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Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology

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Why Does Prison Social Order Vary Around the World?

Why Does Prison Social Order Vary Around the World?

By David Skarbek, Brown University and Courtney Michaluk, R Street

Popular stereotypes often portray prisons in one of two ways: either overcrowded, violent, and chaotic places, like those found in some parts of America, or small, peaceful, and well-organized, like those found in many Nordic countries. It turns out that life behind bars actually differs in many more ways...

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Thinking through water

Thinking through water – elemental metaphors in carceral environments

By Anna Schliehe

The connection between water and prisons is by no means straightforward, and even my own COMPEN colleagues have asked me what I could possibly say about this subject. However, over the course of our fieldwork in England & Wales and Norway, many associations with water have arisen from the interviews and informal conversations we have had with prisoners and staff. Reading Jen Turner and Dominique Moran’s recent paper, titled Careful Control: the infrastructure of water in carceral space (2018), has inspired me to collect some of our own material on water in carceral environments.

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Bad men by Kristian Mjåland

Bad men

By Kristian Mjåland

Coming towards the end of a 7-months long ethnographic fieldwork in a Norwegian women’s prison, I would like to reflect on what this piece of research has taught me about being a male researcher. The women I met and interviewed during these months had highly varied backgrounds and experienced their time in this prison in very different ways. One of the things the women in this prison had in common, however, was bad experiences with men. 

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Loneliness by Julie Laursen


By Julie Laursen

Loneliness has emerged as a consistent and pressing theme in both jurisdictions and in all of the sub-studies in the COMPEN project. We have not deliberately probed interviewees to talk about loneliness, but some have talked at great length about feeling socially isolated, alone, and unable to connect or reconnect with friends and family...

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Look to Norway?

Look to Norway? Well …

The Norwegian Correctional Service has been highly reputed for its well-equipped prisons and well-educated prison officers with good opportunities for rehabilitation work. Now there is a new political order. For several years, there has been a drive to cut costs and maximise efficiencies. This year’s budget claims that six lower security prisons are to be closed down – and replaced by Electronic Monitoring (EM). We want to point at two serious consequences following these budget cuts...

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Autonomy in prison: So close?...Yet so far

Autonomy in prison: So close?...Yet so far

By Annie Bunce

For my PhD research, I have qualitatively explored prisoners’ motivations to participate in an innovative programme that brought together young people (aged 13-17) at risk of, or already involved in, criminal activity with serving prisoners within the prison estate. 

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Life after Death?

Life after Death?

What thoughts do these words invoke within our minds? Many may perceive them in a spiritual sense - a hope that there is something more to come; a hope maybe, of a resurrection or reincarnation, after our corporeal journey has ended.

For me, as an ex-offender of maybe the most feared and stigmatised kind, they mean something different in many ways. I believe there are ways to die that are not physical in nature, although I sincerely hope and pray that both victims and offenders can find ways to carry on living.

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Does work stress change personalities?

Does work stress change personalities? Working in prison as a personality-changing factor among correctional officers

By Nina Suliman and Tomer Einat

Studies focusing on prison staff in general and correctional officers in particular reveal a link between the working environment in prison and stress and burnout. These factors are linked to correctional officers’ physical and mental health, rates of absenteeism and intention to quit, and attitudes toward the workplace.

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Guest Blog by Guy Hamilton-Smith

Oscar Wilde, writing from his cell in the Reading Gaol where he was imprisoned for homosexuality at the end of the nineteenth century, observed that "society reserves for itself the right to inflict appalling punishments on the individual, but it also has the supreme vice of shallowness, and fails to realise what it has done. When the man’s punishment is over, it leaves him to himself; that is to say, it abandons him at the very moment when its highest duty towards him begins.”

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Guest blog by Berit Johnsen

Nordic exceptionalism and politics

Over the last decade or so, there has been increasing interest in Norwegian prisons among academics, journalists, prison staff and others from all over the world. John Pratt’s two articles on Scandinavian or Nordic Exceptionalism in the British Journal of Criminology (2008) and Michael Moore’s documentary programs from Bastøy and Halden prisons have been central to this interest. 

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Guest Blog by Vanessa Barker

Penal Nationalism

Our social world is being rapidly transformed by one of the most powerful forces sweeping across affluent societies in response to globalization and mass mobility: nationalism. Resurgent nationalism has the power to disrupt conventional right/left politics to place national interests, national sovereignty, nationalized resources, and national identity above all else. 

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Guest Blog on Challenging life imprisonment

Challenging life imprisonment by Catherine Appleton and Dirk van Zyl Smit

Life imprisonment is a harsh sanction that gives the state the power to imprison individuals for the remainder of their lives. It is a punishment used in many countries, yet very little is known about how it is imposed and implemented across different jurisdictions.

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Guest Blog by Ann-Karina Henriksen

”Will it matter what you say?” – reflections on what motivates interviewees to participate in research

A year ago I was engaged in fieldwork in Danish secure institutions. On and off during a year I spent a few days in different secure care units, where I participated in everyday life and interviewed staff and young people about gendered practices and experiences of being confined.

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Guest Blog by Ben Laws

Loitering with intent: shadowing male and female prisoners is a methodological mixed bag

As part of my research on emotions in prison in HMP Send and HMP Ranby, I decided to shadow my participants around the prison for a day. After the shadowing, I interviewed each participant in some detail. My decision to shadow, or ‘loiter with intent’, resulted in a mixture of feelings: it was sometimes boring, but also surprising, sometimes awkward but typically comfortable, it raised ethical quandaries and revealed a few moments of genuine illumination.

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Guest Blog by Victor Shammas

The slow erosion of Scandinavian social democracy

There are three central narratives about Scandinavia today. First, there’s the story about Nordic penal exceptionalism, which is familiar to sociologists of punishment: prisons in countries like Denmark, Norway, and Sweden are small and humane, crime rates are low – and the incarceration rate even lower.

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Guest Blog by John Todd

When penal populism meets Scandinavian exceptionalism

Scandinavian countries, and perhaps in particular Norway, have often been highlighted as a redoubt against the rise of penal populism in other parts of Europe and the United States. Of course, the nature and trajectory of this exceptionalism has been debated, including here on this blog.  Even ‘celebrity prisons’ like Halden and Bastøy can be painful places to serve a prison sentence.  But, as the COMPEN research programme is investigating, the contours of the penal field in Norway are unusual.  

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Guest Blog by Ryan Williams

Trompe l’oeil (‘trick of the eye’)

How does imprisonment problematize the self? What practices, forms, and techniques do people use to better themselves? To what ends, and with what challenges, do people strive towards some vision of the ‘good’? Whilst serving time in prison, people ask the questions of philosophers and theologians around how they can live virtuous lives – to be better fathers, to live right and well with others, to struggle and strive to ‘make good’

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Guest Blog by Kate Herrity

The prison at night

Unaccustomed to being reliant on staff to let me on and off the wing, I was reminded of my disadvantage with every jangle-free step. I’d been at HMP Midtown since February. Now at the tail end of a sticky August, I had grown accustomed to the familiar din of the men, animated in greetings from the landings, conducting business in corners, engaging in daily life or dawdling and dragging their feet in efforts to avoid it.

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Guest Blog by Liam Martin

Prisonization and the Problems of Reentry

At the halfway house where I lived as an ethnographer, Ty Kelley often slept on a couch in the TV room. It seemed a strange place to rest: a large archway made him visible from the dining area and kitchen, and other residents often grumbled at the public sight of his sleeping body. In an interview, I asked Ty why he did not sleep in his bedroom.

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Guest Blog by Professor Yvonne Jewkes

Normal or nurturing: what should prison designers aspire to?

The word ‘normalisation’ has become ubiquitous in discussions of prison reform. At the recent annual conference of the International Corrections and Prisons Association (ICPA) – a six-day gathering attended largely by managers from the private and public sectors, prison planners, architects and (on this occasion, as it was held in London) senior personnel from HMPPS – it seemed that hardly a paper was given without grand claims being made about custodial environments becoming more ‘normalised’ and therefore, it was said, more likely to rehabilitate offenders. 

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Guest Blog by Gareth Evans

How can he sleep after what he has done?

“He must be knackered to just fall asleep like that.”

“People, if that is what he is, like that don’t care about what they do. They’d sleep as well as we would after a nice workout in the gym”

Two custody officers do the rounds in a dingy police cell ‘suite’. On the night that I’m arrested they chat as if they’re privy to an exclusive soap opera and never give a thought to the fact that they’re part of this nightmare. They are extras in a twisted biopic that very few people will see and even less will understand.

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Guest Blog by Francis Pakes

Speaking freely: use of a shared native language in a prison setting

There are some 2,600 Dutch nationals held in foreign prisons (Hofstee-Van der Meulen, 2015). Many of these are Dutch native speakers, as I am. During my prisons visits which I have undertaken in numerous countries, I sometimes meet a Dutch prisoner. When this happens, an interesting dynamic unfolds that relies on both of us speaking a different language to others. 

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Negotiation of geographies of power

Inventive techniques in the negotiation of geographies of power

Spending time in a medium-security prison holding mostly long-term prisoners convicted of sex offences recently, I heard many stories of the complicated nature of staff-prisoner relationships and the strategies employed by prisoners to negotiate every-day mobilities within the prison. 

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Guest Blog by Jason Warr

Quid Pro Quo in Prison Research by Jason Warr

I have been, in my time, both a participant in a prison research project and a prison researcher. I have seen both sides of the coin, as it were. I was a participant in Ben Crewe’s research in Wellingborough prison and feature in his book The Prisoner Society. I have also participated in other research projects as a prisoner, as a student, and as a researcher.

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Translating power, trust and risk

Translating power, trust and risk  

Translating all this material has been exciting and challenging work (and let us not even talk about the complicating factor of me being Danish rather than Norwegian), but we have been fortunate enough to have Norwegian and Danish colleagues reading through the translations, and commenting, editing and challenging us. We’re grateful for their help, especially in relation to the three words in particular which have caused us a great deal of difficulty, namely: power, risk and trust.  

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Risk and rapport by Alice Ievins

One of the strangest things about prisons research is that even the most intimate conversations can take place in institutions in which very little is private, and they cannot help but be shaped by the priorities of the establishments in which they take place. Take a recent interview I conducted with a man in an English medium-security prison holding men convicted of sex offences. 

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Guest Blog on Comparative Penology

Methodologies for Comparing Experiences across Diverse Institutions

When scholars hear “comparative penology,” they often think of comparing similarly categorized individuals across different contexts (prisoners in low security prisons with those in medium security prisons with those in high security prisons), or comparing similar institutions across different contexts (deportation regimes in the United States with deportation regimes in the United Kingdom with deportation regimes in Scandinavia, for instance).

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Saying no by Kristian Mjåland

Saying no

In a much-cited article, Mary Bosworth (2005), together with four of her research participants, asked why prisoners volunteer to be interviewed by researchers. They argue that wanting to help the researcher, being heard, making good, and correcting wrongs are some of the important aspects that motivate prisoners to take part in prison research. These motivations resonate very well with our own experience from interviewing prisoners in England & Wales and Norway. 

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Guest Blog by Keir Irwin-Rogers

Role conflict in Approved Premises and post-prison supervision

In 2013, I spent a period of six months visiting three APs, conducting periods of observation and interviewing residents and members of hostel staff. The research generated a number of interesting findings, one of which concerns a fundamental role conflict that threatens to severely undermine the legitimacy of APs and post-release supervision, particularly in light of current resource pressures. 

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Ben Crewe Blog 2

Gardening, growth and deep-end confinement

In my book, The Prisoner Society, I noted that the prison ‘was a place of mirth and warmth as well as misery’ (2009: 334). In a number of other publications, I have tried to highlight practices and pockets in prisons that enable forms of hope and humanity. These shards of sunlight can be found even at the terminus of the prison system.

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logo The Comparative Penology Group is led by Dr Ben Crewe and his research team who, since 2016, have been working on a five-year project titled: 'Penal policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis'.

The research is based in England & Wales, and Norway, and involves four inter-related studies of (a) penal policymaking and the penal field (b) the experience of entry into and release from custody (c) the daily experiences of female prisoners and imprisoned sex offenders, and (d) prisoners in the most secure parts of each jurisdiction's prison system.

This project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC).