Behind the Door: A Study of Cell-Sharing, Wellbeing and Coping in Prison

  • Aimee Muirhead

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Many individuals in prison experience sharing a cell with another prisoner (Prison Reform Trust, 2018a). Yet little is known about how cell-sharing can affect wellbeing during imprisonment or influence the use of coping styles. Using a mixed-methods approach consisting of a survey of 569 adult men imprisoned in Northern Ireland, and semi-structured interviews with staff (n= 15) and prisoners (n=37), this study aimed to address this gap in the research literature. The findings reveal that, whilst there were no significant differences observed between the wellbeing scores of those in single and shared cells, the nature of cellmate relationships was significantly associated with wellbeing. Good cellmate relationships promoted better wellbeing by reducing the pressure to conform to prison social norms and making individuals feel able to show their emotions in front of their cellmate. As a result, this facilitated the use of coping styles associated with higher wellbeing, such as seeking emotional support from others. This study also points to the helpfulness of Goffman (1959) in terms of furthering an understanding of how good cellmate relationships can enable individuals to engage in backstage activity that is important for individuals’ self-narratives and sense of wellbeing, such as the reflexive project of the self (Giddens, 1991). It is argued that in order to understand how people respond to cell-sharing and, consequently, its impact on wellbeing, it is necessary to examine how imported characteristics (such as predispositions to use certain coping styles, mental health issues and histories of addiction) can interact with the deprivations associated with a shared cell (such as the lack of privacy and reduced feelings of safety). This thesis offers some new insights into our theoretical understanding of cell-sharing and its impact on wellbeing. It puts forward an augmentation of Goffman’s (1959) conceptualisation of frontstage and backstage by arguing that in the context of a shared prison cell, frontstage and backstage exist on a continuum. The extent to which the cell can be regarded as frontstage or backstage is dependent on the relationships between cellmates. These findings also point to a gap in prison policy relating to how cell-sharing is managed. In particular, the findings are used to address this gap in prison policy by offering suggestions for improvements to the training and guidance staff receive on managing cell-sharing and making cell allocation decisions. In this way, staff should be better informed to use the knowledge gained from this research to balance the different factors that influence how individuals respond to cell-sharing in order to promote good cellmate relationships that enhance wellbeing and facilitate the use of more effective coping styles.
Date of AwardDec 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorMichelle Butler (Supervisor) & Gavin Davidson (Supervisor)

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