prison, humanity, research, philosophy, authentic description


I argue in this article that people in prison make excellent philosophers, for reasons related to what they are deprived of. I also suggest that great novels constitute, or at the very least, introduce us to, philosophy. Some of the deepest questions about human life can be addressed by fusing philosophical thinking with empirical research in prisons. Prisoners talk with depth and insight about what it is to feel human, what matters most in human experience, and the importance of the ‘vibrations of fellow feeling’.

Author Bio

Alison Liebling is Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Cambridge and the Director of the Institute of Criminology’s Prisons Research Centre. Her books include Prisons and their Moral Performance, The Effects of Imprisonment, and The Prison Officer. She was awarded a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship in 2020-23 to carry out the project, ‘Moral rules, social science and forms of order in prison’.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


Altan, A. (2019). I will never see the world again. London: Granta.

Ashton, R. (2019). ‘George Eliot and the difficulty of coming to conclusions’. Paper presented at George Eliot 2019: An International Bicentenary Conference. University of Leicester 17-19 July.

Auty, K. and Liebling, A. (2019). Exploring the relationship between prison social climate and reoffending. Justice Quarterly, 37(2), 358–381.

Buber, M. (2010 [1937]). I and Thou. CT: Martino Publishing.

Buber, M. (2002 [1938]). ‘What is man’, reprinted in Between man and man. London: Routledge.

Carlisle, C. (2020). Spinoza’s ethics – translated by George Eliot. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Carlisle, C. (2019). ‘George Eliot and Spinoza: Philosophical formations’. Victorian Studies. 62(4), 590-615.

Crewe, B., Liebling, A., and Hulley, S. (2014). ‘Heavy/Light, Absent/Present: Rethinking the ‘Weight’ of Imprisonment’. British Journal of Sociology. 65(3), 387-410.

Crewe, B., Liebling, A., Padfield, N. and Virgo, G. (2015). Joint Enterprise: The implications of an unfair and unclear law. The Criminal Law Review, 4, 252–269.

Davis, P. (2017a). The best George Eliot books. https://fivebooks.com/best-books/george-eliot-philip-davis/.

Davis, P. (2017b). The transferred life of George Eliot Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Doering, B. E. (translator) (2012). Simon Weil: Attention to the real by Robert Chenavier (2009). University of Notre Dame Press Indiana.

Durkheim, E. ([1893] 2013 edition). The division of labor in society. Edited by Steven Lukes. Hampshire: Palgrave.

Fassin, D. (2015). Introduction: Towards a critical moral anthropology. In D. Fassin (Ed.), A companion to moral anthropolgy. Chichester: Wiley. pp. 1-17.

Fleishman, A. (2011). George Eliot’s intellectual life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gatens, M. (2019). “What Did George Eliot Learn from Spinoza and Feuerbach?” In E. O’Neill and M. Lascano (Eds.), Feminist history of philosophy: The recovery and evaluation of women’s philosophical thought, 221–39. Dordrecht: Springer.

Goldstein, R. (2020). https://fivebooks.com/best-books/philosophical-novels-rebecca-goldstein/.

Jollimore T. (2013). Godless but good. Aeon Magazine, 18 February. Available at http://aeon.co/magazine/world-views/troy-jollimore-secular-ethics/ (accessed 28 August 2014).

Kramer K. P. (2003). Martin Buber’s I and thou: Practicing living dialogue. Paulist Press: New York.

Haight, G. S. (1954). The George Eliot Letters. 9 Vols. 1954–78. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Hulley, S., Crewe, B. and Wright, S. (2019). Making sense of ‘Joint Enterprise’ for murder: Legal legitimacy or instrumental acquiescence? The British Journal of Criminology. 59(6),1 328–1346.

Liebling, A. (1992). Suicides in Prison. Routledge: London.

Liebling, A. (1999a). Doing prison research: Breaking the silence? Theoretical Criminology. 3(2), 147–173.

Liebling, A. (1999b). Prison suicide and prisoner coping, in M. Tonry and J. Petersilia (Eds.), Crime and Justice: An Annual Review of Research. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press. Vol. 26, pp. 283-359.

Liebling, A. (2000). Prison Officers, Policing and the Use of Discretion. Theoretical Criminology, 4(3): 333-357.

Liebling, A. (2006). The Role of the Prison Environment in Prisoner Suicide and Prisoner Distress. In G. E. Dear (ed.) Preventing Suicide and Other Self-Harm in Prison. London: Palgrave-Macmillan, pp. 16-28.

Liebling, A. (2011). Distinctions and distinctiveness in the work of prison officers: Legitimacy and authority revisited. European Journal of Criminology 8(6), 484-499.

Liebling, A. (2011). Moral performance, inhuman and degrading treatment, and prison pain. Punishment and Society 13(5), 530–550.

Liebling, A. (2012). What is ‘MQPL’? Solving puzzles about the prison. Prison Service Journal. No. 202: 3-5.

Liebling, A. (2015a). Appreciative inquiry, generative theory, and the ‘failed state’ prison. In J. Miller and W. Palacios, (Eds.), Advances in Criminological Theory, Transaction Publishers, pp. 251-270.

Liebling, A. (2015b). Description at the edge? I-It / I-Thou relations and action in prisons research. International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy 4(1), 18-32.

Liebling, A; assisted by Arnold, H (2004). Prisons and their moral performance: A study of values, quality and prison life. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Liebling, A., Arnold, H. and Straub, C. (2011). An exploration of staff-prisoner relationships at HMP Whitemoor: Twelve years on. London: National Offender Management Service.

Liebling, A.; Hulley, S. and Crewe, B. (2011). Conceptualising and measuring the quality of prison life. In Gadd (Ed.), Handbook of criminological research methods. Sage.

Liebling, A. and Price, D. (1999). An exploration of staff-prisoner relationships at HMP Whitemoor. Prison Service Research Report No. 6. HMPS, London.

Liebling, A.; Price, D.; and Shefer, G. (2010). The prison officer. Routledge.

Liebling, A. Auty, K., Gardom, J. and Lieber, E. (2021). The meaning and experience of shared reading in prison, London: Ministry of Justice.

McConville, S. (1995). Next only to death: English local prisons 1860-1900. London: Routledge.

Midgley, M. (2010). The owl of Minerva: A memoir. London: Routledge.

Monk, R. (1991). Wittgenstein: The duty of genius. Vintage Books.

Nagel, T. (1989). What does it all mean? A very short introduction to philosophy. Oxford: OUP.

Nussbaum, M. (1990). Love’s knowledge: Essays on philosophy and literature. Oxford University Press.

Porporino, F. (2010). Bringing sense and sensitivity to corrections: From programs to “fix” offenders to services for supporting desistance. In J. Brayford, F. Cowe and J. Deering (Eds.), What else works? Creative work with offenders. Cullompton: Willan Publishing.

Saunders, G. (2021). A swim in a pond in the rain (In which four Russians give a master class on writing, reading and life). London: Bloomsbury

Scruton, R. (2014). The soul of the world. Princeton University Press

Simon, J. (2001). Entitlement to cruelty: Neo-Liberalism and the punitive mentality in the United States. In K. Stenson and R. Sullivan (Eds.), Crime Risk and Justice, pp. 125–43. Cullompton: Willan.

Sturgeon, N. L. (1985). Moral explanations. In D. Copp, & D. Zimmerman (Eds.), Morality reason and truth (pp. 49-78). Totowa, NJ: Rowan and Allanheld.

Szifris, K. (2021). Philosophy in prison: Growth and development through dialogue. Palgrave

Warburton, N. (2021). Five books: The best introduction to philosophy at: https://fivebooks.com/best-books/introductions-to-philosophy-warburton/

West, A. (2022). The Life Inside: Stories of prison, philosophy and family. Picador

Williams, R. (2018). Being human: Bodies, minds, persons. London: SPCK

Williams, R and Liebling, A. (Submitted). Do prisons cause radicalisation? Order, leadership, political charge and violence in two maximum security prisons.

First Page


Last Page