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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.


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).