The cancer of prisons

© Shutterstock/Igorsky
© Shutterstock/Igorsky

Although most Western democracies are facing problems of rising crime, prison overcrowding, new forms of delinquency and failed prevention policies amid a deteriorating socioeconomic climate, few convincing solutions are being advanced.

How can the vicious circle of delinquency-punishment be broken? A European Union–funded project entitled Welfare State or Penal State?, which ended in 2001, had already identified an upsurge in prison sentences in Europe. With the end of the welfare state in the 1990s, the researchers pinpointed a rapid decline in social measures.

Many criminologists believe that the link between economics and prisons has been demonstrated by successive studies. Charlotte Vanneste of Belgium’s National Institute of Criminalistics and Criminology (Institut National de Criminalistique et de Criminologie) studied the correlation between Belgian prison population statistics and the country’s socio-economic situation over a period of 170 years(1). She identifies 20- to 30-year cycles of growth and recession in which the troughs of each recession correspond to peaks in the prison population and vice versa. Between the two wars there was a decline in the prison population coinciding with a general boom in the economy (favourable economic situation, social regulation, wage indexing). However, in the second half of the 20th century the figures show a marked rise in both the prison population and unemployment.

Zero tolerance or prevention?

Researchers in the CRCC (Crime Repression Costs in Context) project have studied the responses of European countries – and their citizens – to rising crime in order to assess the direct and indirect costs of crime under different domestic policies. The partners are divided into two major ‘cultures’. The first, typical of neo-conservative regimes, focuses on conventional legal/police approaches, with an increasing tendency towards zero tolerance and summary justice, paying no attention to the underlying socio-economic causes of deviancy. The second approach (advanced liberalism) is based on crime risk management and the application of the precautionary principle. This strategy aims to contain potential delinquency (by acting on the economic causes of criminal behaviour, modifying the urban environment, developing social control strategies and other means), as well as to prevent crime by encouraging the general public to take protective measures (such as installing security doors and alarms). Use of these self-protection techniques is spreading rapidly. According to a European crime and safety survey(2), the United Kingdom holds the world record for video surveillance systems and the Netherlands the record for special doors, whilst some form of security system was installed in more than one tenth of new-build properties in Budapest between 2002 and 2007.

Sense of insecurity

Researchers in the Crimprev project(3) have made an in-depth study of the feeling of insecurity – quite different from real insecurity – and its impact on social relations, especially cultural rejection. The feeling varies depending on the country, region and district. Are we afraid to walk the streets after dark? The citizens of northern Europe are a lot less nervous than those of southern and eastern Europe. Public nuisances – especially drugs – and visible deviant acts (such as rubbish, graffiti and gangs of youths) do much to fuel such fears. “As governments are aware of the importance of these social (and electoral) issues, they are not short of proposals for combating the feeling of insecurity, which some see as just as important as real insecurity, albeit much harder to measure”, explain the Crimprev researchers.

“Technology surveillance networks, databases and private security services constantly mention fear and anxiety”, says Joe Sim, a professor at the Liverpool John Moores University(4). “They have played up the sense of imminent disaster, legitimising the authorities’ escalating responses to crime and to what are seen as threats to public and social order.” This includes a fear of young people. Nevertheless, according to various British studies, only a very small proportion of rising crime is committed by minors.

Gilded ghettos

Taken together, all of these fears and the responses to them increase social exclusion and reorganise the urban space. ‘Ghettoisation’ does not happen only in the poorest districts. Gated communities (secure housing with guards, surrounded by fences or walls) have been springing up the world over since the 1960s. In Europe, they are concentrated mainly in the United Kingdom, France and Portugal, as well as in some former Communist countries.

Although this form of self-protection provides a measure of prevention, it is certainly not the best option. Some European countries have implemented more concrete attempts at prevention in recent years, experimenting with collaboration between the public and private sectors, associations, non-governmental organisations and local police. The idea has rarely achieved the desired effect though, as social workers do not wish to be turned into informers. Adam Crawford (Leeds University, UK), a Crimprev partner, admits that these initiatives show that the levers and causes of crime are beyond the traditional scope of the criminal justice system, adding that over the years successful preventive partnerships have proven obstinately illusory.

How about abolition?

Prison sentences therefore continue to be used extensively, even though substitute solutions have been implemented for several years. They include electronic surveillance (a bracelet fitted with a chip to track an individual’s movements), used mainly in northern Europe; community service instead of short sentences (work with an association, hospital or environmental service, for example); and open-prison regimes where a detainee works outside the prison during the day and returns in the evening.

Joe Sim says: “The societal problem of prisons could be solved by what Angela Davis terms ‘abolitionist alternatives’. I believe that these alternatives could include a halt to prison building, a reduction in the budgets allocated to punishing crime in favour of prevention, the creation of more humane regimes for people in prison, taking into account the damage caused by those in power, and an end to the social divide. Contrary to popular and political belief, the abolitionists are not calling for the walls to be torn down. They are seeking a less hypocritical approach to crime and criminality and the implementation of radical policies that offer genuine public protection to all European citizens, whatever their social status.”

Christine Rugemer

  1. Charlotte Vanneste, Les chiffres des prisons – Des logiques économiques à leur traduction pénale, L’Harmattan, 2001.
  2. European Crime and Safety Survey 2005, edited by Jan van Dijk, University of Tilburg (NL). Downloadable document:
  3. Crimprev (Assessing Deviance, Crime and Prevention in Europe), with 31 partners from 10 European countries, aims to collect and compare, for each of these countries, the factors of deviant behaviour, the criminalisation process, the perception of crime and public prevention policies. The project has given rise to a large number of texts (articles, brochures), which are available on its web site:
  4. A fierce critic of prison systems: Policing the crisis, Sage, 1978; Western European Penal Systems, Sage, 1995; State Power Crime, Sage, 2009; Punishment and Prisons, Sage, 2009.


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