Post by Laura Tilt, MSc Candidate

The Criminology Knowledge Exchange Seminar Series kicked off to a flying start with Anna Eriksson’s presentation on her current research “Revisiting Nordic Exceptionalism: The view from inside”. Anna provided a fascinating perspective on her research journey and an insight into tentative results.

Dr Anna Eriksson kicks off the Criminology KE Seminar Series
Anna’s research delves into the dynamics of staff-prisoner relationships, investigating how prison culture is created and maintained, as well as the possibilities for reform. Her work is underpinned by the idea that “people make the prison”. Building on her research on Nordic exceptionalism with Professor John Pratt, her explorative study was a comparative analysis of prisons in Norway and Australia, highlighting the differences in prison culture both inside and outside this ‘total institution’ that influences the penal experience. Anna’s research draws on over two hundred interviews with prison staff and inmates in prisons across both countries. These interviews as well as her investigation into staff training, education and their professional status illuminate the nature and extent of informal interactions between staff and prisoners and in turn their impact on the prison culture. Her ongoing analysis of this rich empirical material will also include external factors such as media coverage, changes in legislation and reform so as to draw out their effect on penal culture.

Although Anna’s research is still ongoing, some trends are already emerging, with a favourite example being the discovery of a widespread chess culture in Nordic prisons, following the continued success of Nordic World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen. While this might seem to be trivial, it is indicative of the porous nature of Nordic penal culture and the way in which prisoners can still be exposed to the world outside of prison, offering a rare opportunity to experience community and normality.

Drawing upon descriptions of life inside prisons in Norway and Australia, and pictures of the prison estates, Anna illustrated some of the initial findings from her comparative analysis of the countries. Firstly, returning to prison staff- interactions, a notable feature of Nordic prisons is the regularity of such shared encounters when cooking and eating dinner together or playing sport; events which are absent from Australian prisons. Secondly, Nordic prisoners tend to be gender-integrated to allow for increased social interaction, designed to mimic the world outside, whilst Australian prisons don’t allow interactions between male and female inmates. Secondly, there is a distinct difference in the level and duration of training that staff received in the two countries. The Nordic prison officer training program spans two years with the requirement of a university degree, whereas surprisingly their Australian counterparts often do not have any prior education and participate in training programs that run four to six weeks, only. In conclusion the Nordic prison culture appears to be more human, treating ‘the other’ with more respect and dignity – inside and outside the prison walls. In fact Anna applies sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of “the other” to explain the differences she discovered in her comparative study.

Despite this more humane treatment in Norwegian prisons, Anna importantly pointed out that the Nordic system isn’t as ideal as it appears at first; inherent issues remain persistent within the broader punishment system. Foreign prisoners, for example, are not afforded the same re-socialisation approach and are in fact often subject to gross mistreatment. Serious Nordic offenders detained in these prisons, such as the likes of Anders Behring Breivik, must still be accounted for and a move away from the more liberal approach may be required in such circumstances. On the flip side, certain aspects of Australian prisons appear to demonstrate a possible improvement in prison culture, such as the development of residential blocks with higher integration in lower security prisons. However, there is a long way to go before prison culture is intrinsically uprooted - perhaps, as Anna suggests a ‘clean slate’ consisting of entirely new prison staff, prisoners, and institutions is required.