Researching the "cemetery of the living": on the limits of immersion and collaboration in a Nicaraguan prison
(University of Amsterdam)
Paper short abstract:
When inmates deal with the effects of their social disposability on a daily basis, how does one cope with one's own position as an inside-outsider or outside-insider vis-à-vis both guards and inmates? When denial of access is an ever-lingering threat, how does one deal with issues of representation?
Paper long abstract:
Conducting prison research positions the ethnographer at the heart of a field of struggles from the outset. Issues of access, consent, knowledge sharing and personal engagement constantly impose themselves on and become enmeshed with the research process. It has been more than four years since I first set foot in a Nicaraguan prison to research meanings of violence and practices of change. Starting out assisting a theatre director - also my husband - my involvement gradually evolved into leading cultural programs for the prison's re-educational department. Our experience with (ex) gang members on the street made it easy to 'side' with the prisoners at first, but our organization's position as the only provider of cultural programs under re-education brought about a larger social commitment to the prison itself, and subsequent conflicts over respect, immersion, and freedom of expression surfaced. An - on paper - progressive re-educational system namely does not equal impeccable treatment and does not mean 'outsiders' are not worked against. When inmates deal with the effects of their social disposability social death on a daily basis, how does one cope with one's own position as an inside-outsider or outside-insider vis-à-vis both guards and inmates? When denial of access is an ever-lingering threat, how one deal with issues of immersion and representation? This paper intends to sketch how the ways in which prison research depends on (limited) permission to access the research group leads to direct conflicts of immersion, collaboration, and representation.
Prison ethnographies, research intimacies and social change