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Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology


By Julie Laursen

‘And that kind of isolation erm is... it becomes quite all-encompassing […]I think I understand now when people leave prison they feel like they've never left, even though they're on the out because they still feel isolated’ (Manwell[1]). 


Loneliness has emerged as a consistent and pressing theme in both jurisdictions and in all of the sub-studies in the COMPEN project. We have not deliberately probed interviewees to talk about loneliness, but some have talked at great length about feeling socially isolated, alone, and unable to connect or reconnect with friends and family. However, there are (at least) two sides to loneliness: how much interviewees talk about loneliness and how much we think their situations seem lonely, for example, when they talk only about broken relationships, do not appear to have a solid social group or seem rarely to leave their home. I will describe both sides in this blog-post, focusing on what interviewees said about isolation, loneliness, and social relationships in and outside of the prison systems in England & Wales and Norway.

Interviewees have often alluded to feelings of exclusion from ‘normal society’, and to forms of social alienation. As one man convicted of a sex offense in England said: ‘What if these people knew what I have the burden of? They are all going to kick me off the train, or move away from me,’ almost like I was a leper’. This man lived in something akin to a ‘state of emergency’ (Benjamin 1968:257 in Bourgois & Schonberg 2009) due to the isolation, shame and stigma caused by his offence. Another interviewee felt welcomed back into Norwegian society, but was lonely and asked rhetorically ‘how much help can you get finding new friends’? Although this man had help finding housing and other social security benefits, his loneliness could not be alleviated by the generous Norwegian welfare state. These are examples of slightly different emotional states, with different causes, but are connected by the feeling that relationships with others are severed or struggle to grow. We are just beginning to tease out the conceptual distinctions between different ‘types’ of loneliness and their causes, but in this blog post I will focus on describing loneliness upon entry into custody, during the sentence, and after release.

In phase one interviews, where interviewees have recently entered custody, loneliness is often connected to the sudden separation from friends, family and partners on the outside. One Norwegian interviewee described how going to prison ‘felt as unreal and surreal as going to the moon’ and how she missed her family and friends whom she had chosen not to see during her imprisonment. Another female Norwegian interviewee felt scared, upset and angry when she walked through the prison gate. She was held in isolation for two weeks, requested by the police, which meant that she was not allowed any contact with other prisoners – only officers – and spent 23 hours a day in her cell. She suffered from bad ‘separation and social anxiety’ that was exacerbated by the fact that she was not allowed to speak to her boyfriend or family. This social isolation made her feel like she ‘went a bit mad’. Furthermore, many prisoners tell us how their first experiences of standing alone in the prison yard, or going to meals for the first time in large serveries, were absolutely terrifying. Loneliness upon entry is shaped by the sudden and often total separation from life outside, and it often takes interviewees weeks or months to find companionship in prison.     

In phase two interviews, interviewees are often more settled into their sentences, and sometimes, but not always, find themselves embedded in social life in prison with fellow prisoners they can talk and relate to. However, this social life is often described as ‘unnatural’ or ‘like being in a theme park where everything's artificial’ (Manwell). At this stage, interviewees are less preoccupied with the life they left behind, but often with the life that awaits them post-release including an anxiety about being lonely once released. Hence, phase two interviews often entail narratives of ‘possible futures’ (Mattingly 2014), and interviewees often describe how their ‘normal life’ feels distant and far away. They worry about whether they will be able to re-establish the life they were leading or will be able to distance themselves from a destructive path. These worries are partly related to relational dimensions (friends, family, children, partners) and the Criminal Justice System (license conditions, being on probation), especially in England & Wales.

For example, a young man in the English prison system told us how he worried about his upcoming release due to the restrictions placed upon him by his license conditions. Having been convicted to two years’ imprisonment for a violent offence, he was on a multi-agency public protection arrangement (MAPPA), which meant that he faced terms upon release. One of his licence conditions was that he was prohibited from having any contact with his four best friends since childhood, because they were his co-defendants. The group of childhood friends all lived in a small city and they were a very closely-knit circle, who supported, helped and accompanied each other. He struggled to understand why they had been allowed to be imprisoned in the same prison (even in the same cell at times), but prohibited from seeing each other on the outside. He dreaded having to negotiate social life without these friends. Similarly, a female interviewee described how she was restricted from being with her boyfriend (also on a MAPPA): ‘If they were to house us together, I think we’d be okay. I think we’d give it a good fucking shot. We would really try. It’s just like they’re always trying to keep us as far apart from each other as they can, and they know that’s not going to happen, so it’s setting us up to fail’. She said that their re-call was caused by their forced separation, and their resulting struggles to keep themselves fed, warm, and housed. 

Phase three interviews are often very rich since we have gotten to know interviewees quite well over the course of all three interview phases (when possible) and conduct phase three interviews in the community, approximately three months post-release. This longitudinal methodology allows us to compare narratives from earlier interviews, as well as listen to interviewees’ perspectives on settling back into social life. A common theme in many of our interviews is the desire to ‘make good’ (Maruna 2001) or ‘go straight’ and lead conventional lives with family, employment, housing and stability (Shapland & Bottoms 2011). This desire is often embedded in a narrative about the pain of having to sever ties with old acquaintances, because interviewees are striving to desist from drug use and crime. This decision can foster loneliness, isolation and struggles, which is a consistent theme in studies exploring ‘the pains of desistance’ (see Nugent & Schinkel 2016). A female interviewee in a phase three interview in Norway described how she longed for an ‘A4’ life: to own a home, have a family, employment and ‘find my place in society’. She wanted to ‘not stand out in a crowd, but to fit in with the rest of society’. She was worried about being lonely, because ‘that’s what broke me last time’ (when she relapsed).

These lonely and sometimes monotonous existences (Appleton 2010: 117) were often reported and perhaps especially so in our sample of men convicted of sexual offenses. These men often struggled with shame, stigma, loss of friends and family connections due to the conviction, as well as the restrictions and conditions from their license. The distance between social life in prison and social life on the outside can be quite stark for some people ‘because you invest the time to obviously have some good people around you and that you can trust and that can support you and you can support them […]’. This interviewee from England & Wales described a relatively rich social life in the prison, and then went on to explain that he had contacted all his friends upon his release to ask whether they still wanted to speak to him: ‘I can’t assume anything anymore, or I don't want to […] I don't want to put myself in a place where I assume that I can contact people and then I realise that ... or that I get hurt afterwards when they maybe make excuses that they can’t talk to me’.

Loneliness, in all its shapes, forms and expressions, is a very painful phenomenon, and it can be quite challenging to face and listen to narratives that are so full of hurt (Venkatesh 2013: 89-90). These narratives tell us that, despite very significant differences, prisoners’ experiences with loneliness in England & Wales and Norway are often quite similar. Loneliness, then, takes different forms at different times, which is something we find very interesting and hope to be able to document.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Laursen, J., (2019) Loneliness. Available at: (Accessed [date]).


Appleton, C (2010) Life after Life Imprisonment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bourgois, P & Schonberg, J (2009). Righteous Dopefiend. University of California Press.

Shapland, J., & Bottoms, A. (2011). Reflections on social values, offending and desistance among young adult recidivists. Punishment & Society13(3), 256–282

Maruna, S (2001) Making Good: How Ex-Convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives. American Psychological Association.

Mattingly, C (2014) Moral Laboratories. Family peril and the struggle for a good life. University of California Press. 

Nugent, B., & Schinkel, M. (2016). The pains of desistance. Criminology & Criminal Justice16(5), 568–584. 

[1] All names have been changed.  

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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