Cultures of Incarceration Centre

Jo Metcalf and Stewart Mottram
Faculty of Arts Cultures and Education
Dr Jo Metcalf | Dr Stewart Mottram
Senior Lecturer in American History and Culture | Senior Lecturer in English Literature

The Challenge

Cultures of Incarceration explores creative responses to the experience of incarceration across cultures and continents. Although often associated with imprisonment in a jail or prison, “incarcerate” can be applied to a host of historical and contemporary contexts – for example, to wartime internment camps, immigration detention centres, modern-day trafficking, and situations of domestic abuse or pandemic lockdowns. Within such carceral environments creativity has flourished in the form of songs, poetry, art or memoirs. The Centre considers how incarceration may act as a lightning rod for discussions of race, class, gender, humanity, and citizenship in countries across the world.

The Approach

Established in 2021, the Cultures of Incarceration Centre is developing a portfolio of interdisciplinary projects across its four research activities: Culture, Criminology, Creative-Critical Practices, and Community. It is establishing “Collaborative Community Partnerships” with a range of external organisations, including schools, prisons, and community groups, in the UK and overseas.



The Centre aims to interlink its research and associated work across four related research activities: Culture; Criminology; Creative-Critical Practices; and, Community.

  • Culture: In recent decades, Cultural Studies has become ever more fascinated with issues of ‘difference’ and identity, power and politics, showing particular concern with marginalised peoples and the ways in which they are represented in (pop) cultural texts.
  • Criminology: Criminology works on both individual and social (wider) levels to consider the implications of crime, its management and prevention, and the experience of incarceration.
  • Creative-Cultural Practices: The Arts and Creative Writing have a long history in prisons as well as wider systems of incarceration with a range of benefits (including mental wellbeing and desistance).
  • Community:- The Centre is committed to the importance of “learning communities” in both traditional / non-traditional settings and the ways in which we should all promote an inclusive desire to learn.



Leverhulme Fellowship: English Prisons at War: Imprisonment during national crisis

The Leverhulme Trust, Prof Helen Johnston

Social Justice

Representing the Scottsboro Boys: Labor Defender and the Racial Politics of Radical Photography

British Academy, Dr Barnaby Haran

lots of gadgets with cameras

Learning from Scottsboro: Exploring Past and Present American Racial Injustices in Collaboration with Local Schools.

Ferens Education Trust, Dr Barnaby Haran

View all projects

Learning from Scottsboro: Exploring Past and Present American Racial Injustices in Collaboration with Local Schools.

Ferens Education Trust, Dr Barnaby Haran.

Project Dates: 2021-2022.

The project involves engagement with local schools through workshops and a poster competition in conjunction with an exhibition of photographs from the Scottsboro trials, scheduled to coincide with the university’s hosting of the 2022 British Association of American Studies Conference. The aim is to create a forum for critically examining racial injustices in the United States by responding to photographs of this infamous case from the 1930s when nine African American teenagers were convicted of sexual assault on false testimony. The workshops and poster competition will generate dialogues with sixth form students about representation and diversity in relation to the media portrayal of the Scottsboro Nine and will explore comparisons with contemporary instances.


Leverhulme Fellowship: English Prisons at War: Imprisonment during national crisis, Prof Helen Johnston
The Leverhulme Trust, Prof Helen Johnston
Project Dates: 2019 – ongoing

‘English Prisons at War’ focuses on a neglected period of penal history within existing research: the English prison system during the two World Wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. The aim is to explore in detail via a wide range of archival and documentary sources the impact and effects of war on the prison estate and its management; on the size and composition of the prison population; on the buildings in which prisoners and officers lived and worked; on the lives and careers of prison officers and governors; and on the everyday experience of imprisonment for those in custody.


British Academy Small Grant: Representing the Scottsboro Boys: Labor Defender and the Racial Politics of Radical Photography
British Academy, Dr Barnaby Haran
Project Dates: 2019-2020

‘Representing the Scottsboro Boys’ explores the ways that Labor Defender magazine used photography to represent the Scottsboro Boys, nine young African-Americans who in 1931 were sentenced to death for the rape of two white girls on

the basis of false testimony, in one of the worst miscarriages of justice in American history. The Communist organisation International Labor Defense (ILD) led the campaign to acquit the Scottsboro Boys, and ultimately helped secure their eventual release, albeit following years of incarceration. As the ILD’s organ, Labor Defender publicized the case extensively in articles, short features, and on its covers, using photographs to advance the cause. This project examines the visual rhetoric of these photographic representations in relation to the political underpinnings of the ILD’s legal representation. Dr Haran assesses the extent to which the magazine fostered racial stereotypes in portraying these young men as black victims of American racism whose plight necessitated a Communist crusade.


Prison Culture and Creative Writing
Arts Council England, Dr Jo Metcalf
Project dates: 2018-2020

‘Prison Culture and Creative Writing’ worked alongside ex-offenders to explore popular prison culture, as represented in films and poetry, and to co-produce creative writing with participants, giving ex-offenders an opportunity to express their personal experiences through artistic expression. A key output of the project was the poetry collection, Hope Walks by Me, a Financial Times Book of the Year (2019), edited by Russ Litten and Jo Metcalf (Barbican Press, 2019).

Tackling the Developing World of OCG’s through a multiagency strategy

Organised crime and gangs (OCG) are increasingly treating prisons as a place for potential lucrative activities and proliferation (Campion and Mercia, 2019), such as recruiting new members (Wood et Al., 2014), creating joint ventures with other organisations and expanding their activities towards new markets (Gaston and Huebner, 2015). Accordingly, for the UK government, prisons have emerged as a new frontline in fighting organised crime, intensifying the difficulties of tackling OCG networks. The project aims to study the organised crime network in Humberside's prisons and to analyse the disruption and dispersion strategies put in place within and beyond prison walls. The project brings together criminologists with expertise in policing, prison and organised crime with CJS practitioners and officers with expertise in investigating OCGs to push the boundaries of crime prevention and criminal network disruption.  Overall, the project outcomes will be:

  1. To protect people at risk of becoming victims of OCG
  2. To preserve community safety by reducing OCG- related serious violence (i.e. knife crimes)
  3. To prevent vulnerable segments of the population from getting involved in and exploited by criminal networks
  4. To prevent the association and expansion of OCG capabilities. As such, there is clear potential for further development of the project and for future deployment to other regions, opening up clear avenues for further research and collaboration.

Other Bodies
The Centre has active links with the following organisations:

Russ Litten


Outputs and Publications

Johnston, H. (2020). 'In the solitude of the cell': Cellular confinement in the emergence of the modern prison, 1850-1930. In J. Turner, & V. Knight (Eds.), The Prison Cell: Embodied and Everyday Spaces of Incarceration (23-44). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Metcalf, J. (2020). ‘O Prison Darkness … Lions in the Cage’; The ‘Exceptional’ Prison Narratives of Guantanamo Bay. In The Palgrave Handbook of Incarceration in Popular Media (67-87). Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

Metcalf, J. (2018). ‘It’s my Destiny’: Narrating Prison Violence and Masculinity in the Shaun Attwood Trilogy. In Perpetrating Selves: Doing Violence, Performing Identity (133-154). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Litten, R. and J. Metcalf, eds. (2019) Hope Walks by Me: Justice and Liberty in the Lands of the Free. London: Barbican Press. ISBN 9781909954311


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