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“Penal Power, Then, Exercises a Grip That Has Become Tighter and More Demanding, Even if in Many Respects its Form Has Softened”: Interview With Ben Crewe

Interview conducted by Corentin Durand, Manon Veaudor and Valérie Icard
« Le pouvoir carcéral exerce une emprise d’autant plus considérable et exigeante qu’il a pris des formes plus discrètes » : entretien avec Ben Crewe
Ben Crewe, Corentin Durand, Manon Veaudor et Valérie Icard
Traduction(s) :
« Le pouvoir carcéral exerce une emprise d’autant plus considérable et exigeante qu’il a pris des formes plus discrètes » : entretien avec Ben Crewe [fr]

Notes de l’auteur

All footnotes are clarifications made by the coordinators of the issue.

Texte intégral

1PhD. in Sociology, Ben Crewe is Professor of Penology and Criminal Justice at the University of Cambridge, where he co-heads the Prison Research Centre. For the past twenty years, his work has focused on a wide range of dimensions of prison life and the everyday life of incarceration, mainly in England and Wales. In 2009, he wrote a major book – The Prisoner Society – which analyses the transformations of prison power and their consequences on relations between prison officers and prisoners, prison to social life and the experience of incarceration. In addition to several collective books (Bennett et al., 2008; Jewkes et al., 2016), he has recently published, with Susie Hulley and Serena Wright, Life Imprisonment from Young Adulthood (Crewe et al., 2020). He is currently conducting comparative research on penal policies and prison experiences in England, Wales and Norway, as well as a longitudinal study of prisoners serving very long sentences.

[1] — We thought we should start with the prison riots of 1990, both as a major event in contemporary British prison history and as a challenge to traditional ways of thinking about power dynamics in prisons. Perhaps most notably, Anthony Bottoms and Richard Sparks placed legitimacy at the core of understanding of prison order. How important this research tradition has been to build your own perspective?

  • 1 Eamonn Carrabine has carried out a retrospective analysis, based on archives, of the 1990 Stangeway (...)
  • 2 Written following the 1990 riots, this seminal book in modern British prison sociology places priso (...)
  • 3 On the basis on her early work on prison officers (Liebling et al., 2001) and suicide in prison (Li (...)

[Ben Crewe] – When, as a PhD student at Essex University, I first decided that I wanted to move towards prison research, I consulted Eamonn Carrabine1 about how to proceed. He suggested that I read Prisons and the Problem of Order, by Sparks, Bottoms and Hay2, and meet with Alison Liebling.3 This turned out to be excellent advice. It took me quite some time to fully appreciate the significance of Sparks et al.’s text – mainly, I think, because I took for granted that questions of justice and injustice would be at the heart of theorisations of prison life – but it has been very influential in my attempts to think through a range of topics over many years, including matters of compliance and the use of authority. With regard to this latter issue, working with Alison Liebling has also been extremely significant. First, her work on “moral performance” expands the way we conceive of legitimacy in prisons beyond normal considerations of legality, procedural justice, and other such matters. The distinctiveness of prisons, compared to other sites or encounters within the criminal justice system, means that, for them to be legitimate, they need to provide such things as safety and hope, as well as fair and respectful treatment. But also, Alison and I have together sought to establish the significance of the use of authority in prisons and conceptualise its various forms. In particular, we have argued that the under-use of authority can be just as dangerous and undesirable as its over-use, especially where prison staff may be “absent”, not just numerically, but in terms of their willingness and ability to engage with prisoners and deploy their power in a judicious and effective manner. I am not sure that this is such a radical or controversial argument, but so much prisons literature is suspicious about the deployment of state power that it feels important to demonstrate that, where state agents are avoidant or ineffective in using their authority, this too can be experienced as highly illegitimate and destabilising: prisoners do not want their peers to “run the wings”, or to live in chaotic, un-boundaried environments; they want staff to inhabit their power, and to use it carefully to maintain order. To refer back to your question, then, the link [with the research tradition begun by Anthony Bottoms, Richard Sparks and Will Hay] is between different forms of authority and different kinds of legitimacy deficits. And rather like in Prison and the Problem of Order, what we have tried to do is mobilise empirical data to make a point about such matters that is theoretically significant.

[2] — What is your analysis of what happened in British prisons during the 1990’s, with what you described as a shift from an authoritarian power to a neo-paternalist one?

  • 4 Indeterminate sentences do not have a fixed length of time. They assign convicted persons a minimum (...)

[BC] — Before I began my first piece of prison ethnography – a ten-month study of HMP Wellingborough, a medium-security establishment – a good deal of the reading I had done in preparation was based on research conducted in the 1970s, much of which focussed on forms of naked brutality and mistreatment. Yet when I started my fieldwork, prisoners talked very little about physical violence, threats, or intimidation. Indeed, those who had been in the prison system for a long time – or in previous decades, on other sentences – made direct comparisons between a more authoritarian era, where prison officers were the “gods” of the prison, the answer was always “no”, and coercion was much more central as an element of order and control, and the current era, which they described using terms like “softer but harder” or “softer but shitter”. For those serving indeterminate sentences4 especially, penal power was not so much characterised by authoritarianism as what they described as a more pernicious set of practices and mechanisms: incentive schemes, drug tests, risk assessments and reports on file. I describe these as forms of “soft power”, which are not so much imposed on prisoners in a top-down way, but rather wrap them up in an anonymous web of power, that is hard for prisoners to grasp. Neo-paternalism is a useful descriptor here, because it captures the attempt in prisons in England and Wales to responsibilise prisoners into particular forms of self-governance, rather than simply demand their obedience. In many ways, then the burden imposed on prisoners is greater: it is not enough for them merely to do as they are told; rather, they are expected to manage and monitor their conduct without direct oversight. The prisoner has to be more than a passive object – he or she needs to demonstrate a kind of active commitment to engaging with his or her sentence. Foucault’s work is of course important here. In many ways, this new regime of power feels less coercive – or, at least, less straightforwardly coercive. But a great deal of power is still flowing.

I refer to this as neo-paternalism because it combines the neo-liberal emphasis on responsibilisation with a paternalistic attempt to prevent the prisoner from making “bad decisions”, alongside genuine efforts to provide decent treatment and rehabilitative opportunities. But behind all of this is also a rather firm grip, an insistence that prisoners use their autonomy “appropriately”, with a range of sanctions in place to ensure that they do so, by tying their conditions – and often their prospects of release – to particular modes of being and behaviour. Penal power, then, exercises a grip that has become tighter and more demanding, even if in many respects its form has softened.

[3] — Along your career, you have primarily used qualitative methods, in particular in-depth interviews with prisoners and staff. This raises a question common to all ethnographers trying to analyse change: how to describe historical dynamics from a fieldwork that is, by definition, stuck in the present. How do you deal with this tension?

[BC] — I make no claims to be any kind of historian. In the analysis that I have tried to summarise above, I felt confident that I was describing real shifts, because of the consistency with which prisoners, uniformed staff and prison governors characterised the earlier era, in ways that corresponded with the research literature. But actually, I was more concerned with using accounts and metaphors pertaining to the past in order to describe the present, than to make assertions about what the past was actually like (or how it was experienced). To give an example, prisoners often said that they had preferred prison life in the 1980s, when regimes were more austere and violence was more common, because, if nothing else, you “knew where you stood”. Often, they insisted that it had been better in the days when you “got a kicking” from prison officers, because this kind of punishment was clear and immediate. I was never very convinced by these claims (and throughout my research career, prisoners have in fact talked about staff brutality as deeply traumatising, with long-term effects). But it helped me understand how they felt about contemporary penal power, where prisoners often feel that rules and boundaries are unclear, and punishments are deferred and enduring. If you do something deemed to be wrong, you might lose certain privileges or receive a negative entry on your file; if you are serving an indeterminate sentence, and are judged by a prison psychologist to have issues with authority or poor impulse control, then once that is committed to paperwork, it is very hard to erase, and you might not even know of its presence for some time. What I mean, then, is that comparisons with earlier periods should be handled carefully in terms of what they can tell us about the past, but, if we listen to them properly, offer valuable ways of understanding the present.

[4] — One of the trends you analyse in your work is the managerialization of the prison administration. Prison officers, and even prison managers, have been deprived of most of their discretionary power by the new centralization of the prison administration. What are the implications for the understanding of staff-prisoner relationships? Is there still room for what you coined as soft power, that is ruling through individual interests, interpersonal relationships and use of discretionary power?

[BC] — Yes, I think a great deal of power and discretion remains in the hands of prison officers. My colleague Alison Liebling has demonstrated very significant variations between prisons in terms of such matters as respectful treatment, fairness, and safety, most of which reflects the way that uniformed staff use their authority. To use an example that she often uses herself, whether or not prison officers choose to give a prisoner a pillow or greet prisoners courteously when they unlock them in the morning, are highly consequential. In drawing attention to the centralisation of power within prison administrations, and its dispersal to a range of specialists (psychologists, offender managers, and so on), my aim was mainly to bring into focus the fact that many prisoners now live in two worlds simultaneously: their present day existence, which is principally shaped by officers, in terms of their everyday interactions on the prison landings; but also their future, which is determined much more by decisions made by members of staff who are not part of their everyday life, and who feel much more distant to them. Life-sentenced prisoners, for example, often state that they can cope reasonably easily with the daily demands and conditions that they encounter, even when they are in poor-quality prisons. What they struggle with much more is the sense that their chances of progression and release are made on the basis of decisions regarding risk that, to them, feel opaque and capricious, made by people who they feel do not know them and who they cannot easily access. The idea of “soft power” is meant to capture both of these domains: the discretionary power that officers retain – even if they have less influence over the overall running of the institution itself – and a range of policies and practices that govern prisoners’ lives without seeming ostensibly “hard” or coercive.

  • 5 A pioneer of prison sociology in the US, Gresham Sykes theorised the deprivations and frustrations (...)

[5] — A great deal of your work deals with how prisoners experience imprisonment and penal power. In that perspective, you have had a long-standing discussion with the work of Gresham Sykes, most notably his concept of pains of imprisonment.5 Can you retrace this genealogy of your own perspective on the matter?

[BC] — The Society of Captives is where I started, and it’s the book I return to most often. The same is true for so many prison scholars that his framework can often feel rather over-worked, but that is testament to how many of the fundamental elements of prison life he captures. I think he rather under-states the primary pain of imprisonment, which is almost universally about missing and worrying about loved ones, and one can easily think of other pains and deprivations about which he says very little, such as the deprivation of privacy and emotional trust. But the main basis of my engagement with Sykes stems from the attempt to build on his framework in light of the changes in penal power that I have already outlined above. First, then, I have argued that there are some new pains, which supplement (but do not replace) those that Sykes elaborates: those of uncertainty/indeterminacy, self-government, and psychological assessment. A key difference, though, between these pains and those that Sykes documents is that they are not inherent to imprisonment, so much as the outcome of particular kinds of policies and techniques. Second, then, when Sykes theorises the significance of these pains, he frames his argument entirely through the idea of what prisoners lose or have removed as a result of their imprisonment. But the contemporary pains that I have tried to analyse work in a rather different way, in that, rather than working as deprivations, they reflect institutional demands and inducements, which actively cultivate certain forms of conduct and subjectivity. The significance of this is that, while Sykes argues that the deprivations of imprisonment push prisoners into various kinds of relationships with each other in order to mitigate these pains and produce a collective code that is oppositional to the authorities, the contemporary pains encourage prisoners to restrict their social relations (because relationships often constitute risks) and reward them for aligning their behaviour with institutional objectives.

The other kinds of pains in which I have become more interested are those that relate to the moral judgments that prisoners impose on themselves, normally as a result of their offence or their lifestyle in the community. Sykes says almost nothing about these forms of shame and self-reproach, and the idea that the offence itself might be relevant to the prisoner experience is neglected within prison sociology more generally. But because much of my research in recent years has involved people convicted of serious sexual and violent crimes, I have been really struck by how many prisoners make decisions “do their sentence” that are primarily shaped by feelings of remorse about their crime, a sense of having let other people down, and a deep desire to become a different kind of person. In this respect, the pains of imprisonment – or, at least, the burdens that prisoners carry with them, and which shape their orientation to the sentence – are an outcome of what they have done, rather than what the prison is doing to them. What they tend to do as a result is disengage from the prisoner social world and commit themselves to institutional aims, so, again, this is quite inconsistent with Sykes’s framework for understanding the prisoner culture and social system.

[6] — Your work pays extensive and extremely careful attention to prisoners’ discourses. Methodologically, how do you collect and analyse data to describe experiences of imprisonment? Are there questions that you have found particularly useful to allow prisoners to talk about their experience?

[BC] — In some of my earlier studies, when I had fewer professional responsibilities, I was able to spend a long time in prisons, building trust prior to interviews, which helped enormously. When I undertook the research for The Prisoner Society (Crewe, 2009), I also undertook life history interviews, often lasting two or three hours, prior to the “prison” interviews, which established a really strong foundation of understanding. Within interviews themselves, I ask a lot of questions about how prisoners feel, which has always seemed like a very natural thing to do. But when recently undertaking a comparative study in England & Wales and Norway, I was intrigued that one Nordic scholar who we asked to look over our research questions commented that this language – of feeling – was rather intrusive. Perhaps that reflects different kinds of national sensibilities about private experiences, but I tend to think that a combination of bravery and sensitivity can go a long way in encouraging people to talk freely. It seems to me that successful interviewing is much more about the skill and responsiveness of the interviewer than about specific kinds of questions, though I have used certain, very simple, questions in almost all my projects: for example, I’ve found that “why do you do what the prison wants you to do?” has always been a really effective way of asking about compliance – a really simple form of wording, to get at something analytically quite complicated. I also commit to long interviews – normally two or three hours long, to maximise the opportunity to probe participants’ responses as fully as possible.

With regard to the analysis of interview data, I’ve always tried to read between the lines of what people say, paying particular attention to the use of descriptive metaphors. There is nothing very radical about this, except that some areas of criminology are rather “straight” in the way that they treat interview material, depositing it on the page as evidence without always probing underlying meanings. Much of the focus of my PhD was on masculinity, which men communicate rather obliquely and indirectly, so I guess I became accustomed to a particular form of analysis which pays close attention to phrasing and meanings that are present but somewhat concealed.

[7] — This attention to discourse has led you to craft new and specific concepts to describe the pains of imprisonment. Could you explain what you have come to mean by depth, tightness, weight and breadth and the process that led you to elaborate and differentiate these concepts?

  • 6 The Incentive and Earned Privileges Scheme was implemented in 1995 to encourage prisoners to adopt (...)

[BC] — It’s hard to be concise here, but “Depth” refers to the relationship between imprisonment and liberty, including sentence length, isolation within and beyond the prison, levels of security and control, and the degree of difference between the prison and the community (e.g., the normality and permeability of the environment, and the extent to which prisoners retain the rights and status that they had as free citizens). “Weight” is mainly related to interpersonal treatment, the use of staff power, and the quality of daily conditions. “Tightness” is connected to the softening of penal power and its manifestation in psychological rather than coercive mechanisms of power. It relates to the bureaucratization of prison life, the use of risk assessments and cognitive behavioural interventions, and policies and practices – e.g., incentive and early release schemes,6 and forms of monitoring – whose grip encourages prisoners to regulate a broad range of conduct. “Breadth” refers to the reach and impact of the sentence beyond the point of imprisonment – its enduring hold or influence on behaviour, orientation or self-stigmatisation.

In developing these concepts – which I should be clear drew upon existing work by David Downes, and Roy King and Kathleen McDermott (Downes et al., 1988; MacDermott, King, 1988), for example – I have tried to provide a dimensional framework to assess both the nature of penal power and the way that it is experienced, one that distinguishes between quite different aspects of imprisonment. Most accounts of prison life had struck me as descriptively rather flat, failing to differentiate between different kinds of regimes or to capture the experiential texture of prison life. I use the term texture quite deliberately here, to suggest a set of objective characteristics but also a more subjective sense of how these characteristics feel – a kind of sensory quality.

In my more recent work, the benefit of this framework has been its potential to enable cross-national analysis. In a recent article, we describe it as the scaffold for our analysis, both skeleton and skin, providing a stable structure for our comparison while keeping is reasonably contained (Crewe et al., 2022). The concepts of depth, weight, tightness and breadth were usefully “fuzzy”, in that they enabled us to move away from trying to compare very specific (and often, in the end, non-comparable) features of different penal jurisdictions (e.g., the kinds of rehabilitative programmes on offer) and instead to focus on the qualities of imprisonment that were a little more abstract, but at the same time were rooted in direct experience.

[8] — The analytical sophistication of these concepts have been made possible through various studies conducted in institutions with different levels of security, and focusing on sub-groups of prisoners: long-term prisoners, women, sexual offenders, etc. Are their experiences at all comparable? Does it still make sense to talk about pains of imprisonment without specifying which sort of imprisonment one is talking about?

[BC] — Yes and no. In the comparative study of prisoner experiences in England & Wales and Norway, as well as undertaking interviews, we used a survey to try to capture the pains and problems of imprisonment in a more systematic way. The research was conducted with men and women, including a sub-sample of men convicted of sexual offences, in a range of different establishments, including remand prisons, open prisons and everything in-between. The issues that prisoners rated as most painful were very similar across the board: “missing somebody”, “feeling that your life is being wasted”, “feeling that you have let down your family and friends”, “worrying about people outside” and “missing social life” all featured very consistently among the most significant problems for all of these groups. For men convicted of sexual offences, concerns about stigma and the obstacles that would be faced on release were also very prominent. But these similarities also conceal significant differences. First, the intensity of these pains differed considerably: in general, the problems were rated as more acute by prisoners in England & Wales compared to Norway, by remand prisoners compared to sentenced prisoners, and by women compared to men. Second, there is an interesting methodological issue here, regarding whether these quantitative measures capture the most salient pains of imprisonment. To give an example, in England & Wales, prisoners in open conditions tend to talk more about the pressures of being so close to freedom, yet always at risk of being returned to closed conditions, than about the more conventional stressors of missing family members, for example. Often, they state that being in open conditions is more stressful than being in higher-security establishments, which does not correspond with our data. It’s not completely clear to me whether these themes – which are also described in Victor Shammas’s excellent article on “the pains of freedom”, based on fieldwork in an open prison in Norway (Shammas, 2014) – are expressed so frequently and forcefully because they are new and unexpected, but are not, in fact, as weighty as the more conventional pains, or whether our survey lacked the sensitivity to pick up their significance.

[9] — You started your academic career by studying life-style magazines for men. Since then, gender has been a key notion of much of your prison research, whereas studying gendered pains of imprisonment or relationships between male prisoners and female officers. In particular, you offered important insights on masculinities in prison through the lens of emotions expression and suppression. Would you say that looking at prisons from the perspective of seemingly unrelated research topics can prove useful to renew analytical perspectives?

[BC] — Criminology is in some ways quite a narrow discipline. It concerns me a little that, in the United Kingdom, many students now study criminology all the way through from undergraduate to PhD. I don’t think that criminological theory provides the same breadth of input as does an initial training in, say, sociology, anthropology or politics. So, I think it can be an enormous benefit to come at criminological and penal issues as something of an outsider, armed with conceptual and theoretical tools that derive from other disciplines.

  • 7 See in particular (Crewe, 2006a, Crewe et al., 2017).

Regarding gender specifically, when I undertook my first prison ethnography, the original idea was that its focus would be “masculinity and modern penal culture”. Quite quickly, I realised that, in men’s prisons, masculinity was everywhere, to the extent that it no longer made sense to me to try to analyse its influence as an independent concept or framework, as such (Crewe, 2014). If anything, I regret the degree to which I described it implicitly rather than explicitly in much of my work, but, yes, in some articles I have tried to bring into relief the gendered nature of prisoner experiences and interactions.7 For example, masculinity is a recurring theme in two of my early publications about the drugs economy in prisons (Crewe, 2005, 2006b), while I would hope that an article like “The emotional geography of prison life” (Crewe et al., 2014) opens up territory for a more focussed gendered analysis.

[10] — One of the common features of the papers gathered in this special issue is to look at the way prison changes can be linked with various institutional settings, either by individual trajectories or policy transfers. Have comparisons or circulations with other institutions – repressive, medical, educational, etc. – been an analytical lever for describing and understanding the transformations of penal power? In what ways?

[BC] — I’m not sure if this quite answers your question, but the way in which I have tried to connect the prison with other institutions is through the attempt to situate people’s penal experiences in a way that takes into account how their lives have been shaped by other institutional and structural forces. I’ve been influenced here by Loïc Wacquant’s assertion in a 2002 article (Wacquant, 2002) that it is essential to investigate the connections between the prison and its surrounding institutions, and to recognise that, for many people, the prison is not some standalone institution, which impacts on their life independently of their experiences in other social and institutional settings.

This was particularly relevant to an article I recently co-authored with Alice Ievins (Crewe, Ievins, 2019), in which we tried to make sense of the reinventive narratives (“prison saved my life”; “this has been a really positive turning point for me”; “my life is better here than it was outside”) that will be familiar to any researcher who has spent a decent amount of time talking to people in prison. Drawing on Susie Scott’s idea of the “reinventive institution” (Scott, 2011), we argued that, for some prisoners, whose lives before confinement were blighted by acute deprivation and degradation, imprisonment produced narratives that suggested an inversion of the normal processes of mortification. So, for example, for chronic drug addicts, women whose lives were dominated by abuse and exploitation, and some people convicted of very serious sexual and violent offences, the normal functions of the prison – separation, containment, constraint, and moral denunciation – were welcomed, and were narrated as offering redemptive potential. In different ways, these prisoners said that their sentence had rescued them from moral squalor, unwanted impulses, and serious risks to their safety and wellbeing in the community. So, whereas Goffman suggests that the prison as an institution strips away the inmate’s true or desired identity, and his or her connection to stable social network, the kinds of prisoners whose experiences we were describing felt that it was only in prison that they could be “the real me”, could exercise some social and moral control over their life, and could establish social relationships that they valued as meaningful and supportive.

This was an uncomfortable argument to make. We were not trying to dispute the immense damage that imprisonment does to most people’s lives, nor even to claim that these reinventive narratives endured beyond the prison. But we wanted to take these narratives seriously, and to situate them within the broader context of people’s lives – their biographical and moral trajectories, as determined by both the presence and absence in their pre-prison lives of state institutions and interventions.

[11] — In a similar perspective, you have documented the importance of friendships and social relations imported from outside the prison. Notably, your research about drug use and drug dealing reveal underlines cultural and economic circulations with non-institutional social groups. Can paying attention to such influences help us account for the impact of broader social trends within prison walls? Would you say that a focus on relationships inside and outside the prison helps to understand institutional changes inside prison?

[BC] — Prisons were never total institutions – anyone who reads Asylums closely can see that even Goffman recognises this (1961). But they have certainly become less “total”, as forms of technology and communication have opened up channels of contact between the prison and the outside world. In my study of HMP Wellingborough, a medium-security prison in which I conducted fieldwork in 2002, I was very struck by the extent to which prisoner loyalties and behaviour were shaped by connections to the community: reputations imported from the outside, and calculations about how acts within prison might impact on reputation back in local communities after release. Prisoners generally socialised and were loyal to men who came from their hometowns, even if they had not known them prior to imprisonment, because of these networks of trust and mutual obligation that carried through from beyond the walls to inside them, and then back out again. Information – for example, about other people’s crimes, as well as their broader moral credibility – circulated with remarkable speed, often based on prisoners phoning people in their hometown to elicit news and evidence about their peers; and likewise feuds and fallouts within the prison were quickly conveyed to the outside world. Similarly, the drugs economy was based on a number of exchanges of directives and transactions between the prison and people in the community: drugs were often ordered and paid for through phone calls to people outside, with money deposited in external bank accounts by family members of friends before goods were handed over, and debts were often collected through the intimidation of family members.

Drugs also provide a good example of how changes in the external world seep into the prison. In 2005, I published an article called “Prisoner society in the era of hard drugs” (Crewe, 2005), reporting mainly on the ways in which the rise of heroin as the drug of choice within prisons was (re-)shaping all kinds of elements of the prisoner social world. Again, I was pretty confident in describing change because of the consistency with which prisoners and staff reported on the change from cannabis use to heroin, and the accompanying shifts in social relations. The article provides a good example of how quickly such analysis can become obsolete, when shifts in wider society percolate down to prisons. So, in 2020, Kate Gooch and James Treadwell updated my account (Gooch, Treadwell, 2020), through an article which documents the way that new psychoactive substances, which became popular in the community around a decade ago, have themselves redefined prison social relations, producing new forms of wealth, power and victimisation, and an economy of debt, all within the context of increasing austerity and technological advances (e.g., the use of smart phones and drones).

As an interesting aside, in the study that I am conducting at the moment, a longitudinal study of people serving life sentences, one change since our first round of interviews in 2012 is that many prisoners are telling us about relationships they have started while in prison through illegally accessing Facebook. These relationships are almost always described to us as life-changing, often motivating our participants to remove themselves from the illicit economy and to engage in courses and forms of personal development that will accelerate their release. But changes in technology are also the basis of many of their fears about release: the concern that they will not be able to cope with a world of online banking, mobile technology, Zoom calls, and the like, having resided for so long in institutions that are technologically backwards. All of this is to say that social trends and changes outside the prison impact on its inner world very significantly, but in piecemeal ways, and with unpredictable effects.

[12] — Our last – and very open – question deals with the avenues of research that should be explored – by you or others - to get a better understanding of the contemporary changes of power in prison. Are there topics, methodologies or places that have received insufficient attention and could enrich our collective narrative of prison governance?

  • 8 See however (Liebling, Crewe, 2012).

[BC] — The topic of prison governance and governors is very much neglected in Anglophone prison research: who are prison governors? What motivates them? What do they believe in? What kind of power do they hold? My colleague Alison Liebling and I have done some research in this area but have never written it up in full.8 Much more attention could also be paid to the intersection between politics, penal policy and everyday practices in prisons, and to the role of law and legal consciousness in shaping prison life and prisoners’ experiences. I think both remand prisons/prisoners and open prisons also merit a lot more interest, given their key role within most prisons systems, and their potential to tell us about freedom and constraint. And I welcome the use of quantitative methods, like social network analysis, which are emerging in the US in particular as a way of charting prisoner social relations, both in prison and after release.

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1 Eamonn Carrabine has carried out a retrospective analysis, based on archives, of the 1990 Stangeways prison riot. Rather than analyse it as an exceptional violent event, he situates the riot in the continuity of the countless “disturbances” of everyday prison life (Carrabine, 2004). He pays particular attention to discourses, paying attention to their capacity to negotiate subjective identities and to support strategies of resistance (Bosworth, Carrabine, 2001).

2 Written following the 1990 riots, this seminal book in modern British prison sociology places prisoners’ perceptions of the legitimacy of officers’ power at the heart of understanding prison order (Sparks et al., 1996).

3 On the basis on her early work on prison officers (Liebling et al., 2001) and suicide in prison (Liebling, 2002), Alison Liebling, professor of Criminology at the University of Cambridge, has focused on describing how everyday interactions in prison reflect “moral climates”, which in turn shape perceptions of institutional legitimacy (Liebling, 2005).

4 Indeterminate sentences do not have a fixed length of time. They assign convicted persons a minimum amount of time that must be served in prison before they can be considered for release, based on the person’s behaviour in prison.

5 A pioneer of prison sociology in the US, Gresham Sykes theorised the deprivations and frustrations produced by incarceration in a monograph published in 1958 based on a maximum security prison in New Jersey: the “deprivation of liberty” (the dual confinement of prisoners to the outside world and within the prison), the “deprivation of goods and services” (material deprivation and difficulties in acquiring products readily available in the outside world), the “deprivation of heterosexual relationship”, the “deprivation of autonomy”, and the “deprivation of security” (Sykes, 2007).

6 The Incentive and Earned Privileges Scheme was implemented in 1995 to encourage prisoners to adopt compliant behaviour, with a view to obtaining better conditions of detention.

7 See in particular (Crewe, 2006a, Crewe et al., 2017).

8 See however (Liebling, Crewe, 2012).

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Référence électronique

Ben Crewe, Corentin Durand, Manon Veaudor et Valérie Icard, « “Penal Power, Then, Exercises a Grip That Has Become Tighter and More Demanding, Even if in Many Respects its Form Has Softened”: Interview With Ben Crewe »Champ pénal/Penal field [En ligne], 25 | 2022, mis en ligne le 23 juin 2022, consulté le 05 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Ben Crewe

Professor of Penology and Criminal Justice, University of Cambridge

Corentin Durand

Chercheur post-doctoral au Centre de sociologie des organisations (CNRS, Sciences-Po), membre associé au Centre d’étude des mouvements sociaux (CNRS, EHESS, INSERM) et au Centre Maurice Halbwachs (CNRS, ENS, EHESS, INRAE)

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Manon Veaudor

Chercheuse post-doctorale à l’université Lyon 2, Triangle, membre associée au CESDIP

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Valérie Icard

Chercheuse post-doctorale au CESDIP (UMR CNRS 8183, ministère de la Justice, université de Versailles St-Quentin-en-Yvelines/université Paris-Saclay, CY Cergy Paris Université)

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