Challenging prison policy

June 24, 2024 in Uncategorized

DERMOT ROANTREE [STUDIES] :: In his acclaimed work on the shifts in behaviour, manners and social norms from the Middle Ages into modernity that made up ‘the civilising process’, German sociologist Norbert Elias noted the tendency for distasteful things to be gradually ‘removed behind the scenes of social life’.(1) Public nudity, the performance of bodily functions, public displays of punishment, and the like – all of these came to offend against the growing ‘delicacy of feeling’ that marked the emerging sense of ‘civility’. Disturbing aspects of life were moved to more private or discreet places. Another feature of the civilising process that Elias detected was that the nation-states that emerged in the 17th century began to lay sole claim to the exercise of force. Violence, in other words, could only be legitimated through the centralised, bureaucratised world of the judicial system, the police, and the military.

Contemporary prison systems show the marks of both of these processes, and not in every respect for the better. The ‘civilization curve’, as Elias knew well, can easily be interrupted by an opposite process, a ‘decivilising’ one. The latter may even, in fact, be facilitated by the civilising process itself. In spite of good intentions, making the management of crime and punishment equitable easily leads to an over-dependence on incarceration as a single-model solution. Those that the system determines to punish become the distasteful elements that must be kept from public view. They are radically decoupled from their own life-worlds, even for lesser crimes, which may well lead to the unjust disregard of the needs of their communities and dependents, as well as to a loss of personal dignity and to disproportionate damage to their reputation. A more nuanced policy is needed.

As Jeremy Travis, a prominent advocate of justice reform in the US, has repeatedly insisted, a principle of parsimony is needed when it comes to criminal justice.(2) The state must be careful not to intrude on the life and liberty of citizens any more than is necessary to achieve a legitimate social purpose. There are many alternatives to incarceration for many types of crimes, and these may well be more effective at reducing crime, enhancing public safety, preserving personal dignity, and minimising the upset to the world of those – themselves perfectly innocent – whose lives are bound to that of the offender.

In January of this year, the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, Dublin, hosted a one-day workshop to discuss and challenge current prison policy in Ireland and beyond. The three papers presented on that occasion are published in the summer 2024 issue of Studies », alongside three further essays, follow-up reflections on the theme of the workshop. They are well worth the read.


  1. Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 2000; originally published in 1939), p. 103. Also see Norbert Elias, ‘Power and Civilisation’, a 1981 essay published in Journal of Power (Vol. 1, No. 2, August 2008), pp. 135-142.
  2. See Also Jeremy Travis and Bruce Westen (eds.), Parsimony, and Other Radical Ideas About Justice (New York: The New Press, 2023).