PrisonLIFE – Research of the quality of prison life in Serbia

Assessment and possibilities for improving the quality of prison life of prisoners in the Republic of Serbia: Criminological-penological, psychological, sociological, legal and security aspects

Article Author and Principal Investigator of the Project: 
Dr. Milena Milićević

Senior Research Associate, Institute of Criminological and Sociological Research

Dr. Milena Milićević, Senior Research Associate, Institute of Criminological and Sociological Research

A commonly asked question revolves around what life is like for individuals deprived of liberty, and how they navigate existence behind bars. However, there is no straightforward, definitive answer to this inquiry. Life in prison is multifaceted, influenced by factors such as prison conditions, interpersonal dynamics, ethical considerations and moral principles within that environment. These elements have lasting effects not only on an individual’s time spent in confinement but also on their life post-release.

To comprehend life in prison, its determinants, and dependencies, it’s crucial to acknowledge that our legal system views prison not merely as punishment but also as an opportunity for the rehabilitation of inmates and their eventual successful reintegration into society. Our project delves into the prison experiences of inmates in Serbia, as perceived and lived by the convicts themselves. The project’s essence lies in aiding our understanding of the pivotal factors and facets of life within these institutions, and in devising strategies to monitor and enhance them.

The quality of life in Serbia’s prisons has been insufficiently researched thus far, although it is one of the most modern approaches to studying prisons. The quality of prison life is unique in every prison system, and research highlights that it largely determines whether the prison system serves solely as a means of punishment or as a resource for resocialization. Quality of prison life extends beyond physical conditions and restrictions on liberty; it encompasses the overall atmosphere prevailing from the moment a convict enters a prison. This includes levels of order and safety, relationships among convicts, interactions between convicts and staff, family contact, personal autonomy of the convict, professionalism of staff, administrative efficiency, adaptation to the prison environment, and care for vulnerable groups. In essence, it illustrates that each prison possesses its own distinct character.

PrisonLIFE delves into aspects previously deemed “unmeasurable” in research – the quality of life in Serbia’s prisons as an indirect gauge of moral and social climate. We believe this issue concerns us all. Inmates are more than mere statistics; their past experiences and prison life significantly shape not only their future but also the broader societal framework and safety. Therefore, our interdisciplinary approach aids in understanding how to cultivate an environment that fosters personal growth and deters criminal behavior. Our methodology scrutinizes various personal traits of inmates and their life narratives, correlating them with factors stemming from the prison environment. Our goal is to explore the prerequisites for creating an environment that empowers inmates to shift their choices towards pro-social and positive values, rather than clinging to survival-based identities within the prison, essentially determining what is necessary for them to opt for non-criminal behavior over criminal ones.

Previous research conducted worldwide confirms that a positive moral and social climate in prisons, coupled with consistent, humane, and professional treatment, as well as efforts towards personal development, fosters a positive behavioral change among inmates. This often leads them to abandon criminal activities, thus facilitating their successful reintegration into society, reducing recidivism rates, and enhancing overall safety. We anticipate that our research findings will enhance our understanding of the role that favorable prison environments and experiences play in the rehabilitation of inmates in Serbia. Consequently, the PrisonLIFE project holds promise for a lasting positive impact on society as a whole.

In the project’s inaugural year, with the backing of the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Criminology, we tailored a questionnaire for assessing prison life quality. Subsequently, with support from the Administration for Execution of Criminal Sanctions and the Ministry of Justice of Serbia, we visited the country’s five largest correctional facilities, including a women’s prison, and collected data from 650 inmates.

This endeavor has not only enriched the academic community, particularly engaging students and early-career researchers, but has also attracted over 20 colleagues to participate in project activities. Consequently, we organized a National Scientific Conference where our emerging scholars presented their work and preliminary project findings, some of which were published in our institute’s scientific journal.

A significant outcome of the project is the adaptation of a prison life quality assessment questionnaire for use in our country. Moreover, through close collaboration with both scientific and professional communities, encompassing practitioners and academics, we are developing guidelines for ongoing monitoring and enhancement of prison life quality. Additionally, we’re laying groundwork for future research and projects in this domain.

Towards the end of the second year, we organized a round table where preliminary recommendations for improving prison life quality in Serbia were formulated through dialogues with representatives from correctional institutions, relevant governmental bodies, independent agencies, academia, and civil society. We plan to finalize and publish this document after a public discussion at an international scientific conference by the end of the third year implementation of the project.

Initial findings from the PrisonLIFE project reveal that the initial prison arrival and bureaucratic procedures induce similar levels of stress among all inmates, irrespective of prior prison experience. Factors such as living conditions, adaptation to prison life, and maintaining family ties were rated highest, while financial resources, recreational opportunities, safety, discipline, staff relations, and psychological well-being were identified as influential factors affecting inmate experiences. Some of our results corroborated that longer prison stays can exacerbate inmate suffering, yet as they engage in rehabilitation efforts and prepare for societal reintegration, they tend to perceive a greater sense of control over their lives and decisions.

Within the PrisonLIFE project, we have published over 20 scientific and expert outputs, and our podcast series, currently comprising four episodes with four more in production, aims to disseminate our findings widely. We maintain an active presence on social media platforms, regularly sharing engaging content aimed at the general public. Additionally, we will participate in a round table organized by the Institute of Criminology in Ljubljana, alongside the University of Sheffield and the Department of Law of the Freie University in Berlin, as part of the prestigious annual conference of the European Society of Criminology scheduled for September 2024 in Bucharest. Furthermore, we have initiated collaborations with other relevant institutions and researchers in the region, such as the Institute of Social Sciences Ivo Pilar in Zagreb.

We believe it’s crucial for society to engage in conversations about the prison experience, and we hope that by raising awareness of our project, we can challenge prevailing negative perceptions of prisons and inmates. We anticipate that our research will foster a shift in public opinion regarding inmate rehabilitation and the practical application of international standards. Through this endeavor, we aim to stimulate discussions, Dr.ive policy changes, and ultimately improve the lives of inmates.


Project Budget:
EUR 144,580

Scientific and Research Organizations:

  • Institute of Criminological and Sociological Research
  • University of Belgrade – Faculty of Special Education and Rehabilitation

 Project Team Members:

  • Dr. Ljeposava Ilić, Senior Research Associate, Institute of Criminological and Sociological Research, University of Belgrade
  • Dr. Olivera Pavićević, Senior Research Associate, Institute of Criminological and Sociological Research, University of Belgrade
  • Dr. Ana Batrićević, Senior Research Associate, Institute of Criminological and Sociological Research, University of Belgrade
  • Dr. Sanja Ćopić, Associate Professor, Faculty of Special Education and Rehabilitation, University of Belgrade
  • Dr. Ivana Stevanović, Senior Research Associate, Institute of Criminological and Sociological Research, University of Belgrade
  • Dr. Janko Međedović, Senior Research Associate, Institute of Criminological and Sociological Research, University of Belgrade
  • MA Aleksandar Stevanović, Research Assistant, Institute of Criminological and Sociological Research, University of Belgrade
  • MA Nikola Dr.ndarević, Research Assistant, Institute of Criminological and Sociological Research, University of Belgrade



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.