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Penal Policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - COMPEN (Penal Policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis)

Reporting period: 2020-03-01 to 2021-08-31

The primary objective of this programme of research is to compare penal policymaking and prisoner experiences in England & Wales and Norway. In part, the aim in doing so is to try to complement broad-brush analyses of changes in contemporary penality, and – more specifically – to interrogate the ‘penal exceptionalism’ thesis, which argues that the Nordic countries are more liberal and humane in their punishment practices. While some empirical evidence exists in relation to this claim, little of it entails a systematic, comparative analysis that reaches inside the prison to provide a full account of differences in the texture of imprisonment between a more inclusionary and a more exclusionary jurisdiction, and to link the mundane experience of incarceration to broader penal sensibilities or policy domains. The programme of research comprises four sub-studies, each to be undertaken in both jurisdictions, focussing on (a) penal policymaking (b) processes of entry into and discharge (exit) from prison (c) the daily experiences of female prisoners and imprisoned sex offenders (d) the experience of ‘deep-end’ custody. As a way of seeking to both describe and understand the ways that incarceration in both jurisdictions might be experienced as restrictive, oppressive, invasive and disabling, this programme of research draws on a conceptual framework organised around the ideas of the ‘depth’, ‘weight’, ‘tightness’ and ‘breadth’ of imprisonment, as well as ideas of shame and penal consciousness. One of its goals is to develop this framework itself, as a means of offering an empirically-derived basis for comparative analysis that can be used cross-nationally to capture the different experiential dimensions of imprisonment. Overall, the research seeks to: significantly advance the literature on the relationship between political economy and penal culture; enhance our understanding of key stages in the process of custody and identity transformation; introduce a consideration of gender to debates about the nature and relative harshness of different kinds of penal cultures; and explore the philosophy, texture and outcomes of imprisonment at the extreme points of prison systems.
Our research programme involved four discrete but inter-connected sub-studies, undertaken in both England & Wales and Norway, all of which were successfully completed. The first involved a study of penal policymaking, in particular, the dynamics of policymaking and its transformation into practice, the range of players and priorities that animated such processes, and the relationship between politicians, officials and operational practitioners in determining policy outcomes. The second comprised a longitudinal study of processes of entry into and exit from custody, and included interviews, observations and surveys with a sample of mainstream male prisoners, female prisoners and men convicted of sexual offences. Typically, individuals were interviewed on three occasions: shortly after entering custody, soon before release, and within around three months of release into the community. The aim of this study was to chart prisoners’ trajectories through the prison system, including these key moments of reception and release. The third sub-study was constituted by semi-ethnographic studies of prisons/ units holding (a) female prisoners (b) men convicted of sexual offences. The broad aim of such studies was to compare the prison experiences of such sub-groups in the two jurisdictions, foregrounding issues of stigma, gender and self-regulation. More specifically, the sub-study sought to explore the relationship bxetween penal power and the everyday social world of the prison among groups whose experiences have rarely been considered in discussions of penal exceptionalism. The fourth sub-study involved an analysis of ‘deep-end’ confinement i.e. the units within each prison system in which prisoners are most acutely controlled and restricted. The goal of this study is to provide an empirical account of life in these extreme corners of the prison system, as a means of better understanding the means by which individuals survive them and the limits of penal power. Overall, the data collection for these sub-studies has involved 728 semi-structured interviews and 1082 surveys, and many months of semi-ethnographic data collection.
First, we have added a very significant degree of empirical & explanatory detail to debates about Nordic penal exceptionalism, which question & advance many foundational assumptions about imprisonment in inclusionary & exclusionary jurisdictions e.g. Norway & England & Wales respectively. Our data specify the distinctive ways that the ‘texture’ of imprisonment differs between these jurisdictions, moving beyond reductive metrics of penal mildness & severity. Our research programme complements & challenges more macro-level accounts of penality, meeting David Garland’s call for small-n comparative studies which help detail the relationship between political economy & the daily texture of incarceration.

Second, we have developed a unique account of the micro-processes & practices of entry into & release
from prison custody, connecting the mundane practices & lived realities of imprisonment to meso- & macro-level issues beyond the prison.

Third, we have generated original insight into the relationship between penal power, staff-prisoner relationships & the everyday social world & culture of imprisoned sex offenders & female prisoners, in a way that challenges many assumptions of mainstream prison sociology. With regard to a range of sub-topics– prisoner hierarchies, feelings of safety & un-safety, the dialectic of power – our analyses will serve as a corrective to reductive & undifferentiated accounts of the imprisonment, in particular through the lens of gender.

Fourth, our study of deep-end confinement – involving privileged access to the most inaccessible corners of each system – has allowed us not only to describe the most extreme forms of confinement in each jurisdiction (i.e. the limit point of state coercion), & the ways that imprisonment is experienced in its most acute forms, but also to theorise how ‘dangerousness’ is perceived, constructed & managed in different jurisdictions.

Fifth, our study has enabled us to detail & theorise various more general aspects of imprisonment, including loneliness in prison, ‘soft resistance’, experiences & practices of cell-sharing, & reinventive narratives among prisoners.

Sixth, our policy sub-study, which involved around 80 interviews overall with senior policy players in England & Wales & Norway, has helped us to expose policy dynamics within the two research sites.

Seventh, our findings have enabled us to very significantly develop a framework for understanding the texture of imprisonment, organised around the ideas of the ‘depth’, ‘weight’, ‘tightness’ & ‘breadth’ of penal power.

Overall, our findings & outputs represent significant breakthroughs empirically, theoretically & methodologically, expanding the foundational basis of prison sociology and building an exceptional tool for comparative and cross-national penology. The concepts that comprise it offer an advanced means of understanding the different dimensions of penal texture & the experience of imprisonment.
Compen Research Team