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Institute of Criminology



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. After completing an MA in Criminology at Hull University (with distinction), Alison worked on a study of young offender throughcare with Professor Keith Bottomley from 1986-7, before undertaking her PhD on suicides in prison at the Cambridge Institute of Criminology. During the years 1991-2000 she attracted research fellowships from Trinity Hall, Leverhulme and the ESRC (rated 'outstanding'), enabling her to carry out research on staff-prisoner relationships, the work of prison officers, vulnerability to suicide, small units for difficult prisoners, incentives and earned privileges, and prison privatization. She became a permanent lecturer in 2000 and was promoted to Reader and then Professor in 2003 and 2006 respectively.

Her main interests lie in the changing shape and effects of imprisonment; the role of values in prison life; and in the role of safety, relationships and fairness in shaping the prison experience and outcomes.

She has carried out a significant programme of research on measuring the moral quality of prison life, the effectiveness of suicide prevention strategies in prison, and values, practices and outcomes in public and private sector corrections. She is particularly interested in the role of prison officers, in general, but also in bridging the ‘gap’ between interventions and the prison environment. Her most recent research is on staff-prisoner relationships and prisoner social organisation in high security prisons, and on the meaning and experience of shared reading in prison PIPES (Psychologically-Informed Planned Environments)

She was awarded an ESRC-funded ‘Transforming Social Science’ grant in 2012-14 and was made a Fellow of the British Academy in 2018. Her books include Prisons and their Moral Performance: A Study of Values, Quality and Prison Life (2004, with Helen Arnold), The Effects of Imprisonment (2005, with Shadd Maruna), The Prison Officer (2nd edition 2011, with David Price and Guy Shefer) and Legitimacy and Criminal Justice: International Explorations (2013, with Justice Tankebe). She has also published several recent articles in the British Journal of Criminology, the British Journal of Sociology, and International Criminology. She has recently been awarded a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship (2000-2023) to carry out the project ‘Moral rules, social science and forms of order in prison’.

She has 6 current and 4 recently completed PhD students.



Professor Liebling has conducted a wide range of empirical research in prisons, including studies of young offender throughcare; an evaluation of two small units for difficult prisoners in Scotland; an evaluation of Wolds private remand centre; an evaluation of incentives and earned privileges; an ethnographic study of staff-prisoner relationships; a study of the decision-making process on discretionary life sentence panels; an evaluation of close supervision centres for difficult prisoners; a detailed study of values, practices and outcomes in public and private sector corrections (funded by the ESRC); and several studies on measuring the quality of prison life. She has carried out a detailed evaluation of the relationship between prison quality and prison suicide, a study of prolific self-harm at Peterborough Prison, and the development of a quality of life survey for prisoners and prison staff. She has recently completed a repeat of the study of staff-prisoner relationships at HMP Whitemoor, a study of the location and building of trust in Full Sutton and Frankland high security prisons, and an evaluation of the meaning and experience of shared reading in prison PIPES. She is currently carrying out a study on ‘Moral rules, social science and forms of order in prison’ funded by a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship (2020-23). 

Recent Publications

Liebling, A. (2021) ‘Women in our own Right or ‘Honorary Men’? Reflections on a Professional Life in Prisons Research’ in J. Schlosser (ed) Prison Stories: Women Scholars’ Experiences Doing Prisons Research Lexington Books, pp. 155-172.

Liebling, A. and Costa, J. (2021) ‘Being Human as a Method and Research Finding in Social Science’, in D’Maris Coffman, Harold James and Nicholas Di Liberto (eds) People, Nations and Traditions in a Comparative Frame: Thinking about the Past with Jonathan Steinberg Anthem Press, pp. 241-58.

Liebling, A. (2021) Foreword to Herrity, K., Schmidt, B.E. and Warr, J. (Eds) Sensory Penalities: Exploring the Senses in Spaces of Punishment and Social Control Emerald Publishing, pp. xv-xx.

Liebling, A (2020) Prisons, personal development, and austerity’, in Ugwudike, P., Graham, H., McNeill, F., Raynor, P., Taxman, F. and Trotter, C. (2020) (eds) The Routledge Companion to Rehabilitative Work in Criminal Justice: pp. 193-206.

Alison Liebling, Bethany E. Schmidt, Kristel Beyens, Miranda Boone, Berit Johnsen, Mieke Kox, Tore Rokkan, and An-Sofie Vanhouche (2021) ‘Doing team ethnography in a transnational prison’, International Criminology

Liebling, A. (2020) ‘Finding George Eliot in Prison: Reflections on its Moral Life’, George Eliot Review 51: 80-88.

Liebling, A., Johnsen, B., Schmidt, B.E., Rokkan, T., Beyens, K., Boone, M., Kox, K. and Vanhouche, A.S. (2021) ‘Where two ‘exceptional’ prison cultures meet: Negotiating order in a transnational prison’. British Journal of Criminology Volume 61, Issue 1, January 2021, 41–60,

Liebling, A. and Williams, R. (2020) ‘More Mind Games: How ‘The Action’ and ‘The Odds’ have Changed in Prison’, British Journal of Criminology

Liebling, A. and Williams, R. (2018) ‘The new subversive geranium: some notes on the management of additional troubles in maximum security prisons’ British Journal of Sociology 69(4) 1194-1219

Auty, K., & Liebling, A. (2020). Exploring the Relationship between Prison Social Climate and Reoffending. Justice Quarterly, 37 (2), 358-381.


Key publications: 

Liebling, A (2021) What is Philosophy in Prison? George Eliot and the search for Moral Insight, Journal of Prison Education and Reentry

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, pp. 588.

Liebling, A., Price, D. and Shefer, G. (2011) The Prison Officer, 2nd edition, Cullompton, Devon: Willan Publishing, pp. 256.

Liebling, A. and Maruna, S. (eds) (2005) The Effects of Imprisonment, Cullompton, Devon: Willan Publishing, pp. 492.

Tankebe, J. and Liebling Alison (2013) (eds.) Legitimacy and Criminal Justice: International Explorations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.384.

Liebling, A. (2015) ‘A new ‘ecology of cruelty’? The changing shape of maximum security custody in England and Wales’ in Keramet, R. and Koenig, A. Extraordinary Punishment: An Empirical Look at Administrative Black Holes in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Palgrave MacMillan, pp. 91-114.

Liebling, A (2015) ‘Appreciative inquiry, generative theory, and the ‘failed state’ prison’, in J. Miller and W. Palacios, (eds) Advances in Criminological Theory. New Jersey, Routledge Publishers, pp. 251-270.

Liebling, A., Arnold, H., and Straub, C. (2015) ‘Prisons Research Beyond the Conventional: Dialogue, ‘Creating Miracles’ and Staying Sane in a maximum security prison’, Drake, D., Earle, R., & Sloan, J. (eds) International Handbook of Prison Ethnography, Palgrave McMillan, pp. 59-79.

Liebling, A. (2017). ‘The Meaning of Ending Life in Prison’. Journal of Correctional Health Care, 23(1), 20–31

Liebling, A. (2015) ‘Description at the edge? IIt/IThou Relations and Action in Prisons Research’, International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy 4 (1) 18:32.

Crewe, B., Liebling, A., Hulley, S. (2014) ‘Staff-prisoner relationships, staff professionalism and the use of authority in public and private sector prisons’, Law and Social Inquiry, 40 (2) 305-344.

Liebling, A. (2014) ‘Moral and Philosophical Problems of Long-Term Imprisonment’, Studies in Christian Ethics, vol. 27 no. 3 258-269.

Liebling, A. (2011) 'Moral Performance, inhuman and degrading treatment, and prison pain', Punishment and Society 13(5): 530-550.

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. and Crewe, B. (2014) ‘Staff-prisoner relationships, moral performance, and privatisation’, in Durnescu, I. and McNeill, F. Understanding Penal Practice. New York: Routledge, pp. 153-166.

Liebling, A (2013) ‘Legitimacy under pressure’ in high security prisons, in J Tankebe and A Liebling (eds) Legitimacy and Criminal Justice: An International Exploration Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.206-226.

Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice
Director of the Prisons Research Centre
Professor Alison Liebling

Contact Details

+44 (0)1223 335371)