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"Get in, get out, go back?" : transitioning from prison ethnography to prison policy research in Russia

Piacentini, Laura (2015) "Get in, get out, go back?" : transitioning from prison ethnography to prison policy research in Russia. In: The Palgrave Handbook of Prison Ethnography. Palgrave Studies in Prisons and Penology . Palgrave McMillan. ISBN 9781137403872

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    Prisons are unpredictable worlds that exist in time and in space. They are institutions people ‘go to’ acting as both a product and a generator of society’s lost trust in acts of malevolence, crime and re-offending (Wacquant, 2002). Prisons have endured for centuries and consequently, the arrangement of people, activities and buildings are deeply implicated in a power-knowledge couplet (see Foucault, 1980) where phenomena, events and structures of history are registered and dispersed. Indeed the prison is one of very few institutions where pain, suffering and power are depressed into the entire infrastructure and social fabric. In my ethnographic work a combination of sheer curiosity that Russia remains an uncharted penal territory for Western scholars, coupled with a long-standing personal interest in the region that extended to mastering the language, made the site one of rich and potent allure. What I have learned about all prisons - from doing prison research in Russia - is that ‘the place’ (jurisdiction) and the ‘the site’ (the prison) are the repositories of a unique cultural relationship: the relationship between the prison and the state is a clear mirror reflection of the relationship between the person and the state. Thus, the prison reveals the state, which is why prisons are such unique sites of sociological inquiry. In my chapter I will do two things. First, I will reflect on almost twenty years of doing ethnography in Russian prisons. What I hope to achieve is a better understanding of the totality of the physical, emotional and intellectual challenges of researching a hidden penal system such as Russia’s; one which looms large and vast across the European sphere and which weighs heavily in the histories of incarceration in high punishment societies. My own prison research journey is one in which the historical and cultural registers of incarceration can be understood as ruptured, contingent and in a state of cultural to-ing and fro-ing.