Radically rethinking imprisonment: A Photovoice exploration of life in and after prison in South Australia

Author: Michele Jarldorn

Jarldorn, Michele, 2018 Radically rethinking imprisonment: A Photovoice exploration of life in and after prison in South Australia, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

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This thesis explores the experiences of twelve people who have spent time in South Australian prisons. It does so by employing a theoretical framework that combines a radical social work approach enhanced by intersectional feminism and the scholarship of the prison abolition movement, whose cornerstones are built on a critical understanding of class, gender and race. Placed at its centre are the voices of people who have been to prison. In effect, the thesis considers how experiential knowledge might contribute to improved social work practices and outcomes with, and for, ex-prisoners.

I examine the social structures and systemic patterns operating before, within and beyond prisons, exploring the place imprisonment occupies in relation to state sanctioned social oppression. Here I identify consonances in radical social work and in scholarship emerging from the prison abolition movement. My research suggests that these consonances may offer new ways for social workers to think about and respond to the social problems imprisonment both produces and reflects. In short, this thesis argues that it is not individuals, but the unequal structures in society that pose the greatest threat to the safety of communities and, because of this, imprisonment is a violent response to social problems.

A lot of research conducted with former prisoners comes from the perspective of the ‘expert researcher’, focusses on individual deficits and ponders how those deficits may be resolved with interventions and programs. In this thesis, participants are positioned as experts, not just of their own lives but of the realities of imprisonment and release.

To harness their knowledge, I used the participatory action research method, Photovoice. Armed with a camera and the research question, “if you had 15 minutes with a policy maker or politician, what would you want them to know about your experiences?”, participants created a bank of data that is both unique and visually engaging. At its core, action research builds and respects egalitarian partnerships. By placing control over the data collection and initial analysis in the hands of participants, Photovoice values self-expression, validates individual experiences, and can create alliances and meaningful relationships. It is through the process of participants thinking about and constructing their accounts of their experiences in photographs and narratives that this thesis has been informed, thus making this work an original contribution to knowledge.

Participants showed how surviving post-release is not easy. Having non-judgemental, sustained support along with personal determination and resolve does not automatically mean successfully staying out of prison, however, these supports and qualities were present throughout participants’ accounts. Collectively, participants spoke of imprisonment as violence and how their punishment extended beyond prison walls post-release. They share ‘what worked’ for them and their recommendations for supporting others in similar situations. I conclude by arguing that deploying abolitionist thinking in everything we as social workers do is a collective response to oppression.

Keywords: Photovoice, ex-prisoners, radical social work, prison abolition, prison industrial complex, intersectional feminism

Subject: Social Work thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2018
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Dr Heather Brook