Insider and out: reflections on a prison experience and research experience

Earle, Rod (2014). Insider and out: reflections on a prison experience and research experience. Qualitative Inquiry, 20(5) pp. 429–438.



Loic Waquant’s (2002) worry that as penal populations explode in the USA there has been a ‘curious eclipse’ in qualitative studies of confinement is, as Jewkes (2012) suggests, somewhat misplaced on the UK side of the Atlantic. Even so, as this special issue indicates, there are some occlusions in the accounts being presented, and opportunities to be developed to ‘do prison research differently’. In this article I explore some of the potentials, possibilities and problems afforded by insider research, research that draws from direct experience of penal confinement.
The basic issues of prison research are starkly posed in King’s (2000:298) remark that ‘[N]o amount of theorizing or reading in an office can substitute for the hands-on experience of spending your time in prison’. The issue I want to explore is whether, and how, ‘spending time’ is different from ‘serving time’ in the epistemological stakes of prison research. As Jewkes (2012) also points out prison ethnographers in the UK have offered rich and diverse accounts of penal interiors, and prisoners voices have been, for the most part, reported with sensitivity, creativity and insight (see for example, Leibling 1999, 2004, 2011; Crewe 2009; Drake 2012; Phillips 2012; Crewe and Bennett 2011). However, in the midst of this relatively flourishing qualitative research activity the voices and experiences of ex-prisoners as prison researchers is subdued, though there are signs this may be about to change (Aresti 2012; Earle 2011). In this article I want to critically examine some of the epistemological claims and potentials of insider research, its’ relations to ethnography and the relevance of advocacy groups, such as Convict Criminology.

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