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Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology

The prison trail and the benefits of walking it

By Julie Laursen

I’ve gone backwards in my sentence: from E to D, to Y wing to Z wing and finally to X wing’ (Sebastian).

These words and letters are probably difficult to decipher for the reader, and neither would they have made any sense to me two years ago. Thanks to a very large amount of fieldwork in 10 different prisons especially in Norway, but also in England & Wales, I am now better equipped to understand the meaning behind this interviewee’s statement. However, it is one thing to understand the words, another is being able to see, smell and hear the prison, to understand ‘the white noise’ that makes ethnographic probing distinctive. The anthropological method par excellence is of course ethnography, which promotes long-term, deeply embedded fieldwork ‘somewhere’ different from the researcher’s own culture or environment. While I agree that ethnography takes and requires time, the breadth of the immersion is perhaps equally important as the depth.

We have followed our interviewees’ ‘trails’ (see Knowles 2014) through the Norwegian and English prison systems, and beyond. These trails have resulted in quite laborious journeys such as travelling from 4am to 10pm to do a single interview in a remote Norwegian village, as well as shorter journeys to coffee shops in London or Oslo. It was necessary for us to deploy these mobile methods, or engage in a form of mobile ethnography (Marcus 1995), in order to follow people’s movements in- and out-side prison systems. Multi-sited ethnography can be an exercise in mapping a terrain, or a trail. We have used the somewhat obvious and conventional technique of ‘follow the People’ (as opposed to following the Thing or the Metaphor, etc. (Marcus 1995)), a strategy in multi-sited fieldwork dating back to Malinowski’s famous study of the Argonauts of the Western Pacific (see Marcus 1995). Traditional ethnography developed from colonialism to explore societies portrayed as de-historicised and community-based (Bourgouis & Schonberg 2009), but has long moved from its conventional single-site location to multiple sites of observation and participation (Marcus 1995).

Marcus (1995:97) argues that ‘[…] the world system is not the theoretically constituted holistic frame that gives context to the contemporary study of peoples or local subjects closely observed by ethnographers, but it becomes, in a piecemeal way, integral to and embedded in discontinuous, multi-sited objects of study’. To us, in the COMPEN team, these ‘multi-sited objects’ of study are, among other analytical interests, prisoners’ transitions through stages in their sentence and through prisons. If we want to understand what particular institutions are doing (whether that is particular prisons or the prison system in general), then we need to understand how they intersect with other institutions and with prisoners’ experiences outside their walls. Multi-sited fieldwork such as ours conforms to, and sometimes exceeds, the demands of traditional fieldwork, but it allows us to gain a deeper, visceral understanding of prisoners’ experiences.

For example, I can easily imagine the dread and frustration the interviewee quoted above felt when he suddenly found himself in what some prisoners call the ‘most restrictive wing in Norway’. He had followed a neat and straightforward route in the prison he first entered where he had gone from the 23-hour lock up induction wing to a wing for long-termers with a range of freedoms. Here, he had more or less unlimited access to the music room, trusted jobs, and plenty of time out of his cell to socialise, cook and play ping-pong and board-games. Now, because of his conviction and the restrictions imposed by his particular sentence, he had gone – metaphorically and concretely – backwards in his progression and felt like he had to ‘start over’. I was able to picture all the wings he mentioned, because I had been there, and that intimate knowledge of particular places brought depth and nuance to our conversation.

This ‘bank of memories’, or implicit comparison, from different prisons works the other way around as well. When we interview men in prisons in both countries, we ask them to describe their route through the prison system. They often describe beginning their sentence in various high-security prisons, and a range of lower category prisons (more so in England & Wales than Norway), before eventually arriving in open prisons. It is not hard to imagine how relatively free the open Cat-D prison Springhill feels for some prisoners, in comparison to the Cat-B local, HMP Pentonville in London. Likewise, when Norwegian men describe starting their sentence in the high-security Ullersmo prison and moving on to the open Berg prison, their relief, anxiety and experiences are palpable.

Another benefit from ‘having been there’ is the ‘credit’ we get when prisoners ask whether we have been to other prisons and we reel off a long list. They add to that list by describing these places in rich and nuanced detail based on their own experiences, which again adds and expands our knowledge and impression of these places. Our conversations about other prisons create a sense of understanding, ‘common’ experiences (although our experiences of the prison are obviously very different from prisoners’) and something shared. Prisoners talk about their previous establishments with passion, care, bitterness, vengeance, hatred, and fondness and a shared knowledge of these places create a platform to understand their journeys or trails through the prison system. Although long-term immersion in a single prison is obviously very valuable, the breadth and width of a multi-sited fieldwork enable us to engage in interviews and conversations in a manner that a single-sited study would not allow. To follow people over time, and over multiple social, cultural and physical locations, results in a multi-dimensional knowledge (Ingold, 2015; Rasmussen 2017), while the implicit and explicit comparisons between prisons creates a vivid imagery of how things are and could be somewhere else.    


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

Ingold, T. (2015b). Foreword. In P. Vannini (Ed.) Non-representational methodologies: Re-envisioning research (pp. i-x). New York: Routledge.

Knowles, C (2014) Flip-Flop. A Journey Through Globalisation’s Backroads. London: Pluto Press.

Marcus, G (1995) Ethnography in/of the world system: the Emergence of Multi-Sited ethnography. Annual review of Anthropology (24): 95-117. 

Rasmussen, Jon Dag (2017) Urban borderlands of mobility: ethnographic fieldwork amongst unconventional elderly city people. PhD dissertation, Aalborg University.


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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