The Politics of Punishment

Louise Brangan is a Lecturer in Criminology in University of Stirling. Her new book The Politics of Punishment: A comparative study of imprisonment and political culture will be published this spring and is available now to order from Routledge.

The prison is everywhere, yet it is not everywhere alike. Despite it being used by governments across the globe to control and reprimand citizens deemed to be transgressive or unruly, in practice imprisonment varies from one country to the next. In The Politics of Punishment I explore why imprisonment and penal politics differs between nations. To explain these persistent comparative variances, the book focuses on prison and penal policymaking in Ireland and Scotland from 1970-1990s, tracing the roots of their distinctive penal patterns.

My central argument is two-fold. First, the comparative approach throws into starker relief the banal and domestic arrangements of penality in each place. Through the comparative lens the ordinary can take on new theoretical significance. As a result, cross-national research can help enrich our knowledge of punishment in each comparator nation or region. Second, the framework offered in this book provides comparative categories and interpretive tools to research and analyse the prison as a social institution, showing how it comes to condense and contribute to a nation’s array of social, political and cultural relations. What we see is that imprisonment displays the distinctive hallmarks of the prevailing political culture, which itself reflects structural biases and cultural norms. Political culture is the practical logic behind prison choices, which links social forces to actual penal outcomes.

Comparative penology: Conceptual challenges

To understand why we punish as we do, and why that differs between nations we need to establish empirical differences in (1) how we punish and (2) the forces that support those penal practices. Researching cross-national variation in penality is impeded, however, given that comparative sociology of punishment is still considered to be nascent. This is due to problems of conceptual constraints about what we compare and why (Brangan 2020).

Comparative scholarship of punishment has been preoccupied with the rise of punitiveness. These studies tend to centre per capita imprisonment rates as the key variable establishing patterns of penal harshness. The problems with researching punitiveness cross-nationally are well known and much of the subsequent discussion has focused on the exceptional complexity of measuring something as amorphous as punitiveness (Nelken 2011). This in/ability to comprehensively gauge levels of penal severity is now where much of the debate about comparative work focuses. The suggestion is that the prison has come to takeover and skew our comparative perspective, and hence there is a need to expand the sets of numbers and penal sites we compare (Hamilton 2014; Hucklesby et al. 2020). These approaches usefully and importantly diversify matters by broadening our penological field of vision.

This discussion, necessary as it is, also risks perpetuating what seems to me to be the main and underlying problem hindering the further refinement of cross-national study: comparing punitiveness. Conceptually, punitiveness is a one-dimensional way to present the aims and meanings of penal politics and imprisonment. Alternatively, I suggest that calls for comparative work to move beyond the prison are premature. It is not that the prison has come to dominate our comparative approaches so much as imprisonment rates continue to be considered the best, if somewhat crude, starting point. Currently, we lack conceptual means to look at differences in how people are imprisoned from one society to the next.

We know that any prison system is inescapably varied in its aims and practices. To be held in segregation in a country that is considered welfarist would come as little relief to prisoners experiencing the depths of confinement that limit and deny whatever degree of autonomy and physical movement is usually afforded the general prison population. And the opposite is also possible. People held in open prisons with strong community links and liberal uses of release may well experience incarceration in a manner that feels disconnected from what is perceived as that nation’s punitiveness. What this shows us is that even if a prison estate is broadly progressive or comparatively harsh, there remain differences within any prison system as well as between prison systems. If we took this seriously, how we compare imprisonment would take account of how imprisonment is organised – a hybrid of punitive and progressive, exclusionary and integrative. The tendency in comparative penology to focus (mainly or exclusively) on the rise of mass incarceration and the spread of punitiveness has meant that, ironically, the prison actually remains opaquely conceptualized in much comparative study. This conceptual oversight must be addressed if comparative penality is to be further developed.

Moving beyond punitiveness as the object of comparison also exposes new gaps in our explanatory comparative accounts. The leading comparative studies show important connections between political doctrine or cultural heritage to high and low imprisonment rates. This is not scholarship I disagree with nor wish to disregard; these remain powerful analytical tools. However, what links these broad forces to specific penal outcomes? Whether it is comparative political economy or national culture, they each tend to be viewed from a high altitude, giving political and cultural forces an immutable quality. In these accounts there are no agents, no issues or events that direct thinking on imprisonment. While ‘punishment is ineluctably a political matter’ (Sparks 2001:172), in comparative research government is usually a ‘black box’ (Barker 2009).

One is also left wondering if the cultural and political frameworks are mutually exclusive? If punishment is a social institution, then we foreshorten our explanatory capacity by binding our comparisons to a single analytical prism. Following this thinking, a comparative penological framework ‘ought to be geared towards interpreting the conflicting social values and sentiments which are expressed and evoked in punishment as well as to tracing instrumental strategies of penal control’ (Garland 1990:4).

Currently, we can see cross-national correlations between macro-structural forces and aggregate imprisonment rates. But we are not well equipped to systematically compare the myriad of social forces that shape penality and the processes that translate them into divergent uses of imprisonment.

Comparing penal cultures

How then can we understand differences in how and why we imprison? This study departs from conventional forms of penal comparison in three ways. First, this work is not motivated by a desire to compare or measure punitiveness. Instead, it begins from a grounded and inductive position. Second, and following on from this, to understand comparative differences in penal cultures, both imprisonment and penal politics are reframed as social institutions that are dynamic and multifaceted. Third, I investigate the thinking behind actual policymaking. Taking a fine-grained approach to historical comparison, this book recovers and traces the immediacies of prison policymaking.

What are the benefits of this kind of grounded comparative work? The reciprocal relationship of comparative analysis can help enrich our understanding of each case study. Patterns in one comparator call out for correspondence in its counterpart, potentially illuminating new penal dynamics. As a result, we can develop more subtle histories and nuanced understandings of the comparative differences in cross-national penality. This comparative reflection is particularly useful for the cases of Ireland and Scotland, two nations often overlooked in penal theory and history (O’Sullivan and O’Donnell 2003; McAra 2008). Using these new concepts and undertaking interviews, documentary analysis and archival research, the book reveals new accounts of Irish and Scottish penal cultures. The comparative contrast of the analysis allowed for findings that challenge some of the presumptions about what punishment was like in these places at the end of the twentieth century. What is presented complicates and extends what we thought we knew about these nations’ penal histories (for example see Brangan 2019 on Scottish civilised penal culture, and Brangan 2021 on Irish pastoral penal culture). Comparative study of punishment has the ability to better explicate not just cross-national divergences, therefore. It holds the potential to reveal the deeper social meanings and political resonances of punishment in each time and place.

The other special advantage of the grounded comparative perspective is that we can glean insight into the general forces that give penal cultures their underlying logic and distinctive practical characteristics. Following this, to explain differences in how and why we punish, future comparative research might tend to the following matters:

Imprisonment regimes: When comparing punishment, focus on the diverse strategies and routines that constitute each prison system. In comparative penology, punishment is often viewed as being propelled by either lenient sentiments or punitive emotions, thus, by implication, the prison is designed to be kind or cruel. This simplification repeats across much comparative work, and for good reason. The breadth of this view allows researchers to home in on what is seen as the essential convergences and divergences in punishment. However, how people are imprisoned remains out of view. Quite simply, we need to bring into focus what it is the prison is doing to prisoners, where are they housed? What demands are made of them? How are they categorised?

Political culture: Undertake systematic comparisons of the cultural sensibilities of penal policymaking. These are fundamental in shaping divergences in how prisoners are categorized and what prison programmes are designed to achieve. These cultural currents shape penal policymaking dispositions towards what is felt to be desirable and acceptable, ultimately inflecting imprisonment regimes with practices that signify wider social meanings. Specifically, these sensibilities pivoted on divergent ideas about community (what kind of place this is), as well as perceptions of prisoners (their background circumstances and policymakers’ common-sense understandings of prisoners’ criminal motivations). These give penal policies their historicity and embedded character.

A recovery of the values and ideas of those who make, manage and administer prison systems reveals equally important political dynamics. Prison policy is always conducted within a web of strategic and instrumental rationalities, such as liberalism or conservatism. Political rationalities provide the political principles about the ideal conduct of government. These distinctly political sensibilities frame problems and contain a vision of how government should behave in order to achieve its ends. In making choices about the most appropriate uses of confinement, policymakers are also always making decisions about the appropriate uses of government authority.

Conceived of this way, political culture allows us to explain different prison practices by capturing the ideas and sensibilities that shape prison policymaking.

Contingent factors: Political culture is the terrain of ideas and values upon which substantive penal agendas are mobilised, governmental struggles are bound and problems are resolved. However, penal cultures are contingent rather than essential. Ideational dispositions may run deep, but they only impact prison outcomes when they interact with actual penal, social and political problems. Prison systems differ because they are also forged within the context of contemporary issues (e.g. shifting economic paradigms) and local events (e.g. signal crimes). Though to avoid returning to correlations we must take seriously how policymakers engage with these forces and how they pertained to punishment.

This framework clearly differs from the high profile models for comparative penological research. Perhaps it is not even right to suggest this is a framework in the proper sense of a fully set system of social patterns with anticipated penal outcomes. What I have developed here does not provide the usual typological levers that show correlation between certain macro structures and types of punitive patterns. Instead, the approach outlined above is a toolkit, intended to support grounded cross-national research, and which can keep both the policymaking practices and the macro-structural forces within the frame of the comparison. Certainly, this is a much more laborious approach to comparison (at the very least it doubles the workload of interviews, archives, documentary analysis, to say nothing of what an undertaking it is to compare this welter of materials). It seems to me, however, that the approach I sketch out here may help comparative researchers be better equipped to understand both how and why penality diverges cross-nationally.

What do we learn of punishment from this kind of approach? This comparative perspective illuminates how the prison comes to underpin social order. We see that its essential trait is neither punitiveness nor lenience, nor is it predominately motivated by either political economy or cultural heritage. Instead, punishment is intrinsically a dynamic social institution. Looking at the respective penal cultures in Ireland and Scotland across almost 30 years, what we see is that prisons have social uses. Penal power is not just negative and prohibitory, but also productive and inciting. Comparing penal cultures over time, we see how the prison becomes embroiled in social evolution. Prison policymakers and administrators understood (though often implicitly) that changes in prison policy could confirm new social, political and cultural scripts. The comparative contrast highlights that the prison signifies, shapes and fortifies social life as much as it reflects social difference. Viewed comparatively, we see that by changing the uses of prison and altering the ideas underpinning its function, policymakers and administrators were helping to redraw the boundary lines between social insiders and outsiders, shifting the relationship between government and society. If we are to better understand cross-national penal variation, then we must view the prison as a complex social institution.

Comparing punishment as a social institution

How is the power to imprison exercised, and why does that differ? How do we best capture and explain cross-national differences in penality’s forms, functions and meanings? What I have tried to develop in this book is a set of conceptual tools that allows us to use comparison to better understand punishment, and thereafter use the comparative perspective of punishment to better understand each society. What these cross-national case studies so vividly display is that how and why penal power is deployed is always best understood as a social institution, embedded in the patterns of history, ideology, culture and structure – a cross-national reality not best captured by the punitive penal comparisons.