Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Penal Policymaking and the Prisoner Experience: A Comparative Analysis



Time to read

3 Minutes

Guest post by Dr Ben Crewe, Deputy Director of the Prisons Research Centre, and Reader in Penology, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge. This is the first post of Border Criminologies' themed series 'Penal Policymaking and the Prisoner Experience', organised by Ben. 

The Comparative Penology Group is led by Dr Ben Crewe, who, with his research team, has been working since 2016 on a five-year European Research Council (ERC) project titled: 'Penal policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis'. 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.

The research draws upon and enhances a framework that has recently been developed in a number of publications by Ben Crewe and various colleagues to conceptualise different aspects of the prison experience, formed around the concepts of the ‘depth’, ‘weight’, ‘tightness’ and ‘breadth’ of imprisonment. 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.

With such considerations in mind, the research programme consists of four sub-studies, each taking place within both 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 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 and release processes. We are also close to completing the sex offender ethnographies, and the study of ‘deep-end’ confinement in England & Wales, specifically in the Close Supervision Centres, which hold prisoners who are considered too dangerous or difficult to manage elsewhere in the prison system. In 2018, we will be completing these studies, and spending most of our time conducting the ethnographic studies of women’s imprisonment and interviewing key policymakers and practitioners in both jurisdictions.

The research has been highly complex methodologically. Among the issues we have encountered are: the challenges of translating key terms; sampling difficulties resulting from differences in the ways that the two prison systems accommodate sex offenders; and problems of attrition in following up prisoners post-release. Some of the differences between the two prison systems have struck us not through standard or formal research methods, but through our experiences of the ways that our research participants have engaged with us (whether they have been anxious about touching us, or sharing goods with us, for example), and through differential levels of such things as noise and trust. We have already written about many of these issues in blog posts, which are published on our website along with regular guest blogs. The website also provides further details of the overall research programme

In the following blog posts, we reflect upon a range of issues that are both methodological and substantive, ranging from the benefits of interviewing former prisoners in their own homes to a reconsideration of one of our key conceptual ideas, the ‘depth of imprisonment’.

To get in touch about our project, or to suggest a guest blog, please contact Claire Bonner at cmb231@cam.ac.uk or Ben Crewe at ben.crewe@crim.cam.ac.uk.  

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Crewe, B. (2018) Penal Policymaking and the Prisoner Experience: A Comparative Analysis. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/04/penal (Accessed [date]).

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