Irish Penal Reform Trust

Crime and Civilization: An Interview with Nils Christie

12th August 1996

RS: Why do you claim there is little connection between the crime rate and the number of people being sent to prison?

NC: I hesitate to use the word 'crime', because in a way 'crime' does not exist, it is just a social definition of certain unwanted acts. Sometimes there is no official action at all following such acts. Look at family matters - teenagers often act in ways that, if it were outside the family, would be labelled as 'crime', but because it is inside it's just your son, who takes some money from the kitchen table or is hitting his brother. You don't call that 'theft' or 'violence' because you know reasons for his behaviour; but if it were a new neighbour's son you might assume he had a tendency for stealing.

Where people do not know each other they feel a need for having officials fix matters. They don't know a person well enough to say: 'Sometimes he gets drunk, but he is no real danger.' The most obvious case of something becoming a crime is hemp, which was a very useful drug for both Europeans and Americans. The whole drug arena is responsible for the most fantastical growth of prison populations in the US and now in Europe. There is a clear influence from the US which has unhealthy consequences for the rest of the globe. It's not just drugs but a general tendency at work in the industrial world.

Can you explain?
We feel it very acutely in the so-called welfare states of Scandinavia. With the economy running free the difference between those with means and those without is constantly growing. A majority of Norwegians is doing better but a substantial minority is doing much worse. So the control of this poor minority is becoming a major preoccupation. In the old days you could see that people who owned something were tied down by their property - they had to live in communities and relate to people who didn't have that much material wealth. It would have been very silly for them not to have shown a minimum of decency. Now people can move their capital and themselves just by pushing buttons. You don't have to be so concerned about your local communities.

What other factors are behind the development of what you call the 'prison-industrial complex'?
It's the same as when US President Dwight Eisenhower, back in the 1950s, warned against the military establishment fuelled by a military industry's need for profits and jobs. Today it's the same with the penal establishment. In California the prison guards' association gives millions to those politicians who are for the expansion of the prison industry, and tries to block those who are opposed. This same organization gave over $100,000 to the committee that pushed through the 'three-strikes-and-you-are-out' legislation.

The same thing happened here in New Brunswick where the prison guards' union opposed the closing of four prisons by saying that it would take away the discretionary power of judges and courts to make well-founded decisions.
It is quite a fantastic situation when those who administer the pain-delivery in our society have such a great say. It's as if the hangman's association got together to work for more hanging. We might feel a bit uneasy about this. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a trend in the military industry to turn to law-and-order production. There has been a series of meetings between defence contractors and penal authorities. The US Secretary of Defence addressed them saying: 'You won the war abroad, now help us win the war at home.' It is the electronics industry that is most heavily involved wiring prisons, producing electronic bracelets, electric monitoring both inside and outside prisons. It involves lots of industries - construction, food-catering, even telephone companies. The journal of the American Corrections Association is filled with ads to tap this billion-dollar market.

Are there similar trends in Europe?
In Europe this trend is not so developed but it is coming, with more pressure to jail drug-users and deal with the 'dangerous' underclass. The shake-up in Eastern European societies has enormously increased pressure on the prison system. I got the Russian figures just the other day. In 1993 they had about 573 prisoners per 100,000 population; in 1994 it went up to 611 per 100,000 and now, in 1995, it is 687 per 100,000.

Is that the highest rate in the world?
Probably China is much higher but we have no reliable statistics. This Russian trend is so dramatic because the figures went down after the Second World War and reached the bottom after Gorbachev. Now Russia and the United States are the two biggest incarcerators in the industrial world.

In Western Europe there is a different tradition, with less willingness to build prisons and more emphasis on alternative corrections. Is this changing?
It differs. We are only a tenth of the Russian and American rates. In Scandinavia we are at 66 per 100,000. Some European countries have been able to resist the pressure - Finland has done this with a conscious effort from its civil service. But Britain, for example, is going up dramatically and will soon be at the Canadian standard. In Britain it is exceptionally clear that this is a product of Conservative policy - the Home Office has made it part of a 'get-tough-on-crime' campaign. This is a real betrayal of the British Conservative tradition represented by Winston Churchill, who said it wasn't decent to have so many poor people in prison. Between the wars Britain brought its prison figures down to a fantastic extent.

You have to ask, what are the consequences of this repressive penal policy? In some US cities it's like a war situation where the young males are simply not there. We send young people to schools or universities with a reason - we have some hope that they will learn something. What do we think of the kind of citizens we will meet when so many of them have been through the type of 'universities' we call prisons? In the US today there are one-and-a-half million in prison and another three-and-a-half under penal control outside prison. Nearly five per cent of adult males are under penal control: it's not crime control but a kind of war situation.

You take an abolitionist position in terms of prisons, but what do you do with the truly dangerous criminal?
If you pushed me I would say that there is probably a small minority of offenders that you have to lock up for a relatively long period of time. If they have done something extraordinary, usually killed people, they would usually go to prison for ten to fifteen years and when they are released very few offend again. Then you have the concept of the truly dangerous criminal - the problem here is, how do you know who is truly dangerous? We are not good at predicting. When a person has done a truly terrible act it is easy to look back and say we could have predicted it, but that is when it has happened. There are so many people around us about whom we say 'aren't they really dangerous?', but nothing ever happens. How many should we take in on the suspicion that they might be dangerous? There are risks in life and this is one of them. The most dangerous place for your life is in your home, as you probably know. Most people are killed by family or those they are relatively close to. Refuges for women are important to deal with this. But in the end there are certain risks you take - when you walk in the streets you might be hit by a car. We cannot build up a system of sanction on supposed danger, in my view.

What do you say to women who say that the criminal-justice system should be more widely used to combat violence against women?
I find so few of them in my circles. It is enormously interesting that most women go another way and say: 'If we are to punish people then we have to deal with a penal law apparatus where we have to stand witness as victims and the man must have advocates to defend him. It is close to certain that this will result in a degrading and terrible situation in court. Why don't we use a more civil system, rather, where he must make compensation - make good the damage?' There is a lot of response amongst women to a system that offers an alternative to just delivering pain to the offender.

There is really an interesting development these days in Norway - a new law has set up a body to handle conflicts. It provides a way to take cases away from the criminal-law system and gets people to talk to each other and try to come up with a kind of contract, whereby the person who has done something silly is given a chance to make it good again. There is a war between civil society and crime-control society - the state in its most primitive, punitive form.

Civil society is building up alternative ways of handling conflict. We need to find ideas from the native cultures and our own past, when the state was not so strong. In Aotearoa/New Zealand and Australia they have gone a long way in dealing with young offenders in such ways. Norway is the only European society that created such bodies and last year they handled four to five thousand cases. I feel great optimism about this alternative to penal approaches. It does not ignore the crime or unwanted acts - too often the liberal position. That is very wrong. These acts must be reacted to, otherwise your society is not alive. But who said you should react with pain delivery? Who said you shouldn't try to make it good again? Don't forget the victim. Lawyers steal other people's conflicts: we need to give them back to the people directly concerned.

Why is our culture fascinated with crime?
This is so natural. As human beings we are interested in conflicts, it's the theme for great authors and for ordinary people. But people no longer participate in such conflicts. If we become victims we leave it all up to professionals who are basically fed up. Conflict ought to be participated in by ordinary people, but we are just spectators of crime who now and again cry out for more severe punishment.

But if we come close to the people in prison for punishment we become more doubtful. We become more open to new ways of integrating that person into everyday life. It is very easy to create a monster of a stranger, seen only through the media. Now they are going to have video trials: the prisoner can be in the prison, the judge in the courthouse, the defender and the prosecutor in their offices, all connected by electronics. They don't have to meet. You don't meet the accused in smell and despair, only their picture.

It seems it is easier for us to concentrate on the brutality of the individual criminal than the brutality of the system. Why is this so?
It's easier to think in terms of bad people: make monsters of the concentration-camp guards. I know many, many concentration-camp guards who mass-killed in the Nazi extermination camps. Some of them are nice and kind people. I wonder myself what I would have done as a young man if I had worked as a guard in one of those camps. I find mostly nice people doing these things with the best of intentions.

But I still have this feeling of the 'last days of the Weimar Republic' when I visit countries with high incarceration rates that are taken for granted as a trend that must continue. Then I ask myself: when is enough enough? How many people can you execute? How large a prison population can you have before you change the kind of country you live in? It is the same kind of question as to whether you want a national theatre or libraries. What kind of country would it be without them? How many prison camps can we have before my Norway isn't Norway any more, or your Canada isn't Canada?

Nils Christie teaches criminology at the University of Oslo. His book The Crime Control Industry was published in 1995 by Routledge.

© New Internationalist Magazine, 1996

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