skip to content

Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology

‘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.

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).









Follow Us