prisoners and staff value and their understanding of the practices and relationships in the prison.

The stated aims of the project were twofold:

  1. To highlight the successful ingredients of the prison
  2. To actively promote positive penal practice.  This is to be achieved by identifying which aspects may be transferable into other jurisdictions and to question the role of the prison, perhaps moving more explicitly to see the prison and the act of imprisonment as the punishment per se rather than the prison as a place to punish.

The research used a participatory approach, recruiting three prisoners and one staff member as co-researchers.  It used photography to capture what the prison valued with respect to rehabilitation and explored the reasons underneath these values.  It aimed to engage prisoners and staff in the research and involve them in all stages from implementation to analysis, in order to gain rich and authentic findings.   The ethos of this approach was founded upon the recognition and appreciation of inclusive research and the promotion of working with prisoners to co-construct future penal futures rather than against them.

Photography is recognised as an effective way to document social issues, raise public awareness and inspire social action.  Photo-essays were used, which entailed participants writing captions to summarise the significance of their images.  Over 2000 photos were taken and 200 were selected by the prisoners and staff to use for the research.  Sarah Lewis also carried out documentary photography to capture different stages of the research.  She aimed to highlight the rewards and challenges of prison ethnography and participatory research.

It is hoped that by highlighting the reasons why humanistic practice is important for personal growth and rehabilitation, policy makers, practitioners and the public will recognise the reasons why punitive measures are ineffective and support alternative and transformative penal practice in England and Wales and beyond.

Sarah’s blog will be published through the Howard League for Penal Reform shortly to document some of the experiences and insights from Bastøy prison, and will feature some of the photos from the project.

Dr Sarah Lewis is a Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Criminal Justice, University of Portsmouth.  Her work has centred on relationships in Criminal Justice using action research, visual methodologies and participatory approaches.

Digital Panopticon: The Global Impact of London Punishment, 1780-1925

The Digital Panopticon is a collaboration between the Universities of Liverpool, Sheffield, Tasmania, Oxford and Sussex, with funding from the AHRC.  The project looks to develop new and transferable methodologies for understanding and exploiting complex bodies of genealogical, biometric and criminal justice data, as well as creating a searchable website.  To achieve this, the researchers look to explore the impact of different types of punishments on the lives of 90,000 people sentenced at The Old Bailey between 1780 and 1875.

Barry Godfrey is the lead researcher for the project.  He has over twenty years of experience in researching comparative criminology, particularly international crime history; desistance studies; and longitudinal studies of offending.

Anita Dockley represents the Howard League on the project’s Academic Steering Group.

For additional information on the project please see

Responding to diversity in three Yorkshire prisons: An appreciative inquiry

Responding to diversity within prisons is a complex and challenging process. The National Offender Management Service (NOMS) Single Equalities Framework encourages each prison to consider the needs of its population and develop a local policy framework to promote equality and reduce discrimination across eight ‘protected characteristics’: race, sex, disability, sexual orientation, religion and belief, age, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity.

This research uses appreciative inquiry methodology to explore how three prisons (a high security, a local and a low security, Category C, prison) respond to diversity as they implement efficiency benchmarking for service delivery.  The study comprises the perspectives of prisoners and staff to diversity policies and practice.

Dr Victoria Lavis, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Bradford leads the research.  She is supported by Prof. Charles Elliott, University of Cambridge and Dr Emily Turner and Dr Matt Merefield, University of Bradford.

Anita Dockley represents the Howard League on the project’s Executive Steering Group.

The research is funded by the ESRC.

For additional information follow @PrisonDiversity on Twitter.

Co-producing desistance from crime: The role of social cooperative structures of employment

Studies of desistance argue for innovative and sustainable means of supporting the development of human and social capital. However, there has been little consideration of the potential influence social cooperatives can have as part of co-production. The research examines the ways in which social cooperative structures of employment impact on social integration and desistance. This idea has had greater traction in Europe and North America than it has in the UK. With this in mind the research will draw on the experiences of more established social cooperatives in Italy to inform the emerging cooperative structures of employment in the justice system in the UK. This research aims to examine the ways in which social cooperative structures of employment can support social integration and desistance from crime.

Beth Weaver is a senior lecturer for the School of Social Work and Social Policy, University of Strathclyde.  Prior to becoming an academic, she worked for a number of years as a Criminal Justice Social Worker.

The project is funded by the ESRC. For further details visit

Anita Dockley represents the Howard League on the project’s Research Advisory Group.

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