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Inside job

What do you do if your students tell you they want to get into prison? For research, naturally...Stephen Thomas gets the lowdown

In the past, when students asked if they could visit a prison to do research for their sociology coursework, I would mumble nervously about the Official Secrets Act or crack lumbering jokes about committing a crime being the only realistic way of getting "inside".

If they challenged me by saying that they had read Stan Cohen and Laurie Taylor's book on life with the Krays, Richardsons and Ian Brady inside the maximum security wing at Durham jail, I would explain smugly that the authors were able to collect their data only because they were working in the prison as extra-mural lecturers in sociology.

One of my students ignored my glib blandishments and carried out interviews with 20 inmates, ranging from social security fraudsters to convicted murderers, in Horfield Prison in Bristol, and demonstrated that things were now more open than many might think.

He conducted five to l0-minute interviews exploring the educational background of the prisoners, the training opportunities available to them and their feelings about the experience of prison life. One inmate kept a diary of life "inside" for him. The visit was set up through the prison's education officer.

Visitors to prisons must be 18 or over, which means that there are opportunities for older sixth-formers and for many further education students. There is no official open-door policy, but it is worth trying to build up contacts that could lead to visits, research opportunities or work experience placements for those who have an interest in a related career.

Open prisons, at the softer end of the security spectrum, which cater for Category D prisoners "who can reasonably be trusted to serve their sentences in open conditions" are, not surprisingly, the best bet for gaining access.

One of the key functions of open prisons is gradually to reintroduce long-term prisoners to the community by means of work experience placements, community work, cultural activities such as theatre groups, and other services that place them in regular contact with the public. All of this is intended to lessen the "damage" of long-term imprisonment.

I recently took a group of eight sixth-formers on a visit to Leyhill Open Prison near Bristol. Leyhill, once home to actor Leslie Grantham, best known as "Dirty Den" of EastEnders, has 20 to 25 "absconds" a year, the lowest in Britain. Nevertheless, they invited members of the local community to visit to allay fears, in the belief that the "full story is the better story". Our visit grew out of this public relations exercise.

Leyhill holds around 400 men, 120 of whom are coming to the end of "life" sentences, with those on shorter sentences convicted of less serious offences. We were able to see inside the living accommodation where prisoners have their own rooms and keys rather than cells.

We visited the chapel and the community service unit, which is responsible for finding placements for inmates in the world outside. Lifers spend the last two years of their sentence first taking part in supervised work parties outside the prison and then doing community work and work experience. They also get five days' home leave It is not just a question of "doing time" but of doing something with their time. Leyhill prison resembles a small industrial estate, with extensive work opportunities for inmates from which they can earn around Pounds 1.10 a day. The joinery makes doors, window frames and prison furniture for other prisons, the print shop produces high-quality work for a number of public-service customers, while the laundry processes 21,000lb of washing each week for seven outside establishments, including other prisons.

We chatted to inmates running the car livery service, which offers knockdown prices to members of the public who leave their cars at the prison gate.

On entering the prison everyone in the visiting group experienced a certain amount of culture shock, although one student pointed out that the need to conform in an artificial environment reminded them of school.

However, once over this, we were free to observe the realities of prison life and to talk to the inmates. We have now developed a fruitful contact on which we hope to build to create further research opportunities.

Howard League for Penal Reform 7O8 Holloway Road London, NI9 3NL. tel: O171 281 7722. A good source of publications and informationThe New Bridge 27A Medway Street London SWlP 2BD. tel: 0171 976 0779. Will provide a speaker who has "done time", prepared to visit schools and collegesPsychological Survival the Experience of Long Term Imprisonment by Stan Cohen and Laurie Taylor, published by Penguin Doing Sociological Research edited by Colin Bell and Howard Newby, and published by George Allen and Unwin, includes an article, 'Talking About Prison Blues', in which Cohen and Taylor discuss their prison research

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