Cultures of Incarceration Centre

Exploring creative responses to the experience of incarceration across cultures and continents.

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.


Social Justice
Learning from Scottsboro
Woman wearing surgical face mask
Jail cell
Wilberforce Library
Modern slavery
  • All projects

    Prison Officers & Creativity; Supporting the Self & the Prisoner

    Project Dates: 2023 – ongoing

    This project is the first in the UK to pilot creative writing workshops for prison officers/staff, led by Dr Josephine Metcalf (American Studies/ Criminology), Dr Helen Nichols (Criminology) and Dr Chris Westoby (Creative Writing). It supports employees in a role that government and academic research recognises is “vital”, but that comes with real-world vulnerabilities in terms of mental wellbeing, exposure to violence, and, often, a high turnover of staff. We offered bespoke courses in creative writing that had impact for officers and other staff in the workplace (supporting their mental health) as well as improving officer-prisoner relationships (by helping staff understand prisoner demand for creativity). The workshops were run HMP Hull and HMP Manchester and led by poets/authors Jenny Berry and Stephen Wade. The research was supported by the Centre for Human Factors (CHF) that has interests in measuring well-being in the workplace.

    The participants' writings were brought together in a remarkable anthology that has recently been published by Butcher's Dog Press. A short film about the project can also be seen here.

     For further enquiries, please contact Dr Jo Metcalf

    “Just Get On With It”: A qualitative exploration of the health and wellbeing of prison operational managers and Governor grades

    Dr Helen Nichols with colleagues at the University of Lincoln

    Project date: 2021-2022

    Led by Dr Lauren Smith from the University of Lincoln, a team of researchers from Psychology, Criminology, Health and Law conducted a qualitative exploration of the health and wellbeing of governor grade prison staff. The team was commissioned in 2021 by the Prison Governor’s Association (PGA) – the professional body for prison operational managers and governor grades in the UK – to help them build a better understanding of the health and wellbeing of their members. This is particularly important because the Prison Service is not an ordinary workplace, with staff exposed to different and substantial daily pressures. Using qualitative interviews, the multidisciplinary team spoke to 63 PGA members to explore how participants described their health and wellbeing at work, what mechanisms of support were available, and how they felt about their current role. The overwhelming feedback received was that more needs to be done to support the wellbeing of prison operational managers and governor grade staff, whether they work directly in prisons or in HM Prison and Probation Service headquarters. What starts with a dysfunctional culture results in staff feeling unvalued, disenchanted and disengaged. Together, this has significant negative impacts on the home life of staff as well as both their physical and mental wellbeing. While these contributing factors had at times been exacerbated by Covid-19, interviewees reported that they were by no means caused by the pandemic.

    Research Team: Dr Lauren Smith (University of Lincoln), Rachael Mason (University of Lincoln), Prof Karen Harrison (University of Lincoln), Dr Helen Nichols (University of Hull), Dr Lauren Hall (University of Lincoln), Dr Gary Saunders (University of Nottingham)


    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 OCGs 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.
  • Outputs and publications
  • Group members

    Kathryn Blance

    Doctoral Student |

    Professor Iain Brennan

    Professor of Criminology |

    Professor Trevor Burnard

    Director, Wilberforce Institute |

    Dr Adam Calverley

    Lecturer in Criminology |

    Dr Amanda Capern

    Senior Lecturer in Early Modern Women's History |

    Dr Kevin Corstorphine

    Lecturer in American Literature |

    Dr Kristen Drybread

    Visiting Faculty and Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, University of Colorado |

    Dr David Eldridge

    Senior Lecturer in American Studies |

    Dr Barnaby Haran

    Senior Lecturer in American Arts |

    Dr Emma Horrex

    Honorary Fellow |

    Professor Helen Johnston

    Professor of Criminology |

    Dr Alicia Heys

    Lecturer in Modern Slavery |

    Dr Michael McCahill

    Senior Lecturer in Criminology |

    Dr Jo Metcalf

    Senior Lecturer in American History and Culture |

    Dr Stewart Mottram

    Senior Lecturer in English Literature |

    +44 (0)1482 465597

    Dr Helen Nichols

    Senior Lecturer in Criminology |

    Matthew Thorne

    Doctoral Student |

    Dr Sabine Vanacker

    Senior Lecturer |

    Dr Christopher Westoby

    Programme Director, MA Creative Writing (Online) |

    Dr Rachel Williams

    Lecturer in American History |

    Dr Catherine Wynne

    Senior Lecturer/ Director of Postgraduate Taught (English subject group) |

  • Research students

    Joanne Butcher

    Before coming to Hull, Joanne completed her MA in Political Communication at Goldsmiths, University of London, and her BA in Politics at the University of Sheffield. Her previous research has focussed on how political discourse is constructed and reinforced through the press and popular media. This led Joanne to a host of different subject areas like the beauty industry’s influence over female identity in Venezuela, the role of the British press in reinforcing gender and the third sector’s preoccupation with the image of the ‘crying child’. Joanne's passion lies in uncovering the modes in which media can fortify ways of thinking as well as exploring and promoting alternative approaches to see the world.

    Wemmy Ogunyankin

    Doctoral Student, Incarceration PhD Cluster

    'Photographing the Incarcerated Flood Victim'

    Wemmy Ogunyankin achieved her Master’s in Visual Anthropology from the University of Manchester in 2017 and has spent the years since working as a creative ethnographer with a special interest in womanhood, identity, Blackness and social justice. Her MA gave her the opportunity to explore the inter-relation between texts, images, sound as well as the importance of fieldwork and collaborative research. She completed work on gentrification, mental health, gender and racial stereotypes, observational cinema and ethnomusicology. In 2015, she completed a BA in Journalism Studies which launched her passion for photo and broadcast journalism and led to her work in visual anthropology.

    Wemmy currently works as a poet, freelance documentary filmmaker and photographer and recently won an Arts Council DYCP grant to complete a multi-media ethnographic project called How I See Myself and How Others See Me. She had a successful exhibition in Sheffield and is looking to continue the project on an international scale. Wemmy regularly holds writing and photography workshops with various collectives and minoritised/marginalised groups as part of her collaborative practice. As a researcher, she focuses on people who are often overlooked and under-considered and prioritises challenging the canon of people as subject matter. She uses her technical knowledge to explore the relationship between visual modes of representation and social justice and is keen to explore this further through her American Studies PhD.

    Mary Rehman

    Doctoral Student, Incarceration PhD Cluster

    '‘Shut up’: Pandemic Lockdowns and Health Inequalities, 1600 to present day'

    Mary Rehman is the holder of both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in History, which she obtained at the University of Hull. Her research has largely centred around early modern British history, and she has a particular interest in highlighting the attitudes and lived experiences of individuals and communities who are often neglected in historical literature and scholarship. Her most recent project, which formed the dissertation element of her MRes, was entitled ‘Men and Brothers: Idealistic Manhood and the Problem of British Slavery’, and explored how involvement in the institution of slavery and its abolition affected the masculine identities of eighteenth-century men of both British and African origin.

    Mary has also worked in partnership with Historic England and Hull Culture and Leisure, for whom she contributed to the ongoing Hull Whitefriargate Heritage Action Zone project by researching, writing-up and presenting a number of stories relating to the people who lived and worked in Hull’s historic Whitefriargate and surrounding areas between 1730 and 1830.

    Belinda Sherlock

    Doctoral Student, Incarceration PhD Cluster

    'Creative Practice & Incarceration: Writing Maternity Diaries'

    Belinda Sherlock (she/her) is a creative practitioner, dramatherapist and PhD candidate based in London and Hull. She specialises in creative and therapeutic practice in forensic settings, and with other communities and individuals with experience of trauma and marginalisation.

    Belinda has a BA in English Literature (Cambridge, 2008), an MA in Dramatherapy (Roehampton, 2014) and professional diplomas in Creative Supervision (London Centre for Psychodrama, 2021) and Embodied Psychotherapy (Institute for Embodied Psychotherapy, forthcoming in 2022). She has spent 8 years working in the NHS as a creative therapist and facilitator in forensic mental health, and in 2022 completed a film project – Creating Change - with NHS staff, sharing their experiences of the workplace through theatre, music and spoken word.

    Belinda also runs Playful Wellbeing - providing therapy, supervision, consultation and workshops to teams and individuals – and is a member of London Playback Theatre Company, which enables audiences to bring their stories to life through spontaneous, improvised theatre.

    Belinda is excited about her forthcoming research into creative practice with incarcerated women and mothers. Her previous research has explored use of creative autobiography in secure mental health settings (2014; 2018; 2021) and in response to political events in Zimbabwe (2008). Belinda has also provided editing and consultation support to a number of publications, including Sir Lenny Henry’s memoir Who Am I Again? (Faber & Faber 2019) and children’s novel The Boy With Wings (2021).

    When not working, Belinda loves doing tai chi, walking long distances, clowning, cycling and cooking.

    Laura Skinner

    Doctoral Student, Incarceration PhD Cluster

    'Modern Slavery in Literature: Searching for the Subaltern'

    Laura Skinner is a doctoral candidate in the Cultures of Incarceration Centre. She completed both her BA and MA in English at the University of Hull and, over the course of her studies, developed a keen interest in postcolonial theory, the diversification of literature, and the moral imperative not only to acknowledge, but to amplify the voices of subjugated individuals. Laura’s research to date considers the frequent misrepresentation of the women of Afghanistan, in contemporary diasporic literature, as a homogeneous, victimised group and interrogates the similarly reductive portrayal of Afghan women in a range of life-writing published post-9/11.

    During her time at the University of Hull, Laura served as President of the English Society, Assistant Editor of the university’s creative anthology The Hull Scribbler, as well as Course Representative and Subject Ambassador for the Department of English. Recently, Laura was appointed to the role of Graduate Ambassador and regularly represents the university at national higher education events. She is also currently working as a Research Assistant, within the Cultures of Incarceration Centre, on a cutting-edge initiative which seeks to advance the ongoing collaboration between the University of Hull and HMP Hull by providing educational content for the prison’s pioneering in-cell television service “Hull TV”.

Seminar series 2023/24

Barbed wire across a long fence
Barbed wire across a long fence
Barbed wire across a long fence
Barbed wire across a long fence
Barbed wire across a long fence
Barbed wire across a long fence
Barbed wire across a long fence
Barbed wire across a long fence
  • Past Seminars

    2023/24 Seminar Series

    Prison Journalism as a Social and Cultural Practice - Dr Kate McQueen

    Wed 20 Sept 2023

    2022/23 Seminar Series

    Capturing Belsen - Lisa Peatfield in conversation with Dr Barnaby Haran

    Wednesday 19 October 2022

    Dr Chris Westoby in conversation with Dr Stewart Mottram

    Wednesday 16 November 2022

    Professor Vivien Miller in conversation with Dr Rachel Williams

    Wednesday 14 December 2022

    A 'cruel war against human nature': Conditional Proslavery in the US Declaration of Independence - Professor Steven Sarson

    25 January 2023

    Classical Hollywood and the Censoring of Miscarriages of Justice - Dr David Eldridge

    22 March 2023

    “Give the man a fair trial, and then hang the son-of-a-bitch” - Dr Simon Topping

    19 April 2023

    Carceral Citizens: Labour and Confinement in Puerto Rico - Dr Caroline Parker

    24 May 2023

    The Meaning of Books for Men in Prison - Judith Gardom

    14 June 2023



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