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Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology

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.




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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