Bethany Schmidt

Ph.D Student


  • PhD Candidate
    Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge, UK
    Thesis: 'Democratizing Democracy: Re-imagining Prisoners as Citizens through Participatory Governance'
    Supervisor: Professor Alison Liebling
  • MPhil, Criminological Research (Distinction)
    Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge, UK
    Thesis: 'Prison(er) Democratization: User Voice and the Prison Council Model'
    Supervisor: Professor Alison Liebling
  • BA, Sociology (Summa cum Laude)
    University of New Hampshire, USA
    Thesis: 'Impressions of the Prison Rape Elimination Act: Wardens' Attitudes Toward, and Implementations of, the PREA'
    Supervisor: Professor Karen Van Gundy

    Bethany is in the process of completing her PhD, which explores the work of the innovative non-profit organization User Voice and its ex-offender-led prison deliberative democratic council model. Her research employs both qualitative and quantitative methods to examine and understand the processes at work when a prison-based council, which aims to give a voice to prisoners in order to facilitate collaborative problem-solving with staff, is established in the prison environment. Three English prisons with User Voice councils were selected for observation and Bethany has continued her fieldwork within them, including the collection and analysis of MQPL and SQL data (Measuring the Quality of Prison Life for prisoners and staff). Her focus is on the impact of democratic participation on institutional life, staff and prisoners' perceptions of procedural justice, legitimacy, and how these intersect with humane care, decency, and order.

    This research is producing important evidence in support of a prison-based cooperative and co-producing council model that assists prisoners in developing civil dispositions through democratic engagement. The data suggest that fostering democratic principles in the prison setting has the potential to 'civilize' individuals and institutional practices, and more closely align them with democratic virtues that endorse community, trust, and dialogical work towards collectivist objectives. This study illustrates how the de-civilizing process of incarceration can, in some ways, be diminished or mitigated, through the establishment of a normative pattern of civic reciprocity through responsibility and inclusion. For prisoners, council participation promotes civic skills, positive identity transformation, and encourages responsibility within their 'community'. This in turn strengthens penal legitimacy through fair proceedings and justifiable decision-making. Re-enfranchising prisoners through forms of participatory governance and agential engagement could therefore lessen exclusion and marginalization and in turn, possibly strengthen civic culture and democratic character.

    In addition to her PhD, Bethany, along with colleagues from the University of Strathclyde and Queen's University Belfast, have been awarded a £70,000 contract to evaluate User Voice's Through-the-Prison-Gate Custody to Community Council project. The study uses both quantitative and qualitative methods to assess the implementation, operation, and short-term outcomes of a pilot study of six prison-based and three probation-based user councils across England, adopting the User Voice through-the-gate council model of prisoner/service user participation and integration. Bethany, in partnership with colleagues at DIGNITY (the Danish Institute Against Torture), will also shortly be undertaking a pilot study of the quality of life in Tunisian prisons. This research will focus on developing ways to conceptualize and assess the social and moral climate within prisons in this transitioning nation. The study will explore several aspects of prison life in Tunisia, pre- and post-revolution. Through intensive ethnographic fieldwork, the research intends to develop a narrative portrait of prison life from the perspective of prisoners and staff, and to use this narrative portrait of 'what matters most' to inform planned reform activities and further research.

    Bethany continues to present at academic conferences and university symposiums in England and internationally, and has a lead role in the development and implementation of the PRC's Measuring the Quality of Prison Life research.

    Publications and Articles in Preparation

    • Schmidt, B.E. (2013) 'User Voice and the Prison Council Model: A Summary of Key Findings from an Ethnographic Exploration of Participatory Governance in Three English Prisons', Prison Service Journal 209: 12-17.
    • Assisting editor to the editors, Legitimacy and Criminal Justice: An International Exploration (2013), Tankebe, J. and Liebling, A. (eds). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Liebling, A.,Schmidt, B.E., Crewe, B., Auty, K., Armstrong, R., Akoensi, T., Kant, D. and Ievins, A. (2015) 'Birmingham prison: the transition from public to private sector and its impact on staff and prisoner quality of life - a three-year study', NOMS Ministry of Justice Analytical Summary.
    • Ludlow, A., Schmidt, B.E. ,Akoensi, T., Liebling, A., Giacomantonio, C. and Sutherland, A. (forthcoming) 'Self-Inflicted Deaths in NOMS' Custody amongst 18-24 Year Olds: Staff Experience, Knowledge and Views'. Study commissioned by Harris Review.
    • Schmidt, B.E. (forthcoming, British Journal of Community Justice) 'Revisiting "Whose Side Are We On?": Values, Allegiances, and Politics in Prisons Research'.
    • Schmidt, B.E. (under review, Punishment & Society) 'Imprisonment and Civility: Developing Democratic Character Despite Disenfranchisement'.
    • Schmidt, B.E. (in preparation) 'Carceral Counterveillance and Productive Resistance amongst Prisoners: Reconceptualising the Panopticon through Participatory Governance'.
    • Schmidt, B.E. (in preparation) 'The Political Man Behind Bars: Prisoners and Active Citizenship'.

    Research Interests

      • Penal/institutional legitimacy and power/political structures
      • Institutional life and prison social climates
      • Citizenship, democracy, and (dis)enfranchisement
      • Penal and social policy; reform
      • Community organization and mobilization
      • Organizational/cultural change
      • Justice and voice