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This thesis examines prison staff experiences of the deaths of prisoners in custody. It explores staff accounts of their encounters with prisoner deaths, their emotional responses to these incidents and their engagement with support in the aftermath of their experiences. This thesis represents the first Irish research focused exclusively on prison staff encounters with prisoner deaths. In so doing, it illuminates Irish prison staff practices, sensibilities and traditions. Despite increasing scholarship on the working lives and traditions of prison staff, and greater awareness arising from a small number of studies of staff experiences of prisoner suicide, there remains little research exploring prison staff encounters with prisoner deaths. This thesis seeks to address this gap by presenting an exploration of Irish prison staff experiences of prisoner deaths in custody. It also builds on existing research by offering the first account of prison staff encounters with prisoner deaths by examining causes of death in addition to that of suicide.
A qualitative research design is employed, consisting of in-depth semi-structured interviews with 17 serving and retired Irish prison staff who have experienced a death in custody. This thesis charts the chronology of participants’ encounters with prisoner deaths, analysing their accounts of the emergency response to deaths in custody before moving to consider the immediate and long-term aftermath of these incidents in individual and institutional contexts. The thesis finds that the norms of solidarity and insularity, identified in the extant prison work literature as central tenets of the occupational culture of prison staff, direct staff responses and attitudes in these situations. The findings highlight participants’ perceptions of blame and concerns about a risk of personal liability in shaping their perspectives on prisoner deaths, the prisoner population and the prison authorities. This thesis additionally contends that a death in custody calls upon staff to not only manage the incident, but also their own emotional reactions and vulnerabilities. Shared expectations regarding the management of emotional responses to prisoner deaths promote the necessity of concealing post-incident vulnerabilities inside the prison. The thesis argues that the implications of involvement with a death in custody can often find life beyond the boundaries of the prison walls.
Barry, C. (2017) Encountering death in the prison: an exploration of Irish prison staff experiences, emotions and engagements with support. Doctoral thesis, DIT, 2017.