Skip to main content

Penal Policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - COMPEN (Penal Policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis)

Reporting period: 2018-09-01 to 2020-02-29

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 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 is systematic. 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, as a way of seeking to both describe and understand the ways in which incarceration in both jurisdictions might be experienced as restrictive, oppressive, invasive and disabling. 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. This configuration promises to: 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.
The initial months of the project were spent developing and operationalising the conceptual framework; recruiting the project staff; and negotiating access in both jurisdictions. Once all researchers were in post, fieldwork began in both jurisdictions on the entry-exit study, and in England and Wales on the deep-end and policy studies. In Norway, data collection has recently begun for the ethnography of imprisoned sex offenders, while data collection for this study will begin in England and Wales shortly. Overall, 197 interviews have been conducted, alongside the administration of 120 surveys.
While data collection is still at its early stages, there are very strong grounds for believing that the project objectives will be met with regard to pushing the frontiers of understanding. This relates both to some of the descriptive content of the findings – e.g. practices and experiences of entry and exit, and the nature of imprisonment in the most secure and restrictive parts of the prison system – and its conceptual and theoretical contribution. The analytic framework is proving to be a highly nuanced and sensitive means of assessing different aspects of the prisoner experience. It is enabling a sophisticated comparative assessment between the two jurisdictions, and will provide an enduring vocabulary for the description of penal ‘texture’. In some of the Close Supervision Centres, in England and Wales, for example, it is already clear that the ‘depth’ of confinement (restrictions on movement; high security) is to some degree offset by staff-prisoner relationships that, compared to high-security prisons, are relatively ‘light’. Thinking about imprisonment using such terms moves us some distance beyond the conventional terminology of ‘treatment’ and ‘conditions’. Meanwhile, emerging findings already suggest that the programme of research will confirm, explain and call into question different tenets of the ‘Nordic exceptionalism’ thesis (for example, by highlighting the positive implications of prison size for interpersonal treatment; and at the same time by documenting the common experience in Norway of solitary confinement on remand, and the bittersweet ambiguity of ‘queuing’ to serve a sentence).

With regard to wider impact, the support received so far from practitioners working in the prison systems in both jurisdictions has been extremely encouraging. We have been granted exceptional access to both systems, including the Close Supervision Centres in England and Wales (holding prisoners in the most secure conditions), and to all other establishments that we have sought to enter. Such levels of trust and assistance, at senior levels of each organisation and within prison establishments, are indicative of the potential for the research to directly shape policy and practice, including such issues as prison reception, induction and discharge processes, and the management of prisoners in very secure conditions.