Repository logo

Democratising Democracy: Reimagining Prisoners as Active Citizens Through Participatory Governance



Change log


Schmidt, Bethany E 


This thesis explores the work of the non-profit organisation User Voice and its prison-based democratic council model. Mixed methods were employed to examine the construction and operation of a council, which strives to give a voice to prisoners and to facilitate collaborative problem-solving with staff. The key research question was how council participation, and the democratic ethos and process that this entails, impacts individuals and institutions. The aims were (i) to appraise this model within a democratic values-oriented framework – focusing on inclusion, participation, deliberation, and legitimacy – as the council was implemented in three English prisons, and (ii) to understand the personal experience of participative and civic ‘enfranchisement’ with council members. This study of ‘democracy in unlikely places’ is distinct as it brings prison sociology and democratic theory together empirically.

The research is based on quasi-ethnographic fieldwork which included 112 semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders (council participants, prison staff and senior managers, and User Voice employees), as well as analysis of Measuring the Quality of Prison Life (MQPL) data. The findings suggest that fostering democratic principles in the prison setting has the potential to ‘civilise’ institutional practices, and more closely align them with democratic virtues that endorse community, inclusivity, mutual aid, empathy, and dialogical work towards collective objectives. They illustrate how the de-civilising process of incarceration can, in some ways, be ameliorated through participatory engagement, ‘political’ recognition and mobilisation, and the exercise of civic agency. The deliberative ‘free spaces’ created by council participation, and the practice of ‘everyday democracy’ through relational encounters were viewed as transformational and successful at consciousness-raising. But this model was not without some dangers and opposition from officers. Struggles over ‘power’ resulted in the obstruction of council activities and heightened policing of participants. There were also waves of prisoner unrest as expectations went unmet and injustices persisted. This micro-experiment in participatory governance is a study of prisons wrestling with their legitimacy and democratic deficits, situated within a society confronting remarkably similar issues.





Liebling, Alison


Ethnography, Prison, Enfranchisement, Legitimacy, Deliberative democracy, Citizenship


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge