Prisons research: Measuring the quality of prison life
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Cambridge
Unit of AssessmentLaw
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Economics: Applied Economics
Studies In Human Society: Criminology
Summary of the impact
Research undertaken on prison quality and moral performance by the
Cambridge Prisons Research Centre (PRC) has been used to develop the
Measuring Quality of Prison Life (MQPL) and Staff Quality of Life (SQL)
surveys for HM Prison Service. The National Offender Management Service
(NOMS) has adopted the MQPL survey in routine performance and audit
measurement of all 138 prison establishments in England and Wales. The
survey is also used to assess prison quality abroad. The research
underpinning the MQPL has enabled the implementation of HM Prison
Service's `decency agenda' for evaluating the treatment of prisoners. MPQL
survey results influenced the development of HM Prison Service practices
linked to a reduction in suicides in prisons.
The MQPL and SQL surveys have been developed by Professor Alison Liebling
and colleagues in the Prisons Research Centre at the Cambridge University
Institute of Criminology between 2000 and 2011. Liebling has been an
employee of the University since 2000, holding the position of Professor
since 2007, and Director of PRC since 2000. Helen Arnold (Research
Assistant) and Dr Ben Crewe (Director, Master of Studies Programme) have
been employees of the University and members of the PRC since 2000 and
2001 respectively. The purpose of the research has been to develop
quantitative measures of essential qualitative dimensions of prison life
in order to evaluate prisons in terms of their moral performance.
The research has two main approaches. The first involves `appreciative
inquiry', which is a methodology adapted from the literature on change in
organisations. It concentrates on the strengths of an organisation, by
articulating what is `best' and life-giving about it (e.g., how prison
officers operate at their best (Reference 4)). The research sought to
identify inductively the `key dimensions of prison life', in terms of
relationships, personal development, and order and organisation.
The second approach, arising from the first, has been the development and
administration of detailed quality of life surveys for prisoners and
staff. The surveys were originally developed in five prisons selected on
advice from the Prison Service to provide a range of `performance' and
quality. The surveys had a highly standardised format, consisting of
detailed `tick box' questionnaires.
Their main goals were authentic description of the moral, relational and
social climate in individual prisons, and explanation of their
differences. The innovative feature of the surveys was that they involved
grounded theory explorations with staff and prisoners about what mattered
most in prison (Reference 1). In the past, these important dimensions of
prison life were considered too difficult to measure quantitatively. The
methodology was `ethnography-led measurement', combining generative
dialogue with quantitative evaluation, fusing conceptual with empirical
exploration. This unique approach led to highly convincing and reliable
measurement (Reference 2). The methodology revealed considerable consensus
as to the most important dimensions of prison life and quality. These
included respect, humanity, staff-prisoner relationships, trust,
well-being, safety, order and the use of authority by staff (References 1,
2 and 3).
These methods were used to generate quantitative and qualitative data
about the moral quality of life in the five prisons, and the relationship
between quality and outcomes. This has allowed systematic comparisons to
be made between prisons (both between and within different sectors) and
over time. The results have enabled systematic evaluation of specific
policy changes affecting prisons, and evaluation of efforts to implement
improvements in prison policy, management and outcomes (e.g., Reference
The development of the research since 2000 means that empirical
observations have been used by Liebling and other researchers at the PRC
and elsewhere to develop new theories and conceptual categories relevant
to prison life and experience. These have generated better observations,
and demonstrable links with important outcomes (e.g., personal
development, and suicide and disorder prevention (References 5, 6)). The
surveys have been extended to all prison institutions in England and
References to the research
1. Liebling, A.; assisted by Arnold, H. (2004) Prisons and their
Moral Performance: A Study of Values, Quality and Prison Life,
Oxford: Clarendon Studies in Criminology, Oxford University Press.
(Develops the methodology and its introduction into the prison sector;
provides theoretical context and outlining the key findings).
2. Liebling, A., Crewe, B. and Hulley, S. (2011) 'Conceptualising and
Measuring the Quality of Prison Life', in D. Gadd, S. Karstedt and
S. F. Messner (eds) The Sage Handbook of Criminological Research
Methods, London: Sage Publishing. (Outlines the methodological tool
for the survey).
3. Crewe, B., Liebling, A. and Hulley, S. (2011) `Staff Culture, Use of
Authority and Prisoner Quality of Life in Public and Private Sector
Prisons', Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology,
4. Liebling, A., Price, D. and Shefer, G. (2011) The Prison Officer,
2nd edition, Cullompton, Devon: Willan Publishing. (Describes
the first use of appreciative inquiry in a prison)
5. Ross, M. W., Diamond, P., Liebling, A. and Saylor, W. G. (2008)
`Measurement of Prison Social Climate: A comparison of an inmate measure
in England and the USA', Punishment and Society, 10(4): 449-476.
6. Liebling, A., Durie, L., Stiles, A. and Tait, S. (2005) `Revisiting
prison suicide: the role of fairness and distress', in A. Liebling and S.
Maruna (eds) The Effects of Imprisonment, Cullompton, Devon:
Willan Publishing, pp. 209-31.
Evidence of the Quality of the Research
Scholarly recognition: Reference 1 above is published in a
prestigious series of peer-reviewed research monographs in Criminology. It
has attracted 182 citations in Google Scholar, which is a large number for
the relatively small field of prisons research.
Scale and continuation of research grant support over 13 years:
The first phase of the research during 2000-2002 was made possible by a
competitive grant of £68,000 from the Home Office's Innovative
Research Challenge Fund. The on-going research has continued to
attract substantial funding from government agencies and the Research
Councils: HM Prison Service funding of £60,000 (2001-2002); Home Office
funding of £208,000 (2001-2004); ESRC funding of £399,000 (2007-2010) (the
reported outcome from the ESRC study was rated "outstanding" by
The PRC has enjoyed regular annual funding increases from HM Prison
Service and NOMS, rising from £18,000 in 2000 to £220,000 annually in
2011, 2012 and 2013. In all, the research has been supported by over
£1,188,000 in grants over 13 years.
External recognition by end-users and policy-makers: In
recognition of the robustness of the research, Liebling and members of the
PRC are frequently asked by HM Prison Service to advise on matters
relating to the quality of prison life: e.g., the training and selection
of senior managers (2010-12); the training and remuneration of prison
officers (2012); the specification and operation of constructive prison
environments (2010-12); and the relative performance of specific prisons,
or entire sections of the prison estate (2008-2013). Liebling has been a
member of a British Academy Policy study on `Crime, Punishment and the
Prison' (2011-13) and is an adviser to the Global Evidence-Based
Corrections Research Centre at the University of Griffith in Queensland.
Details of the impact
The research has had three main impacts.
i. Use of the MQPL survey by HM Prison Service, and internationally
The MQPL survey was first adopted for use by HM Prison Service Standards
Audit Unit in 2004 as one factor in its Prison Rating System. It has since
been extended by the Audit and Corporate Assurance Directorate of NOMS,
and remains in use to the present day. MQPL scores from annual surveys are
used in moderating the Performance Rating of a prison in terms of its
decency and safety, and as part of an equality score (Sources 1, 4, and
Since 2007, the SQL data has been used by HM Prison Service in assessing
the performance and quality of establishments, and in understanding
attempts to improve prison culture. For example, since 2011 it has been
used to develop the `every contact matters' agenda in shaping the public
sector's bids to operate prisons as efficiently and effectively as
possible in a competitive environment (Source 4).
In May 2013, the Home Office Youth Justice Board implemented a three-year
commitment to extend the MQPL survey to young persons' establishments.
Information derived from the MPQL surveys is now used in the Board's
performance management framework (Source 4, 2). Since 2012, the National
Audit Office has been in discussion with NOMS and the PRC to develop plans
for using MQPL in evaluating NOMS policy on the closing, opening,
extending and changing the function of prisons: (Sources 4, 2).
The research has been used to make significant decisions about the
management of contracts with both public and private sector prisons,
including the decision to end the rectification notice on HMP Rye Hill in
2009 (Source 7).
The research has had international impact. Since 2010, the PRC has
trained personnel and overseen the use of MQPL in other jurisdictions,
including the Irish Prison Service, and the Norwegian Correctional
Research department, both of whom have now adopted the measure (Source 4).
Since 2012, the Centre for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims (an NGO
in Kosovo) has used MQPL to identify ill-treatment of prisoners: (Source
ii. Influence on the `decency agenda'.
The `decency agenda' emerged in 2000-2001 as a key theme in the
development of HM Prison Service's measures of prison quality. From 2004
to the present, the use of the MQPL surveys by HM Prison Service has
generated a body of qualitative and quantitative information that has
enabling the practical implementation of the `decency agenda' in prisons.
The MPQL surveys provided a language and a methodology for evaluating and
comparing the accomplishment of the general aims of `decency' and
`performance' in prisons.
The MQPL survey generated empirically valid information about the moral
practices and of prison staff, and the experiences and survival or change
trajectory of prisoners which were specific to individual prisons. Senior
managers were able to use that information as they planned policies,
introduced cultural changes, and set or supplemented performance targets
in their own institutions: (Sources 1, 4 and 6). Some specific examples
are: (i) in 2010 a HM Prison Service Deputy Director of Custody set `human
flourishing' targets for all of her Governors in the South West Area)
(Source 6); (ii) since 2011, the PRC team have been contracted to conduct
`MQPL-plus' surveys (including interviews and observation) in
`operationally important' sites undergoing significant reorganisation
(Sources 1, 4, 9).
iii. Prison suicides.
Between 2001 and 2009, MQPL and SQL survey results influenced the
development of HM Prison Service measures which were successful in
reducing prison suicides. Between 2001 and 2004 the Prison Service
commissioned Liebling and her colleagues to conduct MQPL and SQL surveys
in 12 prisons where there was a higher than expected suicide risk (Sources
1, 4). The survey results identified which aspects of prison quality
tended to reduce prisoner distress, which the research showed was highly
correlated with three-year moving average suicide rates in individual
prisons. Between 2005 and 2009, the results encouraged implementation of
the national violence prevention strategy by the Safer Custody Group at
NOMS Headquarters (Sources 1, 4). The period saw a sustained reduction in
prison suicides, from 2005, which has continued. The number of suicides in
1999, 2000 and 2001 was 81-2 (125 per 100,000). Since the completed
implementation of the Safer Custody Programme in 2009-10, the figure has
fallen to 57 and 51 respectively (66-68 per 100,000), despite increases in
the prison population: (Sources 1, 4, 5, 7).
Sources to corroborate the impact
- Person 1, Director General Prison Service 2003-2010; previously DDG
and Chief Operating Officer from 1999; now operational advisor to G4S.
- Report by the Comptroller & Auditor-General, HC 431, Session
- Minutes of the All-Party Penal Affairs Parliamentary Group (6 March
- Person 2, Chief Executive, NOMS.
- Ministry of Justice, Safety in Custody Statistics
Table 1.1 Deaths in prison custody and (1) rates by apparent cause (2)
by calendar year, England and Wales, 1978-2012
- Person 3, Deputy Director of Custody, South Central, NOMS.
- Person 4, Deputy Director Custody, Kent and Sussex Prisons, NOMS; Head
of the Office for National Commissioning.
- Dubrava Quality of Prison Life Study (Preliminary Data Analysis, 2013)
- ESRC Impact Video, "How our Prisons Reform" (2011): Michael Spurr,
discussing impact of MQPL: http://www.esrc.ac.uk/news-and-events/videos/all-videos.aspx