Prison ethnography by correspondence?

Published date01 April 2024
AuthorCara Jardine
Date01 April 2024
Subject MatterArticles
Criminology & Criminal Justice
2024, Vol. 24(2) 362 –378
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/17488958221111502
Prison ethnography by
Cara Jardine
University of Strathclyde, UK
Prison ethnography offers researchers a unique vantage point from which to explore the
relationships, power dynamics, degradations, solidarities and sensory assaults which occur
within the prison walls. Yet, despite the valuable insights to be gained from this methodological
approach, prison ethnographies can be extremely challenging to conduct. Institutional pressures
arising from both the prison and the contemporary University pose considerable obstacles for
researchers, and the outbreak of Covid-19 has heightened these barriers further still. This article
will argue that the methodology of cultural probes can preserve at least some of the ethos
of ethnographic research when conducting research by correspondence. It will reflect on the
methodological and ethical challenges of this approach, and critically discuss its potential to offer
a more participatory and less extractive means for researching the nuances of prison life while
collecting data from a distance.
Cultural probes, ethics, prison research methods, qualitative research, reflexivity
This article is concerned with the research problem of how you take forward a study
which is designed to be ethnographic when you cannot visit the field. On 16 March 2020,
I was undertaking a prison staff induction ahead of beginning a prolonged period of data
collection, which was to include longitudinal qualitative interviews and periods of
focused observation. These methods had been chosen to explore questions relating to
how the community ‘outside’ enters the prison (e.g. through family contact, education,
media, sport, work, or future plans), and how this is experienced by men and women in
Corresponding author:
Cara Jardine, University of Strathclyde, Lord Hope Building, 141 St James Road, Glasgow G4 OLT, UK.
111150 2CRJ0010.1177/17488958221111502Criminology & Criminal JusticeJardine
Jardine 363
custody. However, in the weeks in which I was negotiating access for this research, the
Covid-19 pandemic was already unfolding. Just 7 days after my induction training had
begun, the first UK national lockdown was announced, and the bulk of research involv-
ing face-to-face data collection had to be suspended, paused or redesigned (Maycock,
2022; Richardson et al., 2021).
In this article, I set out how I redesigned the project in light of these restrictions by
adopting the creative method of cultural probes. Used most often in the fields of art and
design, a key feature of cultural probes is that they attempt to preserve the broader aims
of ethnographic methods without the physical presence of the researcher. This makes
them not only suited to domestic or ‘closed’ setting such as hospitals and psychiatric care
settings (Celikoglu et al., 2017; Crabtree et al., 2003), but also a particularly fitting meth-
odological solution to the problem of how to maintain at least some degree of an ethno-
graphic sensibility when conducting research by correspondence. By reflecting on this
methodological shift, this article offers two key contributions. First, I will critically dis-
cuss a methodology which has been seldom used by criminologists, but which has con-
siderable potential to be used creatively by qualitative researchers concerned with
questions of harm and social justice. Second, it will make a wider contribution to the
methodological literature on research in prisons by considering how the questions of
power, identity and reciprocity remain relevant to research carried out ‘at a distance’.
This article is organised in five sections. I will begin with an overview of the research
as it was originally conceived, before going on to reflect on my decision to continue with
the project, despite the Covid-19 pandemic. In the section ‘Redesigning in light of
Covid’, I discuss how I redesigned the research to be carried by correspondence, and
how I used the methodology of cultural probes in a prison context. In the ‘Maintaining
an ethnographic sensibility?’ section, I outline how I attempted to retain the ethnographic
ethos of the project, and the three strategies I adopted for doing so: creating opportunities
to generate data with depth and richness; carefully attending to research ethics; and by
reflecting on my own positionality. Finally, I will conclude by suggesting that this
method can preserve elements of an ethnographic sensibility, allowing for data to be
generated which speak to both the significant life events of participants and the more
‘everyday’ elements of prison life, even when it is not possible to access the prison
The original study: The prison as a permeable institution
The boundary between the prison in the community – and how this might be traversed or
negotiated – is of growing concern to criminologists. Writing from a range of theoretical
perspectives, scholars have highlighted the permeability of the prison wall, suggesting
that this might cause us to think afresh about how contemporary research might engage
with Goffman’s analysis of the prison as a total institution, or indeed, the prison itself as
an object of research (Armstrong and Jefferson, 2017; Ellis, 2021; Moran et al., 2013;
Schliehe, 2016). These writings on the prison as ‘a not-so-total’ institution (Farrington,
1992: 7) point us towards the numerous avenues contemporary prison regimes may
choose to offer as a means of connecting with the outside world, such as: arts, sports and
education; projects which benefit the community; periods of temporary release; and

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