Prison work as dirty work in Australia: Form and consequences for practice and reform

Dr Anna Eriksson1, Ms Ariel Yin Yee Yap2
1Monash University , , Australia, 2Monash University , , Australia

This paper explores how prison staff in Australia view their work and how their work is viewed by others, by applying a theoretical framework of ‘dirty work’. ‘Dirty work’ is a social construction that refers to tasks that are ‘physically, socially or morally tainted’ (Hughes 1958, Ashforth and Kreiner 1999) and this paper will discuss how this applies to prison staff in Australia and the consequences of such taint.  The discussion is based on qualitative research in seven different Australian prisons, ranging from high to low security. Staff frequently reported feeling under-appreciated, under supported, over-worked and lacking sufficient training and support. We will illustrate how staff responds to working in a ‘dirty’ profession by reframing, refocusing, and recalibrating their daily work tasks. Importantly, the stigma of ‘dirtiness’ tends to foster strong occupational and workgroup cultures – an us against them scenario – which in turn makes cultural change of a profession difficult, and we will conclude by outlining possible impact of this for reform of prison practice.


Dr Anna Eriksson does research on comparative penology, restorative justice, and criminal justice reform. She is the author of Contrast in Punishment: Explaining Anglophone excess and Nordic exceptionalism, Oxford: Routledge, 2013 (with John Pratt), and she held an ARC DECRA between 2012 and 2014 that explored how ‘othering’ of prisoners and individuals, and prisons as institutions were achieved in Australia and Norway. Dr Eriksson has acted as a consultant for both public and private prison operators, and engages in cross-disciplinary research, including performance arts, with the aim of improving policy and practice. Anna is also the Director of the Imprisonment Observatory:

Ariel Yap is PhD candidate, head tutor and research assistant at Monash University. She also volunteers her time as an intern at the Imprisonment Observatory.’s research focuses on crime control and punishment, and she looks at how penal policy intersects with policing and historical practices. She is interested in researching the development of governance, punishment, policing, and how this has shaped contemporary responses to crime in South East Asia. Ariel’s PhD project aims to provide an understanding of patterns of power and control in respective societies within this region. She is also interested in research and writing opportunities within this field of work.




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