Blog: Panicked notes of a prison ethnographer(-to-be)

As a crucial part of my PhD, I am about to start a nine-month period of ethnographic fieldwork in a closed prison.

After several months of  negotiations with gatekeepers on different organizational levels within the Criminal Sanctions Agency, carefully drawing up my fieldwork plans (including all the ethical aspects I could think of beforehand), being granted the permission to conduct the research and getting acquainted with the prison administration and staff, I was finally allowed entrance to the prison of my interest.

My mother recently asked me: “But what are you going to do in there?”

I gave her a rather lengthy answer about my onto-epistemological stances to ethnographic research and elaborated my visions of placing myself within the physical and social arrangements of the prison. I might have included some titbits of my Foucauldian conceptions on subjectivity and of my interest on the entanglement of governmentality and education within imprisonment. But I concluded with the more honest answer: “Then again, I have no idea.”

I feel like the dog in the meme. I have no idea what I’m doing.

I’m not merely entering a prison for the first time – which would most likely be a somewhat turbulent experience in any case. As if that were not enough, the current situation in the prison seems to be nearly chaotic. I’ll elaborate.

First of all, the prison facility is brand new, so everyone within it are bound to feel somewhat out of place. Surrounding the new physical environment is a set of significant reforms. The prison is designed to implement a new penal ideology, including changes in the staff’s work culture, prisoner activities, the prison’s physical arrangements and so on (which, by the way, is basically what my PhD is about). To ensure this, the staff’s job descriptions are being updated while the education for the field is being reformed as well. In line with other changes, the information system used in prisons is being modified. On top of all this, the Criminal Sanctions Agency is going through a significant organizational reform, which will most likely have some effect on the prison administration.

Oh yeah, and there is a raging pandemic going on.

(I won’t go into details here about the arrangements concerning the pandemic, but I will be able to conduct the fieldwork, provided I stick to strict precautions.)

Currently I am quite overwhelmed by the complexity and the magnitude of things that I’m about to face. How is one little PhD candidate to understand anything about such a tangle of complex issues? Let alone have something to say of it, peer-reviewed and publicly defended!

The clumsy translation of the working title of my thesis is Educational Imprisonment. The title seems ironic to me at the moment, as I feel trapped by my own choice of research subject – why the heck did I insist on doing ethnography in such a challenging context?! Couldn’t I just do some bloody document analysis and be done with it?

Well, one thing is for sure: it’ll be an education. At some point, I will have learnt something. Perhaps even something that matters. And I guess the only way to reach that point is to live through this panicky feeling of being completely clueless, incompetent, and out-of-place. Oh well.

This post was written on a Friday and preset to be published on Monday, during my first actual field day. To be continued, then. Yikes!

Liila Holmberg, PhD researcher