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Meet Dr Kate O’Brien, Associate Professor, Sociology and Director of MSc Criminology and Criminal Justice 

Black and white image of smiling woman with dark hair

Kate O’Brien lives on the beautiful north east coast with her partner, twin daughters, and her dog.  She is a carer to her dad, who has aphasia. Kate joined the Department of Sociology in 2014 and is currently Director of Postgraduate Taught Programmes in the Department of Sociology and Co-Director of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Programme  

Where did it all start for you?  

I spent the most amazing year on the Erasmus programme as an undergraduate student at Trinity College, Dublin studying Sociology. It was here where I was introduced to two modules that had a huge impact on my future career. The first was ‘Crime and Punishment’, which provided me with the opportunity to visit Mountjoy Prison - an old Victorian prison similar in size and profile to HMP Durham. I can still smell the mix of sweat and instant gravy and remember how scared I felt looking into the eyes of men, wondering what horrors those eyes had seen. I also recall feeling awkward and ashamed as I was guided through the prison like a tourist on a trip to the zoo.   

Today, 25 years later, I am in and out of prisons all the time - teaching, learning and doing research. I have never taken my students on prison tours.  

The second module was ‘Medical Sociology’, where I was introduced to the value of the behavioural sciences for understanding drug addiction. I was so inspired by what I had learned that I eventually went on to work as an outreach drugs worker supporting women intravenous drug users on the outskirts of Glasgow. This was a tough role, but one that had a profound impact on my criminological work and the methods I wanted to use. 

I went on to undertake a PhD based on a neighbourhood study of young women’s involvement in drug use and supply. I have continued to focus my research on girls and women and on their relationship to crime and crime control. 

Tell us about your career to date  

As a way to top up my PhD funding, I worked in youth and community work, including as a girls’ worker for a Save the Children funded detached youth project in the west of Newcastle. I also spent a few years on the management committee of Streetwise Young People’s Project, a wonderful project based in Newcastle city centre that provides specialist advice and counselling support to young people.

After completing my PhD in 2005, I went on to work as a research fellow in the Law School at Durham University on an ESRC-funded project exploring the role of female bouncers in Britain’s night-time economies. This was an exciting research project which involved me working as a nightclub bouncer - a highlight was taking Laurie Taylor from The BBC Radio 4 Programme, Thinking Allowed, around the pubs and clubs of Soho as part of the summer ethnography series in 2007.   

I went on to work as a lecturer in Criminology at the University of Kent for six years before heading back to the north east to take up a lecturing post in Criminology in the Department of Sociology here at Durham University in 2014. Within the first few months of arriving, I got involved in setting up a prison-based education programme called the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Programme, an innovative 10-week prison education programme that brings together university students (outside students) and men and women serving prison sentences (inside students) to learn and build knowledge together through the unique prism of the prison. Training to be an instructor on this programme involved me spending five days in Graterford Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison near Philadelphia, and learning how to teach the Freirean* way from men in custody, most of them serving life without parole. I discovered the power of what bell hooks** refers to as 'teaching to transgress', and to challenge, disrupt and teach from the heart. 

I was blown away by this experience. Working with colleagues in the Department of Sociology, we now deliver the programme in three prisons: HMP Durham, HMP Frankland high security prison, and HMP Low Newton women’s prison. Taking our students into prisons to learn alongside men and women in custody is the best part of my job.  

Tell us about your current research / role 

I work best when I work in collaboration with others. I often use participatory, peer-led and collaborative research approaches. I am currently working on four prison-related projects with some brilliant women colleagues in the University. I have recently completed a HMPPS funded project that evaluated a specialist intervention delivered by RSACC, designed to support women who come to prison with histories of sexual violence and abuse. 

I am currently working on two projects with NEPACS. The first is funded by HMPPS and exploring mothers’ experiences of parenting from prison and the impacts of having children removed from their care as a result of a prison sentence. We secured further funding for this project which has enabled us to collaborate with the brilliant award-winning women’s theatre company, Open Clasp. The second is an evaluation of the Early Days in Custody Project, a crisis support intervention for men and women in custody and their families during the first few days and weeks of a sentence - a critical period in of the prison journey.

The final area of work I am involved in is a collaborative project with North East Sex Work Forum where we are supporting a group of women in custody who engage in sex work, to create a training resource for prison staff.    

I find this work tough at times, but I care deeply about women in prison and the issues affecting them.   

Outside of the prison, I have continued to keep a foot in Britain’s night-time cities, and often engage in consultancy work for local authorities around licensing decisions, and recently, for the Home Office on initiatives relating to women’s safety at night.  

What are your next steps in your career? 

I have a full writing schedule for the next few years as most of my current projects are coming to an end. Beyond this, I would like to take some time to take a breath and rest a while.  


Find out more about Dr Kate O'Brien


* In the Freirean approach, cultural themes in the form of open-ended problems are incorporated into materials such as pictures, comics, short stories, songs, and video dramas that are then used to generate discussion.

** Gloria Jean Watkins, better known by her pen name, bell hooks, was an American author and social activist who was Distinguished Professor in Residence at Berea College. She is best known for her writings on race, feminism, and class.