Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Rethinking the ‘Depth’ of Imprisonment



Time to read

5 Minutes

Guest post by Dr Kristian Mjaland. Kristian is a Senior Research Associate on the Comparative Penology project, and is together with Julie Laursen responsible for the fieldwork in the Norwegian prisons. This is the second post of Border Criminologies' themed series 'Penal Policymaking and the Prisoner Experience', organised by Ben Crewe.  

In the Comparative Penology project, we use a conceptual framework organised around the ideas of the ‘depth’, ‘weight’, ‘tightness’ and ‘breadth’ of imprisonment (see Ben Crewe’s blog post on these concepts). These concepts help us explore differences and similarities between the experiences of prisoners in England & Wales and Norway. We treat these concepts dynamically, and seek to think through and with them, amending our understanding of them as we discover more about prisoners’ experiences in different kinds of prisons, and in different prison systems. In this blog post, I will explore the idea of ‘depth’, and how my understanding of this notion evolved through a recent research exercise in Norgerhaven, a Dutch prison currently rented by the Norwegian government to ease capacity constraints in the Norwegian prison service.

The library in Norgerhaven (Photo: Alison Liebling)
The concept of the ‘depth’ of imprisonment was introduced by Downes , and later refined by King and McDermott. According to Crewe (2015: 54), the most basic definition refers to ‘the distance or polarity between the prison and the outside world, with distance having an almost literal as well as a metaphorical meaning’. Sentence length and levels of security and control are two of the aspects that particularly shape the ‘depth’ of a prison experience. As King and McDermott argue, prisoners often use metaphors of being ‘deep in the system’ to describe the experience of being held in highly restrictive environments. Thus, ‘depth’ seems to have first and foremost a vertical dimension, relating to the degree to which prisoners feel ‘buried way beneath the surface of freedom – almost subterranean’. Indeed, through our interviews in Norwegian and English prisons, this vertical dimension of ‘depth’ is often invoked when prisoners describe their experiences of imprisonment. Although not completely straightforward, ‘depth’ is also associated with pain, in the sense that the deeper people feel buried in the penal system, the more painful theirs experiences feel.

The ‘depth’ of imprisonment was something I wanted to explore further when I had the opportunity to join a team of researchers (led by Berit Johnsen at the University College of the Norwegian Correctional Services) in Norgerhaven prison in the Netherlands. Due to a lack of capacity in the Norwegian prison system, and concerns about the Norwegian prison queue (instead of overcrowding prisons, convicted offenders wait in a ‘queue’ to serve their sentence), the conservative/populist government decided to rent Norgerhaven prison for two years from September 2015. The rental agreement – already extended by an additional year – has been controversial, and although most of those who are transferred to Norgerhaven volunteer to go there, a significant number have been transferred against their will. The prison can hold 242 men, most of whom are foreign nationals. Around 1/3 are to be deported after serving their sentence.

As part of a larger research group, I spent three days in the prison, distributing surveys, having informal conversations with prisoners, and observing social life. Because I was one of the few Norwegian speaking researchers in our team, we decided that I ought to prioritize talking to the Norwegian prisoners about their experiences of serving their sentence in a foreign country.

Before I started the fieldwork I assumed that ‘depth’ would be a particularly salient feature of prisoners’ experiences in Norgerhaven. Being imprisoned in another country, far away from family and friends, having to communicate with Dutch prison staff in a different language (English), and having no possibilities to exit the prison on leave, I thought, would add to the feeling of being cut off from wider society and feeling ‘buried deep’ in the system. However, it did not take long before I realised that ‘depth’ seemed to have a somewhat different meaning than I had anticipated.

The park in Norgerhaven (Photo: Alison Liebling)
One of the first things that struck me was that the prison did not feel ‘heavy’ or oppressive. It had a beautiful park in the middle, with lots of old and tall trees. Prisoners enjoyed greater freedom to move around the prison estate unescorted by staff than in any other Norwegian high security prison I have been to. Prisoners rarely had visits (due to the long and costly travel to get to Norgerhaven), but they could Skype with their family and friends weekly, and had more minutes available to make calls than in other Norwegian high security prisons. When not locked-up, they could exit their wings and walk through the park to the prison café to buy coffee, ice cream and burgers, or pop by a tranquil library with a huge selection of books, newspapers and DVDs. Most found staff-prisoner relationships better than in Norwegian high-security prisons, and felt like they were treated with respect by the highly experienced Dutch prison staff. All these features made me think that the prison felt ‘lighter’ and less ‘deep’ than most Norwegian high security prisons.

On the second day of my fieldwork, I conducted an informal interview with a middle-aged Norwegian man whom I already knew a little from the Norwegian prison he had been to earlier in his sentence. During the interview, I asked several questions relating to ‘depth’. For instance, I introduced ‘the well’ as a metaphor for how he felt about his sentence, and asked him whether he now felt close to the surface (freedom) or down at the bottom of the well. He replied: ‘I don’t think I am in that well at all. I am in a side-chamber to the well’. I then asked him whether or not there were stairs in the well, trying to elicit some thoughts relating to whether he felt stranded, and he responded: ‘There are no stairs. Just a big plateau’, suggesting the difficulty of being at a standstill, removed from the ordinary mobility of the prison system. In these words, he presented a horizontal dimension of ‘depth’ that I had not previously considered.

This horizontal dimension resonated with several of the other Norwegian prisoners I met and interviewed in Norgerhaven. Rather than feeling buried/ at the bottom of the well, they felt they had been removed. A middle-class man I talked to in the library one afternoon found it ‘absolutely tragic’ to be imprisoned in a different country, and explained why: ‘I say that not because of the material conditions here, neither because of the officers. I say that because we are on foreign soil. […] I think I will feel like having been to the moon when I’m released from here. These prisoners felt themselves to be at the periphery of the prison system. As the middle-aged prisoner who felt trapped in a side-chamber explained: ‘It’s like being on hold, if you know what I mean. I feel a bit like I am outside of the system’.

One of the biggest concerns for these men was the fear of being lost in the penal system: They feared that it would be very difficult to enter the system again after having been ‘excluded’ from it. A Norwegian prisoner in his fifties that I spoke to on several occasions felt like he was expelled from Norway, and had few hopes about being allowed back during his sentence: ‘I really worry that I will be here for my entire sentence. It’s a place where you get stuck. Why would they help us get us back to Norway again?’  Because of the political prestige attached to the Norgerhaven project, many believed that their applications for transfer back to prisons in the homeland would be rejected and neglected, and found the insecurity and unpredictability of their exclusion hard to handle.

While it may seem that the pains associated with feeling removed from or outside of the prison system are less acute, less embodied, and less desperate than feeling buried far beneath the surface in environments that are highly restrictive, for the people I interviewed the pains caused by exclusion and removal had an existential dimension. Some of the prisoners seemed to feel expelled and disposed of to a degree that prisoners in ‘homeland’ Norwegian high security prisons rarely do. Rather than concluding that one form of pain is more damaging than the other, I want to stress that relatively ‘shallow/open’ and ‘light’ prisons, like Norgerhaven, can also invoke distinctive feelings of ‘depth’.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Mjaland, K. (2018) Rethinking the ‘Depth’ of Imprisonment. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/04/rethinking-depth (Accessed [date]).

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