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Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology

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.

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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