skip to content

Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology



Welcome to the website for the COMPEN research programme, a five-year project funded by the European Research Council, whose full title is: ‘Penal policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis’. Rather than describe the programme of research in detail, the following link will take you to a summary of the original research proposal, submitted almost three years ago. Some aspects of the research design have changed, but its structure and aims remain the same. At its core, the project aims to interrogate the Nordic exceptionalism thesis – put at its simplest, the idea that punishment practices in the Nordic (inclusionary) countries are more liberal and humane than those in neo-liberal (exclusionary) nations. My interest in this topic derives from reading the scholarship on the political economy of punishment as someone who spends a lot of time trying to understand the daily experience of imprisonment from the inside, as it were. As I argue in the research proposal, ‘one of the most striking characteristics of such scholarship is that it stops at the gates of the prison, judging levels of [penal] harshness or humanity largely by metrics such as imprisonment rates and prison conditions’. It was not my intention in the proposal to sound too critical of this work; but, for some time, with colleagues in the Prisons Research Centre, I had been trying to find ways of describing and conceptualising different aspects of penal power and texture, and I was very struck by the distance between the way that I (and other empirical prison researchers) thought about such matters and the ways that they were formulated by more theoretical and legalistic scholars.  

The framework that is central to the research programme draws on the ideas of ‘depth’, ‘weight’, ‘tightness’ and ‘breadth’ that I have elaborated and discussed in a couple of publications (see and In brief, ‘depth’ refers mainly to matters of security, control, and the various sensations of feeling a long way from freedom; ‘weight’ relates mainly to interpersonal treatment and conditions, and the level of oppressiveness that they generate; the concept of ‘tightness’ seeks to capture the reach, grip and invasiveness of forms of psychological power, including the demand that prisoners monitor their own conduct; and ‘breadth’ refers to the reach and impact of the sentence beyond the prison, for example, the forms of stigma and psychological disability that ex-prisoners carry with them on release . My hope is that these ideas will provide a way of comparing prison regimes and prisoner experiences that is both nuanced and somewhat systematic. As we will explain in forthcoming blog posts, comparing penal systems in two very different jurisdictions is not at all straightforward, but a framework of this kind does, at least, give us a set of concepts around which we can structure our observations and hang our analysis. It certainly seems plausible, at least in theory, that a prison system that is interpersonally very humane might be oppressive or invasive in other ways, particularly for those elements of the prisoner community who might be deemed most ‘in need’ of treatment, control or paternalistic intervention. 

With such considerations in mind, the research programme consists of four sub-studies, each taking place within England & Wales and Norway: first, a study of penal policymaking and the ‘penal field’ – that is, the set of players and processes that shape penal policy and practice; second, an exploration of the texture of imprisonment for women and imprisoned sex offenders, with a particular focus on how these prisoners experience penal power and how it shapes their everyday social world within the prison; third, a study of how prisoners experience points of entry into and exit from the system; and, fourth, a study of the ‘deep end’ of each prison system, that is, the units holding prisoners considered to be most dangerous or difficult to manage, in the most secure and controlled conditions.

Research is now underway in all four sub-studies, in what has been an extremely intense initial period of fieldwork. Most of our time so far has been spent embarking on the ‘entry-exit’ study, in a range of local prisons, interviewing prisoners shortly after they come into custody and observing reception processes. At the same time, in England & Wales, we have made considerable headway in interviewing prisoners in the four Close Supervision Centres (for more information, see,

We will provide further information about our progress in blog posts to follow. One of the aims of this website is to provide ongoing information about how the research is developing, including our fieldwork experiences, reflections, and emerging findings. A second aim is to use the website as a place for other researchers engaged in comparative penological research or doing research in areas connected to any of our sub-studies to write about their studies. We will therefore be inviting people to contribute short articles, and would welcome anyone getting in touch to let us know about their activities. More to come….

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