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Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology


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.

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).









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