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This exhibition Perspectives and the Art of Comparison showcases a selection of photographs that were taken during our fieldwork in 14 prisons across England & Wales and Norway as part of the Compen Research Project. With it, we want to highlight, challenge, unsettle and re-think the 'comparative' in comparative prison research. From the beginning, we struggled as a team to work out the essential nature of comparative research. How do you compare two countries' penal environments in a meaningful way? We worked hard to think about what comparison means in general and specifically when it comes to experiences of confinement.

Comparative research is as old as sociological research itself: Marx, Weber, Durkheim and Kropoktin, to name just a few, all studied issues comparatively (Sasaki 2011). There are numerous comparative methodologies; however, the general method of comparison is the same for research as it is in our everyday practice. Comparative research is 'all about perspective' (Sasaki 2011: 3) which helps to capture complexities, nuances and understanding of one another and the social environment we live in. In practice a nuanced understanding partly relies on translation: while we enquired in England & Wales if prisoners felt that 'they were walking on eggshells', this was not directly translatable into Norwegian. Equally, questions about power and control did not make the same sense in Norwegian because those words are used differently in everyday language. On another level administrative areas held different importance in the different countries. While in Norway 'the region' at times became essential in negotiating early release dates or other important factors, there was no similar administrative instance in England & Wales. These few examples show the complexity and intricacy of comparison in practice.

The COMPEN Project has several comparative components and at its core it 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 by Ben Crewe and various colleagues to conceptualise different aspects of the prisoner experience, formed around the concepts of 'depth', 'weight', 'tightness' and 'breadth' of imprisonment (Crewe 2011, 2015). In brief, 'depth' refers mainly to matters of security, control, and 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 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 prison, for example, the forms of stigma and psychological disability that ex-prisoners carry with them on release.

All of these concepts can be found in the pictures in this exhibition if you look closely - of course, they do not seamlessly map across from images of physical environments to prisoners' experiences but these photographs tell their stories. For us pictures help with the comparative element of the study because they remind us of the research sites, evoking how these places felt. For you, the photographs will hopefully be a window into a world rarely seen by the public, conjuring atmospheres of penality and raising questions about society's ways of punishing. We made the decision not to reveal the names of individual prison establishments in order to maintain a certain level of anonymity. The pictures are supposed to animate our imagination and challenge our 'comparative eye' - this is why we do not provide the location of the environment at first glance. If you hover the curser over the individual picture, however, you can see which country and prison category you are looking at.

The photographs reveal intimate details of prison life, showing individual cells and wings but also outside spaces, segregation areas, gyms, storerooms and reception areas where prisoners are 'processed' when they first arrive. You can see the more obvious prison imagery from bars on the windows and CCTV to the details of the type of posters you might find on a wing or messages like 'one man, one meal'. You can see the mundane everyday like the amount of rubbish produced on a wing holding hundreds of prisoners, the state of the toilets that await you when you change cells or the body orfice scanner in reception to the initmately personal of how prisoners organise their living space within the forced collective that is prison life.

We hope that you find the insights into these two countries' penal cultures interesting and thought-provoking. Can you find examples of depth and how removed prisoners might feel on the inside? Is that more the case behind the thick walls of an inner city Victorian-style prison in England & Wales or on an island in the Norwegian Fjords? Is your initial perception of the living conditions and levels of weight right when it comes to determining which country is portrayed? Can you spot forms of psychological power that might be imprinted on the environment? There are no definite answers to some of these questions but they are nonetheless important to ask and explore. This exhibition aims at inviting you to think, re-think and contest perceptions of imprisonment and of comparative research. Comparison is about perspective and here we want to highlight multiple perspectives to enhance our understanding and awareness of the societies we live in.



This exhibition has been curated by Dr. Anna Schliehe for the Compen Team.

See Contact for ways to get in touch.


Crewe, B. (2015) Inside the belly of the beast: understanding and conceptualising the expeperience of imprisonment. The International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy 4(1), 50-65.

Crewe, B. (2011) Depth, weight, tightness: revisiting the pains of imprisonment. Punishment and Society, 13(5): 509-529.

Sasaki, M. (2011) Comparative Research. In: Lewis-Beck, MS; Bryman, A; Futing Liao, T (Eds.) The SAGE Encyclopedia of Social Science Research Methods. Thousand Oaks, Sage.

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