Campus close-up: New network unlocks prisons research

Leeds Beckett researchers aim to maximise the impact of their knowledge

July 16, 2015
Prison Research Network launch: Nick Hardwick, Helen Nichols, Bill Davies
Source: Leeds Beckett University
(Left to right) Nick Hardwick, Helen Nichols and Bill Davies at the launch of the Prison Research Network

According to Bill Davies, senior lecturer in criminology at Leeds Beckett University, more than 150,000 people crowd into the UK’s prisons every year. But law-abiding academic researchers have often found themselves firmly locked out.

This is among the problems that Davies and co-founder Helen Nichols hope their fledgling Prison Research Network will overcome.

The network began last year when Davies and Nichols – also a senior lecturer in criminology – put out a call within Leeds Beckett for anyone with an interest in imprisonment or the social impact of prisons. According to Davies, the pair were “quite shocked” when 27 researchers from a wide range of disciplines, including sport science, physiotherapy, health promotion, speech and language therapy, architecture, history, law, sociology and psychology, got in touch.

Since then, the network has embraced another 22 members from beyond Leeds Beckett, including figures from the NHS, the third sector and the Prison Service itself, as well as other academics.

The idea, according to Nichols, is for the network to be a welcoming and ego-free forum for researchers to seek collaborators or access to prisons, and for service providers to suggest research avenues. She and Davies act as a “network consultancy”, putting those who email them in touch with the most appropriate people.

“It is about building relationships so research interaction is more frequent and easily accessible, because prison research is notoriously difficult in terms of access,” she says.

Although Davies – who is a former prisoner – says that his own experience of research within prisons has been “extremely positive” once access has been permitted, Nichols says that many prisons working to rectify issues raised in inspection reports have often not found researchers’ presence “convenient”, and have admitted them only when forced to by research commissioning bodies such as the National Offender Management Service.

“We want [prisons research] to be amicable and enjoyable,” she says. Nichols and Davies are to guest edit a forthcoming edition of the Prison Service’s in-house journal that highlights the network’s projects, and they hope to host yearly or even twice yearly events that will bring members together to “take stock of where we are and look at different projects”.

Another role of the network is to permit academics to embark on new research directions. An example is a midwife from another university who came to the network’s official launch event in April because she was interested in working on maternity within prisons.

“That is a classic example of somebody signing up who we didn’t know and would never have thought to invite,” Nichols says.

The keynote speaker at the launch event was Nick Hardwick, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons. The presence of such a senior figure further validated Nichols’ sense that “we are doing something right and worthwhile”.

It is that sense that drives both researchers to dedicate significant amounts of their spare time to the network despite teaching and administrative commitments. Davies says that their bosses have been “very generous with their support” and he is confident that they will eventually negotiate more scheduled time to run the network, particularly if they are successful in any of the NOMS bids that they have recently put together – with the crucial help of network members – worth a combined total of £350,000.

Such projects could clearly boost the academics’ research profiles – and they also see the potential of involving their undergraduates. But they insist that their motivation is primarily about facilitating research more generally, and they are certainly not about to “jump on the bandwagon” when members suggest projects.

“I have no urge to be a professor and build my [research] profile,” Davies says. "[I’d like to] get the odd publication, and if we run it properly it won’t hurt my career, but I am certainly not in a position where I need to be jumping over people. I firmly believe universities have a moral obligation to support the communities they are in.”

Nichols agrees: “The whole philosophy of the network is about making the most of your knowledge, not just for academic reasons but to have real, genuine impacts. Otherwise it would seem like a bit of a waste of all those years at university.”

In numbers

27 – The number of researchers from various fields who contacted the Prison Research Network

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Print headline: New network to unlock access for prison research

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