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Welcome to the website for the COMPEN research programme, a five-year project funded by the European Research Council, whose full title is: ‘Penal policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis’. Rather than describe the programme of research in detail, the following link will take you to a summary of the original research proposal, submitted almost three years ago. Some aspects of the research design have changed, but its structure and aims remain the same. At its core, the project aims to interrogate the Nordic exceptionalism thesis – put at its simplest, the idea that punishment practices in the Nordic (inclusionary) countries are more liberal and humane than those in neo-liberal (exclusionary) nations. My interest in this topic derives from reading the scholarship on the political economy of punishment as someone who spends a lot of time trying to understand the daily experience of imprisonment from the inside, as it were. As I argue in the research proposal, ‘one of the most striking characteristics of such scholarship is that it stops at the gates of the prison, judging levels of [penal] harshness or humanity largely by metrics such as imprisonment rates and prison conditions’. It was not my intention in the proposal to sound too critical of this work; but, for some time, with colleagues in the Prisons Research Centre, I had been trying to find ways of describing and conceptualising different aspects of penal power and texture, and I was very struck by the distance between the way that I (and other empirical prison researchers) thought about such matters and the ways that they were formulated by more theoretical and legalistic scholars.  

The framework that is central to the research programme draws on the ideas of ‘depth’, ‘weight’, ‘tightness’ and ‘breadth’ that I have elaborated and discussed in a couple of publications (see and In brief, ‘depth’ refers mainly to matters of security, control, and the various sensations of feeling a long way from freedom; ‘weight’ relates mainly to interpersonal treatment and conditions, and the level of oppressiveness that they generate; the concept of ‘tightness’ seeks to capture the reach, grip and invasiveness of forms of psychological power, including the demand that prisoners monitor their own conduct; and ‘breadth’ refers to the reach and impact of the sentence beyond the prison, for example, the forms of stigma and psychological disability that ex-prisoners carry with them on release . My hope is that these ideas will provide a way of comparing prison regimes and prisoner experiences that is both nuanced and somewhat systematic. As we will explain in forthcoming blog posts, comparing penal systems in two very different jurisdictions is not at all straightforward, but a framework of this kind does, at least, give us a set of concepts around which we can structure our observations and hang our analysis. It certainly seems plausible, at least in theory, that a prison system that is interpersonally very humane might be oppressive or invasive in other ways, particularly for those elements of the prisoner community who might be deemed most ‘in need’ of treatment, control or paternalistic intervention. 

With such considerations in mind, the research programme consists of four sub-studies, each taking place within England & Wales and Norway: first, a study of penal policymaking and the ‘penal field’ – that is, the set of players and processes that shape penal policy and practice; second, an exploration of the texture of imprisonment for women and imprisoned sex offenders, with a particular focus on how these prisoners experience penal power and how it shapes their everyday social world within the prison; third, a study of how prisoners experience points of entry into and exit from the system; and, fourth, a study of the ‘deep end’ of each prison system, that is, the units holding prisoners considered to be most dangerous or difficult to manage, in the most secure and controlled conditions.

Research is now underway in all four sub-studies, in what has been an extremely intense initial period of fieldwork. Most of our time so far has been spent embarking on the ‘entry-exit’ study, in a range of local prisons, interviewing prisoners shortly after they come into custody and observing reception processes. At the same time, in England & Wales, we have made considerable headway in interviewing prisoners in the four Close Supervision Centres (for more information, see,

We will provide further information about our progress in blog posts to follow. One of the aims of this website is to provide ongoing information about how the research is developing, including our fieldwork experiences, reflections, and emerging findings. A second aim is to use the website as a place for other researchers engaged in comparative penological research or doing research in areas connected to any of our sub-studies to write about their studies. We will therefore be inviting people to contribute short articles, and would welcome anyone getting in touch to let us know about their activities. More to come….

Julie Laursen Blog 1

The case of the missing keys

We are currently doing large amounts of fieldwork in prisons in England & Wales and in Norway and we carry keys in all prisons - a privilege and a source of quite a lot of anxiety for me. In England & Wales, we sit through long key-talks, demonstrate our ability to securely open and lock gates in front of staff, and are thoroughly advised on how to carry the keys. In Norway, it is a bit more relaxed in the sense that we are more likely just to get an informal talk about how to handle the keys before we set off on our own. I do fieldwork across the two jurisdictions and hence have access to many different prisons; seven at present. That entails a lot of security codes, procedures and rules and I often forget my passcode for my credit cards because of a lack of mental space for any superfluous information. I take great care in following the various rules and procedures (which are always different from prison to prison), but one day I made a mistake in Norway.

In the prison, the keys are stored securely in a large cabinet with various security measures installed. One of the security measures is that one must make sure to place the key the right way in an open slot to make sure that the key has been registered by the computer system, otherwise they won’t know that the keys have been returned. One evening, after a normal day in the prison, we flew back to England, and on arrival at Kings Cross, I noticed a Facebook message from a stranger and checked it a bit anxiously because I could tell the messenger was an officer from the prison. He said they could not reach me (my phone had been in ‘fly-mode’) and asked whether I had accidently carried keys outside of the prisons and brought them to England with me? Could I please call the prison as soon as possible? I was horrified. I went through the last couple of hours in my mind and was certain that I had delivered the keys.

Immediately after I read the disturbing message, our Norwegian colleague phoned me to say that the prison had phoned him and everything was sorted; I had delivered the keys, but had not inserted them correctly. We were in a hurry on that particular day, racing towards the airport, and I must have placed the key upside down in the slot without realising it. Despite the good news, my heart sank - would they forbid me to ever carry keys again? Shortly thereafter, I received another message from the Norwegian officer telling me that I should not worry, they would not withdraw my permission to carry keys and he wished me a pleasant weekend. He was so calm and relaxed about the incident and his reaction made me settle down as well. This was clearly not the end of the world.

Dr Julie Laursen is a Research Associate in the COMPEN team, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge.

Alice Ievins Blog 1


For those of us who spend a lot of time in prison, there will be certain phrases which are so familiar that we almost stop listening to them. ‘In here, the best way to do your time is to keep your head down.’ ‘The officers are only like that because they were bullied at school.’ ‘The best thing about this job is the camaraderie.’ ‘I treat them with respect, and they treat me with respect.’ When I’m doing fieldwork in prisons in England and Wales, whether in focus groups or chatting on the wings, I’ve almost stopped noting these tropes down – they’re so ubiquitous that it feels like they’re not telling me anything new, and besides, the words get repeated so much that they sound like a default pattern of speech, just words people say because that’s what people say, and not because they mean anything.

Mostly, when I go to Norwegian prisons I am surprised by the differences: in scale, in architecture, in sentence length, in trust. But occasionally, I am surprised by the similarities. Every so often, in the middle of a conversation with a Norwegian prisoner, he will say something so familiar, in terms of meaning but also in terms of language and metaphor, that it jolts you. Hearing these tropes in a new context can make you think again about them, to listen closely to what people are communicating when they say them, and to what they actually mean. It’s a reminder that just because the words are recognisable, it doesn’t mean that what’s being described is unimportant, pedestrian, or prosaic.

In a focus group in Bjørgvin prison, one man complained that officers were inconsistent in the way they used power: ‘There’s a lot of face factor in here. We can have done the exact same thing to be in here, and we each have six months, we do the exact same things every day, do our chores, but they love him and hate me’. Complaints about things only happening for you if your face fits are so common in English prisons that they have made up one of the questions in Alison Liebling’s Measuring the Quality of Prison Life (MQPL) surveys. Other complaints concerns the fact that officers behaved differently if they had a bad day, but prisoners needed to manage their emotions: ‘The officers bring their troubles in but we’re not allowed to show it. My girlfriend’s grandmother died, I was sad, I wasn’t allowed to show it. It was my girlfriend’s birthday, I wasn’t allowed to show it.’ Many of these tropes concern structural features of the prison, things which are the same in Norwegian as well as English and Welsh contexts. They’re about the effect of living in a place in which you lack autonomy and are structurally disempowered, and hearing them used in a prison which seems so different is a reminder that these are real pains, and that the familiarity of the language should not obscure the reality of the emotion.

On other occasions, hearing familiar tropes served as a reminder that we were in a totally different penal context.  At one point in a focus group, a prisoner started talking about the difficulty of being a long-term prisoner and seeing short-termers leave. As their sentences drew to a close, he said, he deliberately withdraw himself from the social relationship so it wouldn’t be difficult to see them leave. His words were reminiscent of the pains and strategies of long-term and life-sentenced prisoners in England and Wales, and we asked him how long his sentence was, and he replied that it was six months. In Norway, that counted as a long time.

Alice Ievins is a PhD Candidate and Research Assistant in the COMPEN team, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge.

Anna Schliehe Blog 1

Carceral mobility

Carceral mobility and analysis of what this means for individual prisoners is a topic that I have long been interested in from both a geographical and sociological point of view. Doing most of my fieldwork in England & Wales, prison mobilities have mostly carried connotations of restrictive regimes, questioning small-scale movements and possible agency within that. On our latest fieldwork trip to Norway, it struck me how a different mobility culture can have such a noticeable effect on prisoners’ every-day life and on the overall feel or atmosphere of ‘prison’. Paying attention to mobility was not really part of our main focus - having gone there to do a survey and ethnographic observation of life on one particular wing - but it surfaced time and time again, involving individual prisoners, visitors, animals, objects, both human and more-than-human geographies.

When we first arrived in the morning, a picture that stuck in my mind is a cyclist doing his rounds on the prison roads and paths. This being an unusual sight for me, I ask my Scandinavian colleagues, and they explain this to be quite ‘normal’ - they have a bike-re/up-cycling facility at this prison and prisoners regularly test the bikes and use them for exercise. Once a week they go out for long cycles on their race bikes. Generally, I keep noticing prisoners moving around relatively freely, having large areas available for exercise. The first day we spend at a prison that would probably be classified as a Cat C in the UK, so it is not altogether surprising that prisoners have keys to their cells, some leaving the prison at the weekend on home visits or having outings into the community. The next day, however, at a high security prison, prisoners seem to have similar opportunities: they, too, have keys to their cells, can leave the building and sit outside for a smoke or watch birds and enjoy the view of lakes, trees and mountains. They move around different parts of the prison for work and many have outings at the weekend with officers taking them on hill walks, to the theatre or a concert and even running marathons. Seeing runners on a trail in prison: I am completely overwhelmed by that description. Running a marathon as a prisoner in a high security prison, training with an officer – that is something I considered impossible before. Having outings to the local theatre? Unthinkable!

This form of bodily mobility is based on trust, a societal view on what prison is supposed to ‘be’ and ‘do’. It involves trust in the individual, a more in-depth relationship between prisoner and staff and also among prisoners. This corporeal mobility also affects object mobility: access to tools, communication devices, being trusted in a room ‘alone’ with a computer (with internet!), being trusted to handle knives in the kitchen - plastic cups and plates nowhere to be seen. Doing woodwork with huge machines and saws, or producing music with a whole range of instruments (including a laptop). It also involves different attitudes to unwanted body mobility: we hear that the week before three people ‘escaped’ – they jumped over the fence and left - but no one seems to be extremely alarmed. There is no ‘manhunt’, no media attention and they will probably be picked up again soon or maybe return by themselves.

Having witnessed all of this ‘unthinkable’ mobility, the difference compared to Norway’s remand and entry detention is stark: while physical conditions might be more comfortable than in some English prisons, the mobility regime certainly is not. Prisoners spending most of their time in cells, having only small concrete and metal areas for exercise when on remand or in early custody, is surprising.

This leaves me with many questions relating to prison regimes, societal expectations and prisoners’ lived realities. Does access to the ‘outside’ world, access to extensive exercise ‘outside’ and the use of machinery, tools and every-day items make a difference? Does it help reintegration? Does it change how ‘human’ or individual you feel as part of the ‘system’? How does that relate to feelings of being imprisoned, of being locked-in? What effect does this more ‘mobilist’ thinking have on prison’s ‘underlife’ - on forbidden mobility, on stretching or dodging rules and regulations?

We will hopefully have much more to say on this further down the line. Tusen takk for opening my eyes to these new carceral mobilities and wider societal implications!

Dr Anna Schliehe is a Research Associate in the COMPEN team, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge.


Ben Crewe Blog 1

Condiments and comparisons

Many prisons in Norway have communal dining areas, in a way that relatively few prisons do in England & Wales. We were in one of these dining areas recently, in Bjørgvin prison, on the West coast of Norway, giving out surveys to a small group of prisoners. As they set about the task of filling these in for around twenty minutes (to help us assess the nature of their prison experience, and compare it to prisons in England & Wales), we sat around (on red Ikea chairs), answered some questions, looked out of the windows at the mountains that framed the prison, and gazed around the room.

The details of the room are worthy of comment because of what they signify about Norwegian imprisonment. Sitting on top of one surface was a bowl of apples; on another was a row of containers holding savoury biscuits and cereals. On each table, there was a square basket holding condiments including tomato ketchup, mayonnaise, lemon juice and Nutella, in large plastic bottles. Prisoners had also brought into the room a large heated flask of coffee, to which we all helped ourselves casually throughout the research exercise, adding milk from the kind of dispenser found on a hotel breakfast sideboard. On the wall was a large clock and a red, abstract painting. All of these features gave the room the feel of a youth hostel or a student hall of residence.

None of the Norwegian prisoners considered these objects to be anything other than banal, but as an outsider they were striking in the way that they reflected a very different kind of relationship between prisoners and the institution: the prison trusted prisoners not to simply take everything that had been left out for public consumption, and prisoners seemed to have no interest in doing so. It is really quite difficult to know whether this could work in a prison in England & Wales, beyond a handful of small, special units. Commentators on penal issues often look to the Nordic countries, and ask why we don’t just import their practices, and generally I share this perspective. But whether the norms of our prisons, shaped as they are by wider social and penal sensibilities, would make such practices possible, even if they were deemed to be acceptable, is hard to gauge. Perhaps the apples would be taken, and used to make hooch; perhaps the Nutella would end up as a commodity in the illicit prisoner economy. Perhaps graffiti would appear on the abstract painting, as a statement against the authority of the institution.

Here also lies one of the complexities of comparative research. In discussing their quality of life, Norwegian prisoners did not mention these items, either as material goods in themselves or as indicators of how they, as prisoners, were regarded by the institution, just as they do not notice or mention how much smaller, quieter and more open these institutions are, because they have no comparative benchmark. To us, though, these differences were stark and significant.

Dr Ben Crewe leads the COMPEN team and is Deputy Director of the Prisons Research Centre, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge.

Kristian Mjåland Blog 1

The sound of prison

In this research project, we are comparing imprisonment in a country I know well, Norway, and countries I know less well, England & Wales. To explore the same issues in both familiar and unfamiliar contexts is one of the many advantages of comparative research like this: the unfamiliarity makes you reflect on aspects that you otherwise would have taken for granted, or simply not recognized.

One such aspect is the sound of prison. It was not until my first visit in an English prison that I came to realise that prisons have different sounds, and that, comparatively speaking, Norwegian prisons are quiet.  

The first English prison we went to is a large local prison, holding approximately 1300 men in a building dating back to the middle of the 19th century. It was overwhelming to enter the central hall of the prison, from where you could see five radiating wings, each of them five floors tall and separated from the center via two large white painted bars. I realized that from where we stood, in the central hall of the prison, we could hear the sound of almost 1300 men locked up. I felt the need to take a deep breath: This prison holds the equivalent of 1/3 of the entire Norwegian prison population.

What struck me the most that first day in this prison was the noise. Walking through the wings of the prison you hear several different sounds: The constant and underlying buzzing sound of people talking and moving, reminding you that this is a very busy and densely populated place; the less constant but still frequently occurring sound of alarms going off; and last but not least: the sound of shouting. I had never before heard prison officers shout out messages to prisoners, but here it happened all the time. These more sudden noises, of alarms, shouting, screaming and banging on cell doors, often made me jump: I felt uncomfortable and alert. When we left the prison later that afternoon, I was exhausted, and longed for some good old silence.


The following day we returned to the prison, and I spent a couple of hours hanging out at one of the wings. Again I was overwhelmed with all the noise. Prisoners were banging at their cell doors. Someone was screaming out loud from their cell. Prisoners having association were having conversations with prisoners who were locked up and had to scream to be heard inside. The alarm lights outside the cell doors were often blinking, and almost all day there was a constant and deeply annoying sound from an alarm. I was later told that this was the emergency alarm, and that it didn’t stop until prison officers had checked in on the prisoners who made the alarm go off. Was the sound of that very alarm the sound of prisoners in emergency not receiving attention?

These first two days in an English prison left me with so many impressions, questions and reflections, many of them related to the impact of sound. How does it feel to live and work in a prison with so much noise? How do prisoners and officers cope? How is noise related to fear, and what are the implications of all the shouting for staff-prisoner relationships? A puzzle remains, however, for the Norwegian part of our study: how do you explore the (comparatively speaking) lack of noise? How do you study silence?

Dr Kristian Mjåland is a Senior Research Associate in the COMPEN team, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge.



Anna Schliehe Blog 2

Missing people and the pains of entry in the UK

When researching entry into and release from custody in prisons in England over the last 10 months, one aspect of entry into custody surfaced in many interviews, and that is how people in police custody and prison become ‘missing people’. Talking to the ‘missing’ involves a form of absent presence: prisoners describe how they live for days, sometimes weeks, without anyone knowing where they are. They are not technically missing in a geographical sense involving unusual cartographies and movements of absence (Parr et al 2015: 192) but rather in a static sense. This form of ‘static’ missing means prisoners are missing in a confined space without the chance of defining their absence through movement.

From the perspective of the left behind, living with absence is of a particular nature when carceral spaces are involved. Initially, the process of ‘missing’, as described by prisoners who cannot contact ‘the left behind’, is ‘absolute’ in the sense that there is no channel of communication. Usually, prisoners are allowed one short phone call when they enter custody but many report difficulties in reaching people, remembering phone numbers, not being allowed to access prison phones, or being too distressed initially to use them. Some of our interviewees tell us of extreme levels of stress and anxiety related to being cut-off and technically ‘missing’. This state of ‘absolute’ missing can last from hours to a couple of days to a couple of weeks, depending on the prison regime, particular officers or other prisoners trying to help and the speed with which the phone list with authorised numbers is confirmed. Being missing, in this sense, is part of the pains of entry that many prisoners experience in their early days in custody.

This preliminary state of ‘absolute missing’ changes over the course of someone’s stay in prison. The ‘absolute’ morphs into the ‘liminal’ when prisoners get on-and-off contact to their family and friends. Parr and Stevenson (2015: 307) describe how the feeling of loss when someone goes missing can be experienced as traumatic or as a time of ‘limbo’ – for prisoners’ loved-ones this limbo continues in a different way. Families cannot phone their imprisoned mother, father, partner or child: they sit waiting (Foster 2016). In a deeply moving and personal talk, Soozy described her experiences as the partner of an IPP prisoner to us last week at the Prisons Research Centre. She explained how, when the phone call ends, her partner essentially goes missing temporarily: she has no way of knowing how he is feeling, what situations he might be confronted with, if he might be moved, if he might need help; causing great anxiety and a sense of limbo. Her descriptions mirror a lot of what Parr and Stevenson (2015) write about in ‘no news today’ regarding the painful act of regularly enquiring about their loved ones at the police, or in Soozy’s case within the prison service. Though different to the ‘missing’ that Parr et al (2015) describe, many prisoners and the ones they left behind can relate to being ‘differently absent’ and experiencing ambiguous loss ‘as a result of human absence’ (Parr and Stevenson 2015: 307).


I wanted to highlight this element of the prisoner experience that I initially noticed as a ‘pain of entry’ in the UK. Research into prisoners’ families (like Foster 2016 and others) has highlighted how this extends beyond the confines of the prison and reaches into many homes across the country. Different stages of ‘missing’ are part of many experiences of imprisonment from entry, exit to post-release, even though they might be most severe in the early days in custody.


Dr Anna Schliehe is a Research Associate in the COMPEN team, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge.

Soozy is on twitter: @soozy_thom

The project on geographies of missing people is online under:

Foster, R (2016) 'Doing the wait': an exploration into the waiting experiences of prisoners' families. Time & Society (advance publication February 21) doi: 10.1177/0961463X1663323. P. 1-19.

Parr, H; Stevenson, O (2015) ’’No news today’: talk of witnessing with families of missing people’. Cultural Geographies Vol 22(2). P. 297-315.

Parr, H; Stevenson, O; Fyfe, N; Woolnough, P (2015) ‘Living absence: the strange geographies of missing people. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space Vol 33. P. 191-208.

Anna Eriksson Blog

Designing dangerousness: Interviewing prisoners in Norway and Australia

I am sitting on the couch, my back to the window and the coffee table between me and the person I am interviewing. He’s sitting opposite me on a chair, his back to the door and effectively blocking the exit. I am sipping a cup of black coffee, the fourth for the day, kindly prepared and given to me by the interviewee. This is Ila prison, a high security prison in Norway that houses some of the most dangerous prisoners in the country. The interviewee, a prisoner who is doing time for serious sex offences (a fact he volunteers, in this research project I never asked), happily chats away about the overall topic of the research – what makes prisons better or worse. The room we are using is one used for visits, with the fluffy couch and well used coffee table. The prison staff is in their office across the hallway, so I am by no means isolated or on my own. There is a relaxed atmosphere and even though I am always aware that something could happen (it’s impossible to spend time inside a prison without that awareness settling heavy on your shoulders), the clear expectation is that nothing will.

Three months earlier I was interviewing prisoners and staff in a high security prisons in Australia. The atmosphere there was far from relaxed. The interview rooms have their special design and their own rules of use. I am always closest to the door which is never completely closed. I know exactly where the distress/panic button is under the table. I am wearing an alarm that will go off if I pull the string, or if I end up in a horizontal position as a result of being assaulted and unable to pull the string due to being unconscious. The table is bolted to the floor and there is a distinct lack of fluffy pillows and hot coffee. The prisoner on the other side of the table is not serving time for a violent offence, but every aspect of the physical environment is essentially shouting to me that this person is dangerous and I need to be vigilant at all times to any behaviours that might mean an attack is imminent.

Without boring the reader with analysis of theoretical concepts, what became obvious in my research was that the physical environment plays a central role in how we perceive people. But it also plays a role in how they perceive themselves. Dangerous criminal or a person on a journey of change; the label tells the prisoner how he is expected to behave, and accordingly he does. The overwhelming focus on static security in Australia means that prisoners are de-personalized and constructed as dangerous Others. In Norway, the focus is on dynamic security and the role of interpersonal interaction and using the environment as a tool of milieu therapy and rehabilitation. ‘Trust’ is a key word in Norway’s prisons; ‘risk’ inside the prison walls of Australia.

During 2013 and 2014, I conducted 230 interviews with staff and prisoners in seven prisons in Norway and seven in Australia. I had received funding from the Australian Research Council (DECRA scheme) to essentially take the Nordic Exceptionalism thesis that I worked on with John Pratt one step further and see what took place behind the walls and beyond the rhetoric. The reasoning was that people are pretty much the same everywhere, but the differences in the social, physical, and cultural environment will be the key reasons why we treat people differently. I had not written up ‘interview environment’ as one of my research questions, but it became an important example when trying to understand what the differences between the two systems actually were, as well as how and why, and what that means for staff and prisoners alike. Due to having to take longer periods of sick leave from mid- 2015 onwards, I have not published much from this project, but am hoping this little blog contribution can give a taste of things to come. Oh, and if you take your coffee white, make sure to bring your own milk when interviewing in Norwegian prisons.

Dr Anna Eriksson is Director of the Imprisonment Observatory and
Deputy Director of Monash Criminal Justice Research Consortium, Monash University, Australia

Picture attribution: Lisa Aserud/NTB SCANPIX 




Julie Laursen Blog 2

When your next of kin is a professional

The entry/exit/post-release sub-study is quite ambitious because we try to interview the same people upon their entry into custody, again just before their release from prison (which are often not the same as they entered) and then post-release from prisons in England & Wales and Norway. This blog post is about interviewees’ contact information and what this tells us about their levels of deprivation prior to, during and after imprisonment. 

When we interview people for the second time (in the ‘exit’ phase of the sub-study), we ask them to give us contact details of the people they feel closest to, the people who will always know where they are. Some people give us their own contact details, but they do not always remember their phone numbers or email addresses. Many interviewees give us contact details for family members, but some of them lead incredibly challenging lives outside the prison walls; often, they are homeless, estranged from their families and without any stable means of sustenance as well as without any family or friends to contact. In these cases, we are sometimes given contact details of public agencies such as the police, probation, social services or the like instead of relatives or friends’ telephone numbers. 

An example is one of my female interviewees who gave me a contact number for a non-governmental organisation that works with women in prostitution as well as a number for a police officer in her local hometown. Those professionals were the only two people she could think of who would always know where she was. When I phoned the organisation to find her, they told me that she was back in prison. 

These contact details tell us something very significant about the volatility of some prisoners’ lives. So far, this seems to be most prominent in England & Wales, where levels of deprivation seem much deeper than in Norway where I have only once interviewed a prisoner who had no contact person other than his social worker. 


We have only just begun thinking and writing about this, but perhaps the contact information (or lack thereof) also tells us something about what we are calling the ‘depth’ (Downes 1988; McDermott 1995) and ‘breadth’ (Crewe 2015) of imprisonment in both countries. It is not necessarily the case that prisoners in Norway are granted more opportunities to stay in touch with family and friends - indeed; they often have shorter visits and less allowance for phone calls than their English counterparts do. However, the levels of deprivation prior to entering custody seem less severe than in the UK, sentences are much shorter (the average sentence length is three months) and the ‘breadth’ or informal consequences of imprisonment seems to be less consequential as well. These aspects of the two penal fields will obviously bear consequences on prisoners’ lives, and an ongoing aspect of our study is to understand exactly how they do so.

Dr Julie Laursen is a Research Associate in the COMPEN team, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge.




Alice Ievins Blog 2

SOTP: The view from the inside

I almost cried when I heard about the SOTP on the TV. I was like, I spent seven years on that. Seven years away from my family. Seven of my kids’ birthdays.  I was waiting three years for the SOTP and four years for the Extended and now they tell me it’s made me worse?

In June 2017, the Ministry of Justice published an evaluation of the Core Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP), the main accredited programme provided in English and Welsh prisons for the treatment of men convicted of sex offences. [1] The report – which featured heavily in the Daily Mail and was one of the leading stories on BBC News – found that the programme did not reduce reoffending among sex offenders, and may in fact have increased it. The programme has since been cancelled (as has Extended SOTP, a programme for high- and very high-risk sex offenders who had already completed the SOTP), and two new courses, Horizon and Kaizen, are being offered instead. The findings of the evaluation were complex and controversial, and their validity and implications have been hotly debated in blogs and on Twitter.

But the report has also been discussed in prisons by prisoners. At the moment, we are conducting a lot of fieldwork in a medium-security English prison which only holds men convicted of sex offences. I was in the prison a few days after the report was published, and one of the first people I bumped into was a man I had interviewed a few weeks earlier. He is serving an indeterminate sentence, and had taken SOTP earlier this year as it was on his sentence plan, and he thus thought it was necessary for him to get parole. He was stressed. He worried that, far from helping him to get out, having done the SOTP – a course which had been publicised as potentially making sex offenders worse – might block him from getting parole. He spent the weekend writing to his Probation Officer, his Offender Supervisor and his psychologists – anyone who might be able to give him guidance on what this might mean for his sentence.

A few minutes later, I bumped into another man I know well. He is serving a determinate sentence and will be released in six months, after serving a few years. He was cross. He had just received a letter saying that his application to be transferred into open conditions had been refused as he had not completed everything that was on his sentence plan. I asked what was on his sentence plan, and he said ‘Just the SOTP’.

Not all of the men I’ve spoken to are as cynical about the course as you might expect. One man I know quite well asked me for a private conversation a few weeks ago, to tell me that he had just had his post-programme review and he had been given a good assessment; he was very excited about his visit at the weekend, when he would also tell his sister about his success. I was touched by his pride, and decided against asking him whether the withdrawal of the SOTP had dulled the shine of his achievements. Those who found the course useful for themselves have tended to say that you get out what you put in, that how people react to it is individual; thus the positive transformation they have felt has not always been devalued. As far as possible, programme workers and psychologists have tried to support these men, writing letters to everyone in the prison who took part in the SOTP to offer them meetings, and to say that how people react to it is individual.

Most prisoners have been less sanguine, though. I have not (yet) met anyone whose reaction to the news about the SOTP has totally transformed their perception of the value or legitimacy of SOTP programmes. But those who were cynical about programmes are still cynical, and often more so. In England and Wales, participating in the SOTP was not fully voluntary. The SOTP is often placed on prisoners’ sentence plans, and for those who were on indeterminate sentences, release could be contingent on following their sentence plans and thus completing the course, and I have met dozens of prisoners who have been held in prison over their tariff date while waiting for courses to be made available. Even prisoners with determinate sentences are encouraged to follow their sentence plans in the hope that this will ameliorate the licence conditions they are subject to on release. This hard incentivisation of treatment means that prisoners often see it just as a hurdle to be jumped over, rather than a worthwhile opportunity for reform or rehabilitation. For some prisoners, being told that the hurdle was more than arbitrary, and may have been damaging, has been painful, and confirmed their worst suspicions about the operation of power in prison: that it is too often restrictive yet arbitrary.

Alice Ievins is a PhD Candidate and Research Assistant in the COMPEN team, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge. 




ESC Conference in Cardiff

Preliminary findings: The research team present papers at this week’s ESC conference in Cardiff

For almost a year, we have been busy doing fieldwork in prisons all over England & Wales and Norway. This week, however, we grant ourselves a pause from fieldwork, and head to the ESC conference in Cardiff to present preliminary findings from our research so far.

On Friday 14-15.15, Ben Crewe chairs a panel where he is also presenting a paper based on the ‘Deep end’ sub-study, with the title: ‘Depth, extremity and intensity at the terminus of the prison system’. On Saturday morning, from 09-10.15, Alice Ievins presents the paper ‘Orientations towards women among male prisoners convicted of sex offences’, which is based on ongoing research in our sub-study on sex offender imprisonment.

Also on Saturday morning, from 09-10.15, we present two papers based on our Entry/Exit sub-study. To give you a taste of what we are finding in this sub-study, we use this blog post to present the two papers in some detail.

The first paper deals with the pains of entering custody in prisons in England & Wales and Norway. Studying the ‘pains of imprisonment’ has been a key concern of prison sociology ever since Sykes’ (1958) classic study. However, rarely have the pains of entering prison been studied, and even more rarely through a comparative framework. The lack of interest in the processes of entering prisons is surprising given the significance of this status transition in the works of Goffman (1963) and others. The paper seeks to fill this gap in the literature by exploring and comparing the experiences of entering custody in England & Wales and Norway. A benefit of this research design is that it enables a study of how different penal contexts shape ‘the pains of entry’. The paper draws on data from the Entry/Exit sub-study, and consists of qualitative interviews with prisoners (N=162) and observation from five different prisons. A key finding is that we find a more individualised process of entry in Norway and a more mechanised form of entry in England & Wales. The paper then describes how these differences affects prisoners’ experiences of and adaptations to life in prison. In the discussion, we argue that the differences we find may partly be explained by reference to the stark contrast in the volume of prison entries in the two jurisdictions, and by a stronger commitment to the principle of normalization in Norwegian penal practice. In conclusion, we propose that the comparative study of ‘the pains of entry’ highlight important differences between ‘inclusionary’ and ‘exclusionary’ penal regimes that have not yet been accounted for in the debate on the ‘exceptional’ character of Nordic imprisonment.

The second paper offers a study of a peculiar phenomenon, namely the Norwegian ‘imprisonment queue’. Based on ethnographic data from the Entry/Exit sub-study, this paper explores the implications of this ‘imprisonment queue’ in Norway. Although a common experience for sentenced Norwegians to wait for months/years before they can serve their prison sentence, this phenomenon has not received any academic attention. Following Sykes (1958), we argue that the ‘imprisonment queue’ could be coined as a peculiar Nordic 'pain of imprisonment'. Drawing upon anthropological theory of rituals developed by Van Gennep (1909) and Turner (1967) the analysis shows that these not-yet prisoners, but certainly not free citizens, live in a sort of liminal position, ‘betwixt and between’ freedom and imprisonment. Furthermore, we draw upon and expand earlier research of the ‘breadth’ of imprisonment (the informal consequences of imprisonment, stigma, ‘disabilities’, etc., see Crewe 2015) by arguing that breadth does not only reach beyond the sentence, but has consequences and is felt before any time is served. The paper will argue that while the ‘imprisonment queue’ provides certain benefits such as being able to prepare or negotiate the terms of one’s imprisonment, it also entails insecurity and an existential limbo for the prisoners waiting to serve their sentence.

For those of you going to Cardiff this week, we hope to see you at our various panels! And for those of you who are not going: we will continue to work on our papers and let you know when they are published and can be enjoyed in full detail.


Guest Blog by Thomas Ugelvik

Distance from freedom, distance from life

Thomas Ugelvik – University of Oslo, Norway

The data excerpt below is taken from a conversation I had with a prisoner in Kongsvinger prison, Norway’s only prison designed to hold exclusively foreign national prisoners. All prisoners at Kongsvinger are supposed to be either transferred to prisons in their home countries to serve out some proportion of their sentence there, or rearrested at the end of their sentence and deported back to their countries of origin by Norwegian immigration police. Several of the prisoners I had already talked with resisted deportation as best they could. Some had family and friends in Norway, and the threat of deportation was a perennial concern for them. Other prisoners, however, wanted nothing more than to be put on a plane by police:

I just want to go home! I want to be deported, so what is taking so long? What is the problem? Please deport me! I have talked with my contact officer, he says it is possible, but it will probably take some months, call your lawyer. I try to call my lawyer, I have called a hundred times! Really, a hundred times! But no, no contact. It’s typical, when the case is finished, lawyers are quiet, they forget about you, they need new cases, need to make more money. And I have talked with my embassy three times, they tell me yes, is possible to serve the rest of the sentence in Romania. … Two weeks ago, another prisoner was deported to Romania. Why did they not take me as well? It would be cheaper, yes? Easier? They are going anyway? I don’t get it. (fieldnotes, Kongsvinger prison)

The prisoner emphatically asked to be transferred back to his home country of Romania as quickly as possible. In the current Norwegian political context, this may come as a surprise. Politicians in favour of strict immigration policies frequently argue that a prison sentence is not enough to deter foreign national criminals. Deportation at the end of the sentence is the ‘real punishment’ and an important deterrent in its own right. Politicians arguing for more liberal and humane immigration policies claim that deportation is inhumane and in most cases disproportionate. Some even say that adding deportation to a criminal sentence constitutes double jeopardy and that it is thus illegal. And here I was, talking with this prisoner who was basically begging for deportation.  What was going on?

There is considerable variation between institutions known as ‘prisons’. Different prisoners may even experience the same prison wing very differently. Recent prison scholarship has developed a set of spatial/physical metaphors that can be used to capture variations between the experiences of different prisoners. The ‘depth’, ‘weight’, ‘tightness’ and ‘breadth’ framework allows for sensitive and nuanced analyses of the phenomenology of imprisonment. The more this literature grows, the better we will be able to understand the nuances and variations found in the institutions we call ‘prisons’.

According to Crewe, (2015) ‘deep’ imprisonment refers to the experience of being far away from the ‘surface’ of freedom. ‘Depth’ is often seen as connected to the prevailing levels of security and control: very high-security regimes can create a feeling of being buried far beneath the surface. The experience of ‘depth’ will therefore often be connected to the degree of physical freedom permitted to prisoners, and the level of bodily control they are subjected to.

Most prisoners would agree that Kongsvinger prison, and in particular the low-security wing where the prisoner in question was staying at the time, is relatively shallow. There is no real prison wall, just a low fence that could be climbed over. Prisoners can apply for escorted and unescorted leave, including visits to the local library. Under this regime, most prisoners would not have a sense of being buried far beneath the surface of freedom. But ‘depth’ is always relative to a specific sense of a ‘surface’. And to many foreign national prisoners, the ‘surface’ is not right there outside the prison – the freedom waiting just beyond the prison wall. The ‘surface’ is rather the world of families and loved ones, of struggling spouses and children they have never have got to know properly. And they are all far away, off in another country, and difficult or impossible to keep in touch with. Regardless of what we might call the ‘objective shallowness’ of Kongsvinger, many prisoners felt as if they were buried deep beneath the surface, far away from a life in another country that just carried on without them. We therefore wish to suggest a difference between ‘depth’ as the distance from freedom and ‘depth’ as the distance from life. To many prisoners, the relative shallowness of the low-security wing at Kongsvinger did not mean that they did not feel captured deep beneath the surface represented by the life of families and loved ones far away. Human experience is given meaning in particular symbolic meaning-making contexts; therefore scholars who want to understand the experiences of prisoners in particular prison regimes also have to pay attention to these contexts. If there is a difference between ‘depth’ as the distance from freedom and ‘depth’ as the distance from life, many foreign national prisoners at Kongsvinger feel deeply buried in the latter sense, even though they are given ample opportunity to sample freedom outside the prison walls on a regular basis.

This blog entry is based on a paper I am working on together with Dorina Damsa. 

Crewe, B (2015), "Inside the Belly of the Penal Beast: Understanding the Experience of Imprisonment". International Journal of Crime, Justice and Social Democracy 4 (1), 50-65.


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.

One of the four sub-studies that comprise our research project is an exploration of the ‘deep-end’ of each prison system. In England and Wales, this means the Close Supervision System, which holds men considered too dangerous to manage elsewhere within the prison estate. The four main CSC units are located within high-security prisons, in small units that are completely socially isolated from the main establishment. Two of the CSC units (Whitemoor and Full Sutton) are more open than the others (Woodhill and Wakefield). In both, prisoners are out of their cells for most of the day, and are able to mix freely, albeit within an environment that is very tightly controlled and monitored. One of the ironies of the CSC system – something to which prisoners attest very consistently — is that, while in most ways they are hugely constrained, in other respects they are given more freedom and more access to staff than they would have on a normal wing in a high-security establishment.

In Whitemoor and Full Sutton, one indication of this freedom is the possibility of growing plants and vegetables, in both cases in the unit’s outdoor space. In Full Sutton, almost half of the tarmac outside the CSC building, including one of the two exercise yards, is covered with greenhouses and pots containing plants and flowers. The contrast between the grey and austere exterior - whose roof is covered with a thick, wire mesh, so that an uninterrupted view of the sky is impossible - and the colour and vibrancy of the plantation is extremely striking. 

Among the edible goods grown here are carrots, courgettes, cauliflowers, peppers, tomatoes, spinach, squash, onions, pears, apples, cherries, thyme and basil. And since CSC prisoners in Full Sutton have access to a small kitchen (as they do in the unit in Whitemoor), the availability of these vegetables and herbs represents a significant life enhancement. As one prisoner commented, there was significant fulfilment in ‘seeing stuff grow from nothing to being on your plate’. A second benefit for prisoners is that the view from their windows is not the normal drab vista of concrete and wire. But, perhaps more importantly, gardening and horticulture are activities that give meaning to men whose predicament is otherwise quite desperate, as conveyed in the following quotation, from an interview with a prisoner in Whitemoor CSC:

If you could improve life in here what are the three things that you think could, that are realistic, that could improve the quality of life for you?

Just having access to more meaningful activities, wherever you can get people motivated to do courses so you can benefit your future prospects,  …  the same as gardening, we’ve got amazing garden facilities outside for people... like last year we grew our own vegetables, done it all in the greenhouse. If you can get on here a professional to do some basic courses with you in gardening … I had a massive interest in that and it’s the first time I’ve had access to that in prison, I was really, really impressed with the fact that out in the garden I’m planting seeds and watching them grow, it’s quite therapeutic as well. ... if you’re in prison you never see like trees and things like that, so coming here and being able to plant vegetables and being able to pick them, that’s a massive thing.

My colleague Alison Liebling has commented that gardeners in prison grow not just plants but people. Although one of my interviewees was dismissive of my attempt to suggest a parallel between the growth that he was cultivating and his own development, I find it hard not to think that there is something about nurturing a living organism, about its steady but unpredictable growth, and about aiding its progression towards vibrancy, colour and flavour that develops the person as well as the plant.

Dr Ben Crewe leads the COMPEN team and is Deputy Director of the Prisons Research Centre, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge.


Guest Blog by Keir Irwin-Rogers

Role conflict in Approved Premises and post-prison supervision

Keir Irwin-Rogers, The Open University, UK.

Whilst most people leaving prison in England and Wales return to private places of residence, a significant minority are required to live in hostels (officially referred to as Approved Premises (APs)). All residents are instructed to observe strict night-time curfews. During the day, people are usually able to leave the hostel, although residency can include a range of mandatory programmes and activities designed to increase the likelihood of their successful reintegration into the community. In addition, people are expected to engage in regular supervision sessions with hostel and probation workers. Failure to observe curfews, attend programmes and supervision sessions, or generally be of ‘good behaviour’, can result in people being recalled to prison.

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,[i] 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. The conflict stems from hostel and probation workers being tasked with providing help and support to AP residents, whilst simultaneously monitoring and controlling their behaviour to reduce the ‘risk’ they pose to members of the public. An interview with one resident, Paul, provides a good illustration of this issue.

Paul had initially hoped that his time in an AP would be useful in supporting his reintegration into the community. He was open and honest during his first supervision session, placing trust in his probation worker and going into depth about his hopes and anxieties for the months ahead. He divulged details about a recent evening during which he had been drinking with an old friend. As the evening progressed, his friend became heavily intoxicated, and Paul told his probation worker that he was concerned the friend had developed an alcohol addiction.

A few days after the meeting, a member of hostel staff approached Paul to inform him that his probation worker had decided to insert a condition onto his licence that prohibited him from drinking alcohol. Paul was furious and felt that his trust had been betrayed. He immediately disengaged from his supervision sessions, informing me that in future he would simply ‘smile and nod’ in response to his probation worker’s questions, and that he would no longer share anything that might result in him being subjected to additional licence conditions that further restricted his liberty.

Some academics and professionals commenting on this case have argued that it was simply a particular instance of a probation officer doing their job badly. Analogies are often drawn to parenting – if parents are able to provide help and support to their child whilst punishing bad behaviour, why should supervision be any different? The problem with this analogy is that parents invariably (or ought to) have the best interests of their child at heart. The same is not true in the case of supervisors and their supervisees: what is perceived to be in the best interests of members of the public may not be in the best interests of someone subject to post-release supervision – in other words, whereas a parent’s loyalties are clear and undivided, a supervisor’s are not.  

It is also worth highlighting that Paul’s subsequent game-playing approach to supervision was far from atypical. Stories like Paul’s frequently circulated through the shared living spaces in APs, and people soon learnt to adopt a healthy scepticism regarding the notion that their hostel and probation workers were there to help. Indeed, how can we expect AP residents to openly discuss the challenges they face – their concerns, anxieties and setbacks – with someone whose overriding priority is to protect members of the public and who may therefore respond by imposing further restrictive licence conditions and/or sending that person back to prison?

Highly trained and experienced supervising officers with relatively low caseloads and the time to reflect on a complex set of factors may well be able to ameliorate some of the tensions that arise from the task of balancing help and support with monitoring and control. Presently, however, supervisors are often not provided with adequate training, increasingly lack experience, and are under enormous resource pressures owing to caseloads that have reached unprecedented levels. In this environment, the legitimacy of post-release supervision is under severe threat. Once lost, it may be very difficult to regain – the consequence of this will almost certainly not be in the best interests of members of the public.

See Irwin-Rogers, K. (2017) Legitimacy on Licence: Why and How it Matters. The Howard Journal of Crime and Justice. 56(1): 53-71; Irwin-Rogers, K. (2017) Staff-resident relationships in Approved Premises: What a difference a door makes. Probation Journal. DOI:

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.

The opposite question, however, of why prisoners don’t want to talk to researchers, is less explored. One obvious reason for the lack of knowledge into why prisoners prefer not to speak to researchers is that the researchers never get the chance to talk to them about it. Normally, researchers have certain criteria when sampling interviewees, and contact persons in the prisons (officers or other staff members) typically give out information sheets and ask prisoners on the researcher’s behalf. When they say no, we as researchers have no way of finding out why. In our project, we most often get the chance to ask prisoners to take part in our study directly, and we may then probe into their reasons for saying no. However, asking them to state their reasons for turning us down is and should not be a straightforward thing. Prisoners may have personal reasons for refusing, and it would be wrong to demand of them to state these when they already have said no to be interviewed. Also, in the consent form we provide to all interviewees, we stress that participation is voluntary, and that they can withdraw their consent at any time without having to state their reason for doing so. We also stress, in the beginning of each interview, that if they find some of our questions problematic or demanding, they don’t have to answer them and they should not feel pressured to explain why. There is, then, good reason for not probing into why prisoners say no to be interviewed by researchers in the first place.

However, peoples’ motives and rationale for not wanting to be interviewed are interesting, and might tell us something of importance about life in the prisons and wings where we are doing research. Also, because we are doing qualitative interviews in so many different (types of) establishments, in two different countries, variations in the extent to which people volunteer to be interviewed or not, and their reasons either way, may also improve our understanding of how institutional context affects prisoners’ experiences.

We started to reflect on these issues because we are now doing research in a prison where we are finding it very hard to recruit participants. Halden prison, a high security establishment in the Eastern region of Norway, holds approximately 250 prisoners in what is generally believed to be one of the most progressive and modern high security prison in the world (Time Magazine described it in 2010 as ‘the world’s most humane prison’). We included Halden in our Entry/Exit sub-study not so much because of its ‘exceptional’ qualities, but mainly because the prison holds men on longer sentences. Our aim in Halden prison is therefore to interview long-termers coming towards the end of their sentences, and to re-interview them two or three months after their release from the prison. This is proving very hard to achieve.

Ahead of our previous fieldwork days in Halden, we developed a list of 12 potential interviewees based on release and sentence information from our contact person in the prison. Out of these 12, seven declined to take part in the study. Out of the five who volunteered, one of them turned out to be a prisoner we had already interviewed, and another didn’t show up to our appointment. When we went to see him at the carpentry workshop where he was working, a massive hall filled with woodwork and impressive amounts of machinery, he simply shook his head, said no, and went straight back to his work. He clearly preferred his work over talking to us. Thus, out of the 12 possible candidates, we were left with three interviewees. This is a much worse rejection rate than in any of the other Norwegian or English prisons we’ve been to so far. What can possibly explain the exceptional high rejection rate in Halden prison?

Two issues seem to be of relevance. The first involves the status Halden has achieved since it was first opened by the king of Norway in 2010. Because of Halden’s unique material conditions – beautiful architecture, extremely well-equipped workshops and education facilities, music studio, a visits house where prisoners can receive over-night visits from partner and children, for example – the prison receives a huge number of requests from researchers, journalists, interest groups, practitioners, and politicians eager to know how the prison looks, how it is run, and how prisoners experience doing time there. Thus, Halden is an intensively researched prison, and we suspect that the high rate of rejections may partly be because prisoners are ‘research-fatigued’. The second involves the quality of the workshops and education facilities. In Halden, prisoners leave their wings in the morning and walk down a small road to the long-stretched building housing the workshops, classrooms, kitchen, art studios, restaurant, store and library. They work a full day (they have their lunch break in one of the three living rooms in the building), and return to the wings in the afternoon just before dinner. Most of the people we speak to find the work and educational facilities very good. Like the prisoner who initially volunteered, but who declined to take part when we went to see him at his workshop, we suspect that the meaningful work and educational opportunities make it hard for us to recruit prisoners for day-time interviews.

Without first-hand accounts from the prisoners who say no, it is hard to know for sure what makes the rejection rate so high in Halden prison. But if we are right in assuming that research-fatigue and meaningful day-time activities are significant, that does tell us something of importance about the prison, and has implications for how we sample prisons and prisoners. Next time we are doing fieldwork in Halden we will try to spend more time in the prison in the evenings. And next time we choose which prison to go to, we will perhaps opt for a prison where people are slightly less accustomed to the presence of researchers. 

Dr Kristian Mjåland is a Senior Research Associate in the COMPEN team, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge.


Adams, W. L. (2010): “Norway Builds the World’s Most Humane Prison”. Time Magazine, 10.05.2010.,9171,1986002,00.html.

Bosworth, M., D. Campbell, B. Demby, S.M. Ferranti and M. Santos. (2005): "Doing Prison Research: Views From Inside". Qualitative Inquiry, 11 (2): 249-264.






Guest Blog on Comparative Penology

Methodologies for Comparing Experiences across Diverse Institutions

Keramet Reiter and Susan Coutin

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). In a recent article, however, the two of us engage in a different kind of comparison, between differently categorized individuals (prisoners and deportees) across different institutional contexts (solitary confinement in the U.S. and exile in El Salvador). We even approached our empirical data collection from different disciplinary backgrounds: legal anthropology (Susan) and criminological life-course narratives (Keramet).

Our comparative project began informally, in conversations we had with each other about our own, individual research projects, as colleagues who happened to commute to work together frequently. In discussing interviews we had each conducted, and how we made sense of these interviews in our initial analyses, we realized there were surprising similarities in the kinds of stories we had heard from people subject to a variety of forms of state power. The solitarily confined were often shocked and frustrated with the justifications for their isolation, just as the deported were often shocked and frustrated with the justifications for their deportation. Both populations experienced the state punishing them. But in both cases, state sanctions were legally categorized as non-punitive; therefore, basic procedural protections (to a state-sponsored lawyer, to be released on bond) did not attach to the process in place for imposing the sanctions.

Intrigued by the similarities we identified in these initial informal conversations, we agreed to exchange (anonymized) interview transcripts so that we could identify more specific areas of convergence in the experiences of our interview subjects. Although unconventional, this multi-faceted comparison proved an especially fruitful way to examine categorical exclusion, state action, and surprising similarities in individual experiences across diverse contexts. We found that both prisoners housed in solitary confinement and individuals deported from the United States to El Salvador experienced the processes of being ensnared, characterized as dangerous or criminal, racialized, stripped of rights, and excluded from society (through isolation or removal). Through these processes, the subjects underwent social and legal disintegration, even as they resisted disintegration by constructing alternative forms of sociality. 

In an increasingly global world-system, where individuals experience a dizzying array of forms of both punishment and statelessness, these kinds of comparative projects become especially important mechanisms for looking beyond extremely intense and abusive contexts (like solitary confinement for years at a time, or sudden deportation for a years-old, non-violent conviction) in order to discern the more fundamental power dynamics at play beneath the surface, across multiple institutional and geographic settings.

To read more about this project, see our article in Vol. 51.3 of Law & Society Review, or e-mail us for a copy.


Risk and rapport by Alice Ievins

Risk, rapport and research

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. We had spoken quite a few times before he asked me to interview him, and our long interview was spread over three separate sessions. The first interview took place in a small room in which we had a limited choice of chairs. The second took place in a much larger space with lots of chairs in a row. I sat down in one and he deliberately sat down not in the chair next to me but with a chair in-between us. ‘I can’t sit right next to you, I’d be worried about what you might think, or what anyone who saw us might think I was thinking.’ I smiled and said he should sit wherever he felt comfortable. He then quite sheepishly said he was hungry and had brought some chocolate to the interview which I could share if I liked, ‘on one condition.’ ‘That I don’t think you’re grooming me?’, I replied. ‘Exactly! You’ve got it!’ We both laughed.

Our third interview took place a couple of weeks later. I sat down in the same chair I had sat in before, and I felt pleased with the progress we had made as he sat down in the chair right next to me. Ten seconds later, he stood up and moved one chair away. ‘No! No! I can’t do it! I tried it, I can’t do it!’ He said that after our previous interview, he had spent two and a half hours worrying about the chocolate:

I was thinking about ‘What will she think? How did that look? Is anyone gonna find out? Am I gonna get kicked off here?’ The thing is, I just really wanted some chocolate and I was brought up that if you eat it, you offer it to someone. And I quite like you, you’re a really nice person – I don’t mean anything by that, I’m just saying it – but even if I didn’t like you, I would have offered it to you. It’s just how I was brought up. But the thing is, it’s not about what you think. It’s about what other people might think that you might think that I was thinking. It’s so circular.

This incident was not particularly unusual. Prisoners quite regularly tell me that they are very conscious of how staff and other prisoners might judge them based on their behaviour around me. They talk about not wanting to be seen talking to me too much; sometimes they talk about being self-conscious about how they stand or where they look. The same is true for my female colleagues. These incidents raise a number of methodological questions: What does it mean to be a female researcher in an environment where womanhood is often assumed to mean vulnerability? Can we find an ethical balance between not objectifying our participants by creating distant and awkward relationships, but also not exposing them to other people’s damaging judgements? How can we grow rapport when rapport is seen as risky?

More importantly, these incidents show something of the situation in which prisoners convicted of sex offences in England and Wales find themselves, one in which apparently normal human interactions – sitting in one chair rather than another, showing basic manners by sharing some chocolate – are seen through such a lens of risk that they appear potentially threatening. But more than this, they show how much prisoners have internalised much of this risk thinking, distorting their own behaviour to avoid being seen the wrong way. Concerns about risk develop when it is assumed that people are dangerous but the signs of this dangerousness are difficult to identify; on the occasion described above, it would have been difficult for this man to prove that he was not trying to condition me by giving me the chocolate (although I am certain that he was just being nice), and so it would have been easy to judge that he was. But his anxiety about being judged developed because risk judgements are similarly hard to identify: had someone found out about the chocolate and thought that he was grooming me, he would not necessarily have ever found out. He was never disciplined for the chair he sat in nor for the food he shared, but the concern that someone else might think that I might think that he might have bad intentions was enough to worry him.

Alice Ievins is a PhD Candidate and Research Assistant in the COMPEN team, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge.

Translating power, trust and risk

Translating power, trust and risk  

All of the sub-studies in our research programme entail detailed, in-depth comparison between prisoners’ experiences in Norway and England & Wales. We are doing a quite direct comparison in the sense that we use the ‘same’ interview schedules and surveys in both jurisdictions. This means that we have spent a long time translating interview schedules for the ethnographies, all three phases of the entry/exit sub-study, as well as very long surveys.

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.  

Power translates as makt in Norwegian which is a very strong word, and is normally not used in daily language whether within or outside the borders of the prison. Makt seems to imply something much more forceful or coercive than in English, and the prisoners tend to use other words like ‘influence’ or the ‘right to make decisions’ when they speak about authority. Trust translates as tillit which again seems too formal for everyday conversation. Here, the phrase å stole på seems more fitting, but is a bit imprecise in comparison to the English term. Trust is, however, also not verbalised, but is seen in everyday life in the prisons. For example, I was struck by the trusting nature of a prisoner officer when he remarked that ‘prisoners have to trick me once in a while – otherwise I’m running an over-restrictive regime’. Risk might translate quite directly into risiko, but this word or concept is rarely ever mentioned in everyday life in the Norwegian prisons. In fact, the question ‘All the Prison Service cares about is my ‘risk factors’ rather than the person I really am’ in our survey oftentimes results in confusion from prisoners and raised hands asking what we mean by ‘risk factors’. Risk features more prominently in Norwegian policy documents, treatment programmes and security briefs, but we have been struck by the sheer absence of talk about risk as well as power in everyday life.

The absence of a language of power and risk is interesting for several reasons. When we compare findings from the ethnography of sex offender imprisonment in both countries, we find that risk infiltrates just about everything in the prison holding people convicted of sex offences in England (see Alice Ievins’ blog post on this matter) whereas the term risk does not feature much at all on the sex offender wing in Norway. Here, neither prisoners or staff talk about risk. However, when interviewing prisoners, they talk about how they chose to participate in the sex offender treatment programme in order to ensure that they will never commit a sexual offense again. In this sense, one could argue that they are essentially engaging in risk reduction without the discourse of risk being so pervasive and oppressive. Similarly, power might not be openly discussed, but flows everywhere in the prisons in more or less light or heavy forms.    

My point is, then, that just because power and risk do not infiltrate everyday language, it does not mean that they are not there. However, in the absence of discourses of risk and power, there seems to be (although not everywhere and not all the time) something important in its place. Ethnography, which is one of our methods, seems to be a sine qua non for understanding the silences, experiences, understandings and actions that create a sense of predictability and community in a specific prison. We might not be able to talk about risk, power and trust in any straightforward manner in Norway, but we can observe how these concepts do or don’t penetrate everyday life on the prison landings. 

Dr Julie Laursen is a Research Associate in the COMPEN team, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge.


Guest Blog by Jason Warr

Quid Pro Quo in Prison Research by Jason Warr

is Lecturer in Criminology & Criminal Justice at De Montfort University 

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. I continue to participate where I can, and where it is appropriate. I have also run my own research projects both within and without prison. I have struggled to recruit research participants, fearing that I never will get enough data. I have been amazed at what people tell me, how generous they are with their time, their energy, their thoughts and feelings. It is a comment I hear regularly from my fellow researchers: why do people participate in research whilst they are in prison?

For prison researchers, this is not only a philosophical question but also often an empirical fear. When entering the field we often worry that we will not be able to get prisoners to talk to us, to participate in our research, to give us the data we crave and need. Invariably this is an unfounded concern: we come away from the prison with the richest data. Prisoners often give us, generously, the research manna we seek – yet we have little understanding of why. This piece aims to provide some answers to this question, from a rather personal perspective.

There is a flippant answer that, I am sure, prison researchers will hear all the time. I have even heard it myself when conducting projects in varying prisons. The response is one of any variant of ‘Well, it gets you out of your cell, innit!’, as if people are participating in a project to pass or kill the time, to do something different in the long tedium of the prison, to seek distraction from the stultifying greyness of the carceral life. To be frank, there is truth to that. Prison is a deadening experience and prisoners will often seek out that which is novel in order to pass the time or to distract themselves, if only briefly, from their constrained reality.

However, it is a partial account, a half story. For the prisoner, participating in an interview/project with a researcher who has come from beyond the wall opens up a very different type of interaction and sociality. It is important to remember that, for the prisoner, every interaction, every account of himself or herself, is reported, recorded and laden in judgement that has the potential for negative consequence, whether that be from their prisoner peers or from the authoritarian interests of the prison. Every aspect of the self is rendered naked by the environment and becomes open to the panoptic judgement of the prison and those who inhabit it. This results in the person hiding many aspects of themselves from the prison and those who inhabit it. Yet a conversation or interview with a researcher is governed by different rules and expectations, because of the dual ethical diktats of anonymity and confidentiality. Here, then, is an opportunity to give an account of yourself, to tell someone your story, explain your issues and gripes, in a manner that is non-consequential, even if not necessarily non-judgmental. Openness here has few negatives. For the prisoner that is rare. Furthermore, a conversation with a researcher occurs with consent: there is no coercion, even though as a researcher it can feel as if there is. This makes it different even from a conversation that a prisoner might have with his or her peers, which can be fraught with coercive dynamics. It is entirely up to you, as a prisoner, whether you engage with a researcher or not. Here is a glimmer of the autonomy which the prison takes from you.      

There is a degree to which the research process in prisons is cast in an exploitative light. After all, prisoners are a vulnerable but data-rich population, and researchers are seeking to tap that resource. From the outside, it seems that the researcher gains everything and the prisoner gives up everything. This casting makes it seem as if the prisoner is used and gains nothing out of the experience of participation. This is, of course, not true. They may not get anything out of the long-term results or impact of the study but to extrapolate from that position to the conclusion that they gain nothing is wrong. It denies the reality of the research experience. It denies the agency of the individual participant. It also denies the complex sociality of the research process.   

There are a number of reasons for this perception, but perhaps the most significant is just how many researchers have not experienced the research process from both sides. Obviously, prison researchers cannot get themselves banged up in order to see how it feels to be a prisoner participant (though it might be more interesting if they did). However, they can participate in all sorts of other research projects. I encourage my students to do so, especially if they wish to conduct empirical research. Part of the reason for that is practical – you learn so much about your own practice by participating in someone else’s research. It is also to experience the freedom that comes from being able to be honest and open in a way that we are rarely afforded in our private lives. These constraints exist in all our relationships, for all of us: not just for prisoners. Think of this: could you really tell your mother, your children, or even your partner your darkest, most shameful thoughts? With a researcher, you often do. In talking to a researcher, you are unbound, and this allows you complete candour. This is the quid pro quo of qualitative research. This is what you get out of being a research participant – freedom.

This was certainly why I participated in an academic research project when I was in prison. In prison, you are not really a person. You do not exist as the person you are. In every interaction that you have, every relationship, every assessment, you are rendered the person you were, the person the prison want you to be, the person your family need you to be, or the person your peers can shape you into. There is no real ‘you’ in any of these: you are unable to be an honest version of yourself – for that is too fragile a thing. Furthermore, as a prisoner, more than anything, you exist as a quantum of some others’ utility. You are not an end in and of yourself – you are a means to some other’s end. You are a risk managed, a course completion, a number accounted for, a form of stock that is moved and catalogued. It is hard to express just how damaging this is, how much this pushes you inside yourself, or how much it shrinks you as a person.

When I encountered a prison researcher, a decade into my sentence, I was in a dark place – not one of depression but rather one of diminished personhood. I felt a remnant, a husk. Participating in a research project mitigated that. The reason for this is that the research relationship, when done properly (with concern, humanity, interest, honesty), requires you to be the person you are. Not what the prison wants you to be, not the person you were, but the person you are. The researcher wants to know what you think, what you feel, what you have to say. They do not want the simulacrum. They want the honest you. This is what I, and other prisoners, got out of participating in that study: a return to some semblance of personhood – even if only for a fragment of our time. That was precious.

Other facets of the research quid pro quo are also precious to the prisoner. Freedom, in any sense, is a treasured commodity. Related to this is the autonomy of the interaction. Yes, the researcher has their agenda and they wish to shape the conversation and the interview. However, anyone that has really done any prison research will know that the governance of what is spoken of, what is answered, what is revealed, what is shared, what is communicated, lies with the prisoner. This can be frustrating if you want to talk about complaints procedures and they wish only to discuss football, music, sex, Bilderberg conspiracies, or chemtrails and terraforming. However, the field is theirs. When you’re a prisoner participant, the power of revelation is yours. You get to decide. There is an exchange. The prisoner decides to give up some personal information or reflection in exchange for momentary respite from the deprivations of the prison. Not only does the prisoner trade data for a sense of freedom but also revelation for a modicum of autonomy: quid pro quo.

A last benefit for the prisoner is one of human contact. Every person the prisoner deals with on a quotidian level exists intramurally. They too exist within the walls, are of the prison. However, the researcher represents a different reality. Not only is the researcher able to breach the semipermeable membrane of the wall, they are of the world beyond. They are from the ‘out’, from ‘road’: a world that has retreated to mere abstract for the prisoner. Ordinarily, when you talk of hetero-sociability the relationship is one between genders – however, I think the term can be extended to mean between the inside and the outside. The researcher represents an opportunity to build a relationship (or at least an interaction) that is not entirely shaped by the interests of the prison. It is not a carceral relationship. It is not a relationship infused with disciplinary concerns. It is, simply, human contact. In this sense it is something new, something fresh, something craved. It is also something that can endure.

So, why would a prisoner participate in a research project? The reasons could be legion but for me the triple notions of freedom, autonomy, and human contact were key. However, even if it had been just to get out of my cell, would that have been such a bad thing?            

Negotiation of geographies of power

Inventive techniques in the negotiation of geographies of power by Anna Schliehe

Dr Anna Schliehe is a Research Associate in the COMPEN team, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge.

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.

One story stuck with me in particular: in an interview we explored the question of how restrictive the prison environment feels and Ian[1] described how, when prisoners are off the wing and want to get back on it, they have to wait at a locked gate.  Staff holding the keys are usually located in their office and have sight of that gate. Prisoners are required to wait and try and make eye contact or shout to get the staff’s attention. More often than not, staff are aware of prisoners waiting at the gate but take a long time to appear. Rumour has it that each wing used to have bells to get staff attention but that they were disabled on purpose because staff did not want to be in a position to have to get up and answer to prisoners – attend to them at the sound of a bell. Many prisoners rattle the gate and shout which is said to increase the time waiting outside. Ian, on the other hand, told me about how he developed a particular strategy to respond: when he approaches the gate, he makes eye contact so that they know he is there and then he lies down on the grass adjacent to the gate. Ever since adopting this course of action, he said, staff appear immediately – not just from his own wing but also from neighbouring wings. They complain that, according to the prison rules, he is not allowed to lie on the grass but he disagrees and asks to be shown the rule that says prisoners are not allowed to wait ‘horizontally’ or access the grass next to the wing. It turns out there is no such rule but ever since then staff have reacted immediately whenever he has waited at the gate.

The playing out of power in this scenario changed the staff-prisoner relationship and gave Ian a certain sense of achievement, though Ian said that this was not equivalent to power or control. He made clear that he had no control over his life in this environment, and was completely dependent on staff. In some respects, this form of agency had the desired effect, achieved through a form of well-thought-through utilisation of space and knowledge of the flows of power. However, at the same time, this small act of subversion also led to Ian being perceived by staff as manipulative and troublesome. Actions like this might therefore have an immediate positive effect but a more detrimental impact in the long-term. Imaginative ways of using the available space to ‘protest’ in peaceful and ultimately harmless ways shows how the geographies of power are deeply situated in the actual space of the prison. The assessment by members of staff shows how quickly this small form of protest or subversion can lead to a change in the perception of individual ‘risk’. Power is, amongst other ways, relayed through positioning the body, through politics of ‘looking and be seen’ (see also: Sibley and van Hoven 2009, van Hoven and Sibley 2008), measured by how fast or slow bodies move and challenged by breaking expected patterns of behaviour. The mobilities of the prison environment work in manifold ways (Peters and Turner 2017) and this example shows how slight detractions from the norm affect change.

Thinking through these examples of how power is negotiated and flows through prison spaces helps us to make sense of our own ethnographic observations and further develop how we ‘think through’ prisoners experience. This example shows how the weight of imprisonment might be shifted – even if only temporarily; and how invention and imagination change prisoners’ sense of agency.


Peters, K.; Turner, J. (2017) Carceral Mobilities: a manifesto for mobilities, an agenda for carceral studies. In: Turner, J.; Peters, K. (eds) Carceral mobilities: Interrogating movement in incarceration. Routledge, London. Pp.1-15.

Sibley, D.; van Hoven, B. (2009) The Contamination of Personal Space: Boundary Construction in a Prison Environment. In: Area 41(2): 198-206.

Van Hoven, B.; Sibley, D. (2008) ‘Just duck’: The Role of Vision in the Production of Prison Space. In: Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 26: 1001-1017.



[1] Name has been changed

Guest Blog by Francis Pakes

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

Francis Pakes, University of Portsmouth, Professor in Criminology.


Foreign national prisoners are recognised as a group for whom the pains of imprisonment can be particularly deeply felt (e.g., Kaufman, 2015, Warr, 2016, Ugelvik, 2017). For many, being in a foreign language environment may exacerbate this.

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.

Many speakers of smaller languages use their shared language for a variety of purposes. Speaking in your shared language affirms a connection between both speakers, a set of assumptions and a context. We know that speaking in your first language has, for most people, a specific emotional resonance (Toivo 2017). Thus, for many foreign national prisoners the unexpected opportunity to express yourself in your native language is a salient, sometimes emotional, experience. There simply is something quite visceral about your mother tongue.

I once met a female Dutch prisoner in a women’s prison in the UK. She was grieving. Her mother, who lived in South America had died not long ago. She, of course, was not able to attend the funeral in South America which very much added to her grief. I remember how she handled her emotion in our conversation. After we spoke about this sad situation she concluded by giving me a wry smile and she said: ‘Gevangenisstraf, he?’ (‘prison sentence, eh?’). The depth of her prison experience was palpable.

Recently I had a situation where both the prisoner and I only realised that we were both Dutch after a while. It was a group situation. We did the classic litmus test of the immediate shift to Dutch (I have seen speakers of other non-world languages do this too). We spoke at length, in Dutch, about a range of topics. The fact that we used the colloquial form of address (unlike English, Dutch has both a formal and a familiar one), and the fact that we spoke ‘our own’ language lent the conversation a certain privacy. After all, prison staff and other prisoners were not party to our conversation.

As inclusions and exclusions go in a prison, language frequently serves to exclude. This is frequently faced by foreign national prisoners but can also be true for native populations in settler countries like New Zealand. But a shared language, that is not shared by those in power in the prison, can momentarily create a bubble. We can speak freely as our language excludes the powers that be. For the duration of that short conversation, usual power structures are slightly dislodged. Add to that the higher emotional intensity of a native language, and I like to think that that conversation may offer a degree of respite from the prison experience, no matter how short or fleeting.

In prison ethnography therefore, language intersects with space: a shared language provides an invisible cocoon of inclusion and exclusion that is often at odds with other inclusionary and exclusionary forms. A shared language provides for a temporary micro-space: a bubble in which you can express yourself differently, if only for a few moments.


Hofstee-van der Meulen, F.B.A.M. (2015) Detained Abroad: Assisting Dutch nationals in foreign detention. PhD thesis, Tilburg University the Netherlands

Kaufman, E. (2015). Punish and expel: border control, nationalism, and the new purpose of the prison. Oxford University Press.

Toivo, W. (2017) Once more, with feeling: life as bilingual. ESCR Shaping Society blog. Available:

Warr, J. (2016). The deprivation of certitude, legitimacy and hope: Foreign national prisoners and the pains of imprisonment. Criminology & Criminal Justice, 16(3), 301-318.

Ugelvik, T. (2017). The Limits of the Welfare State? Foreign National Prisoners in the Norwegian Crimmigration Prison. In Scandinavian Penal History, Culture and Prison Practice (pp. 405-423). Palgrave Macmillan, London.




Guest Blog by Gareth Evans

How can he sleep after what he has done?

 By Gareth Evans


“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.

I wake up and it takes me a good few seconds to remember where I am. Then the realisations come in ebbs and flows. Trying to remember if I’d had the interview yet. I swear it’s a deliberate tactic to let you fall asleep before the CID arrive to ask you about what a twisted bastard you’ve become. “Yeah, let’s wait a bit longer so he is really disorientated when we wake him up.”

Three days into a five day wait at the police station. I’m not sure why they just don’t take me to prison. I handed myself in. I told THEM what I did before they even knew it had happened. Why do they need me for this long? At least I can have a fag (cigarette) in prison.

The next thing I know, I’m waking up again. I keep falling asleep.

I’ve been in many police station cells before. I’ve been in these ones a good few times and I’m not even from this area. I remember scratching my name and a message to all other transgressors, the last time I was here. It read: ‘here lies… out there- untruths!’ I was meant to be saying something profound but even with a clear head I haven’t been able to figure out what. No matter, I’m not even in the same cell. I share my company with profundities left by others. They don’t make sense either. Maybe we are all as confused about what we’re trying to say.

I remember hearing the custody sergeant’s comment. I know they think we’re all monsters. Anyone who can stab another man, stab him in the frenzied manner, like I had done, cannot be fully human. What is more I’m sleeping like a baby. I’m not exactly giving the impression that I am sorry, even though I am. I didn’t want to hurt him. I don’t want to hurt anyone and that is why I handed myself in. But falling asleep when only a matter of hours ago, had I finished washing thick clotted blood off of me? I can see why people think I’m not quite human.

This cell is really cold. It may just be my imagination. I’ve felt cold for years but I never paid the sensation any attention. I know I have felt colder. I just can’t remember when. The hatch on the door slams down before I realise the severe guy on the other side is there. He seems to soften slightly when he offers me a drink. I ask for a hot chocolate. I haven’t eaten anything since before I hurt that guy and I become painfully aware of how hungry I am. But I’ll just stick with the chocolate. I feel rude just asking for that. I really don’t want to be a monster.

I wake up. Again. My hot chocolate has been placed by my indoor bench and it is freezing. No way of telling how long it has been there. No way of telling if its night or day. I think I’ve been here for four days now. The sweatbox (prison transport van) rattles my cell, from just outside, with the power of an earthquake. I still can’t remember the interview. I remember telling myself that all I can give them, to make what I have done better, is the truth but I can’t remember actually doing the interview. 

“You’re off to Mag!’” The custody sergeant announces with maybe a little too much pride.

I must have given an interview. I wonder if I remembered to tell the truth. Honesty has long since expired from second nature. I would have had to think about it. Why can’t I remember?

And Mag’ (or Magistrates court) won’t be the end of it. They don’t deal with me in mag’ any more. They don’t have the power to sentence me for long enough.

I do remember to look at the scenery on my way to the magistrates building. I know the outside world is gradually shutting its doors on me and I will miss the grass, and the cars and the hills and the people, the women. It’s almost summer so there are some pretty girls walking around as we leave the town centre police station. And they have some short skirts on. There are some loud and annoying people on the sweatbox (prison van), too. Those girls aren’t for me. As with the hills and the grass and all the other people, this is just a reminder of the world I’m leaving, if I was ever here in the first place. The moaning from the guy behind me symbolises the world I am entering. A world of hard-done-by, innocent criminals who can only protest at the world, not interact with it. I wake up.

Damn it. One of my last opportunities to see the world and I have fallen asleep again, only to be woken up in a shuttered garage where I’m cuffed and frog-marched to another, even dingier, cell. I’m there all day. I know this. I know I have to wait for everyone who is joining me in HMP tonight, to be ready first. For two minutes stood in front of the magistrates I have to wait here all day. It’s not like I have anywhere else to be, though.

“…and it hurts to know that you belong here… Yeah! It’s your f**king nightmare”

I like that song… nice and heavy like the weight of my head. It tells you that the worst bit about being in a horrible place isn’t that you are there, it’s that you know you deserve to be there. ‘Avenged Sevenfold’ is the band and the track is called ‘Nightmare.’

I wake up. “You’re in Court 1, Evans!”

And the magistrate tells me what I already know, in a tone of voice which suggests she’s trying to make a point of the gravity of my situation. I think to myself that if it has taken her pointing it out to me then there isn’t much hope for me where I’m going.

I’ve woken up just in time for my solicitor to wish me the farewell and ‘sorry I didn’t get you bailed.”

“Mate, if you could have gotten bail I would have been impressed,” I say. I mean to say I’d be afraid if you got me bail. This is one of those times when even I know bail would have been a bad thing.

I order myself to stay awake on the trip to prison. The promise of my first cigarette in five days is my motivation. I see some streets that I have never seen before. I see a Ferrari parked on a drive and marvel at its beauty, the way I marvelled at the beauty of the women on the way to court- appreciative, and yet bitter about what I had done to myself…bitter about what I was destined to be without for years to come.

I wake up at the gates of the prison seriously angry at yet another missed opportunity to drink in some reality- some normality- before despair and depravity become my normal.

The reception process is long, finicky and punctuated with several half-hour naps in various holding cells. I’m given my first night smokers pack and a bed pack, shown to a cell and left. Alone. I’m with my burn (tobacco), my toiletries and me. I don’t much like the last one. I roll a snout (also a name for tobacco- like how an Inuit has many names for snow, us cons have a few for tobacco), smoke it like it was the last one ever, snap my prison issue razor and cut a wrist- the left one, because I’m right-handed.

I really don’t mind if I wake up or not this time.

“How can he sleep after what he has done.” Their glib comments still ring in my head.

The trouble is, this is exactly why I’m sleeping. Okay, this charge is a step up from the other hundreds of times I’ve been in the cells, but I sleep every time. I sleep because I am on my own. I sleep because, apart from the severe décor and scratched names on the solid bench on which I sleep, I feel safe. I feel that others are safe when I am here. I can sleep knowing I’m not making the world worse.

I sleep for another reason. Five days of sleeping for twenty-odd hours each must mean I was tired, right? Of course I’m tired. I’ve been tired for years. Tired of the charades. Tired of the effort I have to use every day just to make sure people do not realise I’m weak, scared and alone. I’m tired of the sheer energy it takes to look fearsome every waking moment. It’s tiring to keep up the pretence that I am a monster, to make people believe I am a monster. But people are more ready to believe I am a monster than to think of me as one of them. I’m tired of trying to find my place in the world and realising there isn’t one. I’m tired of life and I’m tired of me.

I’m sorry for the people I hurt but I’m really tired. Please let me sleep! I don’t hurt anyone when I’m asleep.


Gareth Evans is an aspiring criminologist, currently studying at Anglia Ruskin University. Seeking redemption from a former criminal life, he hopes to help others to realise their value in this world. He has begun this mission with an appointment as a mentoring and alumni coordinator for Learning Together - an initiative which brings together university and prison-based students.

Guest Blog by Professor Yvonne Jewkes

Normal or nurturing: what should prison designers aspire to?

Professor Yvonne Jewkes, University of Kent


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. Yet from my observations, many presenters had very limited ideas about what constitutes ‘normal’.  Slide after slide with ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots of prison cells and association rooms, classrooms and exercise yards were produced as proof of a more enlightened approach. But the images displayed could never be mistaken for anything other than a prison. Sure, there was evidence that custodial spaces are brightened considerably by a lick of paint, especially if it comes in a colour that is not magnolia. But long corridors, metal staircases, hard surfaces, bars on windows, clanging doors, jangling keys, and all the other aesthetic and aural cues associated with confinement do not become normal by the addition of a neon orange or lime green ‘accent wall’. Replacing rows of ugly metal seats in a visiting room with rows of ugly plastic seats or upholstered-yet-still-unyielding chairs, with one in each cluster of a different hue to signify that’s where the prisoner must sit, does not make a prison visiting room feel like anything other than what it is.

The prison most commonly cited as the ‘model prison’ for both its architecture and the regime that the design facilitates – both of which are said to be manifestations of the principle of normalisation – is Halden Fengsel, a high-security prison in southern Norway. This famous establishment – the ‘world’s most humane prison’, as Time magazine once described it (,9171,1986002,00.html) – is actually intended to go further than emulating the normal conditions that prisoners might experience in ordinary life. The ambition, according to one of the lead architects from Eric Møller, is to ‘inspire prisoners and motivate them to lead better lives’. Among Halden’s unusual (from an Anglophone perspective) design features are: the forest that encroaches into the prison grounds; the open-plan living/cooking/dining areas that resemble something from the pages of an IKEA catalogue; the comfortable Family House, where prisoners can invite their partners and children to stay overnight; a sophisticated music recording studio; and a tranquil and visually imaginative multi-faith room which encourages calm reflection as well as more formal religious devotion.

Since it opened in April 2010, many other prisons have sought to emulate Halden’s vision, including the brand-new 250-bed high-security Storstrøm Fængsel in Falster, Denmark. In the press pack that accompanied its inauguration in October 2017, lead architect Mads Mandrup Hansen suggests that Storstrøm is a physical manifestation of the Danish post-war welfare model – ‘the dream of a society where everyone has access to the same democratic architecture’. Like Halden, then, Storstrøm is intended to be both familiar and also aspirational. Its living accommodation is particularly innovative and is arguably very ‘normal’ in being not unlike a bedroom in a student hall of residence or budget hotel. While prison cells in other countries are usually standardized and designed to minimum legislative requirements, the architects at C.F. Møller have set out to ‘achieve maximum quality of life in a few square metres of space’, in recognition of the fact that the cell is ‘really the inmate’s home’.  With this in mind, each cell receives daylight from two sides with a small window on one wall and a very large window (full cell height, and bar-less, naturally), with views of the surrounding countryside, on the other side. The cells measure a relatively generous 13 m² and have been designed with a curved wall, in contrast to the usual boxiness of conventional prison accommodation. Clusters of four to seven cells form social communities and prisoners have access to a sitting room and communal kitchen in which they can cook for themselves and are essentially free to determine whether they wish to cook with others or on their own. 

But the problem is, that being incarcerated against one’s will and having one’s movement, behaviour and even thinking coercively controlled is not ‘normal’, and nothing can make it so. Moreover, what is ‘normal’? And who’s ‘normal’ should we aspire to recreate in custodial settings? Several custodial planning and design consultants (frequently ex-prison security managers) have told me that prisoners do not view attractive green spaces as ‘normal’, because they overwhelmingly come from inner cities.  So, they argue, there is no point in planting trees or including gardens and horticulture – prisoners simply won’t know how to respond to beautiful natural environments!

Perhaps, then, we are using the wrong language.  Rather than trying to make prisons ‘normalised’ and ‘rehabilitative’ in the sense of preparing prisoners for their re-entry into society, we should aim to make them humanising and nurturing.  One prison that succeeds in this regard is Norgerhaven, the prison in the Netherlands that is rented to the Norwegian government.  With no ‘treatment’ of any kind on offer (no behavioural or cognitive programmes, no therapy, no education even, beyond basic numeracy and literacy), Norgerhaven certainly cannot be accused of engaging in coercive correction. But what it does have is an interior landscape known as the Park, with picnic tables, benches, racquet sports and, most importantly of all, 54 mature trees.  The environment encourages prisoners to hang out in small groups, chatting, smoking, chilling. It is, then, assuredly normal. But more than that, the landscape at Norgerhaven heals and inspires. As more than one participant in a recent research exercise told me, ‘these trees are powerful’.

Questioning a Norwegian prisoner about whether it was rehabilitative, he expressed refreshing candour, saying that he didn’t know if it was enough to stop him from re-offending in future, but he did know that he had been a serial criminal all his life and had served many sentences in more conventional prisons, none of which had rehabilitated him. Norgerhaven, however, stood a chance, he said, because the focus was not on his past, on what he had done and how he could be ‘fixed’.  Here he could be contemplative and tranquil:


‘My parents like that I’ve grown myself again. This is rehabilitation. No drugs courses. No behaviour courses. Just looking at the trees. I’m better because of the trees. We are punished by being sent here but this is normal and that’s good for everyone’.


Photographs © Torben Eskerod and with thanks to C.F. Møller Architects for permission to use them

Guest Blog by Liam Martin

Prisonization and the Problems of Reentry

Liam Martin


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:

“Because of the space,” he said.

“When I’m in there it feels like I’m still crammed up in a cell. I’m trying to get that memory, or that feeling off me. Trying to shake it off me.”

Formally free and living outside the walls, Ty Kelley’s prison history lingered in his sleep routines and sense of space. Others at the halfway house shared the feeling - I watched a number of former prisoners mistakenly call their bedroom a “cell” in casual conversation. Some reacted to the cell-bedroom parallel by seeking the comfort of the familiar, withdrawing and spending long periods alone with the door closed. The men called this practice “isolating.”

In interviews, former prisoners talked me through the many habits they had formed in prison and carried outside. Roy Jones would wait patiently in front of doors, expecting them to be opened. Jack Tarrant often ate standing with one foot on a chair, reproducing his readiness among a crowd in the prison chow hall. Henry Rivero sometimes put a spoon in his pocket after eating, so often had he carried the one spoon he had inside from cell to meal time and back. Eddie Winfield washed socks and underwear in the shower and sought out Ramen noodle soups at the Supermarket – the same kind he had in jail. Guy Jordan found himself taking staunch body postures without reason, rising from the park bench where we talked to demonstrate, planting his feet at shoulder width and folding arms tightly across his chest. “I would find myself doing the same mannerisms I had in jail,” he said. “I’m on the street physically, but mentally, I’m still doing what I would be doing in there.”

These post-release rituals are a reminder that people are changed in deep and lasting ways by 24-hour-a-day, year-in-and-year-out prison environments. In a recent article in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography – “Free but Still Walking the Yard”: Prisonization and the Problems of Reentry - I argue these embodied aftereffects are central to the experience of reentry. Prison release involves a sudden shift in social location, in which taken-for-granted elements of the social world change in an instant: from norms of personal space to the kinds of food consumed. Rigid routines are replaced by radical openness. In these transitions, people carry prisonized dispositions into institutional arenas where norms and expectations are very different.

In studying the problems of reentry, we often focus on the way that criminal records create lasting stigma and structural exclusion. I argue that in the days and weeks after release, the more immediate challenge is simply getting used to the patterns of daily life beyond prison walls. A number of participants described the experience as a “culture shock” - that is, entry to a world where social rules are suddenly unfamiliar and hard to judge. The shock could be crippling for those leaving long stretches.

Matt Carmine referenced the movie Shawshank Redemption to explain what it was like. He pointed to a scene that shows an elderly convict named Brooks leaving prison and moving through the new settings of life: walking the street, feeding the birds, packing bags at a supermarket checkout. Brooks appears overwhelmed and confused, and in a voiceover, describes wanting to rob the supermarket and return to prison. The sequence ends with his suicide. The camera then pans out to show him hanging from a beam in his bedroom, then fades to Andy and Ellis, two convict friends standing in the prison yard. The voiceover is revealed as the words of Brook’s suicide note. Andy finishes the letter aloud, and Ellis responds solemnly: “he should have died in here.”

This famous scene makes visible the destructive impact of prisonization - yet is ultimately much too fatalistic. The former prisoners I lived alongside at the halfway house were not defeated or resigned. To the contrary, they were as a group full of optimism, survivors well versed at innovating to make use of what is available and near at hand, no matter the circumstances. The prison hangover was one of many problems they struggled to overcome.

Consider again the vignette in the opening: Ty Kelley actively attempted to breakdown lingering feelings of enclosure by sleeping outside his bedroom. Walking the neighborhood was another way he worked to expand the range of space in which he felt comfortable. It was rare to see him at the halfway house after 7.30am, and he typically remained outside until the compulsory house dinner each weeknight evening. For Ty, walking the neighbourhood was a way to get more relaxed in the radical openness of life outside prison: “I’m used to my radius being - this whole street would be how big the prison would be.” He said. “So just picture, you’ve got all that extra radius. That’s a lot of radius. That’s all I’m adjusting to now, I’m adjusting to life now. So that’s why I be out and about.”  

When participants described lingering prison habits in interviews - eating standing up, for example, or showering in sandals - they typically looked back on the past to name idiosyncrasies that stand out because in hindsight they seem strange. These habits were often described in the past tense (ie. “I used to…”) and presented as signs of a tumultuous period following release. For just as people learn and adapt to their confinement – and are prisonized in the process - they continue to learn and adapt on the outside. At the halfway house, I watched people arrive from prison visibly overwhelmed but quickly grow more comfortable as time passed. 

The many hurdles people face leaving prison are confronted as part of sudden, anxiety-inducing shifts in social location. In the period after release, getting used to the basic routines of interaction in new environments can be a major obstacle. Former prisoners do not respond to these problems passively, but continue to learn and modify their practice as they navigate the demands of the world outside. In the midst of a stream of challenges posed by rocky reentry transitions – finding a place to live, getting a job, rebuilding family relationships - they are asked to fundamentally re-evaluate their embodiment and way of being in the world.

This post is based on the article Free but Still Walking the Yard: Prisonization and the Problems of Reentry, which can be read here: 

Guest Blog by Kate Herrity

The prison at night

Kate Herrity is in the final year of a PhD studentship in the department of Criminology at the University of Leicester. Her research focuses on the significance of sound in prison, using aural ethnography and interview.

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. The familiar, disorientating clang of the bell marking out points of the regime, officers shouting for artfully elusive prisoners, or to underscore the bell’s message; “Ehxeerceyese!” “Peterson! The floor echoes with the recent memory of the activity contained within. The relative quiet marks the absence of those 290 odd men who now were locked behind the door until morning. I had not come to see them, much as I missed the array of cheerful greetings shouted from landings above, and the updates on personal events; anticipation of a precious visit, a sought after move, an impending parole hearing. All to a backdrop of staff answering queries, exchanging pleasantries, or issuing warnings, random barking, whooping, the strains of music, shouting, staccato exchanges over the way and regular laughter; the sound of movement around stark and spartan spaces; all clangs, bangs, creaks and rattles. Tonight I was here to listen.

I walked the landings, appreciating the soundless footfall of my trusty 110s on the walkways. Much as I missed banter with the occupants, I relished the rare opportunity to walk around unencumbered by concerns about giving the staff more to worry over. I moved in circuits around each landing, pausing to note the occupants listed outside of the cells as I passed, the familiar faces indicating who was locked within, faces I had come to know, their presence reduced to strains of TVs, music, flushing loos, coughing, conversation; sonic samples across empty spaces. I felt uneasy eavesdropping in a place where privacy is so scarce, so kept it moving, catching sounds of shifting moods within as I walked by different cells. The relative quiet, save loud music and periodic shouting, is punctuated by occasional banter with a popular officer, laughing at an inmate’s incongruous choice of “hungry eyes” played loudly, on repeat; “What the F*** are you listening to? Turn that s*** off!”. I perch awkwardly on stairs as the staff dwindle to those lumbered with the night shift, enjoying someone’s music. I’m teased about this by an officer: “I wouldn’t sit there if I were you, the cockroaches swarm out of there. Well, maybe not that step”. This place is not designed for comfort. Every decision to sit represents a social breach and one I would not make while the residents ran, slid, ambled, strode and limped up and down the stairs; their status indicated by their footwear, altering the sound of shoe soles on the iron steps. No such variation in the regulation footwear of the staff, nor the rhythm of their gait; driven with morning purpose, sluggishly reluctant after lunch. Now reduced to a few, the relative absence of their shoes and keys makes them immediately locatable. The lights are dimmed. The building winds down towards patrol mode; cell doors irreversibly locked shut save life or death emergency.

I accompany the officer in command around the building as security routines are observed around every lock in the place. Night amplifies our steps on concrete and metal, expanding the small site to one of uncertain corners and indistinct perimeters. Occasional sounds come from within the cells escaping across uninhabited grounds. I’m conscious of our chatter, not wishing to disturb the occasional, fleeting shadows glimpsed through barred windows. The prison at night is strangely altered, unfamiliar.

Purposeful, clustered feet on metal stairs, synchronised jangling, pierce the slow routine of night patrol. “Miss, miss” a prisoner calls to me; “has someone died?” “Miss?”. I answer no, but tell him I’ll speak to him in the day and move rapidly along. I marvel at his ability to recognise my steps. Only later, when I ask him, does he tell me he could see through the crack in his door. A prisoner has hurt himself, bleeding profusely. He is moved to a neighbouring cell where he continues to harm himself. “You might as well see it all if this is what you’re here for”, says an officer, inviting me to join. Staff retch as the smell of blood, warmed by the summer heat, reaches their noses. He refuses care and remains conscious. A trip to hospital would leave two remaining staff. Not taking him anyway will mean additional anxiety for the familiar ritual of the morning count.

To much relief he accepts a sugary cup of tea, a breakfast pack having been sought out and fetched in an effort to replace some fluids. He settles, and our footsteps withdraw from their clustering around his cell. Customary routines are resumed. Rounds are taken, notices posted. Solitary boots on metal walkways, the flash of a torch. As the darkness deepens, sound retreats. Conversations drift in to sleep, the occasional snore rumbles under the door. TVs are turned off, music comes to an end. Time slows, stretching in to indistinct corners as I find places to perch, listening as the constant electrical thrum becomes more perceptible. In the early hours of the morning a quiet calm descends, at least in these dark and empty spaces. I feel a solidarity with remaining signs of wakefulness, stereos lowered out of respect for sleeping neighbours, the company of televisions.

As cells are checked, and numbers recorded the prison holds its breath… as the new day breaks, all have made it through.

Listening to the unfamiliar sounds and rhythms of patrol state, the squeaking of congregating mice and cockroaches scuttling across lino, I fell asleep. I woke up to the realisation of how little I had acquainted myself with the darker corners of HMP Midtown, and wondered how much any of us appreciate how little we can see, when so much of prison life is conducted out of view.

Guest Blog by Ryan Williams

Trompe l’oeil (‘trick of the eye’)

Ryan J. Williams

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’. Yet, criminology has largely ignored the ethical character of people’s lives and its sociological significance; comfortable with posing ethical questions about punishment, but rarely investing in understanding the everyday moral lives of those within.

In my recent article on Islamic piety in English high security prisons, I argue for the urgent need to take seriously peoples’ ‘moral projects’ in prison ethnography. The work takes inspiration from literature on moral anthropology and Foucault’s lesser known works (at least among criminologists) on ethical self-cultivation to understand the contours of ethics in everyday life. This approach wrests the philosophical and theological questions from ‘ivory tower’ heights, and seeks to re-examine those questions and allow new ones to be posed in light of the messiness and ordinariness of people’s life experiences in different contexts.

I was drawn to focus on Islamic piety partly due to my academic background and training in religious studies and as a sociologist and anthropologist of religion, and partly because the context demanded it: The Muslim prisoner population was high across the high security estate (some estimates put it at 28%, compared to the national average of Muslims in the community at about 4%), and it was a population that seemed subject to intense scrutiny. My conversations with staff and prisoners referred to the ‘Muslim problem’, which was a phrase difficult to disentangle but seemed to simultaneously refer to problems of quantity (too many of them, like a ‘gang’) and quality (not ‘genuinely Muslim’, in it for the food or protection).

I grew dissatisfied with these summations, and reading criminological accounts of religion and Islam in prison, I grew dissatisfied with those too. Such accounts rendered the efforts of the ethical subject opaque. They totalized empirical description and theorized a self that is merely ‘realized against the institution’, in Cohen and Taylor’s (1972:149) words, rather than allowing for an understanding of how the self is realized within the institution, and thus, of recognizing how people strive to become the types of people they wish to become (even in places as dire as prisons).

In describing some examples of Muslim ethical subjectivity in prison, I focused on the themes of ‘becoming good’ (through study), ‘doing good’ (through acts of kindness), and ‘maximizing the good’ (through efforts to guide others away from an errant path). My argument through these descriptions is not of Muslim exceptionalism, of moralism, or of sentimentalism (in the face of flagrant securitized and racialized tropes around Islam and Muslims – ‘terrorist’, ‘foreigner’). Nor is what I describe intended to essentialize Islam as a universal category of experience and identity. It is rather a case for reflecting on the sociological, even political, significance of piety.  

Far from William James’ classic definition of religion as the ‘experiences of individual men in their solitude’, the piety of some Muslim prisoners was expressed externally (through the beard and wearing religious clothing) and relationally (through sharing food), and these became tangled in the complexities of prison social life in ways that were irreducible to categories of coercion, resistance, or radicalisation.

Returning to the cryptic title of this reflection piece, trompe l’oeil or ‘trick of the eye’, and Samuel van Hoogstraten’s marvellous painting, Man at the Window (1653), I have wanted to paint an ethnographic portrait that gives a three-dimensional realism to prison social life through taking seriously people’s various strides to accomplish virtue, and to contextualize this within the local circumstances and relationships of a high security prison. Like the style of painting, though for different reasons, the effect is unsettling.

To read more, see: Ryan J. Williams; Finding Freedom and Rethinking Power: Islamic Piety in English High Security Prisons, The British Journal of Criminology,

Currently, I am developing this work further in two projects: the first enquires into Muslim’s moral lives through imprisonment and post-release, and the second is related to co-convening a course on everyday ethics in a high security prison with University of Cambridge students called ‘The Good and the Good Society’. See here for more details.

Image: Man at the Window by Samuel van Hoogstraten (1653), photo taken by Ryan Williams, Museum of Art History, Vienna


Guest Blog by John Todd

When penal populism meets Scandinavian exceptionalism

John Todd


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.  

In a recently published article in Punishment and Society, I have sought to explore how representatives from the governing parties in Norway have framed issues of punishment, prisons policy and offending.  This is important because in 2013 a left-of-centre government was replaced by a minority coalition of the centre-right Conservative Party and the populist-right Progress Party, with the Progress Party taking charge of the Ministry of Justice and Public Security.  This government was returned to office following a general election last autumn (with the addition of the smaller Liberal Party to the coalition).

Before 2013 the Progress Party had never been in government, having until this time been shunned by the other main parties. So with this party gaining control of the Justice Ministry, has there been a discursive upsurge in penal populism? Or, conversely, does Norway retain a sufficiently resilient penal welfare consensus that leaves little room for such populism? 

Governing voices from both the Progress Party and the Conservative Party engaged in what I term bordered penal populism, whereby populist policies are directed against non-citizens.  In doing so, governing voices in Norway represent themselves as dynamic, prioritising victims, keen to increase prison capacity rapidly, focused on individual security and as actively deporting foreign criminals. Foreign criminals are framed as unwanted, in need of deportation, requiring swift justice, deserving of a lesser prison regime and as not requiring rehabilitation. 

This bordered penal populism clearly has implications for non-citizens who come into the orbit of the Norwegian penal state.  In addition, I interpret the relative silence regarding the mission of the criminal care system when it comes to Norwegian citizens as a passive erosion of penal exceptionalism, and that the bordered penal populism that permeates the discourse risks negative implications for the criminal care system as a whole and for the position of non-citizens within Norwegian society. 

Whilst what I have described here is some distance from prison ethnography, I hope that readers of this blog might nonetheless it interesting in terms how governing voices make calls for action on the basis of identity constructions - identity constructions that are linked to tangible policy proposals that define the scope of punishment and how it is implemented. 

If you would like to read the article is available here ( or feel free to contact John Todd for a copy (

John Todd is a Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oslo. His PhD project is entitled ‘Unpacking the Norwegian desistance model: Discourses, practices and experiences’. John has previously worked in a range of policy roles within the civil service in both Belfast and Norway.’

Guest Blog by Victor Shammas

The slow erosion of Scandinavian social democracy


Victor L. Shammas (

Department of Sociology and Human Geography

University of Oslo, Norway


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. Academics have discussed the exceptionalism thesis for about a decade now, with some pointing to high rates of pre-trial detention, a thriving politics of law and order, and a growing tendency to punish and eject foreign citizens, including foreign offenders and (failed) asylum seekers alike. But it is probably fair to say that the exceptionalism thesis has withstood ten-odd years of criticism – certainly when societies like Denmark and Sweden are contrasted with relatively high-punishment polities like the United States, England & Wales, the former Soviet republics, and China.

Second, there’s the story about the Scandinavian welfare states, also known as “the Nordic model.” Everyone from Bernie Sanders to Hilary Clinton, from Emmanuel Macron to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has waxed lyrical about the virtues of Nordic social democracy. Many have pointed to these countries as proof that market economies can be both efficient and equitable. The Nordic countries suggest that neoliberalism is not the only viable political-economic regime currently on offer. In Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order (2011), the much-coveted prize for all developing countries is said to be “getting to Denmark.” During an electoral debate in October 2016, Bernie Sanders said that “we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway and learn what they have accomplished for their working people.” With free public healthcare and education, relatively low rates of income inequality, high levels of human satisfaction and happiness, low rates of unemployment, Nordic social democracy seems to promise the best of socialist egalitarianism and competitive markets, resulting in a “capitalism with a human face.”

But there’s a third story about Scandinavia: that something has gone terribly wrong in these previously well-functioning, homogeneous, and (allegedly) monocultural societies. Immigration policies have run amok, so the story goes, resulting in the influx of millions of foreigners, as with Sweden’s decision to (temporarily) settle around 160,000 refugees in 2016, most of them fleeing the Syrian War, or Norway’s acceptance of Somali refugees in the early 1990s and its reliance on “guest workers” from Pakistan since the 1970s and Poland beginning in the early 2000s.

These immigrants, various right-wing politicians and pundits claim, have caused (or will cause at some not-too-distant point in the future) social trust to wither away. Immigrants work less, destabilize the tax base, and bring about various social pathologies, such as urban unrest and criminal disorder, they claim. A welfare state, with its generous social policies, necessarily relies on high rates of labor force participation by relatively skilled workers, and, more broadly, a moral willingness to pay taxes and participate in reciprocal relations of mutual solidarity with a wider citizenry. All of these structural elements, critics claim, are strained by the arrival of unskilled, unemployed, unemployable, and “culturally unassimilable” immigrants, mainly from Africa and the Middle East.

This narrative has a lot of momentum, fueled by both domestic and global forces on the far-right of the political spectrum. At a rally in Florida in February 2017, President Donald Trump proclaimed to his followers, “Look at what happened in Sweden last night,” a comment for which he was widely ridiculed, as there was nothing particularly newsworthy going on in Sweden the night before. But, almost prophetically, his words were retroactively borne out by later events: in April that same year, a terrorist attack in Stockholm, killing five people and injuring 14 others, seemed to confirm the Trumpian trope of broken Sweden, a failed multiculturalist state or trusting liberal democracy exploited by insidious Islamists. (As the Swedish government notes, however, no clear motive for the attack has ever been discovered, and no such groups have claimed responsibility for it.)

Similarly, the Norwegian right-wing Progress Party politician Sylvi Listhaug—a member of the Conservative-Progress Party governing coalition—was widely criticized for traveling to Stockholm during the Norwegian parliamentary elections in 2017 to warn against the spread of “Swedish conditions” to Norway – coded language for lax immigration policies that, so Listhaug claimed, had caused irreparable damage to Sweden’s suburban periphery and social fabric. The Norwegian politician was scorned by Swedish elites, and the mayor of Stockholm refused to meet with Listhaug on her tour of the city. Once again, however, the anxieties of the right were confirmed by later events: in early 2018, a spate of gang killings in Sweden’s various suburbs led the Swedish Social Democrat and Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, partly under pressure from the right-wing Swedish Democrats, to consider deploying the nation’s armed forces on the streets of Stockholm – a US-style militarization of the policing of urban gangs largely unprecedented in Scandinavia.

            Clearly, a significant shift in the Nordic political landscape has taken place in recent years. The decade that has passed since John Pratt’s work on Nordic penal exceptionalism has seen the further erosion of social democracy (including privatization, marketized logics of service provision, and mounting socioeconomic inequalities) combined with continuously reverberating ethnonational anxieties. In the book Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order (2017), the sociologist Vanessa Barker points out that there has been a rebordering of the Swedish welfare state, exemplified by the decision to reintroduce passport checks on the Danish side of the famous bridge between Copenhagen and Malmö in southern Sweden. Scholars like Katja Aas have observed the rise to prominence of a “crimmigration” agenda in the Norwegian political field where crime, immigration, and punitivity are seamlessly conflated. My own work has documented a (moderate) turn towards law and order policies in Norway, with a 35-percent increase in the average sentence length in the last 15 years and a 30-percent increase in the imprisonment rate in the same time period.

While right-wing ethnonational anxieties contain an element of truth at a purely factual, empirical level—terrorist attacks do occur, and urban unrest has grown in places—these are partial realities that are wholly disproportionate and disconnected from wider truths. There is something faintly hysterical about the fears of the Scandinavian popular right. If the wealthiest nations on Earth could be decimated or destroyed by the arrival of a few tens of thousands of immigrants per year, perhaps these societies weren’t as stable and secure, or even worthy of preservation, as their upholders would claim. Moreover, their embeddedness in a global order (as evidenced by their huge reliance on imported consumer goods, for instance), means that they too must shoulder the predictable consequences of geopolitical conflicts – many of them caused by the West. Sweden’s paltry thousands of Syrian refugees pales in comparison with the staggering burden carried by tiny, impoverished nations like Lebanon and Jordan, which have accepted millions. As commentators like Glenn Greenwald and Slavoj Žižek have pointed out, the would-be defenders of liberal democracy are so eager to preserve basic Western liberties that they would dismantle those very rights in the fight against various shadowy enemies. In Norway, the national parliament discussed one such proposal in March 2018: the governing Conservative Party and Progress Party supported a proposal allowing individuals with dual citizenship suspected of terrorist crimes to be stripped in absentia of their Norwegian citizenship in speedy trials (so-called hurtigdomstoler, or “rapid courts”). In the wake of an acrimonious national debate on this issue in March 2018, the right-wing politician Sylvi Listhaug lost her post as the Norwegian Minister of Justice, and the legislative proposal ultimately faltered, but such proposals are suggestive of where the political field is headed.

Nordic social democracy is withering away. In Norway, around 500,000 people now have private health insurance, a twelvefold increase between 2006 and 2016. Privatization has resulted in the nation’s largest oil company Statoil—the source of so much of the country’s wealth and therefore a crucial precondition for its generous social spending—being listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The proportion of Norwegian schoolchildren attending private schools has doubled in ten years. Mounting wealth inequalities means that the richest one percent of Norway’s population now controls nearly half the country’s financial wealth (shares, bonds, and similar). The very richest individuals—the top 0.01 percent—earned 26 times the average income in the 1980s, but by the late 2000s they were making 178 times the average annual income. According to the OECD, wealth inequality in Norway is now greater than in the United Kingdom, France, and Australia. The once-widespread ideal of egalitarianism is faltering, and the welfare state is being hollowed out by members of the upper and middle classes eager to enjoy the benefits of private healthcare, schooling, and other services previously held to be the sole domain of the state. And similar features obtain for Sweden and Denmark. As the acclaimed Swedish sociologist Göran Therborn notes in a recent review, “The egalitarian, solidaristic ‘People’s Home’, which has attracted widespread progressive admiration internationally, is being eroded and dismantled.” Sweden now displays “extraordinary…inequality of wealth,” Therborn writes.

Social democracy is not faltering because of the arrival of immigrants from the postcolonial sphere. Instead, the welfare state is being dismantled by the very political establishment that has taken a tougher stance on criminal offenders and asylum seekers, including center-left social democratic parties like the Norwegian Labor Party. The real cause of social dislocation is not immigration but marketization. If social democracy was the leading cause of penal exceptionalism, its disappearance must, logically, cause exceptionalism to falter and fade away also. It seems improbable that Nordic penal exceptionalism can withstand the slow erosion of social democracy.

Dr. Victor L. Shammas is a sociologist working at the Department of Sociology and Human Geography, University of Oslo. His research has appeared in journals like the British Journal of Criminology, Constellations, Punishment & Society, Capital & Class, Criminology & Criminal Justice, Critical Criminology, and Law & Critique. His work is available at

Guest Blog by Ben Laws

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

By Ben Laws

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.

My aspiration for shadowing was to try and capture prisoners’ emotions ‘in the moment’, and especially, in periods of transition to and from different prison areas. I was energised by Fineman’s (2004: 720) idea that emotions are ‘wrapped in the warp and weft of social practices’, and that there are inherent dangers if we try to extract or ‘de-situate’ them from their contexts. The main point of the method was to provide a point of comparison: exploring whether prisoners might display particular emotions in and around the prison, and then say different things about affective states during interviews. I imagined the productive discussions that we could share while wandering around the establishment, instead of being anchored to a barren interview room.

In practice, there were a number of occasions when shadowing resulted in awkwardness and boredom. For instance, I was in the hairdressers in HMP Send while the woman I was shadowing (Ellie) had a haircut. I could see that every time I tried to strike up conversation, competing with the loud blow-dryer, radio, and lively salon conversation, that I was causing Ellie some discomfort. At other times, I remember feeling distinctly bored and wondered whether sitting in workshops, alongside prisoners who had to focus on administrative or learning tasks, was a poor utilisation of research time. But perhaps this had a different kind of value: I’ve often heard prisoners talk about boredom, but getting to feel it first hand, instead of searching for ‘action’, was insightful. Many prisoners lead sedentary lives, and don’t have the autonomy to move around the establishment fluidly.   

At times, shadowing prisoners felt ethically problematic. Agreeing with participants in advance where I should, and should not, accompany them was easy. But thinking about the broader ramifications of ‘watching prisoners closely’, in an environment that already tracks their movements and behaviours intensely is more disturbing. Rebecka reflected that: ‘I think being in prison for a long time you kind of get used to the whole being watched thing. There’s always somebody around, whether you’re in a workshop or in the kitchens, there’s somebody watching’. It is unsettling that my research might have added to a kind of ‘institutional gaze’. Though I attempted to empower prisoners to take the leading role, and I did not have coercive goals, in some instances I may have unintentionally breached their privacy and added to their sense of being under surveillance.

Furthermore, while most prisoners felt appreciative, and even flattered, that I was spending time with them, I could not control the reactions of other prisoners. I was following one participant through the lobby of a large house block when a group of prisoners--who I’d come to know quite well—shouted insults at the prisoner I was with: ‘don’t spend time with him’, ‘he’s a rat!’, ‘what do you want to talk to him for?’ I wondered if I was compromising this prisoner through my research, in way that more generalised participant observation would have negated.

Thankfully, the shadowing did yield moments of insight. Stacey reflected that taking part in the process indeed felt like ‘someone seeing you in your real self, in the settings you’re in everyday’. Though I have reservations about phrases like ‘real self’ and claims of ‘authenticity’, this felt like positive feedback. I was seeing prisoners wearing ‘different hats’ as they moved around and performed their different roles in the prison. One prisoner, who was passive in the loud art classroom, became animated and expressive on the walk back to the wing, revealing subtexts to the dynamics of friendship in the classroom we had left. I was also put through some intense gym workouts by athletic male prisoners that felt like a form of initiation and bonding. In these moments, I felt I was also understanding prisoners better, not just through knowing them intellectually, but through being with them.

The shadowing also took me to parts of the prison that I otherwise might have overlooked: one prisoner led me to the ‘older men’s library’ that prisoners used to ventilate anything that was on their minds. This space felt exclusive, therapeutic and cathartic, though it is hard to imagine that prisoners would have vocalised it in these terms. It’s also hard to imagine how I would have discovered this room on my own.

Having left the field over a year ago, I can see that the shadowing was useful in distilled moments, rather than being a consistently valuable strategy. There was one, overriding exception to this summary. I feel convinced that spending extended time with prisoners before the interviews was relationally valuable. For example, while shadowing a prisoner who spent nearly all his time garrisoned away in his dark cell—because he was expecting a coordinated attack from a group of prisoners he had fallen-out with—I distinctly remember feeling sad, and acutely aware of the fear he was experiencing. These emotions undoubtedly orientated, and set the tone for, the interview we had the next day. Reflecting back, this ‘rapport building’ effect was more of an unintended by-product of the method, rather than my primary rationale for shadowing. ‘Loitering with intent’ enabled me to build rapport, understanding, and compassion for the lives these participants were leading in prison. It generated information about prisoners, and sometimes stirred feelings in me (such as empathy and sadness) which could be explored in much greater detail in the interviews.

Ben is a finishing PhD student researching emotions in prison at the Prisons Research Centre in Cambridge.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Laws, B. (2018) Loitering with intent: shadowing male and female prisoners is a methodological mixed bag. Available at: (Accessed [date]).

Guest Blog by Ann-Karina Henriksen

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

By Ann-Karina Henriksen, postdoctoral researcher at Department of Sociology and Social Work, Aalborg University.

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 (Henriksen 2017). As I set up an interview with one of the boys, he wanted to know whether talking to me would be worth his while. He asked, “So before we start, can you tell me something about you as a researcher. I mean like your status. Will it matter what you say?” He caught me off guard with his critical inquiry into the potential impact of my study. Most of the young people were eager to share their stories and happy to break the routine and boredom of secure care. His query spoke to a question which is significant to most types of research, but especially that conducted with marginalized or vulnerable populations. What do interviewees expect will come from their participation at a personal, institutional or policy level, and how can we align their expectations with our intentions and priorities? Reflecting on participants’ motivations and adjusting expectations is vital not only because it shapes data production, but also because failure to ‘deliver’ may convey the sense that what they say does not matter.

Not all the interviewees expected the research to result in social change at a larger scale, but rather seemed to hope that telling their story would have some impact on their personal situation. One of the young girls I interviewed had been placed in a secure unit for protective care. When I interviewed her, she had been confined for seven months, and she was frustrated with the institutional inaction to find a suitable placement with treatment. She told me she had complained to anyone who would listen, “I even wrote the mayor!” When I returned to the unit four weeks later and found her there, I was surprised. Her frustration had grown, but so had her apathy and silent distress. She was less talkative and stayed more in her room. The staff were also clearly appalled at the inaction of her case manager to find placement outside secure care. That night she tried to commit suicide. She was under 24-hour surveillance, so a night watch found her in time. I was sleeping in a room just outside the unit and saw the ambulance arrive and leave without her 20 minutes later. I could hear quiet turmoil in the unit and then everything went silent. Witnessing such extreme expression of frustration and powerlessness is one of the pains of doing prison or secure care research. The next day she was mostly in her room and I found it improper to impose. Sometimes I wonder whether her suicide attempt, which was not her first or last, was also a communication to me as an outside researcher. Insights from reflexive ethnography urges researchers to consider not just how we experience the field, but how we also shape the field by our presence, making things happen that would otherwise not have taken place. Did she expect me to intervene or respond in some way that would matter in her situation of powerlessness? I suspect at some level, that telling her story and relaying her experiences of confinement, was motivated by making me a witness to her injustice and a small hope, that what I saw, heard and felt could push for change.

I also met a boy, who made me promise not to tell. He said, I could never write anything about his story that anyone would recognize. I listened with disbelief and anger as he told me about his experience of living with the fear of violence in confinement. He was beaten by his unit peers on his second day of arrival, and for as long as those peers were in the unit, his everyday life was all about avoiding potential violence. He feared severe beating and having boiling water thrown at him. During my stay the staff confirmed his narrative of living in fear, recalling with a kind smile how he used to need adult protection all the time, because the unit peers were united against him. The young boy would not let me speak about this to anyone. He seemed satisfied with narrating his experience to an empathic listener. I however, found it critical that while unit staff had managed to keep him physically safe, they had jeopardized his mental health by confining him to a space of violent potentiality. Living in constant fear seriously jeopardizes the mental health of young people and the strain it imposed on this young boy was not consistent with the intentions of secure care placement or the Convention of the Child.

As I started analysing the data and drafting the first journal articles, I was troubled by revisiting these emotional situations and the institutional critique that they called for. After presenting a neat theoretical paper, a prominent scholar confronted me saying, “Stop all the glossy theorizing. This is a human rights issue and that’s how you need to write about it!”. This urged me to lay out the data in more detailed empirical analysis, and to engage in a dialogue with management and staff in secure institutions on the harmful institutional logics and practices. I had meetings with managers and presented my findings at staff meetings. My critique addressed problems related to the confinement of young people with severe psychiatric troubles, who do not receive psychiatric treatment, and the marginalization of girls when they are placed in units where all the other young people are boys.  I continue to voice my concern in national media to push for political awareness and institutional change. Change happens incrementally and critical research, however uncomfortable it may be, is pivotal in that process. 

Giving voice to vulnerable and marginalized groups places an ethical responsibility on researchers to reflect on who says what to whom and why. While institutional change is the motivation for some, others hope for support or personal relief. By reflecting on their motivations, expectations and hopes, we can strive towards making what they say matter, and as researchers we get slightly closer to ‘getting it right’ when analysing complex field relations and interactions.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Henriksen, A. (2018) ”Will it matter what you say?” – reflections on what motivates interviewees to participate in research. Available at: (Accessed [date]).

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. Just over four years ago, we were awarded a grant by the Leverhulme Trust to shed some light on the use of life imprisonment as a global phenomenon, and to assess the practice of life imprisonment across different jurisdictions in the light of fundamental human rights.

We found that formal statutory provision for life imprisonment exists in 183 out of 216 countries and territories, and that in 149 of these it is imposed as the ultimate sanction. Life imprisonment with the possibility of parole is the most common type of life imprisonment in the world: in 144 of the 183 countries that impose formal life sentences, there is some prospect of being considered for release. Sixty-five countries impose the harshest type of life imprisonment, that is, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP). Perhaps most surprisingly, there are 33 countries who do not have the death penalty or life imprisonment as a formal statutory sanction.

Based on data collected on the number of persons serving life sentences in 114 countries, we were able to estimate that the total number of life-sentenced prisoners around the world has nearly doubled since the year 2000. As of 2014, there were almost half a million – 479,000 – individuals serving formal life sentences. Of significance, five countries have made major contributions to this growth: the USA, India, South Africa, the UK and Turkey. Most strikingly, the USA houses an estimated 40 per cent of the world’s life-sentenced prison population. Furthermore, these figures do not include individuals serving other indeterminate ‘informal’ life sentences, such as very long prison sentences or post-conviction indefinite preventive detention where there is no guarantee of release from prison.



One major concern is the growth in the use of LWOP sentences in the United States. Our research found that more than 50 per cent of all prisoners serving LWOP around the world were in the USA. As reported by The Sentencing Project in 2017, between 1992 and 2016, the number of persons serving LWOP increased by 328 per cent in the USA, from 12,453 individuals imprisoned for life to 53,290. In 2016, every third life-sentenced prisoner in the USA was serving LWOP. While this severe form of life imprisonment has been abolished in most of Europe, other countries, such as India and China, have recently adopted LWOP as a formal statutory sanction. This may lead to a significant increase in the numbers of prisoners sentenced to lifelong imprisonment around the world.

In addition, our research revealed that life-sentenced prisoners are often systematically segregated and treated more harshly than other prisoners on account of their sentence. Many countries, for example, routinely detain life-sentenced prisoners in separate penal colonies, away from the general prison population and under heightened security. Under strict regimes, life-sentenced prisoners are often handcuffed or shackled whenever they leave their cells. They may also be subjected routinely to rub down searchers at all movement times, regular strip searchers, cell searches, video surveillance and restrictions on movement. In some countries, guard dogs have been used to escort life-sentenced prisoners around the prison.

Many life-sentenced prisoners are also excluded from rehabilitative opportunities or denied access to educational and vocational training available to other prisoners. In several countries, the absence of work opportunities is an additional punishment to the life sentence. In such countries, life-sentenced prisoners can spend up to 23 hours a day in their cells with no access to rehabilitation, work programmes, social or psychological assistance. 

We also found that, while the pains of imprisonment are well-documented, the impact of life imprisonment is under-researched. Published accounts from life-sentenced prisoners reveal that serving a life sentence is a particularly painful experience due to the uncertainty of release. Doing indeterminate time has been described by different individuals as “a tunnel without light at the end”, “a black hole of pain and anxiety”, “a bad dream, a nightmare” or even, “a slow, torturous death”. Social isolation, futility of existence and fear of institutionalisation are recurring themes among prisoners serving indeterminate prison terms. The pains of serving indeterminate time are significantly heightened for LWOP prisoners, who must come to terms with not only doing very long prison time, but with dying behind bars as they have no hope of release.

But what do the standards say? International human rights standards on imprisonment have developed dramatically in recent years but the issue of life imprisonment has not been addressed sufficiently. The United Nations 1994 report on Life Imprisonment is the only international document that focuses explicitly on life imprisonment. It states that life sentences should be “imposed only when strictly needed to protect society and ensure justice, and… only on individuals who have committed the most serious crimes.” It notes that “it is essential to consider the potentially detrimental effects of life imprisonment”, and proposes, inter alia, that conditions for life-sentenced prisoners should be compatible with human dignity, and that states should provide a possibility for all persons sentenced to life imprisonment to be considered for release.

Some guidance can also be drawn from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Handbook on the Management of High-Risk Prisoners, and from regional bodies, such as the Council of Europe. In brief, fundamental human rights require states to compensate for the particular pains of life imprisonment, to provide rehabilitative treatment for all life prisoners, not to make life sentences harsher than other prison sentences, and to provide a clear pathway to release.

In our forthcoming book, Life Imprisonment: A Global Human Rights Analysis, to be published by Harvard University Press later this year, we have shown that life imprisonment, in many of the ways that it is imposed and implemented worldwide, infringes some of the most fundamental norms of human rights. To address this injustice we recommend, first and foremost, worldwide abolition of LWOP sentences, together with the abolition of mandatory life sentences. We further recommend that, if life imprisonment is to be imposed, it should be reserved for the most serious crimes, and be compatible with fundamental human rights standards.

In our book we also consider whether life imprisonment should be abolished completely. This may be one solution to the significant increase in life sentences worldwide, and to the impact of the detrimental effects of life imprisonment, not only to individuals in prison but also to the wider community. But it is safe to assume that this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Together with Penal Reform International we have recently published a short policy briefing on Life Imprisonment. Its objective is to challenge the United Nations and its member states to address the increase of life imprisonment and the implementation of such sentences on human rights grounds. Our hope is that our research will assist the international community in confronting this challenge.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Appleton, C., van Zyl Smit, D., (2018) Challenging life imprisonment. Available at: (Accessed [date]).

Guest Blog by Vanessa Barker

Penal Nationalism

By Vanessa Barker

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. Nationalism, as we have seen with Brexit, “America First,” revanchism in Eastern Europe, and the rise of anti-immigrant parties in the North and South, is redrawing political maps and social relations across Europe and beyond.

What does this have to do with the prison and the prison experience? I would argue that it has everything to do with the prison and the changing nature of penal power in the 21st century. Nationalism succeeds in part because it has come to rely on the tools of criminal justice to punish and expel problem populations (also see Kaufman 2015; Haney 2016; Barker 2017; Aas 2014). It is here we see old prisons repurposed for refugees, new prisons built for foreign nationals, the expansion of immigration detention with its full range of penal harms—loss of liberty, loss of autonomy, loss of self-determination, loss of security-- imposed on those who have not committed a crime (Bosworth 2014). We see the policing of belonging at the border and in the city center as the domestic police are now tasked with migration controls. This shift conflates crime control with national security as people on the move claiming rights are now perceived as potential threats and risks. And as if we had returned to the 19th century, we see the policing of the poor and mass eviction of Romani people from the wealthiest countries in Europe because they can. Penal power is being mobilized to legitimate the management, punishment, and expulsion of people deemed unwanted or unworthy.

I develop these arguments in more detail in a new book Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order: Walling the Welfare State and in a 2017 Theoretical Criminology article “Penal Power at the Border.”  It is here I advance the concept of “penal nationalism” (also see Haney 2016) to capture the merger of national interests with penal power, which is especially acute and visible when it comes to contemporary migration control. In the Swedish context, I show how penal power is used to uphold national interests, national identity, and national resources and how these factors all revolve around the ultimate goal: welfare state preservation for members only. Penal power is used to maintain the solvency of the welfare state not as a substitute for it (as often assumed in the literature). For example, rather than provide shelter to homeless EU citizens such as the Roma, the government deploys public order policing to speed their eviction and removal from the territory. “Foreign beggars” have no claim to public benefits and are instead perceived as drains on resources. This kind of power is deployed not in the absence of a safety net but rather to protect it from outsiders. Migration policy is based on the logic of “sustainability” which depends on managing the numbers. Those deemed in excess are exposed to an excess of policing, detention, deportation, and removal.

The Nordic welfare state has been held up as a universalist and inclusionary project, moderating penal power and providing a strong social safety net. Yet, at its core, it is a nationalized project for nationals. The welfare state is a national insurance program for productive contributors, not for interlopers or free riders. Security, equality, and inclusion are public goods reserved for members. Penal power is mobilized to protect the bubble. It is a form of welfare chauvinism backed by force. When these material and symbolic resources are under perceived threat, the state will rely on its soft and hard power to uphold them. It is not a solidarity project for global social justice. Nonmembers, noncitizens, foreign nationals, ethnic minorities, racialized social groups, and those deemed unproductive such as the long-term unemployed are more vulnerable to the full force of exclusion.

These developments, particularly as they depend on penal power, have serious implications for how we understand key principles of European penality and Nordic exceptionalism. Since the postwar period, European penality, in contrast to the USA, was based in on a restrictive logic that prioritized human dignity, inclusion, and viewed the prison as a last resort (van Zyl Smit and Snacken 2009). By contrast, penal nationalism, like border criminology (Aas and Bosworth 2013), is based on an expansive logic that increases reliance on repressive tools, institutions and practices, and they are inherently inhumane. Taking away liberty from a person who has not committed a crime is one of the most serious violations any democratic country can commit against an individual and this practice is becoming routine in immigration control. Taking away self-determination, the right to seek asylum or the right to be free subverts the principle of human dignity, not only for the individual but for all of us.

Finally, the growing reliance on penal power to respond to unwanted mobility challenges Nordic exceptionalism to its core. As Nordic penal regimes focus resources, staff, and concepts of justice on perceived others and outsiders, subjecting them to increased criminalization, penalization and expulsion, we need to rethink the site, scale and character of these regimes. The imposition of penal excess on foreign nationals, nonmembers, and those who are ethnically and racially marginalized, does not exist in a vacuum or separate sphere. This “penal selectivity” as Alessandro de Giorgi (2010) would say, provides a more accurate measure of penal power than imprisonment levels or supposed humanness.  Sweden expels more people per capita than the USA or Britain (Weber 2015). And as Victoria Canning (2018) has argued, just because the Swedish detention staff are nice and bake cake with detainees does not negate their coercive power or prevent them from carrying out their main goal: removal from the territory. These penal harms are not exceptions within an exceptional regime. Sweden has used its raw power against some of the least powerful people and done so with impunity. Is this the penal model other democratic countries should aspire? Rather than look for best practices within an existing criminal justice system, perhaps it is best to tear it down.  




Aas, KL and Bosworth, M (eds.) (2013) Borders of Punishment: Citizenship, Crime Control and Social Exclusion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Aas, K.F. (2014) Bordered Penality: Precarious membership and abnormal justice. Punishment & Society 16 (5): 520-541

Barker, V. (2017) Penal Power at the Border: Realigning State and Nation. Theoretical Criminology 21 (4): 441-457.

Barker, V. (2018) Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order: Walling the Welfare State. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Bosworth, M. (2014) Inside Immigration Detention. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Canning, V. (2018) Supporting Sanctuary: Addressing Harms in British, Danish and Swedish Asylum Systems. ESRC Research Report, London: Calverts Publishing. 

De Giorgi, A. (2010) Immigration control, post-Fordism, and less eligibility: A materialist critique of the criminalization of immigration across Europe. Punishment & Society 12: 147-167.

Haney, L.  (2016) Prisons of the past: Penal nationalism and the politics of punishment in Central Europe. Punishment & Society 18 (3): 346-368.

Kaufman, E. (2015) Punish & Expel: Border Control, Nationalism and the New Purpose of the Prison. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Van Zyl Smit, D. and Snacken, S. (2009) Principles of European Prison Law and Policy: Penology and Human Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Weber, L. (2015) Deciphering deportation practices across the Global North. In: Pickering, S. and Ham, J. (eds.) The Routledge Handbook on Crime and International Migration. Abingdon: Routledge.


Vanessa Barker is Docent and Associate Professor of Sociology at Stockholm University and Associate Director of Border Criminologies. Her research focuses on questions of democracy and penal order, the welfare state and border control, the criminalization and penalization of migrants, and the role of civil society in penal reform. Her new book Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order: Walling the Welfare State examines the border closing in Sweden during the height of the refugee crisis and the rise of penal nationalism in response to mass mobility.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Barker, V., (2018) Penal Nationalism. Available at: (Accessed [date]).

Guest blog by Berit Johnsen

Nordic exceptionalism and politics


By Berit Johnsen, associate professor/head of research department, University College of Norwegian Correctional Service.


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. I have lost track of how many visitors I have accompanied to these two prison – the most famous and frequently visited institutions – which have become the material expressions of a humane prison system. Representatives from the Norwegian Correctional Service – including myself – are also invited to seminars, conferences, and international gatherings to give presentations about our prison system. Representing a system that is often portrayed as having the utmost standards of decency and humanity is, of course, nice, but in representing Norwegian prisons I have mixed feelings, for two main reasons: first, the constant repetition of the belief that Norwegian prisons are highly humane has become an established truth, and the political implications are potentially worrying. What would happen if a Norwegian politician were to ask: ‘why should we have such good prison conditions?’ – ‘do they work?’ My second worry concerns the idea of Norwegian prisons having a high humane standard. Is it so that humane prison conditions are a dimension that some countries actually ‘have’ more of than others?

Prevailing Norwegian political documents state that humanity is a fundamental value in the Norwegian prison system. This is repeated in political debates, but this rhetoric implies that humanity is something we ‘have’: something that is supposed to just ‘be there’. Even if humanity is embedded in structures, laws and rules in the Norwegian prison system, I think we are making a huge mistake if we take a humane prison system for granted. Humane prison conditions are not something we have; they are something we do. Humanity in a prison is not something that just exists, it is exercised. Different groups of staff use their professional discretion in their practices of humanity, and humanity flows, perhaps more or less, in different prisons every day. What it is legitimate to do and not to do is, of course, regulated in laws and rules, but this is also about culture, and prison cultures do not exist in vacuums. They are in constant interaction with the world around them and are affected by the dominant political discourses in a society. The point I am trying to emphasise here is that humane prison conditions are dynamic constructions that are in a constant state of becoming. This constructivistic approach may be contested, but I think it is important, especially regarding the possible political implications of considering humane prison conditions as a static phenomenon.

In order to accomplish humane prison conditions, we need political will. It is not enough for politicians to state that humanity is a fundamental value for our prison system – it has to be operationalised. In some senses, this is achieved through in the four principles that govern the Correctional Service – the principle of normality, the principle of rights, the principle of serving the sentence as close to home as possible, and the principle of progression in the serving of the sentence – but this is not enough. We need a special political focus on humanity, especially when current political discourse about the prison system is dominated by punitivity, economy and efficiency. In recent years, prison sentences in the criminal law have increased so much that the Director General of Public Prosecution, who for decades has spoken warmly of hasher punishments, has stated that, we cannot increase them anymore for reasons of humanity and morality. This rise in punitivity is consistent with neo-liberalism and penal populism, which have also influenced Norwegian politics and society. Economy and efficiency are closely connected, and in an effort to reduce public sector costs, the Norwegian Government has introduced reforms aimed at reducing bureaucracy and increasing efficiency.

This ‘New Public Management’ initiative has resulted in the introduction of recidivism as an outcome-measure for the Correctional Service. It is in this political climate that I fear that humane prison conditions will be reduced to a means to reduce recidivism rates, rather than a goal in themselves. If researchers can prove that humane prison conditions have positive impacts on lowering recidivism rates, then politicians will most probably invest in them. The most probable scenario, however, is that it will prove difficult to find scientific evidence that humane prison conditions have a positive effect on recidivism rates. If so, I do not think the value of humanity will disappear in the Norwegian Correctional context, but how much can we decrease humanity in our prisons and still claim that they are humane? Can we believe that humanity just ‘exists’ in our system, and that its existence will endure? I do not think so. Humanity cannot be taken for granted. It requires continuous effort, and there will always be areas where humane prison conditions can be problematised and criticised, even in Norway.


Berit Johnsen is an Associate Professor and the Head of the Research Department at the University College of the Norwegian Correctional Service


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Johnsen, B., (2018) Nordic exceptionalism and politics. Available at: (Accessed [date]).

Guest Blog by Guy Hamilton-Smith

On America's Civil Death Penalty: The Sexual Offense Registry

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.”

In America, few aspects of law and policy so perfectly embody Wilde's observation of punishment in nineteenth century England as sex offense registries.

Registries and their application embody shallowness in that most courts do not regard them as punishments at all -- hence the title of this piece reflecting their ostensible “civil” nature. If America had a civil death penalty, putting people on sex registries would be it.

While many countries have such registries, few operate as America’s do. The basic idea behind them is to broadly publicize the names, faces, and home addresses of anyone who has been convicted of any kind of a sexual offense (or, as some U.S. jurisdictions have done, most any crime at all). Along with placement on sex offense registries comes many legal requirements, such as complex reporting requirements and restrictions on where one is able to live. While these requirements vary from state to state (and sometimes city to city), they generally require strict compliance or else those subject to them run the risk of new prosecution for failing to comply.

In 2003, the United States Supreme Court was faced with the question of whether an Alaskan law that made the names and home addresses of people who had been convicted of sexual offenses public constituted punishment. It was an important legal question because, under the American federal constitution, ex post facto laws (that is, laws which increase the punishment for a crime after the crime has already been committed) are prohibited.

In a 6-3 decision, the Court held that it was “civil” as opposed to criminal, justified in part on the basis of the widely-shared perception that people who had been convicted of sexual offenses shared a “frightening and high” risk of re-offending (a perception that has little bearing in reality).

While these lists are justified on the basis of assumed dangerousness, the same Supreme Court in a separate case concluded that whether or not someone was actually dangerous was not a relevant question for inclusion on these lists.

Between these two cases, the Court denied critical constitutional protections for hated groups of people, thus giving the green light to laws which have evolved into something exquisitely punitive. Recently, a major court decision lambasted registries as ineffective at promoting public safety, while noting that they rendered those on them "moral lepers" who are forced to reside at the margins of society on the sole basis of a conviction. Another decision, currently on appeal in the United States 10th Circuit Court of Appeals (one step below the United States Supreme Court), called registries cruel and unusual punishments in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution -- an almost unheard-of legal conclusion for American courts to reach outside of death penalty litigation.

Though, in my view, it is the right one.

I know, because of the nearly million people on America's sex offense registries, I am one of them.

In describing his experiences with solitary confinement -- a practice widely regarded as torture -- Nelson Mandela concluded that there is nothing more dehumanizing than isolation from human connection.

In our hyper-connected age, we don't need solitary to cut people off from human connection.  Being labeled a sex offender, you carry your solitary with you, in your heart, and in your mind. When you put on your shoes to go mail letters or buy milk from the store, when you go out on a date, or try to find something to watch on Netflix, you may as well be on Mars. The indelible electronic mark you carry threatens to turn your own thoughts against you, unless and until you can find a way outside of the prison your own mind begins to construct for you. Until then, you die slowly, suffocating in shame.

I have written more fully about my story and experiences elsewhere, but I have spent the last eleven years living on America’s sex registry. More than simply punishment, in my opinion, it is most fairly characterized as torture.

Hence, the appalling nature of such punishments that Wilde spoke of.

There are two aspects of Wilde's admonition which don't quite fit life on the registry. The first is the implication that this particular type of punishment ends.

In the age of the internet, what goes online stays online forever. America has no "right to forget" -- rather, we are quite taken with the concept of "right to know." Wide public availability is a feature, and not a bug, of our registration systems. Private website operators scrape the public postings and re-host them, ensuring that they show up in Google listings. To take them down, they demand steep fees — a practice which, in other circles, might fairly be called extortion.

While other types of offenders who have committed crimes the luxury of being “ex,” but to offend is something closer to a job title here. Implied in that title is something that you do, that you are, not merely something that you have done, however many years ago, or whatever you have done since to make amends and rehabilitate.

The message is that you must be reminded daily of not just what you have done, but who you are at your core. To offend, as an offender is something that you do.

Guilt, in penological parlance, is good. But shame kills.

For many, no human cost is too much so long as the lists keep people safe -- except that the research done on the question indicates they may actually result in more crime. If people on the registry will forever be heralded a dangerous criminal, regardless of what they do, then there is little incentive to try to be anything better. Those on registries who rehabilitate themselves do so in spite of, rather than because of, their circumstances.  

A broader and more intractable problem is that registries are built on a fundamentally-flawed conception of how sexual violence happens in society, and therefore, can offer nothing but fundamentally-flawed solutions.  As some suggest, sex registries actually facilitate and perpetuate the very sexual violence that they are intended to stop.

The second aspect of Wilde that does not track is that he saw re-entry as a process where the state merely abandoned the damned.

In this context, the state actively opposes them.

Indeed, the success of many American laws that apply to those on the registry are determined by how they keep those on registries separate and apart from the communities in which they are impelled to reside, as opposed to reintegrating them. Residence restrictions, despite being such objectively bad policy that the United States Department of Justice recommends against them, are exceedingly popular with states. Generally, they require that people on the registry not live within a certain proscribed distance from locations like schools and parks. In Florida, for example, the restrictions were so severe that people on the registry had no place they could legally reside except under a literal bridge. While the homeless camp under the bridge was shuttered in response to international condemnation, the restrictions remain in place to this day — with people being essentially forced to move from street corner to street corner in a perpetual game of housing cat-and-mouse. Forcing people into homelessness does not make anyone safer, yet approximately half of the states have them.

As for myself, I am sensitive to the fact that I committed a crime, that my actions harmed others. Nothing I write, here or elsewhere, is intended to minimize either my own actions, nor anyone else’s. I believe that any conception of justice which disregards accountability is a sham. To be accountable, in my view, is to atone, and make amends. At every moment along my journey, from the interrogation room to writing these words, I have always accepted responsibility, and I always will.

Of equal importance, and that which America seems to have largely forgotten, is the opportunity for redemption. Our punishments, especially when it comes to the intersection of sex and criminal justice, are largely untethered from any notion of proportionality, mercy, or reintegration, and thus resemble something closer to a blind, casual cruelty. Rather than making people whole, any punishment which lacks these ingredients becomes little more than poison, through which we all — victims, offenders, and our communities — are diminished.

As mentioned, there are nearly a million people on sex registries in the United States. The trend is that they will only continue to grow. Other countries are now considering American-style registries. They are being exported to other classes of crime, despite little evidence they do much beyond brand those on it pariahs who exist far beyond redemption.

I am ultimately an idealist in our systems of crime and punishment. Properly balanced, I believe that they can be an immense force for good, bring together all those affected by a crime, and leave them better than how it found them.

To arrive at such a system, however, would require that we have the collective courage to recognize that which Wilde saw as plain more than a century ago: that the appalling punishments we impose reflect just as much on those who inflict them as those afflicted by them.


Guy Hamilton-Smith is a graduate of the University of Kentucky College of Law, and is the Sex Offense Litigation and Policy Fellow at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, in St. Paul, Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter @G_Padraic.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Hamilton-Smith, G., (2018) On America's Civil Death Penalty: The Sexual Offense Registry. Available at: (Accessed [date]).

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. It should be noted, however, that existing studies have tended to analyze the impact of the work environment on correctional staff at a given moment and have thereby disregarded the long-term impact of correctional officers’ work on their personalities.

The aim of our research was to explore the impact of employment in prison on correctional officers’ levels of neuroticism. Neuroticism represents the individual’s emotional stability and relates to anxiety, anger, depression, poor control of urges, social embarrassment, and vulnerability. Our main findings indicate that Israeli correctional officers reached a significantly higher score of neuroticism than employees of organizations similar to the Israeli Prison Service after three to four years of employment. Additionally, the analysis revealed that, after three to four years of work, the neuroticism score among employees of organizations similar to the Israeli Prison Service was significantly lower than at the start of their employment.

Figure 1:

We also found a significant increase in the scores for Anger, Depression, Social embarrassment, Poor control of urges, and Vulnerability after four years of service among correctional officers. Simultaneously, we revealed a significant decrease in Anxiety, Anger, Depression, Social embarrassment, and Vulnerability among employees of organizations similar to the Israeli Prison Service.


Table 1: Subsets for the Neuroticism Factor, t-tests for Dependent Samplings in the Research Groups



Prison Service

Control Group









24.8 ± 5.0

25.9 ± 6.3

t(119) =-1.618

23.6 ± 5.6

21.8 ± 6.2

t(147) = 4.10***


24.2 ± 6.4

28.3 ± 7.1

t(119) = -5.920***

22.4 ± 6.6

20.8 ± 6.2

t(147) = 3.4***


18.2 ± 5.9

20.6 ± 7.0

t(119) = -3.723***

6.2 ± 5.0

14.8 ± 4.2

t(147) = 3.47***

Social Embarrassment

25.0 ± 6.0

28.7 ± 6.6

t(119) = -5.871***

24.1 ± 5.9

22.5 ± 6.2

t(147) = 1.76***

Poor Control of Impulses

22.3 ± 6.2

24.8 ± 6.9

t(119) = -3.334***

21.3 ± 6.9

20.0 ± 6.5

t(147) = 2.85**


124.3 ± 6.1

26.4 ± 6.9

t(119) = -3.407***

24.1 ± 5.7

22.1 ± 6.1

t(147) = 4.44***

Note. **p < .01 ***p < .001



We subsequently examined levels of neuroticism among groups of employees with differing seniority at the same point in time. Among correctional officers, officers with four years of service scored significantly higher than new recruits. As regards employees of organizations similar to the Israeli Prison Service, we found that neuroticism among employees with four years of service was significantly lower than among new candidates who had not yet started work.

These findings reveal a significant increase in levels of neuroticism among correctional officers after three to four years in employment, contrasting with a significant decrease in levels of neuroticism among employees within other nationwide public organizations with similar characteristics after the same number of years. Given that most studies in the sphere of personality have indicated a significant decrease in levels of neuroticism among the general population aged between 20 and 30, the findings of the present research are particularly noteworthy.

A possible explanation for the significant increase in levels of neuroticism among correctional officers is the impact of continuing traumatic pressures on personality. In her book Trauma and Recovery, Herman (1992) addressed the concept of complex post-traumatic stress disorder and characterized it as a disorder stemming from exposure to prolonged traumatic situations of stress. She also suggested the possibility of enduring personality change after catastrophic experiences (1992, p. 150). The whole range of experiences and pressures that correctional officers experience frequently, and the need to function under constant threats to security and to get through the working day unharmed, constitute a prolonged situation of crisis that, over time, may trigger a variety of post-traumatic reactions. In other words, the correctional setting creates pressures and demands that lead to feelings of anger, anxiety, depression, social embarrassment, poor control of urges and vulnerability, which wear officers down and affect their successful job adjustment and their ability to cope.

Lazarus (1961) maintained that the development of personality is a process that accompanies individuals throughout their lives and includes adjustment to external and internal demands. Maladjustment to these demands, which stems from the individual’s inability to solve problems deriving from stress, encourages the development of inappropriate defense mechanisms and solutions. In this theoretical context, our findings indicate an inappropriate adjustment to the implicit and explicit demands of their work environment.

The crowdedness of the prison setting, its noises and odors, as well as the frequent emotional encounters with inmates, bring new officers into an unfamiliar, frightening, and threatening reality that requires rapid adjustment and specific modes of action. Nonetheless, they are required to demonstrate restrained yet tough behavior and operate professionally and effectively from their very first day of work. For many correctional officers, this entails a distancing of their immediate emotions and the presentation of a relaxed yet distance and possibly tough exterior. We believe that this emotion work takes its toll on officers’ mental powers and produces changes in their personalities. But the process does not end here: correctional officers’ burnout and the dwindling of their emotional resources, stemming from the exhausting emotional work, lead to the development of a paradoxical situation in which they develop powerful inner negative emotions alongside a confident and distant appearance. These emotions do not necessarily find their expression externally, but rather they build up within officers’ personalities, leading to a reduction in mental resources and creating post-traumatic reactions, such as anxiety, anger, and difficulty in controlling emotions.       

Personality changes which are characterized by an increase in neuroticism may have several effects on both the correctional officer and the organization. Concerning officers, intense feelings of stress and greater vulnerability are liable to lead directly or indirectly to adverse health events (see: Brewer, 2011; McCann, 2014). It can therefore be assumed that the increase in neuroticism and the decline in emotional stability that were found in our study are likely to damage the psychological resilience of correctional officers as well as their mental and physical health. Consequently, correctional officers are likely to see the world more negatively, to have more negative feelings and physical symptoms, and to fall ill more frequently.

Concerning the organization, a connection has been found between an increase in neuroticism and emotional fatigue, depersonalization, a low sense of gratification and achievement, work productivity loss, unwillingness to come to work, and absence from work due to illness. Since prisons are responsible for the wellbeing of their employees, chiefly when that well-being is related to working conditions, we believe that prison facilities must acknowledge the connection between correctional officers’ work and the damage to their personality, identify the major factors at play, and make every effort to reduce or eradicate them. We recommend three specific directions for action.

The first comprises the implementation of techniques to help decrease stress and self-regulation. Understanding prison officers' psychological and emotional distresses and their effect on their behavior and adjustment to their work environment should be of paramount concern to correctional services. Correctional services should employ various stress-reducing mechanisms (pressure valves) and treatment interventions for correctional officers in order to reduce or eliminate such pressures. These could include a range of relaxation techniques, conversations with therapists, and respite sport activity. Whatever the chosen means, correctional services should recognize their importance as integral and legitimate aspects of the correctional officer’s job definition and tasks.

Second, given the correlation between the prison work environment and correctional officers' stress and burnout, we recommend that correctional services carry out routine professional instruction and training to help correctional officers respond to the various occupational challenges that they encounter (e.g. the appropriate response to provocations, coping with anger etc.). We believe that such training, combined with granting correctional officers professional discretion and autonomy, will enable them to achieve and implement better professional decisions.

Finally, correctional services should acknowledge the unique role and professional challenges of correctional officers and develop appropriate and accurate selection tests and employment criteria accordingly. Such tests and criteria should include personality assessment with a focus on emotional stability and maturity, a short stay in prison, and simulation of various stressful situations (e.g. physical confrontations, provocations, and open and hidden threats) in order to examine the candidate's approach to such events and their personal tendency.



Brewer, G. (2011). Personality and symptoms of psychological ill health among adult male offenders. American Journal of Men’s Health, 5(3), 236-242.

Herman, J.L. (1992). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence. Basic Books, New York, NY.

Lazarus, R.S. (1961). Adjustment and personality. McGraw-Hill, New York, NY.

McCann, S.J.H. (2014). Higher resident neuroticism is specifically associated with elevated state cancer and heart disease mortality rates in the United States. Sage Open, 4(2), 1-15.


Colonel Nina Suliman has Phd in Criminology from Bar Ilan University. She is a specialist in Clinical Psychology and the Head of the Purchasing Department in the Israel Prison Service.

Tomer Einat is a Professor in Criminology at the department of Criminology at Bar-Ilan University, and the Chair of the Israeli Society of Criminology. His main areas of research interest are Penology, Corrections, Intermediate Sanctions and alternatives to Imprisonment, Criminal Fines, Prisons and Prisoners Subculture and Qualitative Methodology. 


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Suliman, N., Einat, T., (2018) Does work stress change personalities? Working in prison as a personality-changing factor among correctional officers. Available at: (Accessed [date]).

Life after Death?

Life after Death?

By Steve

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.

I was sent to prison for perpetrating sexual offences against a minor, and I remember the utter confusion within my mind during those first days, weeks, and months of prison, and the seemingly unfathomable questions I posed of myself. That time is hazy, but the spirit of those questions would be, “What led me to commit such damaging acts? When did I pass away, and become a wraith that drifted between light and darkness?” Beyond these, but invoked by them, were more immediately pressing questions, such as, “Do I want to live? Should I be allowed to live?”, and most prominent in my mind, “Do I deserve to live?”  

I felt I couldn’t begin to pursue the answers to these questions, nor to affirm who I really was, until I really understood the situation. My embarkation point towards a safer future for all, had to be with victim empathy at the forefront of my psyche. On one specific occasion I can recall, during pre-programme assessment, this flexibility of thinking was stirred within me, connected to my alternative view of death. I was confronted by a psychometric question, that being, “Have you killed a child?” This invoked two conflicting responses within my mind, driven by two trains of thought. No, I hadn’t in the mortal sense, but yes, I had seriously hurt someone, and taken critical emotional and physiological lifeblood from them. Understanding how much I had hurt someone helped me when I was undergoing interventions and treatment, as I felt there can be no stronger incentive to learn, understand, and prevent further offending than through having the deepest connection to my victim’s state I could achieve.

Over time though, especially upon release, I have realised it can be dangerous to become obsessed with this intense analysis of actions and consequences. A balance must be reached: not disrespecting the past, or ignoring the invaluable learning that must be embraced, but not continual, obsessive, introspective research either, that can induce instability within me. In a nutshell, I have had to move on. I have within this process though, found that many of those initial questions from my darkest days have been answered, although others I believe will remain in my subconscious indefinitely.  The critical thing is, my pulse remains.

Death in all its guises stalks the wings of our prisons. Suicide is known to be a consequence of our penal thinking, and I lost two friends to “lost hope” within those walls and fences. Thankfully, assisted in the main by my “Samaritan” led “Listener” training, a role prisoners take on to emotionally support others inside, my split-second temptations towards such a fate were rare. I deduced that I didn’t want to be dead permanently, but just for a little while, until the pain of my existence had passed. As I have described, these brief assignations with the abyss were especially frequent in the early days, as guilt, shame, and loss haunted my waking hours and trespassed into my sleep. As part of the therapeutic support I received, it was explained to me that I was suffering from bereavement in a way. The death of my marriage, the death of the family unit, the loss of my wife, my children, and my friends, with no hope it seemed of seeing them again. It was gently suggested to me, that a living bereavement can be as debilitating as coping with physical demise, as there is little chance of closure over time, knowing they are out there physically living, but forever out of reach, forever dead to me.

These preceding words are all tainted with darkness, so you may be asking yourself, when does life begin again? I have tried to avoid spiritual concepts, beyond the few within the first paragraph, but it is a truth that you need to die to be reborn. I can pinpoint the precise moment my previous life ended, along with the passing of so much more. It was upon receiving the call that accused me of doing the things I had done. Over time though, with thought, support, and that most critical of tools, perspective, I realised that my negative, troubled persona had passed away too, at that same precise moment in time. I know many people would be sceptical of that statement, believing “Once a sex offender, always a sex offender.” Having experienced the system though, I cannot concur. Among the many imprisoned, released, and community order offenders, there is a wide-ranging spectrum of risk. There is the offender that should sadly never be released from a secure environment, whose issues are just too extreme to treat, and at the other end, there is the offender that will never contemplate illegal actions again. I would never be so bold as to put myself at the positive end of this spectrum, but firmly believe, that the trauma at the point of that old life passing, can immediately change people, maybe much more than is recognised or accepted at present. Whatever the time frame, I know the man I was has passed away, and in his place is a man more attentive, more empathetic, more caring and kind; less selfish, less unstable, less sexually motivated, less inattentive to inner demons and negative emotions. My goal has always been to regress towards the child I was, purely from a moral and virtuous point of view. Recapturing the innocence, whilst retaining the maturity, patience, knowledge, and wisdom of the adult I am now.

To conclude this piece, and please forgive me for one more spiritual analogy, but what keeps me going each day, what drives me on, is the resurrection of the seemingly dead. Around two years ago, my eldest daughter sent me a message. Simply worded it read, “It has taken me a long time to process all this, but you are my Dad, and I love you and forgive you.” For me, this is the pure essence of hope, and “Life after Death”.



Steve served a prison sentence for sex offences, and is now building a future in the community.

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. 

The programme involved trained prisoners delivering a series of educational and interactive workshops to the young people, with the aim of diverting them from away from the criminal justice system.Simultaneously, the programme aimed to support participating prisoners’ rehabilitation, by encouraging them to reflect on their own offending behaviour, and equipping them with skills and experience transferrable to the real world. I was interested in how prisoners’ motivation fluctuated over time, and how aspects of the programme, wider prison life, and individual factors influenced this process.


Within prisoners’ narratives, motivation was often linked to the extent to which they felt autonomous in their role on the programme. Over time, participating largely supported this sense of autonomy, and enthusiasm, interest and enjoyment sustained motivation to be there - which for many had been more instrumental initially. The majority of prisoners had internalised the aims of the programme such that being able to give something back, and this being experienced as highly personally rewarding, was motivating in itself. However, this sense of autonomy and the facilitative effect it had upon motivation to participate was fragile, due to the inevitable practical restrictions placed upon their behaviour by the prison environment, which threatened the perceived level of control that prisoners had over their lives. Whilst prisoners provided many examples of ways in which participating in the programme had supported their autonomy, more so than they had experienced in prison before, these were often juxtaposed with examples of barriers to their freedom and choice that were experienced as frustrating. On the one hand they enjoyed being in a position of unprecedented responsibility compared to their prison experience thus far, yet everything they did was subject to the rules and boundaries of the programme; relationships forged with programme staff, team members and the young people encouraged and inspired them to keep pursuing their goals, yet officers largely continued to make them feel worthless and they were unable to share their successes with their families; and while the programme itself provided a safe and comforting space throughout the working day, this was only ever a temporary escape from the punishing atmosphere of the rest of the prison. I will explore these examples in more detail throughout the rest of this blog post.

I found that prisoners appreciated having significant input into the running of the programme, including delivering the workshops themselves, being encouraged to inject their own style and personality into them, and having their voices valued when it came to making suggestions for improvements. In line with the concepts of generativity and the ‘wounded healer’ (Maruna, 2001; Maruna, LeBel and Lanier, 2004; LeBel, Richie and Maruna, 2015), their status as ‘prisoner’ was no longer entirely associated with negative connotations, because the programme allowed them to channel this into something positive, which motivated them to carry on using their experience in this way. As opposed to feeling like a burden on society, being entrusted with this responsibility made them feelwanted’, and provided a sense of competence many had never felt before. However, the programme operated according to a manual, the workshops were scripted, and prisoners were under strict instruction to not ‘glamourize’ any aspects of committing crime or being in prison. Whilst, in theory, they were ‘running the show’, in reality they had very little control, and final decisions were made by staff. Prisoners expressed frustration that the programme was overly-scripted, rigid and outdated, and their interactions with the young people censored, which they believed negatively impacted on their ability to connect with them. I sensed a constant battle to assert their autonomy, which prisoners were determined to win because they believed it was their unique ability to relate to the young people that made the programme so powerful.  As Mick told me:


you’ve experienced everything that these people have experienced [but]… Ultimately, they [staff] always do what they want to do and the way they want to do it so sometimes you just bite your lip and just get on with it for the sake of your sanity. Other times you sort of make a bit of a, you try and be forceful.


Many of those I spoke to were acutely frustrated because they genuinely cared about the young people, wanted to make a difference in their lives and believed they had the ability do this, but were not always able to go about this as they saw fit. Being encouraged to use their experiences to do good, on the one hand, but having other people - who did not share the same experiences - dictate how they could do this made little sense to them, as another man pointed out, “that would be like me telling you how to do your PhD!”. I could really feel the energy and desire to help that was sustaining their motivation to continue participating, even when it could sometimes feel like they were up against a brick wall. This was further emphasised by their body language. I frequently wrote in fieldnotes about how animated they all were when telling me about how they worked with the young people, their personal achievements, and the kinds of positive impact they believed they were having. They sat forwards eagerly on their seats, their smiles stretched across their faces, and I couldn’t get a word in edgeways. This was very different to the slouched down, arms-crossed, somewhat deflated and defeated stance that many took when speaking about what they would do differently if they had the choice, and what more they wished they could do for the young people. On balance, the interviews were more dominated by the former enthusiasm, and I left the prisons feeling optimistic and in awe of the strength and determination of those I had spoken to on far more occasions than I left feeling disheartened.


Relationships forged whilst participating were largely autonomy-supportive. Prisoners felt that programme staff truly cared about them, wanted the best for them, and believed in them. Many of them reflected warmly on examples of staff having gone the extra mile to help them with something, whether this be practical or emotional support. Having somebody else recognising and promoting their strengths, providing positive feedback and genuinely wanting them to succeed reinforced that they were on the right path, and could achieve more than they had ever thought possible. In line with research on desistance, positive regard extended towards them by programme staff whom they trusted and respected- a kind of ‘re-labelling’ process- challenged any prevailing negative perceptions of themselves and provided motivation, confidence and self-control to continue pursuing a ‘new me’ (Maruna et al., 2004; Maruna and Toch, 2005; Maruna and LeBel, 2010; McNeill et al., 2011; Blagden, Winder and Hames, 2016). Prisoners also valued friendships with other team members, and the strong sense of team spirit based on shared goals, mutual respect and understanding, with several likening the team to a family. This motivated them to be at their best and put their all into the programme so as not to let one another down, and to be the strongest team they could for the benefit of the young people. These relationships were particularly meaningful because they contrasted heavily with the usual tendency to ‘keep to yourself’ around the prison due to an atmosphere of distrust, and relationships with officers that were generally described as indifferent, uncaring and, at worst, hostile.

Having these kinds of connections with others also appeared to lessen the void caused by being separated from their loved ones, because they had somebody to care for and look out for (the young people and each other) and were cared for and looked out for by others (programme staff and each other), and for many the development of these relationships had helped them to think about how they could better approach and improve their relationships on the outside, which kept them motivated to succeed and get back to their families. However, this sense of belonging found on the programme was also fragile, as prisoners sometimes found it difficult to relate to programme staff because they did not share the same experiences, and because of concerns around confidentiality, and the occasional tensions caused by inevitable underlying power imbalances. 

Many prisoners spoke about how the programme provided a safe and pleasant environment, within which they were treated more like equal human beings than they had been before in prison. They all spoke with fondness and gratitude about being treated respectfully as a friend, colleague, and member of a team, by both staff and fellow team members. Most were able to understand why there were fairly strict procedures in place, in terms of what they could do with the young people, and recognised that staff too were operating within programme boundaries, and built in as much flexibility as possible. The negative impact on motivation caused by the inevitable limits placed upon their autonomy was at least partly alleviated by the fact that they were actively encouraged to express themselves and explore their capabilities; their achievements were celebrated; and their immediate needs were supported- both within and beyond the programme. The programme itself also appeared to function as a kind of protective bubble around the stress and chaos of the rest of the prison. As ex-team member Keira told me it’s like a home within prison”. Another important aspect of this was feeling re-connected on some level to the world outside of the prison, which previous research has also identified as a motivating factor (Uggen, Manza and Behrens, 2004; Edgar, Jacobson and Biggar, 2011). Regularly interacting with professionals and young people from the community reminded them that there was something to go back to, and provided a welcome sense of normality. Regardless of how humanising the programme experience was, in terms of enabling them to “not feel like prisoners”, a sharp reminder of how far they were from normalcy and freedom was never far away. As two men asked me, how human can you feel when you have forgotten the feeling of grass between your toes and what the sky looks like at night? Most had resigned themselves to the fact that, as long as they were in prison, they would have limited control over their lives. Having gained clarity around who they wanted to be and affirmed their commitment to change whilst participating in the programme, not being able to test out this ‘new me’ until they were released was a frustration.


Many of the prisoners I spoke to had managed to establish a degree of autonomy even under such controlling social conditions, and the programme was a significant part of this, but the complexity and dynamism of motivation in the prison context cannot be over-emphasised. What is needed is prison-wide commitment to supporting prisoners’ autonomy, as inconsistent provision may actually be more detrimental to motivation and well-being than being predictably restricted of it.  Given the fragility of prisoners’ sense of autonomy and its importance for ensuring that any motivation to change endures, a more holistic approach is desperately needed. More often than not, people in prison are being shoe-horned through overly-structured, impersonal cognitive-behavioural programmes in the name of rehabilitation, rather than having the opportunity to undertake meaningful activities that they are interested in and hold some relevance for the life they envision outside of prison. There has been a recent rise in strengths-based, more individualised and creative approaches to rehabilitation such as therapeutic communities, arts-based initiatives and democratic participation (Edgar, Jacobson and Biggar, 2011; Davey, Day and Balfour, 2015; Hunter et al., 2016; Dolan, 2017; Jacobson and Fair, 2017), which is promising. It is not realistic given limits on resources that the necessary support for prisoners’ autonomy can be provided entirely through rehabilitation programmes, yet the prison regime as it stands offers little else in between. Daily processes and interactions thus need to be more autonomy supportive, in order to achieve a prison culture that encourages its inhabitants to flourish, such that any motivational effect of programmes is supported, rather than threatened, by the wider prison environment. My PhD journey has led me to the firm and optimistic conclusion that good things can come out of prison, but far more needs to be done to constructively engage prisoners’ motivation.

Annie Bunce ( is in the final year of her PhD, which has explored prisoners’ motivations for participating in rehabilitation programmes, at the University of Surrey. Her research interests are rehabilitation programmes, motivation and prisoner wellbeing and desistance. She also works part-time as Research and Evidence Officer for Samaritans’ work on self-harm and suicide prevention in prisons. 


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Bunce, A., (2018) Autonomy in prison: So close?...Yet so far. Available at: (Accessed [date]).


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  • Edgar, K., Jacobson, J. and Biggar, K. (2011) Time Well Spent: A practical guide to active citizenship and volunteering in prison. London: Prison Reform Trust.
  • Hunter, B. A. et al. (2016) ‘A strengths-based approach to prisoner reentry: The Fresh Start Prisoner Reentry Program’, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 60(11), pp. 1298–1314. doi: 10.1177/0306624X15576501.
  • Jacobson, J. and Fair, H. (2017) Sense of self and responsibility: a review of learning from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Prison Reform Fellowships – Part V. Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Birkbeck, University of London, p. 18. Available at: (Accessed: 5 January 2018).
  • LeBel, T. P., Richie, M. and Maruna, S. (2015) ‘Helping others as a response ro reconcile a criminal past: The role of the wounded healer in prisoner reentry programs’, Criminal Justice and Behavior, 42(1), pp. 108–120.
  • Maruna, S. (2001) Making Good: How Ex-Convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.
  • Maruna, S. et al. (2004) ‘Pygmalion in the reintegration process: Desistance from crime through the looking glass’, Psychology, Crime & Law, 10(3), pp. 271–281. doi: 10.1080/10683160410001662762.
  • Maruna, S. and LeBel, T. P. (2010) ‘The desistance paradigm in correctional practice: from programs to lives’, in McNeill, F., Raynor, P., and Trotter, C. (eds) Offender Supervision: New Directions in Theory, Research and Practice. Oxon; New York: Willan, pp. 65–89.
  • Maruna, S., LeBel, T. P. and Lanier, C. S. (2004) ‘Generativity Behind Bars: Some “Redemptive Truth” About Prison Society’, in de St. Aubin, E., McAdams, D. P., and Kim, T.-C. (eds) The generative society: Caring for future generations. Washington: American Psychological Association, pp. 131–151. Available at: (Accessed: 8 December 2016).
  • Maruna, S. and Toch, H. (2005) ‘The impact of imprisonment on the desistance process’, in Travis, J. and Visher, C. (eds) Prisoner Reentry and Crime in America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 139–178. Available at: (Accessed: 8 December 2016).
  • McNeill, F. et al. (2011) ‘Inspiring desistance? Arts projects and “what works?’’”’, Justitiele verkenningen, 37(5), pp. 80–101.
  • Uggen, C., Manza, J. and Behrens, A. (2004) ‘“Less than the average citizen”: stigma, role transition and the civic reintegration of convicted felons’, in Maruna, S. and Immarigeon, R. (eds) After Crime and Punishment: Pathways to Offender Reintegration. Cullompton: Willan, pp. 261–293.


Look to Norway?

Look to Norway? Well …

By Kirsti Nymo and Sven-Erik Skotte, from KRUS (University College of Norwegian Correctional Services)


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:


1: Budgets are now so low that there is a real danger that rehabilitation work is no longer possible in many prisons.

2: More prisoners must serve their sentence under a higher security regime than necessary – which is not in accordance with the legislature’s original intentions when it comes to the execution of prison sentences.


The task of the Norwegian Correctional Service

The task of the Norwegian correctional service is stated in the Execution of Sentences Act, Chapter 2 of which says: “The purpose of the sentence is to prevent new criminal acts, to reassure society, and within this framework, to ensure satisfactory conditions for inmates”.

From the Operations Strategy 2014-2018 we also copy the following statement: “The Norwegian Correctional Service’s social mission is to enforce remand orders and sentences in a manner that reassures society and attempts to prevent recidivism. Our job is to help offenders change their criminal behaviour through their own efforts”.[i]  This is the ideal – now to reality.


Lack of staff-prisoner interaction

The prison officer is the key figure in reducing re-offending; when the number of prison officers is decreasing, an important means to prevent recidivism is lacking. When budgets are cut to less than a minimum needed for keeping the prisons going, the consequences are alarming: vacancies are left open, sick leaves are not compensated, time for structured interaction is scarce – and rehabilitative programmes are practically not offered. The Parliamentary Ombudsman of National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) regarding prisons is deeply concerned about the lack of out-of-cell activities and human contact, which is explained as a result of a staff shortages, due to budget cuts. This too often results in prisoners being left alone in their cells without meaningful activities. During weekends in particular, more prisoners are locked up and left to languish in their cells for 22 – 23 hours a day.    


Why closing down lower security prisons is wrong

The decision to close down open prisons is not in accordance with the legislature’s original intentions when it comes to the execution of prison sentences.[ii] In the preparation to the Norwegian Execution of Sentences Act, the Norwegian Ministry of Justice pointed out that transferring prisoners from high security prisons to lower security prisons is a part of a systematic progression of prisoners which is essential in order to facilitate a return to society. The Ministry of Justice therefore proposed to extend the access to serve prison sentences in open prisons, both by letting prisoners be directly committed to a prison with a lower security level and as a part of their gradual transfer to society. Hence the approved budget is de facto contrary to the legislator's original intention of gradually release to society.

Sentences in Norway are relatively short; last year 55 % of the released prisoners were released within 90 days, and 86 % within one year.[iii] Accordingly, only a minority of the prisoners constitute a threat to public safety, and should therefore not serve their sentence in a high security prison.  

The key element in a sanction is the deprivation or reduction of liberty. European Prison Rules state that “restrictions placed on persons deprived of their liberty shall be the minimum necessary and proportionate to the legitimate objective for which they are imposed”.[iv] The harmful effects of the loss of liberty are well documented and should therefore be reduced as much as possible.  The offender shall be placed in the lowest security regime possible.

As stated earlier, the government is now preparing to close down lower security prisons and replace them with extended use of EM. So far so good; EM is really low security. But EM is not suitable for all prisoners. “It is a precondition for execution of the sentence outside prison that the convicted person shall have a permanent residence and be employed in a form of work, training or other measures” (Execution of Sentences Act, Chapter 16). In other words, EM is suitable for convicted persons with relatively well-organised lives. Many prisoners do not have a permanent residence or a job; often they have severe substance abuse problems, hence they are not in the target group for EM – and the implication will most likely be that they will end up in higher security prisons than they need to be in.  


Juveniles should not serve their prison sentence in high security prisons

In Norway we have two prisons for children between 15 and 18, and we have appropriate community sanctions for the youngest offenders. But both the Beijing Rules and the European Rules for Juvenile Offenders subject to sanctions or measures emphasise that young adults, aged 18-21, should also benefit from the same variety of educational measures that are provided for juvenile offenders below the age of 18.[v] The reason for this is that they too are in a transitional stage of life when it comes to their developmental problems as young adults. Many other countries have taken this evidence-based policy into consideration in their juvenile justice legislation and have extended this period of transition.

When a young person under the age of 21 is sent to prison, it is of the utmost importance that the loss of liberty is restricted to the least possible degree, with special institutional arrangements for confinement. Priority should be given to “open” over “closed” institutions and the facility should be of a correctional or educational rather than prison type.[vi] A friendly and safe institutional environment plays an important role in contributing to the well-being of the young person and the overall aim of their education and re-integration into society. Due to the budget cuts, we are afraid that this also will lead to an increase in young offenders serving their sentences under a stricter regime than necessary.     


Concluding remarks

It is a general principle that prisoners should not serve their sentence under a stricter regime than necessary. The reason for this is, as mentioned in the commentaries to European Prison Rules, that the lower the level of security, the more humane the treatment is likely to be. Secondly security is expensive and the higher the level, the greater the cost. Therefore, it makes financial sense not to keep prisoners in a higher security category than is necessary. The Norwegian government is planning to close down six low-security prisons, which offers a high degree of normality. We consider this wrong as it implies that more prisoners have to serve their sentence in high security prisons with low staffing, impoverished prison regimes and isolation.

Given the importance of relationships between prisoners and prison staff, we do not believe that reducing prison staff and closing lower security prisons are sustainable means of controlling costs in the long run. A humane and effective prison regime depends on skilled and experienced prison officers, who have the necessary resources to do their job well. For the time being this is not the case; more prison officers now look upon themselves as merely key holders. This is far from good enough for a country that wants to be a world leader in protecting human rights. 


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Nymo, K., Skotte, S., (2019) Looking to Norway? Well... Available at: (Accessed [date]).

Loneliness by Julie Laursen


By Julie Laursen

‘And that kind of isolation erm is... it becomes quite all-encompassing […]I think I understand now when people leave prison they feel like they've never left, even though they're on the out because they still feel isolated’ (Manwell[1]). 


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. However, there are (at least) two sides to loneliness: how much interviewees talk about loneliness and how much we think their situations seem lonely, for example, when they talk only about broken relationships, do not appear to have a solid social group or seem rarely to leave their home. I will describe both sides in this blog-post, focusing on what interviewees said about isolation, loneliness, and social relationships in and outside of the prison systems in England & Wales and Norway.

Interviewees have often alluded to feelings of exclusion from ‘normal society’, and to forms of social alienation. As one man convicted of a sex offense in England said: ‘What if these people knew what I have the burden of? They are all going to kick me off the train, or move away from me,’ almost like I was a leper’. This man lived in something akin to a ‘state of emergency’ (Benjamin 1968:257 in Bourgois & Schonberg 2009) due to the isolation, shame and stigma caused by his offence. Another interviewee felt welcomed back into Norwegian society, but was lonely and asked rhetorically ‘how much help can you get finding new friends’? Although this man had help finding housing and other social security benefits, his loneliness could not be alleviated by the generous Norwegian welfare state. These are examples of slightly different emotional states, with different causes, but are connected by the feeling that relationships with others are severed or struggle to grow. We are just beginning to tease out the conceptual distinctions between different ‘types’ of loneliness and their causes, but in this blog post I will focus on describing loneliness upon entry into custody, during the sentence, and after release.

In phase one interviews, where interviewees have recently entered custody, loneliness is often connected to the sudden separation from friends, family and partners on the outside. One Norwegian interviewee described how going to prison ‘felt as unreal and surreal as going to the moon’ and how she missed her family and friends whom she had chosen not to see during her imprisonment. Another female Norwegian interviewee felt scared, upset and angry when she walked through the prison gate. She was held in isolation for two weeks, requested by the police, which meant that she was not allowed any contact with other prisoners – only officers – and spent 23 hours a day in her cell. She suffered from bad ‘separation and social anxiety’ that was exacerbated by the fact that she was not allowed to speak to her boyfriend or family. This social isolation made her feel like she ‘went a bit mad’. Furthermore, many prisoners tell us how their first experiences of standing alone in the prison yard, or going to meals for the first time in large serveries, were absolutely terrifying. Loneliness upon entry is shaped by the sudden and often total separation from life outside, and it often takes interviewees weeks or months to find companionship in prison.     

In phase two interviews, interviewees are often more settled into their sentences, and sometimes, but not always, find themselves embedded in social life in prison with fellow prisoners they can talk and relate to. However, this social life is often described as ‘unnatural’ or ‘like being in a theme park where everything's artificial’ (Manwell). At this stage, interviewees are less preoccupied with the life they left behind, but often with the life that awaits them post-release including an anxiety about being lonely once released. Hence, phase two interviews often entail narratives of ‘possible futures’ (Mattingly 2014), and interviewees often describe how their ‘normal life’ feels distant and far away. They worry about whether they will be able to re-establish the life they were leading or will be able to distance themselves from a destructive path. These worries are partly related to relational dimensions (friends, family, children, partners) and the Criminal Justice System (license conditions, being on probation), especially in England & Wales.

For example, a young man in the English prison system told us how he worried about his upcoming release due to the restrictions placed upon him by his license conditions. Having been convicted to two years’ imprisonment for a violent offence, he was on a multi-agency public protection arrangement (MAPPA), which meant that he faced terms upon release. One of his licence conditions was that he was prohibited from having any contact with his four best friends since childhood, because they were his co-defendants. The group of childhood friends all lived in a small city and they were a very closely-knit circle, who supported, helped and accompanied each other. He struggled to understand why they had been allowed to be imprisoned in the same prison (even in the same cell at times), but prohibited from seeing each other on the outside. He dreaded having to negotiate social life without these friends. Similarly, a female interviewee described how she was restricted from being with her boyfriend (also on a MAPPA): ‘If they were to house us together, I think we’d be okay. I think we’d give it a good fucking shot. We would really try. It’s just like they’re always trying to keep us as far apart from each other as they can, and they know that’s not going to happen, so it’s setting us up to fail’. She said that their re-call was caused by their forced separation, and their resulting struggles to keep themselves fed, warm, and housed. 

Phase three interviews are often very rich since we have gotten to know interviewees quite well over the course of all three interview phases (when possible) and conduct phase three interviews in the community, approximately three months post-release. This longitudinal methodology allows us to compare narratives from earlier interviews, as well as listen to interviewees’ perspectives on settling back into social life. A common theme in many of our interviews is the desire to ‘make good’ (Maruna 2001) or ‘go straight’ and lead conventional lives with family, employment, housing and stability (Shapland & Bottoms 2011). This desire is often embedded in a narrative about the pain of having to sever ties with old acquaintances, because interviewees are striving to desist from drug use and crime. This decision can foster loneliness, isolation and struggles, which is a consistent theme in studies exploring ‘the pains of desistance’ (see Nugent & Schinkel 2016). A female interviewee in a phase three interview in Norway described how she longed for an ‘A4’ life: to own a home, have a family, employment and ‘find my place in society’. She wanted to ‘not stand out in a crowd, but to fit in with the rest of society’. She was worried about being lonely, because ‘that’s what broke me last time’ (when she relapsed).

These lonely and sometimes monotonous existences (Appleton 2010: 117) were often reported and perhaps especially so in our sample of men convicted of sexual offenses. These men often struggled with shame, stigma, loss of friends and family connections due to the conviction, as well as the restrictions and conditions from their license. The distance between social life in prison and social life on the outside can be quite stark for some people ‘because you invest the time to obviously have some good people around you and that you can trust and that can support you and you can support them […]’. This interviewee from England & Wales described a relatively rich social life in the prison, and then went on to explain that he had contacted all his friends upon his release to ask whether they still wanted to speak to him: ‘I can’t assume anything anymore, or I don't want to […] I don't want to put myself in a place where I assume that I can contact people and then I realise that ... or that I get hurt afterwards when they maybe make excuses that they can’t talk to me’.

Loneliness, in all its shapes, forms and expressions, is a very painful phenomenon, and it can be quite challenging to face and listen to narratives that are so full of hurt (Venkatesh 2013: 89-90). These narratives tell us that, despite very significant differences, prisoners’ experiences with loneliness in England & Wales and Norway are often quite similar. Loneliness, then, takes different forms at different times, which is something we find very interesting and hope to be able to document.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Laursen, J., (2019) Loneliness. Available at: (Accessed [date]).


Appleton, C (2010) Life after Life Imprisonment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bourgois, P & Schonberg, J (2009). Righteous Dopefiend. University of California Press.

Shapland, J., & Bottoms, A. (2011). Reflections on social values, offending and desistance among young adult recidivists. Punishment & Society13(3), 256–282

Maruna, S (2001) Making Good: How Ex-Convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives. American Psychological Association.

Mattingly, C (2014) Moral Laboratories. Family peril and the struggle for a good life. University of California Press. 

Nugent, B., & Schinkel, M. (2016). The pains of desistance. Criminology & Criminal Justice16(5), 568–584. 

[1] All names have been changed.  

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. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember one single interviewee who didn’t talk about men who had hurt them in some way or other. These bad experiences with men were highly varied, and ranged from sexual abuse, domestic violence, psychological violence, bullying, infidelity, financial exploitation and coercive and controlling behaviour. Even though it is a well-established research finding that women in prison have a high prevalence of traumatic life experiences, and I knew this well before we started this fieldwork, the level and nature of their bad experiences with men hit me with full force and made me feel uncomfortable about being a man.

In this blog post, I will try to use the women’s bad experiences with men and how that affected me as tools to reflect upon some of the gendered dynamics of prison life and research.

I have for long believed that one of my great assets as a prison researcher is my non-threatening demeanour. I look like a guy that works with documents in an office (rather thin and physically weak), and who is accustomed to working with people (friendly and approachable). This has worked to my benefit in male prisons. I think I am rarely seen as a threat to anyone’s masculinity. I don’t believe the men I have interviewed have experienced me as dominating, and I don’t believe the men I have interviewed have felt a need or desire to dominate me. To quite a large extent, I never felt that my maleness was ‘in the way’; it didn’t contaminate the relational dynamic between my interviewees and me.

Confronted with the stories the women in the female prison told me about the men they had encountered in their lives, I started to think and feel differently about my gender, and how that affected the research. Two things appear particularly important, and they concern trust and disgust.

Several of the women said, during our interviews, that their bad experiences with men meant that they were suspicious of men and did not trust them. I could perfectly well understand that, but it simultaneously made me acutely aware and self-conscious of my gender and how I performed it. In some of the interviews we discussed whether bad experiences with male staff members in prison reactivated traumatic life experiences, and some women said it did. Although this is very important data, it added an extra layer of discomfort: was my presence in the prison, and my being in the interview situation, fuelling further mistrust in men? Or worse: was I, under the guise of doing research, reactivating traumatic life experiences with bad men? Looking back, I can’t now think of any occasion where I believe I did that, but the awareness that I could be doing that increased my ethical self-consciousness in the prison.

For the most part, I think this ethical and gender self-consciousness produced positive outcomes. For instance, I was even more concerned with how my interviewees experienced the interview setting, and I believe that I was even more alert to signals of comfort or discomfort during our conversations. On the other hand, I believe that the awareness of the mistrust my gender represented meant that I was slightly more careful than I otherwise would have been when discussing difficult questions in the interviews. I am generally not the boldest interviewer and often feel a desire to shift topics when I sense that my interviewee finds the questions or themes painful, and I believe that I was even more inclined to do this when interviewing women.

Inspired partly by Alison Liebling’s (2009) point that ‘women in prison prefer legitimacy to sex’, we deliberately chose to use the same interview schedule in male and female prisons. The idea was that the themes we know are important for prisoners (staff-prisoner relationships, contact with family and friends, power, respect, legitimacy etc) would be important for prisoners of both sexes, although with possible variations that we wanted to explore. While I still believe that this is a good research strategy, I have come to realise that a ‘gender neutral’ approach is difficult to accomplish when you are in the field. My maleness was more ‘in the way’ in the women’s prison, and consciously and unconsciously led me to slightly different ways of doing the interviews. Although it might have resulted in more ethical self-consciousness and ‘gender sensitive’ interviewing, I’m slightly worried that it also pushed me towards ‘gender stereotypical’ interviewing where I may have reduced my interviewees agency by avoiding difficult themes.

Disgust was a prominent feeling I had when the women talked about their experiences with abusive men. Reflecting on this now, I think the feelings of disgust had different dimensions to it. One dimension was related to responsibility. For reasons I am not fully aware of, I felt that the behaviour of the bad men reflected negatively on me, as a man. I felt an urge to stand up and shout: ‘I am not like that!’, and ‘On behalf of all men: I am sorry!’ Alice Ievins (2017) has written extensively on stain in prison in relations to men convicted of sexual offences and argues that many men feel stained by having to interact on a daily basis with other men whose offences they morally disapprove of. Although not entirely applicable for my experience, I still believe the disgust I felt when the women told me about bad experiences with men had to do with stain – I felt stained by my sex.    

The other dimension to disgust that I would like to highlight, concerns the way I have previously sympathised with ‘bad men’ in the research process. The fieldwork we completed shortly before starting up the study in the women’s prisons was with men convicted of sexual offenses. Here we interviewed men who were convicted of rape and sexual assault towards women, that is; the ‘bad men’ the women talked about. However awful their offences, as a qualitative researcher, you need to sympathise at least partly with your research participants to be able to do a good interview. I had surprisingly few problems with that as we were doing the study of men convicted of sexual offences, but I had more problems with that when we later started interviewing the imprisoned women. The disgust I felt when the women talked about their experiences with abusive men then had to do with moral inauthenticity: how could I have sympathised so effortlessly with the ‘bad men’ whose offences had caused so much suffering?

I believe it is unpleasant yet unavoidable to feel morally inauthentic in situations like this. Unavoidable mainly due to two reasons. First, as stated above, you do have to sympathise with the people you interview in order to do a good interview. In my experience, it is actually very easy to find common human ground in the interview setting, and this usually sparks off a dialogic and reciprocal sharing of sympathy that, at its best, turns interviewing into a most intriguing gift. Secondly, and for good reasons I would argue, the victims of your interviewees’ offences are not your primary concern when you interview prisoners with the aim of learning about their experiences of imprisonment. By way of some cognitive mechanisms I do not fully comprehend, my feelings about the harms caused by the offenders I have interviewed have not surfaced in the interview setting in a way that has distracted me from doing decent interviewing. These feelings may surface later, however, like they did with full force when conducting research in the women’s prison. The moral inauthenticity issue therefore has some peculiar ritual to it, which shares affinity with some forms of transgressive offending behaviour: you suppress feelings in the act (of interviewing) and it feels good, yet that suppression of feelings bite back and make you feel bad.  

To conclude, then, listening to the imprisoned women’s bad experiences with men produced feelings and dilemmas in the research process that I have not experienced when doing research in male prisons. Researchers doing in-depth qualitative interviews in prison have a lot of experience listening to and dealing with suffering, and after two years of interviewing prisoners in Norway and England & Wales I am no exception to that rule. The stories of suffering told by our female interviewees affected me differently because I was pushed to reflect on how my identity as a man intervened in the research. To fully realise that my gender communicated mistrust, and that my male body, for some at least, represented abusive potential, was a new and uncomfortable experience. Although I don’t know yet whether this awareness made me do a better job as a researcher, I am confident that it helped me to understand some of the gendered complexities of prison life and prison research.


Ievins, A. (2017) Adaptation, Moral Community and Power in a Prison for Men Convicted of Sex Offences. PhD Dissertation. Cambridge: University of Cambridge.

Liebling, A. (2009) Women in Prison Prefer Legitimacy to Sex. British Society of Criminology Newsletter, 63: 19-23.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Mjåland, K., (2019) Bad Men. Available at: (Accessed [date]).

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.

At once a necessity, a source of well-being, but also something requiring control and management, the element of water offers an analytical basis for thinking in order to uncover mundane, intimate and embodied institutional practices that are mediated by water in its elemental form. This blogpost is an introduction to how carceral relationships with water (and indeed other elements like air) can be ‘variously and simultaneously unruly, restrictive, health-enabling, and therapeutic’ (Turner and Moran 2018). Although much work within prison research has produced data about the impact of incarceration (e.g. Sykes 2007) and the potential pains of infrastructural and design elements of the prison environment (e.g. Jewkes 2018), water has not featured much in these discussions.

Water in carceral spaces does not generally have a history of positive associations. Instead, as Turner and Moran (2018) point out, water has been used to control populations in the history of punishment and imprisonment, for example via prison colonies on remote islands[1], or more recently, the usage of ships to detain unwanted migrants. There is also a more directly embodied way of water usage as punishment, like water cannons being used to control demonstrators or the use of water in techniques of torture in prisons around the world. In everyday prison life water might feature in its scarcity or in its overabundance, e.g. through flooding: it is one of those things that is noticed if there is something wrong, but that we do not think much about otherwise. Taking note of problematic aspects of water in carceral spaces tells us something about detention in general and the way prisoners and staff use water in their everyday language also tells us something about the depth and weight of the prison experience (Crewe 2011). This has also been the case when I looked further into exploring water and water infrastructures in prison environments in the UK and Norway as part of the COMPEN project.

In prison, security and safety are primary concerns, resulting in the implementation of certain design choices both to prevent the escape of prisoners and ensure that they are not physically harmed whilst incarcerated (Turner and Moran 2018). This usually incorporates water infrastructures, since water can pose certain kinds of risks. These could include risk to people’s health through contagion, the risk of an individual flooding their immediate environment, or the risk of an individual causing bodily harm to themselves or others (e.g. through throwing boiling water). Risk reduction, then, means for example to implement a regime in which prisoners use showers rather than baths, and taps and showerheads are restricted in the volume of water flow. This can cause significant frustration among prisoners who have no choice but to use the facilities at hand (see Jewkes 2018; Turner 2016; Douglas 1966). Water infrastructure failing altogether is of more immediate concern, as Ryan points out:

‘Living in shit conditions, like dirty and this – it’s not nice (…) it’s bad, I’ve been in some bad jails. Here it’s bad, I was on B wing when I first got here and that’s really bad. Toilets don’t work, no toilet seat, sink blocked, just damp, just dingy (…) dark, bugs everywhere, it ain’t nice. [Wormwood] Scrubs [is] terrible: rats in the yard, toilet didn’t work for three weeks…yeah…

What do you do then?

You don’t even want to know, it’s bad what they have you doing. It’s inhumane. They have people throwing…

Do they have a bucket?

No not even a bucket. People just chucking things out of the window and that. It’s proper naughty.’

Prisoners and staff alike appreciate functional and clean in-cell washing facilities (like sinks and toilets) because they signify and produce levels of dignity and respect. However, the state of these facilities often become a cause of concern in the close communal living conditions of a shared cell, especially in England & Wales. With long lock-up times, prisoners rely on working running water for essentials like hydration. Showers in cells are a rarity, and considerable issues have been raised by interviewees concerning the perceived (and indeed often real) threat of contagion of communal washing facilities. As a matter of fact, staff members warned me about entering communal showers because of the risk to my health when we took pictures on a wing. Other issues with water in prisons that come to mind range from ‘out of order’ washing machines, control exercised by prisoners in charge of washing clothes to, for example, clothes being returned to certain prisoners smelly and damp. The accessibility of hot water in cells was also a concern (several prisons did not supply kettles for example so flasks become important). The fact that exercise outside could be regularly cancelled in rainy weather because prison officers ‘couldn’t be bothered to get wet’ is another form of water-related impact (fieldnotes AKS E&W). Moran and Turner (2018: 5) mention the frustration that is caused by missing sink plugs (e.g. for shaving) – which may be seen as trivial but in actual fact can have an impact on body image, self- care and dignity.

Water does not just feature in its elemental form but is often used metaphorically to describe the overall experience of imprisonment and how far removed prisoners feel from the outside world. Interestingly, many prisoners use water metaphors to describe how they feel – like ‘submerged’ or ‘in a well without a ladder’. Others use metaphors like ‘far out at sea’ or ‘like being in a boat on the sea without oars, you have no control, just drifting away..’ (field notes, Norway, KM). One painted example from HMP Littlehey on a wing shows this ‘depth’ really well where the phone booth is painted under water with a diver and circling sharks around it (see pictures). The importance of water can also continue beyond the immediate time of detention as written in our field notes: ‘The first thing he did when they got home was to take a very long shower, and he washed all his clothes.’ (KM, Norway).

Water in carceral environments is not wholly negative though. Recent scholarship has paid particular attention to the impact of ‘blue’ landscapes and specifically embodied experiences of water (Turner et al 2017). Although the possibility for direct bodily immersion is rare in carceral environments in England and Wales, ‘the ability to cleanse oneself of the ‘contagion’ of the prison setting arguably renders even the limited immersion in a cell shower a therapeutic blue experience’ (Turner and Moran 2018: 4). Moreover, I now want to briefly consider the capacity of a view of and usage of blue landscapes to have a health-enabling effect. In Norway where prisoners sometimes have access to these views and also at times direct access to the water (swimming, fishing) many interviewees expressed positive associations with the sea view. At the same time, many prisoners saw water as a natural occurrence and had to be prompted to think about its therapeutic effect upon the body, such as feelings of comfort, ease and relaxation. Even when prompted, many do not speak directly of water but issues around/related to it instead. Blue views being much rarer in England and Wales meant that, for example, one prisoner recounted a story of how getting a glimpse of a lake for the first time in years from the prison van on his way to court was a really special moment for him (worth repeating to me months later) (field notes AKS).

To conclude, water (like other elements) is a means of control but also, in its materiality, it essentially escapes control. This was described by our interviewees - often with a deep sense of exasperation. Excess and scarcity of water can threaten individual prisoners and whole establishments. It is in its metaphorical realm, though, that water expands to affect our imagination and deep descriptions of the nature of imprisonment. New ways to think about blue landscapes and direct (positive) contact with water in its elemental form are crucial if prisons are to serve a caring or healing function in any way.



Crewe, B. (2011) 'Depth, weight, tightness: revisiting the pains of imprisonment', Punishment and Society, 13(5): 509-529.

Douglas, M. (1966 [2002]) Purity and Danger. Routledge, London.

Jewkes, Y. (2018) Just design: Healthy prisons and the architecture of hope. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology Vol. 51(3) 319–338.

NYT (2018) Denmark Plans to Isolate Unwanted Migrants on a Small Island URL: (11/01/2019)

Sykes, G. M. (2007). The society of captives: A study of a maximum security prison. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (Original work published 1958).

Turner, J., Moran, D. (2018) Careful Control: The infrastructure of water in carceral space. Area 2018: 1-8 (

Turner, J., Moran, D., & Jewkes, Y. (2017). Serving Time with a Sea View: Escaping Prison via Therapeutic Blue Space. Paper presented at the at The Annual Conference of the American Association of Geographers, Boston, MA.

Turner, J. (2016).The prison boundary: Between society and carceral space. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Acknowledgments: I want to thank Dominique Moran and Jen Turner for their inspirational work and discussions on the topic.





[1] In fact, there are also contemporary examples: Denmark has just passed a proposition to detain migrants who have been sentenced to deportation, but cannot be deported on a deserted island (NYT 2018).


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. In some prisons, officials are the main source of order and security. In others, prisoners play a significant role in producing stability and governance within the society of captives. In fact, in some facilities, the prisoners participate in thriving associations based on democratic principles. Given that the basic structures of prisons are similar around the world, what explains the diversity of outcomes within prisons?

In a current research project, we draw on the large literature in political science and economics that studies institutions and institutional change. (For an example, see David’s article Covenants without the Sword? Comparing Prison Self-Governance Globally in the American Political Science Review.) This research attempts to explain where governance institutions come from, how and how well they work, and why they change over time. Following a long scholarly tradition in comparative, historical analysis, we then use existing research and secondary evidence as data. This includes many of the excellent ethnographic studies of prison life conducted by scholars in anthropology, criminology, and sociology.

People often assume that government is the key source of order in society. States often protect property rights and enforce agreements. Yet, that’s not always the case. In many situations, states withhold or fail to provide effective governance. When that happens, extralegal governance mechanisms can dictate the rules of entire societies. The result is that some prisons are literally run more by the prisoners than by officials.

Some of the most striking examples of prisoner-run prisons comes from Latin America. Prisons in Brazil are severely overcrowded and understaffed. In a Rio de Janiero jail, only six prison officials oversaw more than 1,400 prisoners. In another case, five prison officers staffed a prison of more than 4,000 prisoners. In addition to lack of supervision, many of these facilities often lack food, clean water, and even mattresses for inmates.

In the absence of supplies and support from officials, prisoners form governing bodies—sometimes called gangs, but often not—to establish order. For example, a well-known Brazilian prison gang, the Primeiro Comando do Capital, created “inmates courts” to settle disputes. Their presence led to a fall in inmate violence, even with no official governing body to administer these courts. In a Bolivian prison, inmate-elected representatives and inmate trustees run the prison. Criminologist Sacha Darke documents one Brazilian jail where the trustees are responsible for cooking, cleaning, and providing basic amenities like bedding and toiletries to inmates. 

Extralegal governance in prisons is often intricate and well organized. In Bolivia, San Pedro Prison holds around 1,500 prisoners in a facility designed to hold only 400. While guards monitor entry into the prison, the rest of the prison is essentially self-governed. In different housing sections within the prison, governance committees operate, collect taxes, make repairs, agree on rules, and resolve disputes. The prisoners elect their representatives and these committees operate the prison as though it is a small city. When officials fail to govern, prisoners do.

By contrast, these elaborate prisoner associations do not exist in prisons that provide substantial resources, competent administration, and effective governance. Nordic prisons are an obvious example. Prison officials are well-trained and viewed as doing an important job for society. Most Nordic prisons hold fewer than 100 people and there is no overcrowding. Prisons in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway have prisoner to staff ratios of nearly 1:1. In such an environment, prisoners have few reasons to invest in the types of elaborate structures found in Brazil and Bolivia. When officials govern effectively, prisoners do not.

The size of the prison population also affects the social order. Consider, for example, men’s prisons in England and California. They share many of the same criminal justice practices and philosophies, but the typical prison in California holds five times more prisoners than one in England & Wales—about 3,500 versus 700 prisoners per prison. This difference in size has two consequences. First, big prisons are more difficult for officials to monitor and control, so that means there is a more serious gap in governance for California prisoners than for English prisoners. Second, in large prison populations, prisoners cannot rely on informal mechanisms of social control, such as gossip and ostracism. It hurts to be an outcast in a small community, and that encourages conformance to accepted norms of behavior. However, in big prisons, an ostracized prisoner can always find someone else to associate with.

The inability to rely on these informal mechanisms means that prisoners in California have turned to gangs to offer a more centralized source of extralegal governance. In California – but not England – prison gangs dominate the everyday life of prisoners. They decide who shares a cell, who uses the basketball court, who a prisoner can have a meal or cigarette with, and when prisoners must go to bed. More generally, the gangs operate their own legal system, providing an arena to resolve social and commercial disputes. This is especially important given that prisoners can’t rely on officials to regulate the flourishing underground economy.

These cases suggest that even though prisons share many of the same essential features – people are forced to enter, cannot leave, and live within a less trustworthy population – prison life can look and feel very different. When officials fail to govern, prisoners often revert to elaborate associations, consensus building, and democratic procedures.

Scholars of comparative politics have learned much by comparing political institutions across countries and within countries over time. We think scholars of prisons should do the same. The vast majority of existing work currently focuses on single-site studies and studies of prisons in a single country. However, more than ever before there are scholars doing careful, detailed research of prison social order around the world. It’s time to take a step back and see what these studies tell us when viewed from a comparative perspective.


David Skarbek is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Political Theory Project at Brown University. He is completing a book on comparative prison social order.

Courtney Michaluk is a Commercial Freedom Fellow at the R Street Institute in Washington DC.

A earlier version of this article was published on LSE’s Democratic Audit blog.

The prison trail and the benefits of walking it

The prison trail and the benefits of walking it

By Julie Laursen

I’ve gone backwards in my sentence: from E to D, to Y wing to Z wing and finally to X wing’ (Sebastian).

These words and letters are probably difficult to decipher for the reader, and neither would they have made any sense to me two years ago. Thanks to a very large amount of fieldwork in 10 different prisons especially in Norway, but also in England & Wales, I am now better equipped to understand the meaning behind this interviewee’s statement. However, it is one thing to understand the words, another is being able to see, smell and hear the prison, to understand ‘the white noise’ that makes ethnographic probing distinctive. The anthropological method par excellence is of course ethnography, which promotes long-term, deeply embedded fieldwork ‘somewhere’ different from the researcher’s own culture or environment. While I agree that ethnography takes and requires time, the breadth of the immersion is perhaps equally important as the depth.

We have followed our interviewees’ ‘trails’ (see Knowles 2014) through the Norwegian and English prison systems, and beyond. These trails have resulted in quite laborious journeys such as travelling from 4am to 10pm to do a single interview in a remote Norwegian village, as well as shorter journeys to coffee shops in London or Oslo. It was necessary for us to deploy these mobile methods, or engage in a form of mobile ethnography (Marcus 1995), in order to follow people’s movements in- and out-side prison systems. Multi-sited ethnography can be an exercise in mapping a terrain, or a trail. We have used the somewhat obvious and conventional technique of ‘follow the People’ (as opposed to following the Thing or the Metaphor, etc. (Marcus 1995)), a strategy in multi-sited fieldwork dating back to Malinowski’s famous study of the Argonauts of the Western Pacific (see Marcus 1995). Traditional ethnography developed from colonialism to explore societies portrayed as de-historicised and community-based (Bourgouis & Schonberg 2009), but has long moved from its conventional single-site location to multiple sites of observation and participation (Marcus 1995).

Marcus (1995:97) argues that ‘[…] the world system is not the theoretically constituted holistic frame that gives context to the contemporary study of peoples or local subjects closely observed by ethnographers, but it becomes, in a piecemeal way, integral to and embedded in discontinuous, multi-sited objects of study’. To us, in the COMPEN team, these ‘multi-sited objects’ of study are, among other analytical interests, prisoners’ transitions through stages in their sentence and through prisons. If we want to understand what particular institutions are doing (whether that is particular prisons or the prison system in general), then we need to understand how they intersect with other institutions and with prisoners’ experiences outside their walls. Multi-sited fieldwork such as ours conforms to, and sometimes exceeds, the demands of traditional fieldwork, but it allows us to gain a deeper, visceral understanding of prisoners’ experiences.

For example, I can easily imagine the dread and frustration the interviewee quoted above felt when he suddenly found himself in what some prisoners call the ‘most restrictive wing in Norway’. He had followed a neat and straightforward route in the prison he first entered where he had gone from the 23-hour lock up induction wing to a wing for long-termers with a range of freedoms. Here, he had more or less unlimited access to the music room, trusted jobs, and plenty of time out of his cell to socialise, cook and play ping-pong and board-games. Now, because of his conviction and the restrictions imposed by his particular sentence, he had gone – metaphorically and concretely – backwards in his progression and felt like he had to ‘start over’. I was able to picture all the wings he mentioned, because I had been there, and that intimate knowledge of particular places brought depth and nuance to our conversation.

This ‘bank of memories’, or implicit comparison, from different prisons works the other way around as well. When we interview men in prisons in both countries, we ask them to describe their route through the prison system. They often describe beginning their sentence in various high-security prisons, and a range of lower category prisons (more so in England & Wales than Norway), before eventually arriving in open prisons. It is not hard to imagine how relatively free the open Cat-D prison Springhill feels for some prisoners, in comparison to the Cat-B local, HMP Pentonville in London. Likewise, when Norwegian men describe starting their sentence in the high-security Ullersmo prison and moving on to the open Berg prison, their relief, anxiety and experiences are palpable.

Another benefit from ‘having been there’ is the ‘credit’ we get when prisoners ask whether we have been to other prisons and we reel off a long list. They add to that list by describing these places in rich and nuanced detail based on their own experiences, which again adds and expands our knowledge and impression of these places. Our conversations about other prisons create a sense of understanding, ‘common’ experiences (although our experiences of the prison are obviously very different from prisoners’) and something shared. Prisoners talk about their previous establishments with passion, care, bitterness, vengeance, hatred, and fondness and a shared knowledge of these places create a platform to understand their journeys or trails through the prison system. Although long-term immersion in a single prison is obviously very valuable, the breadth and width of a multi-sited fieldwork enable us to engage in interviews and conversations in a manner that a single-sited study would not allow. To follow people over time, and over multiple social, cultural and physical locations, results in a multi-dimensional knowledge (Ingold, 2015; Rasmussen 2017), while the implicit and explicit comparisons between prisons creates a vivid imagery of how things are and could be somewhere else.    


Bourgois, P & Schonberg, J (2009) Righteous Dopefiend. University of California Press.     

Ingold, T. (2015b). Foreword. In P. Vannini (Ed.) Non-representational methodologies: Re-envisioning research (pp. i-x). New York: Routledge.

Knowles, C (2014) Flip-Flop. A Journey Through Globalisation’s Backroads. London: Pluto Press.

Marcus, G (1995) Ethnography in/of the world system: the Emergence of Multi-Sited ethnography. Annual review of Anthropology (24): 95-117. 

Rasmussen, Jon Dag (2017) Urban borderlands of mobility: ethnographic fieldwork amongst unconventional elderly city people. PhD dissertation, Aalborg University.


Discrimination against women sentenced to prison in Norway is a myth

Discrimination against women sentenced to prison in Norway is a myth


Ragnar Kristoffersen

Researcher at the University College of Norwegian Correctional Service




A Google search on the internet for women’s prison conditions in Norway results in more than 7000 Norwegian articles, the majority of them suggesting that conditions in prison are worse for women than men. The Public Services Ombudsman and the Equality and Anti-discrimination Ombudsman in Norway have shown great interest and concern for the so-called discrimination of women in Norwegian prisons. The Public Services Ombudsman has recently published a report on women’s prison conditions based on visits to two prison units for women and six prison units with mixed sexes.[1] The report states categorically that their findings demonstrate that women in general experience worse prison conditions than men do. However, the Public Services Ombudsman has not made a broad and systematic comparison between women and men's prison conditions. They only visited eight out of more than 60 prison units in Norway. Women served their sentences in 14 other prison units in Norway. The explicit purpose of the visits of the Ombudsman was to focus on, and uncover criticisable conditions relating specifically to women.


I will refute the widely accepted notion that imprisoned women are generally treated unfavourably. In order to reach substantiated and generally valid conclusions about the differences between the sexes it is necessary to compare similar conditions for both sexes. Ideally, one should look at data for the total prison population of both sexes, or at least data from representative samples. In my analysis, I will compare similar conditions for both sexes, and I will use annual data for the total prison population of both sexes. Furthermore, time series data will strengthen the ability to generalise about trends as opposed to time-dependent samples. In some examples, I will use five-year time series to demonstrate trends. Relative measures are also necessary, of which differences in actual time spent in prison is of critical importance. This particular aspect differs greatly among men and women in prison. The average sentence for imprisoned men and women is approximately eleven months and six months, respectively. It is also important to bear in mind that prison studies easily risk being flawed if they focus only on directly observable conditions and do not take into account the extent to which sentenced offenders serve part or the whole of the prison sentence at home or in a treatment institution. A study of the conditions of people sentenced to prison must also include prisoners granted access to various measures outside prison.


The purpose and scope of the article

I will present annual, national statistics on total prison populations related to important activities and measures offered both men and women during imprisonment, such as access to work, education, day-release, leave of absence, substance abuse treatment in and outside prison, programs, access to low security prison units, and serving at home with or without electronic monitoring.[2] It is essential to focus on these variables if valid comparisons of conditions are to be made. Combined, they are likely to make a big difference to any level of hardship and strain inflicted on the prisoners and on the possibilities of reintegration into society. It is the overall pattern – the total sum of these measures – which leads me to the conclusion that women sentenced to prison are not generally discriminated against. On the contrary, the data I will present supports the opposite conclusion; that women are treated more favourably, especially when we take into account the important and overlooked fact that women generally serve much shorter sentences. Only 95 of 1558 released prisoners (6 %) who served a prison sentence exceeding six months in 2018 were women. Therefore, it is easier for the prison authorities to implement activities and initiatives for men during their time in prison - and in many cases, it is also the appropriate thing to do, as there is reason to believe that negative consequences of a prison sentence are more likely to occur because of serving long sentences. Accordingly, one would expect that men sentenced to prison would receive more rehabilitative measures than women would. Surprisingly, my analysis discloses that the opposite is the case. To put it briefly: Women sentenced to prison spend less time in prison, but they receive more.



It is important to bear in mind that my conclusion is not incompatible with claims that women in some aspects may serve under inferior conditions in some local prisons, materially or otherwise – for example in some prisons with mixed sexes, as the Ombudsman has pointed out. A systematic study of the material conditions for imprisoned men and women, such as the condition of the prison premises and exercise yards etc., is beyond the ambition and scope of this article. However, there is no doubt that many male prisoners also serve in inadequate, dilapidated prison units with unsatisfactory facilities that need to be improved. Moreover, 93% of prisoners are men, and any comparative study will naturally be affected by this imbalance. This implies that even when a comparatively smaller proportion of men may be affected by any disadvantage, men often still constitute a much larger group in absolute numbers. The relevance of relative measures describing the prison situation for men and women can therefore sometimes be questioned. Secondly, I have not taken into account the extent to which women serve their prison sentences geographically more scattered, leaving them, presumably, with a higher proportion serving in prisons a long distance from their home. This factor may for example reduce the number of visits from family. There is, however, no reason to believe that the problem of being far from home is unique to women. A brief look at zip codes belonging to male prisoners in Oslo and Bergen shows that half (205 of 413) do not live in the city area or in a nearby municipality. This number alone equals all imprisoned women today.


More men lack activation

Activation of prisoners is perhaps the most important indicator of any differential treatment of inmates by sex. The Correctional Service registers the number of days in which prisoners are employed. Table 1 shows the type of employment for men and women in prison in 2017 as a percentage of all day-work carried out. The figures are corrected for absence due to illness, leave of absence and refusal to work.

Table 1

Employment by sex 2017. %















Day-release work



Day-release school










The proportion who lacked activation corrected for absence is an important piece of information, which is not included in the table. This was only 13% for women, compared to 20% for men. Given that men in general serve longer sentences, the opportunity to provide them with employment or education should be better than for women. This finding is therefore surprising.

Generally, table 1 shows that there are small differences in the gender proportions within the various registered activities. Women have a slightly higher proportion of employed persons in industry and crafts and a slightly larger proportion who received education. Day-release – daily exits from prison to work or school, an important rehabilitation measure – shows practically equal shares for the sexes. Although table 1 does tell us little about the quality of the activation of the sexes, the proportion of women who get education and day-releases is impressive compared to men when we consider the higher proportion of short sentences among women.


Women get more leave of absence

Leave of absence from prison is considered an important measure in order to keep contact with society outside, thus making a gradual reintegration into the community more feasible before release. Surprisingly, female prisoners get more leave than men do, despite the fact that they generally spend less time in prison. The proportion of registered days of leave per 1000 prison days was 29 % higher for women than for men in 2017. Ordinary leave of absence can only be granted after serving at least four months of a prison sentence. Considering that a higher proportion of men accordingly are entitled to such leave, one would expect the opposite result. On the other hand, crime type distribution among imprisoned women varies somewhat from imprisoned men, and it is likely that a larger proportion of women serve at longer distances from home. It is also possible that more men have further unsettled criminal charges against them. Such factors may have contributed to a more positive assessment of the women's leave applications. The fact remains that women get more leave of absence compared to men even though a higher proportion of men are eligible for such leave.


Women receive more treatment for substance abuse

The Ombudsman claims that women have lesser access to substance abuse treatment in prison. The two major forms of treatment for substance abuse are admissions to separate substance abuse treatment units inside prison or treatment in centres outside prison. 701 women were imprisoned in 2018, accounting for 9% of all admissions that year. There may be some inaccuracies in registration, but a review of registered data shows that 12% of those admitted to substance abuse units inside prison were women. The most important drug treatment measure, however, occurs in treatment centres outside prison, for shorter or longer periods, usually at least three months. Corrected for total time in prison per sex, women are offered a significantly higher proportion of this measure, and the proportion has been increasing in recent years.

Diagram 1 shows prison days in treatment centres per 1000 total prison days between 2013 and 2017, broken down by sex. In all the years, the proportion of women is higher than for men. The difference between imprisoned men and women may partly be explained by the seemingly accepted view that substance abuse problems are more frequent or possibly more severe among women than among men. However, recent research in Norway is inconclusive and can neither support nor oppose this hypothesis.[3] Overall, there is little evidence that there are significant differences in substance abuse between imprisoned men and women in Norway.

Diagram 1 

Access to programs does not discriminate against women

Another important measure is group-based programs that target substance abuse and crime problems. According to release data in the years 2010-2014, approximately 5% of women started such a program, compared to just over 7% among men. However, it takes time to choose and motivate participants and to implement and complete these programs. Shorter stays in prison among women are therefore an important obstacle to providing such an offer to women. If we set a limit of at least six months' residence time in prison in order to be considered for program participation, the difference between men and women disappears. About 20% of women who were imprisoned for six months or more started a program, compared to around 19% among the men. In other words, women’s access to these programs is equal when we consider that programs cannot be offered to people with short sentences.


A larger proportion of women are allowed to serve in low-security prisons before release

An important objective for the correctional service is to be able to offer a gradual progression to more lenient conditions, which implies access to low security prisons in due time before release, especially for those with longer sentences. This is often referred to as the principle of progression. 75% of all women released in the years 2010-2014 were released from a low-security prison, compared to 65% for men. The difference can be partly explained by the fact that men serve longer prison sentences and more often for crimes that are more serious. Notwithstanding this, and contrary to the principle of progression, 25% of the released men were released from a high security prison, compared to only 15% of the women.


More women than men serve their sentence at home

Serving a part of a prison sentence – up to a half is possible – at home without electronic monitoring can be granted on special conditions towards the end of the sentence, which implies that you can stay in your home until ordinary release would have happened. Diagram 2 shows that the proportion of women being granted this attractive measure is higher than for men when corrected for the total time served in or outside prison. The proportion has admittedly decreased in recent years to a more equal level between the sexes.


Diagram 2


Moreover, the entire prison sentence can be served at home with electronic monitoring if the prison sentence is four months or less. Women sentenced to prison also receive significantly more access to serving their entire prison sentence at home with electronic monitoring. A comparison of prison sentences of up to four months in 2017 shows that 61% of the female prisoners were allowed to serve the entire prison sentence at home with electronic monitoring. For men, this was only 42%. Although the difference can be partly explained by a larger proportion of shorter sentences among women and possible differences in risk assessment of breach of terms, the figures show that a considerably larger proportion of women are given the opportunity to serve short prison sentences outside prison.


Concluding remarks

Corrected for time spent in prison, a significantly smaller proportion of men get activation during imprisonment, and women get more substance abuse treatment despite the weakly substantiated claim that they have more severe substance abuse problems. They get more access to leave of absence despite regulatory restrictions that infringes their options, and they get more access to low security facilities and more access to serving parts or all of their prison sentences at home despite the principle of progression, which should help offset this unbalance between the sexes. To some degree, these differences can be explained by the perceived severity of crime and differences in assessments of risk or individual needs, possibly related more often to women, such as serving in a prison at long distance from home.


In addition, we probably need a cultural explanation. For more than forty years, the dominant narrative about discrimination in Norway has been the discrimination against women. Despite many years of full legal equality between the sexes, the Equality and Discrimination Act still states that the law specifically aims to improve the position of women.[4] Working for the improvement of women’s position has been an integral and internalized part of the Norwegian culture for so many years that we cannot rule out that this more or less consciously plays an important role in the treatment of women sentenced to prison. This may explain to some extent why women are treated more favourably.


Today, a great deal is invested in improving women's prison conditions. The Directorate for the correctional service has created a special strategy aimed at improving the conditions for women in prison.[5] My analysis shows that women are overall better off in relation to access to the most beneficial measures aimed at reintegration into society. Of course, these findings do not deny that women can, in some prisons, experience inferior conditions compared to men, or – as the Ombudsman has pointed out – that they may have special needs that should be addressed. However, there is no reason to forget that men also have special needs that should be met. Reoffending is for example twice as prevalent among released men as among women.[6] We cannot rule out the possibility that favourable treatment of women may contribute to this result. Men commit 95% of all suicides in prison, and men totally outnumber women when it comes to longer periods of potentially harmful isolation in prison. In conclusion, the above does not indicate a need to concentrate less on the situation for men in prison.

[2] National Prison Registries of Norway are my sources, unless otherwise stated.

[3] Bukten, A. et. al. (2016). «Rusmiddelbruk og helsesituasjon blant innsatte i norske fengsel». Report 2/2016. Senter for rus- og avhengighetsforskning (SERAF). University of Oslo. The report is available here: However, a recent cross-country study of ten high-income countries showed that drug abuse disorder was higher in women, but there was substantial cross-study heterogeneity: Fazel, S., Yoon, I. A., & Hayes, A. J. (2017). Substance use disorders in prisoners: an updated systematic review and meta‐regression analysis in recently incarcerated men and women. Addiction, 112(10), pp. 1725-1739.

[6] Graunbøl, H.M. et al. (2010). «Retur. En nordisk undersøgelse  af recidiv blant klienter i kriminalforsorgen.» Oslo. See

Exploring the Pains and Possibilities of Waiting for Imprisonment

‘It’s Like a Sentence Before the Sentence’ — Exploring the Pains and Possibilities of Waiting for Imprisonment

By Julie Laursen


‘There is no connection between…you just wander around in a trance, you cannot plan anything, you can’t, time just goes, and you don’t care about a damned thing because there is no point in trying to build anything when you know you’re going to prison anyways’ (Albert, waited 3 years to serve a 10-months sentence).

‘I just called the prison myself and asked if it was okay with such and such. And it was no problem. In fact, I was told that I was warmly welcome on the phone. […] And then [the prison] offered me, they’re so accommodating, they said you don’t need to come until January, you can spend Christmas and New Year at home. But I said that I’ve already psyched myself for going on the 19th, so I would very much like to come then. Then they said that’s fine, and just come. So I came here on the 19th‘(Geir, waited 1.5 months to serve 90 days).

These two quotes sit on either end of a continuum of experiences of waiting for imprisonment. We analyse these and similar experiences in our new article[1], which explores the Norwegian  prison ‘queue’ in which convicted offenders are only admitted to prison when a space  becomes available to avoid the possibility of overcrowding (Ugelvik  2016[2]). This measure has been celebrated as a token of humanity (Pratt 2008), but a lack of prison capacity resulted in a significant prison queue from the 1980s, with an all-time high of 6,900 sentences in the queue in 1990  (White Paper no. 12 2014–15: 19). The size of the queue came to be seen as a political problem during the 2000s (Ministry of Justice and Police 2006), while media interest in the queue increased considerably around the same time (see also Pratt 2008b). Besides this blossoming of media and political interest, waiting in the prison queue has been a key yet unexplored feature of imprisonment in Norway for at least four decades. This is curious since a consideration of being in suspense prior to serving a sentence might reshape how we think about the nature of punishment, including when it begins. Elaborating the experience of being in the prison queue offers an empirically informed way of questioning some of the assumptions made about the liberal nature of this rather unusual penal policy and thus about Nordic penal exceptionalism more broadly.

We provide an in-depth analysis of how Norwegian prisoners experience and adapt to being in the prison queue. In the discussion, we engage with the literature on Nordic exceptionalism (Ugelvik and Dullum 2012; Shammas 2014) and perspectives on the severity and reach of punishment (Duff 2010; Hayes 2018; du Bois-Pedain and Bottoms 2019) to interrogate the supposedly mild and humane character of this penal arrangement. The subset of data we draw on consists primarily of qualitative interviews with approximately 200 prisoners, of whom many had experienced waiting in the queue, recruited from seven different Norwegian prisons. Most prisoners in this sample were serving sentences of less than two years, and we tried to interview them three times (shortly after entering prison, shortly before release and two to three months post-release).

In order to make sense of this discrepancy between the official definition of the queue (not punishment) and the subjective experiences of waiting in the queue (punishment/punishing), we are inspired by Hayes’ (2018) discussion of penal objectivism and penal subjectivism. This is essentially the discrepancy between the formal and normative goals and polices of State punishment and how people actually experience their punishment (see also Sexton 2015:115). Furthermore, using an analytical prism of literature on the anthropology of waiting (Bandak & Janeja 2018) and the anthropology of morality (Mattingly 2014), we analyse three main narratives regarding waiting in the prison queue: Waiting and possible futures, Waiting and the disruption of ground projects, and Waiting and the destruction of ground projects.

The first narrative centred on positive aspects of waiting in the prison queue such as time to prepare oneself and one’s family for the impending imprisonment. One positive aspect of waiting in the prison queue is that it enables communication between the prison and the future prisoner due to the way the system works: when a space becomes available, the prisoner is ‘called-up’ to serve his or her sentence, which in practice means receiving a letter from the prison saying what date and time he or she must arrive. The future prisoner (as portrayed in the quote above) is then able to phone the prison, ask for more information about his/her upcoming imprisonment and even drive the family to the prison to have a look from the outside. However, for a majority of interviewees, waiting for prison was a painful, uncertain period:

It [waiting] was completely mad because you don’t know what awaits you. You get worn out mentally, have trouble sleeping and it takes so much time where you just wait and wait and wait and wait. You don’t have a job, you live in a sort of vacuum (Rasmus)

The second and third main narratives (waiting as disruption and destruction) often contained uncertainty, anxiety and something akin to paralysis. Some interviewees self-isolated from friends and family, refrained from pursuing employment or educational aims and spent their time dreading the letter summoning them to serve their sentence. Øyvind described how he had suffered from panic attacks and ‘felt really low’. Receiving the summons to serve his sentence was a relief:

When I got to know when it was, then it was all of a sudden a bit easier because then I had something to adhere to. To walk around in uncertainty and all of that, that was difficult. [...] Actually, it’s awful that it has to be that long [...]. I felt worse before I came in than I’m doing now. (...) I actually had a hard time leaving the house. It was a struggle to go to work every day. Then you just wanted to call in sick every day. [...] So it actually feels like I’ve been home with an electronic tag’ (Øyvind, waited three years from arrest to imprisonment).

We conclude the article by stating that the narratives of the pains and possibilities of waiting for one’s imprisonment are multi-facetted and ambiguous. The opportunities for agency and flexibility allow people to keep (some) control over their own lives, which again affects their experiences before, during and after the imprisonment. Our data show that prisoners, who, while waiting in the queue, are able to negotiate their imprisonment, feel more heard, seen and valued as persons. They may still suffer, especially if the waiting is prolonged, but at least they retain a sense of agentic power. Our analysis also draws attention to the nature of queueing within the context of notions of punishment. As we note, while waiting in the queue is not intended by the state to inflict pain, or as part of the penal sanction, in practice, it often feels more difficult and psychologically burdensome than serving the sentence itself. These conflicting narratives underscore how important it is to take into consideration sentenced citizens’ subjective experiences of waiting to serve prison sentences when we discuss the mildness or severity of state punishment.

[2] Please find all references in the original article.

Coding: An Information Trail without Walking the Prison Trail

Coding: An Information Trail without Walking the Prison Trail

By Sarah Doxat-Pratt


I joined the COMPEN team in February this year, tasked with coding interview data from the Entry-Exit-Post-Release research. The EEPR study involved following the journeys of prisoners through the criminal justice system, interviewing them soon after entry to prison, shortly before release, and in the community a few months after their release. The study aimed to deepen understanding of the experience of prison, but also to focus on the significance of transition moments in and out of prison – and so interviews covered details of the whole sentence, from before the arrest to life post-release. Coding is not the most glamourous aspect of a research project, either to do or to reflect on, but I hope here to provide some reflections from my experiences which will illuminate the process. 

Julie Laursen has written a piece for this blog on the benefits of ‘walking the prison trail’ – that is, of having experiential and ‘visceral’ knowledge of the prisons that interviewees have been in and the journeys they may have taken to, between, and from prisons. The in-depth knowledge, being able to ‘see, smell and hear the prison’ helps ethnographers be ‘better equipped to understand the meaning behind’ what interviewees say. I joined the COMPEN team after completing my own doctoral research, which included significant fieldwork in one English prison, but I did not have the extensive knowledge of the prison trails in England & Wales and Norway that my colleagues did – indeed, when I started I had never even been to Norway (though, fortunately, that has now been rectified). My challenge, in starting as I did as the fieldwork phase drew to a close, was to understand and make meaning of what interviewees said without having walked the prison trail.

The extent to which coding – that is, dividing data up into thematic segments – constitutes analysis is the subject of some debate (see, for example, St Pierre & Jackson, 2014); simply put my view is that coding is primarily an aid to further analysis, but that analysis happens throughout the research process, coding included. Much of the literature about qualitative data coding, however, assumes that the coder has been involved in the fieldwork as well – coding is an ‘opportunity for further reflection’ (Noaks & Wincup, 2011, p130) and a way to ‘refine their reflections’ (Basit, 2003, p143). Those giving guidance to team-based research projects do acknowledge the potential for outsourcing or hiring in extra help for coding, much like transcription, but the concern tends to be practical – how to avoid too much stylistic or interpretative variation (MacQueen et al., 2008). Few people have much to say about the challenge of actually doing the coding without having been there.

There are inevitably practical issues of not knowing any of the research sites or relevant personnel. What does it mean for a Norwegian prisoner to ‘take Luft’? (Ans: go outside for air, but often the word is not translated in transcripts.) Who is the officer they are all describing that everyone seems to love – or are they different officers? When they say, ‘I was sent up here…’, does ‘up here’ mean a different prison somewhere geographically north, or up a hill, or just upstairs in the same prison? Sometimes the answer emerges through the transcript, but not always; asking colleagues of course provides answers, but it is difficult to know when it is worth asking the question in the first place.

But more than not knowing the research sites, I have found it significant that I do not know any of the people in the study. Perhaps much like transcribers, I found myself in the odd position of knowing intimate details of the lives of people I had never met. Interviewees were, of course, made aware at the start that the interview would be handled by others in the research team as well as the interviewer, but it seems this did not prove to be a barrier to candid conversation. It is common to hear of the incredible openness that exists between researcher and participant in prison research projects (or indeed, any research project, as Jason Warr has discussed for this blog). The interview can provide an opportunity for cathartic release, and the interviewer can be a combination of confidante and counsellor, being made privy to all kinds of personal information in the context of a two-way conversation. But in my experience of reading through these conversations, I am struck by the lack of familiarity I have with the interviewees. I could tell you the life narratives of hundreds of people – their childhood trauma, their criminal activity, their hopes for the future, details of their everyday lives in prison. I know what’s been done to them, by whom; I know what they have done to others and how they feel about it. But still, they are nameless and faceless to me, known only by a research code and pseudonym. I sometimes end up caring about them deeply, but I would not know them if I walked past them on the street. I have a seemingly endless supply of the personal narratives of people with whom I have never interacted.

And it does, indeed, seem endless: the EEPR study has over 450 interviews with over 250 individuals. Few people would call the task of coding itself exciting or interesting, but the data gathered and the stories told were exciting and interesting to start with. I made notes diligently, writing down anything I thought particularly noteworthy. After a while, the task became normal and a bit flat. Like some researchers in the field, I found that the excitement wore off and the stories were no longer so affecting. Now, approaching 200 coded interviews, I have to resist the temptation to be blasé about the content – “abuse, injustice, hopeful but maybe a bit unrealistic, same old, same old…”. Research participants can seem nameless, faceless and, 200 interviews in, lacking in original insight. While ethnographic researchers who code and analyse their own data sometimes need emotional or critical distance from the field, I have to work to ensure I do not have too much critical distance, that the task of coding does not become a mere mathematical exercise performed on ‘brute data’ (St. Pierre & Jackson, 2014, p715). I am still engaging with people, if only distantly, making meaning from their words and developing a picture of their reality.

Despite the challenges, though, I have been surprised by the opportunities that have come from this approach to coding, both for myself as a researcher and for the research project. I have learnt much about the research process simply by reading hundreds of interviews: the different styles used by my colleagues have provided me with an insight into interviewing that I imagine few early-career researchers get. Just as few people have such access to the narratives of prisoners without having been inside, it is also likely that few people have such an opportunity to engage with someone else’s research process to this degree.

Opportunities also arise for the project itself, even beyond the practical value of getting lots of coding done quickly. The critical and emotional distance I have from the interviewees brings something different; without wanting to imply an objectivity which I obviously do not have, it is possible that I have an easier job of avoiding confirmation bias in coding and analysis. Engaging with so much primary data over a relatively short space of time has its own immersive quality – there is the feeling of being steeped in the words of the participants. Not that this is the equivalent of ethnographic immersion in a research site, but still it has added a different perspective to the conversation. Discussions about the ‘breadth’ of imprisonment – that is, the reach of the prison sentence beyond the time in prison (see Crewe, 2015) – are perhaps a good example. The three phases of interviews in the EEPR study were carried out with months or sometimes years in between; I read and code them in a day or two. Reading the whole narrative in one go, and coding lots of these narratives in quick succession, make it easier to perceive some of the interwoven accounts of distress and resilience, or of change and continuity in relationships before, in and after prison (and, often, back in again), which shape our understanding of the broader impact of imprisonment.

For more specific findings, coding the data without having some of the expectations that come from doing the primary research can illuminate things, particularly when we realise that what has been seen by researchers and what has been said by participants do not completely align. For instance, strip searching and questioning on entry into prison: those who had observed this process thought one particularly degrading aspect of this was that some forms of invasive searching and personal questioning were done in public, in front of other prisoners and staff; but from what I had read, interviewees rarely, if ever, mention that this was the case, let alone that it was especially shameful or humiliating. This realisation enabled discussion about the nature of entry and what constitutes degrading treatment in prison that might otherwise have been overlooked.

Coding has its challenges, and non-stop coding for a long time especially so. Various of these challenges will be recognised by researchers in other settings and roles as well, whether on individual or team-based projects, but they are still worth thinking through. My experience of this approach to coding is that it can be far more than just the slightly tedious but necessary precursor to or part of analysis. While there is no replacement for ‘being there’ in research, having a lengthy information trail without having ‘walked the prison trail’ does have uses of its own.  



Basit, T. (2003) Manual or electronic? The role of coding in qualitative data analysis. Education Research Vol 45(2): 143-154.

Crewe, B. (2015) Inside the Belly of the Penal Beast: Understanding the Experience of Imprisonment International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy Vol 4(1): 50-65.

MacQueen K. et al. (2008) Team-based Codebook Development: Structure, Process, and Agreement in Guest. G & MacQueen K. eds. Handbook for Team-based Qualitative Research Plymouth: Rowman Altamira.

Noaks, L. & Wincup, E. (2004) Criminological Research: Understanding Qualitative Methods London: Sage.

St. Pierre, E. & Jackson, A. (2014) Qualitative Data Analysis After Coding. Qualitative Inquiry Vol 20(6): 715-719.

Knowing me knowing you: Order and Relationships in an Open Prison in Iceland

Knowing me knowing you: Order and Relationships in an Open Prison in Iceland

By Francis Pakes

There are five prisons in Iceland; two of these are open. In the summer of 2018 I resided for two weeks in these open prisons. I had explained to the prison authorities in Reykjavík that I wanted to assume the role of a quasi-prisoner: I wanted a room, and to eat, sleep and engage in the daily activities that prisoners normally undertook. I have visited many prisons in numerous countries but never experienced a working prison like this, from the inside. Amazingly perhaps, my request was granted. They seemed to understand what I wanted: to try to feel what it was like to spend time there, if only for a week. But at the same time I was a researcher: I observed, took notes and spoke with anyone who wanted to speak with me. With some prisoners and staff members I spoke regularly, varying from friendly good mornings to in-depth conversations. Others I hardly saw. In this blogpost I want to focus on the staff.

What is it like to work in such a prison? I asked this question to any officer who was prepared to talk with me (the vast majority were). I already knew both establishments as calm, remote and, for want of a better term, picturesque. Each had fewer than 20 prisoners at the time I was there. The prison populations varied, in terms of index offence, age, nationality and also gender. And while these prisons were open prisons with very few security features and free movement within the establishment and into the very generous grounds, very few prisoners actually worked off-site.

Many officers had very little training. But in both prisons (often referred to as a house) staff had clear ideas about the nature of their role. They usually mentioned the non-discipline side of their jobs first. They talked about affording trust, about seeing eye-to-eye with offenders, and about helping. They often used hand gestures to explain their non-hierarchical approach to prisoner-officer relations: they placed hands horizontally at the same level with palms down. They also emphasised the importance of open communication by using their hands, with fingers upwards and palms facing each other. The palm of the hands, in this gesture, symbolised the faces of both prisoners and officers. They also frequently refer to affording prisoners time. They understood that some prisoners need to arrive at a frame of mind in which they are ready to make major life changes.

At the same time, officers had tacit expectations of prisoners. As elsewhere, officers in these two prisons had their own ideas as to what makes a ‘good’ prisoner. First, a good prisoner is industrious. Whilst there was little in the way of work off-site, or certificated work inside, a good prisoner knows how to make him or herself useful, whether that is working in the kitchen, looking after the sheep or the chickens, or repairing a fence. ‘I don’t like grown men lying in bed all day’, one officer said to me. There always is work to do. Another value is cleanliness. Cleaning up after yourself is important, such as after meals. A third is self-sufficiency. You are expected to make the most of your time in an open prison. Both neediness and idleness are frowned upon, something that may typify Icelandic society more broadly. Another virtue is friendliness to all other prisoners and staff which speaks to Nordic values of community and togetherness.

But if prisoners are meant to be active, clean, friendly and self-sufficient (and many are) what is there for officers to do? It soon became clear that much of the day-to-day activity is rather mundane. Officers dispense medication, collect the post, deal with queries, take prisoners on a variety of errands, have chats, answer the phone, and keep an eye on things. Discipline rarely featured in conversation and I saw none of it in these daily interactions.

I frequently asked about the disciplinarian aspect of the role. Both establishments were low on rules. There were few rules even for things like visiting. But breaking the rules can lead to penalties. And there is one form of punishment that prisoners talk about: to be sent back to a closed prison. Most prisoners agree that life is much better in open conditions and the idea of a return to a closed prison (there are two in Iceland) is a real threat. ‘It is the one trump card they have’ a prisoner explained to me. Data shows that this trump card is in fact played regularly: between 10% and 20% of prisoners each year are sent back to closed conditions for rule violations .

But in the main, officers often compared their style of keeping order to parenting. Looking after a vulnerable prisoner was referred to in terms of ‘babysitting’, for instance. Another explicitly referred to her approach as doing ‘the mum thing’. Her account of dealing with situations sounded very much like how you would deal with an obstinate teenager. She also mentioned how such an episode ended with a reconciliatory hug, all in the style of parent-child disciplining. This may typify a style of keeping order that is more paternalistic than professional or managerial, which may be more prevalent in Nordic prisons.

Another moment that helped me understand the approach that staff take was when a young prisoner left the house upset. I was near the front door as he stormed past me and I could see signs of distress on his face. I did not know what to do. However, before I could do anything a member of staff had appeared next to me and observed the lad outside. I noticed that whilst staff attitudes were by and large relaxed, and officers were frequently not seen to be doing very much, there was a sensitivity to the mood of prisoners and an alertness to any changes. With less than 20 prisoners in total and a fair bit of time spent together (such as eating, smoking, drinking the very strong coffee, or watching football on TV), people get to know each other pretty well.

Getting to know a prisoner as an individual is something that is part of the job. But interestingly the process goes both ways. Prisoners know a lot about the lives of officers too. For example, one officer had been off sick. He just dropped by one day while still officially on leave. He was enthusiastically greeted by staff and prisoners alike and it was clear that prisoners were aware of the nature of and various developments regarding his illness. One officer sometimes brought her children into the prison, and they mingled with some of the prisoners. Another officer would sometimes bring a dog, also much to the appreciation of some of the prisoners. Thus, officers, certainly in one of the two prisons I stayed in, brought their personal lives into the prison to quite a large extent. With so much time spent together and a good degree of ‘dead time’, this is perhaps inevitable. But it seems more than inevitable, it seemed appropriate too. In Icelandic open prisons, people do not only share space and time. They share more of their lives. There was a form of conviviality, living together and sharing lives, which goes a step further in Iceland’s open prisons that anywhere else I have seen. In summary, Iceland’s open prisons very much subscribe to the exceptionalism we see in other Nordic prisons. But at the same time, they have their own flavour that may be typically Icelandic and shaped by their small size, remote locations and by the specific nature of the national culture.




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).