Advances in Applied Sociology
2012. Vol.2, No.2, 135-142
Published Online June 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
To Be and Not to Be: Adaptation, Ambivalence and Ambiguity in
a Danish Prison
Malene Molding Nielsen
Department of Sociolo g y, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, De nmark
Received March 1st, 2012; re v i s e d April 5th, 2012; accepted April 22nd, 2012
In a recent article on Scandinavian Exceptionalism, John Pratt urges that in era defined by a pre-occupa-
tion with penal excess, we need to explore what we can learn from the Scandinavian regimes characterized
by low levels of imprisonment and exceptional prison conditions. This paper complements Pratt’s com-
parative historical work by scrutinizing the realities of people living and working inside one Scandinavian
penal regime. It explores prisoners’ experiences of and adaption to institutional life focusing on imple-
mentation of security and order and the motivational and supportive work. It describes a thriving co-
presence of bewildering realities where prisoners’ adaptation is defined by a straining uncertainty, ambi-
guity and ambivalence, and where moral divides are united in the Modus Vivendi of everyday life. In this
context prisoners are expected to express regrets and aspire to reform by demonstrating they are morally
on course and motivated to commence a life without crime. Instead prisoners mostly use the institutional
reformative stimuli to pursue their own ends that are foreign to the system. The study describes a dis-
crepancy between penal ideals and practices and suggests that penal realities as they are experienced from
within may not match the level of exceptionalism that Pratt observes from the outside.
Keywords: Moral Complexity; Institutional Logic; Adaptation; Ambiguity; Ambivalence; Prison Life
In a recent award winning article that reports a comparative
study on Scandinavian penal regimes, John Pratt describes the
regimes as exceptional both with regard to their low levels of
imprisonment and the material prison conditions (Pratt, 2008).
He argues that in an era defined by a pre-occupation with penal
excess, there is a need to change course and focus on what we
can learn from exceptional regimes like the Scandinavian.
While Pratt’s historical analysis and project is both interesting
and sympathetic, it does not, focus on the life worlds’ and reali-
ties of people who live and work inside penal institutions. This
paper complements Pratt’s broad and comparative analysis by
providing a snapshot of a Scandinavian penal regime from
within. It scrutinises prisoners’ experiences of and adaptation to
institutional life as it unfolds in relation to security and control
and the penal supportive and motivational work in a Danish
open prison.
I argue that prisoners’ experiences of a nd adaptation to pr ison
life are first and foremost characterised by ambiguity and am-
bivalence that are enacted by officers and prisoners when they
collaborate on the production of the Modus Vivendi that makes
daily life. It is a Modus Vivendi characterised by pretence,
negotiations, trade-offs and straining levels of uncertainty that
accompany multiple formal and informal agendas and realities
relating to security and control and the motivational and sup-
portive penal work. I explain how, in this ambivalent and am-
biguous penal context, it is difficult to establish a sense of
safety and engage in a dialogue with staff on how to demon-
strate motivation and start afresh without crime. I describe how
prison daily practices make it challenging to distil what is mo-
rally on course from what is morally astray, hence, making
pe nal realit ies—as they are experie nced and enacted fro m wi th in -
painful, uncertain and difficult to navigate. The study describes
a discrepancy between the realities of penal practices and for-
mal penal ideals; a discrepancy that comes with yet another call
to rethink the implementation of punishment.
Adaptation: Doing, Being and Experiencing
There is no single pattern of adjustment to prison life (Crewe,
2005). A wealth of studies have added to the seminal work of
Gresham Sykes and Erving Goffman who emphasised the im-
portance of internally managed deprivations (Goffman, 1961;
Sykes, 1958), and to that of Donald Clemmer who regarded
adaptation as an assimilation process defined by parameters
such as social exposure and time spent in prison (Clemmer,
1958). While contemporary scholars acknowledge the influence
of confinement on identity, they argue that individuals carry
their culture and personal histories with them inside penal in-
stitutions where they are carefully managed (Cohen, 1994).
Place of origin (Crewe, 2009), ethnic affiliation, gang life (Ja-
cobs in Crewe, 2005), personal background, type of crime, age,
networking capabilities and mental health, therefore, also affect
prisoners’ well-being and adjustment (Crawley and Sparks,
2005; Crewe, 2009; Harvey, 2005; Liebling, 1999; Mathiesen,
1965). To this list, I could include penal policies, staff compo-
sition and cultural and historical differences between penal
institutions (Liebling & Arnold, 2004; Liebling & Maruna,
2005). In this article, I will primarily focus on prisoners’ net-
works in- and outside prison and the institutional logic that
accompanies penal policies and interaction.
To explain and analyse how security, control and order, and
aspects of the penal motivational and supportive work shape
prisoners’ adaptation to and experiences of imprisonment, I will
draw on Annemarie Mol, particul arly, her work on disease (Mol,
2002). In conceptualising ontology as enacted, she merges be-
ing and doing and situates ontology in hospital daily interac-
tions where she observes how Atherosclerosis is done. With
detailed ethnographic observations in and around hospital de-
partments, Mol unravels the co-existent, multiple realities of
Atherosclerosis. She documents how these realities are enacted
differently in diverse departments, but how they are interrelated
in hospital everyday practices where the differences between
them are bracketed, and they make the disease. With Actor
Network Theory and the mathematical notion of intransitivity,
Mol demonstrates how these diverse enactments of Athero-
sclerosis “contain each other” because they are related, i.e., A
includes B and B is also inside A, while, simultaneously, they
are ontologically incompatible (Mol, 2002). It is against this
background Mol argues, it is possible to understand Athero-
sclerosis as more than one disease, yet, less than many.
With her radical empiricist perspective on social life, Mol
does not aim to account for life worlds and experiences and, as
such, her analysis and approach differ from mine. In this analy-
sis I am, nevertheless, inspired by her praxis-related approach
because it allows me to analyse enactments of safety and order
in prison as practices that are co-produced by officers and pri-
soners; practices that are related, therefore, and that include
diverse realities. I identify, at least two, divergent realities that
shape prisoners’ adaptation to and experiences of imprisonment:
one relating to formal penal ideals and practices established to
implement punishment in a secure and orderly environment,
and another relating to prisoners’ codes, conventions and ideals.
Inspired by Mol’s work on Actor Network Theory and mathe-
matical intransitivity, I have been able to unite these realities
that tend to be accounted for and addressed as separate and
distinct in prison research and, as such, this paper offers an
alternative account of adaptation. In drawing on Mol who em-
phasises the enacted nature of social life, I simultaneously em-
phasise and add bodily rooted dimensions to ambiguity and
ambivalence. I so doing, I give primacy to the experiencing
body whilst honouring the realities I observed in prison.
To connect enactments with emotional experiences and de-
scribe how ambiguity and ambivalence come to constitute pi-
votal characteristics of being in prison as a being-in-the-world
(Gieser 2008), I draw on Vinciane Despret, in particular, her
work on emotional theory (Despret, 2004). Despret argues that
in emotional theory, it is difficult to distinguish between cause
and effect because emotional experience belongs to a sphere
where neither world, nor body, nor consciousness can be clearly
separated and distributed (Despret, 2004). Instead she maintains
that the body and what affects it produce each other, hence
tying enactments to emotional life and experience.
Finally, I use Michel de Certeau’s work (de Certeau, 1988)
to describe prisoners’ adaptive strategies vis-a-vis institutional
routines, aims and expectations. In explaining the operations
and manipulations of the dominated, de Certeau scrutinises the
ambiguity that subverted the Spanish colonizers in imposing
their culture on indigenous Indians. Submissive, and even con-
senting to their subjection, the Indians often made of the ri-
tuals, representations and laws imposed on them something
quite different from what their conquerors had in mind (de
Certeau, 1988). They subverted them, not by rejecting or alter-
ing them, but using them with respect to ends and references
foreign to the systems they had no choice but to accept (de
Certeau, 1988).
Research Context and Approach
This analysis is one result of an ethnographic study con-
ducted in a Danish open male prison during a period of 10
months. With a phenomenological understanding of ethnogra-
phy, I acknowledge that being can never be accounted for with
reference to the subject alone. Being is inter-subjective and
related to the world that surrounds us (see e.g. Rendtorff, 2004)
as a being-in-the-world that is fundamental for generation of
data and our interpretations of experience. However, although I
seek to describe prisoners’ experiences of their social existence
and practical activities that phenomenologists would refer to as
the life world (Jackson, 1996), there is a disjunction between
the world and our understanding of it (Husserl in Hastrup,
2005). When I account for experiences, I refer to prisoners’
articulations of experiences as they surfaced in daily interaction
and in formal and informal interviews. As such my accounts are
informed interpretations of my observations and interactions
with people who lived and worked in prison.
Throughout the study period I conducted informal interviews
whilst observing staff-to-prisoner, staff-to-staff and prisoner-to-
prisoner interactions in and around two prison wings1. My in-
formal presence and interviews were complimented by formal
semi-structured interviews conducted with two representatives
of middle management, one with a senior manager and a ran-
domly selected half of the prisoner and officer populations, i.e.,
with 19 prisoners and 13 prison officers. All but one of these
interviews were recorded and transcribed. My observations
were documented, mostly, by the end of each fieldwork day. To
this end, I sought to recall native language and capture the ob-
servational context. The material I present here stems from both
informal observations and conversations and formal interviews.
Although there are important differences between the Scan-
dinavian regimes with regard to penal history, criminal law and
sanctions (Pratt, 2008; Uglevik & Dullum 1212; Graunbøl et al.,
2010), the Danish regime resembles, in many ways, the Swe-
dish and Norwegian as described by Pratt. The Danish penal
regime is fostered on egalitarian values and ideals (Borish,
1991) maintaining that punishment should not go beyond de-
privation of liberty, and that prison life should, to the extent
possible, model life outside the penal context (Engbo, 2005). It
is rooted in welfare state security, has a history of low levels of
imprisonment (Christie, 2001; Kristoffersen, 2010) and, in re-
cent years, it has undergone changes defined by more and
longer-term sentences, a tightening of security and control and
an enhanced focus on demonstrating results. Furthermore, Da-
nish prison conditions are what Pratt would refer to as both
humane and liberal.
In Denmark prisoners, ideally, serve time in penal institu-
tions located in relative proximity to their home town although
the Prison and Probation Service may decide against it if capa-
city is limited or it is otherwise considered unjustifiable. The
relatively liberal organisation of everyday life and the mostly
short geographical distances may account for the importance
attached in this analysis to prisoners’ external networks, and the
extent to which they pursue their own agendas in their engage-
ments with the penal institution.
1These wings did n ot offer any drug, alcohol or related treatment schemes. A
special wing was established to cater for prisoners who wanted to enrol in
such programmes.
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
Enacting Security and Threat
As elsewhere, the Danish prison infrastructure and formal
division of labour exhibit penal ideals for institutional interac-
tion. They manifest who guards and who is guarded and, they
direct the construction of persons classified by difference in
social quality and moral character, as Goffman has convinc-
ingly described (1961). While such penal ideals certainly frame
the interaction of the Danish officers and prisoners, other diver-
gent realities characterised by their unofficial nature and un-
written rules have a simultaneous presence. As my interview
transcript below demonstrates, the co-presence of formal and
informal ideals and practices typically surface as trade-offs and
compromises that make the Modus Vivendi of everyday life
and that are accompanied by un-predictability and uncertainty.
James is serving time and contrary to the majority of prison-
ers I meet, James did not have a criminal career and lifestyle
prior to conviction. Therefore, he has no practical sense of what
it takes to manage prison life. While James’ experience is not
surprising, it is illustrative because the tacit and informal rules
and regularities that guard everyday interaction surface when
James violates them and demonstrates his social inadequacies.
James: “I tried to explain, they (the other prisoners) had to
take into consideration I have another background (not crimi-
Interviewer: “You said that?”
James: “Yeah. So they slapped my face and things like that
and kept on making all sorts of remarks and things—because
they sensed I am different. I don’t have tattoos or
I told them; ‘I’m not used to this kind of life.’”
Interviewer: “Were you afraid?”
James: “Yes, I was shocked when he slapped me.”
Interviewer: “Did you defend or protect yourself?”
James: “No. I told him; ‘you’ll not get far with that behav-
iour, I’ll go straight to the officers and report you’.”
Interviewer: “Did you say that?”
James: “Yes, and I actually went into the office and told an
officer what had happened, and she explained how it works in
here. She said; ‘you can’t report an incident like that. If you
want us to react, it has to be more serious—otherwise you’re
just making your own life complicated.’ I got her message be-
cause afterwards several of the other prisoners asked: ‘You
didn’t report the slapping, did you?’ and I replied; ‘Yes, I did,
because I didn’t know what else to do.’ But then it sorted itself
out because my roommate, Danial, he knew Ben (prisoner), and
Ben told them (the prisoners who harassed James) that if they
ever even looked at me again, he and Hans (prisoner) would
make sure they would never walk out of here. That’s how you
have the prisoner that saved me. I felt threatened,
you know. They always approached me two at a time...”
As should be evident, James’ inexperience reveals itself
when he does not embrace the possibility of earning respect by
demonstrating aggression, strength, fearlessness and a willing-
ness not to submit by striking back (Crewe, 2009; Einat, 2005).
It also surfaces in his initial naive belief in the institutionally
defined authorities and their ability to support him. As one
prisoner, who has spent years moving in and out of prisons, has
it: “From time to time you get people (prisoners) who have no
sense of how you operate in here and there has to be space for
them to serve time as well.”
The interview captures one important event from the begin-
ning of James’ short-term prison experience that comes to in-
fluence the way he chooses to manage the rest of his time. He
does not report fellow prisoners again, and he continuously
spends time securing good-will among inmates hoping this will
earn him respect and protection if he is threatened another time.
James is on guard, socialising and networking and, in so doing,
establishing a sense of safety, order and control.
Like other first time prisoners (Harvey, 2005), James is trou-
bled. Young prisoners without a network or who otherwise
appear vulnerable upon arrival tell stories that resemble James’.
They are stories that point to the importance of creating respect
and defining your position and reputation in relation to the in-
mate social hierarchy. Both officers and prisoners are aware of
this, accept it and act accordingly. James’ Contact Person lite-
rally advices James to leave the incident unreported to avoid
negative sanctions from other prisoners who are likely to think
of him as an informer. Furthermore, James’ roommate refers
James to Ben and Hans, two prisoners with social and eco-
nomic capital, whose presence and reputation in prison guaran-
tee James’ security that officers are not in a position to cater for
at that point.
The incident illustrates key informal principles of the Modus
Vivendi where the real distribution of power is different from
that which is formally claimed because the attempt to realise
power is structurally defective (Sparks and Bottoms, 1995).
Staff make the prison run, but they do not run the prison
(Crewe, 2009) alone: the officer-prisoner relationship is cha-
racterised by reciprocity and officers’ reliance upon inmate
codes and conventions as a means to establish a relatively
peaceful environment for serving time and running daily life.
This comes across, e.g., when older experienced prisoners ex-
plain to me, how they have an interest in maintaining order and
security to avoid the presence of officers on the wing, thereby
making the most of their time and safeguarding a sense of pri-
It is, therefore, not surprising that James’ relationship with
prisoners is characterised by ambivalence defined by a simul-
taneous experience of security and threat. Prisoners not only
constitute danger because they threaten him, they (Ben and
Hans) also represent his rescue because they put an end to the
harassment which the officer is not in a position to. It is from
this perspective that prisoners come to surface as strong and
powerful, vis-a-vis staff, despite t heir seemingly weak position.
This does not imply that staff have no role to play with regard
to order and safety. The daily monitoring of prisoners and their
whereabouts, the cell searches and the regular transfer of pri-
soners to solitary confinement exemplify security aspects of the
officer role.
James relationship with staff is not unambiguous either. By
pointing to the importance of developing a positive relationship
with other prisoners, instead of reporting them, and by indicat-
ing there is help ahead, if violence and threats from the other
prisoners escalate, James’ Contact Person offers, on the one
hand, immediate support and potential, although conditional,
rescue. On the other hand, she announces, she is not in a posi-
tion to help James in a situation where he feels insecure and
threatened, hence leaving James in a distressing and ambiguous
place. His interaction with prisoners and staff evokes conflict-
ing feelings that come across, e.g., when he explains; he feels
safe (after three months) but, nevertheless, continues to do
other prisoners favours to make sure they owe him one. In
practice, prisoners’ sense of security, control and order stems
both from the formal ideals and practices of the system and the
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 137
informal ones that are united in the experience of imprison-
In discussing how, in emotional theory, cause-effect rela-
tionships blur Despret asks: “am I scared because the world is
terrifying or is the world terrifying because I am scared?” In so
doing, she points to how emotions belong to a sphere of ex-
periences where casual relationships are difficult to distinguish
and neither world, nor body, nor consciousness can be clearly
separated and distributed (Despret, 2004) rather: the world
affects the mind and the mind the world. It is when the body
and what affects it produce each other that Despret argues; we
make ourselves available to the world. Although I recognise
that availability in prison is enforced, I will argue that James’
being in prison is defined in a similar way: he is simultaneously
affecting it and affected by it. He feels both threatened and
secure and he acts on these feelings that come to influence how
he experiences and chooses to manage everyday life. In letting
the other prisoners harass him, James participates in enactments
of threat and, in accepting help from his network among pri-
soners, he enacts safety. Or with Despret’s frame of thinking,
James makes himself available to security and threat. He feels
and enacts secure and threatened, making ambivalence and
ambiguity defining features of his being-in-prison as it unfolds
in everyday life, his relationship with the other prisoners and
with staff. It is from this perspective that ambiguity and ambi-
valence become dominant embedded characteristics of prison
Although James’ story is unique because it simultaneously
points to a lack of network, inexperience and inability to navi-
gate criminal codes and conventions, the thriving co-presence
of ambivalent and ambiguous feelings and enactments also
come across in my i n terviews with other prisoners as a common
feature of their existence in prison.
I also observe ambivalent feelings related to power. An ex-
perienced prisoner, Tim, describes to me how imprisonment
makes him feel powerless and out of control, yet, when we
discuss ethnic tensions on the wing he explains: “...And staff,
well staff, they are actually relieved we (socially powerful
prisoners) are here because we can manage them (ethnic mi-
norities) which they (staff) are not able to.” The reality of
prison life is defined by a complex blend of severe feelings and
beings such as being and feeling powerful and powerless. They
are discrete feelings and beings that co-exist and are connected
in practice because the location of powerful in everyday life is
often also the locat io n of powerless.
With Mol in mind, one could argue that security, control and
order are established and enacted differently by officers and
prisoners because they are guarded by divergent ideals, conven-
tions, norms and practices. With separate value systems, moral
orientations, legal statuses, codes and conventions, and with
different levels of transparency, the criminal world and that of
the penal system are ontologically incompatible. However, their
differences are bracketed in practice where the order and safety
prisoners establish is mostly acknowledged by officers because
it allows officers to operate relatively smoothly and vice versa.
The realities of officers and prisoners are intertwined in prison
life as one makes possible the enactment of the other. As Mol
has it, to be is to be related (Mol, 2002), and it is from this per-
spective that one includes the other. Both officers and prisoners
make order and security, and, in so doing, they become a part
of each others’ realities. As enacted and related realities the
criminal world and penal system and ideals unite in experience.
Although an element of predictability characterises these in-
compatible, yet, intertwined enacted realities, they are also un-
predictable because they are enactments, and as enactments,
they are dynamic and subject to change. It is this unpredictabi-
lity that evokes doubt about what realities frame everyday life
and when. James, e.g., does not know when his experience of
being insecure may qualify for staff assistance, and he never
knows, when he has networked and socialised enough with
prisoners to secure himself.
Adaptation: Internal and External Networks
Whether prisoners are transferred from a maximum security
prison, from a detention or come directly from home, most
prisoners I meet draw on their established social networks when
they settle in. They have a sense of how to operate the criminal
codes and conventions and, therefore, they are better prepared
than James.
While serving time, the adaptation of most prisoners and
their sense of security, control and order depend to a large ex-
tent on their networking capabilities in- and outside of prison.
Danial, a prisoner who was previously a full-time criminal,
pedagogically expla i n s ;
“As in other spheres of life, introduction matters. I’ve a
friend whose friend, Tim, serves time here so when I arrived
my friend asked Tim (an influential prisoner) to receive me. So
when I checked in, Tim called Hans, introduced us and asked
Hans to look after me—that’s why I know Tim now... So if
something bothers me, I talk to Tim about it, and he’ll sort it
out. He has been here a long time... I look after Brian, the little
guy, but I also expect him to do me a favour, if I ask for it.
That’s how it works... In this way, you end up knowing a lot of
Prisoners hang out in cliques defined by a variety of factors
such as their criminal networks and interests, personal talents,
age and attitude to imprisonment. Apart from providing for
each others’ safety, they use their networks to socialise and
pass time and share information about the informal and formal
workings of the prison and the services it provides. At all levels
in the prisoner hierarchies, prisoners’ use these networks strate-
gically. As Jimmy (prisoner) describes it:
“The older you get, the more you think about what you do,
and if you’re planning to remain criminal, you may think; “oh
well, it’s a bad idea to fall out with him because if I do, I’ll
close the door behind me at the expense of good contacts and
potential business opportunities.”
Outside realities have a strong presence inside prison in
terms of shaping prisoners’ networks, alliances and activities.
In shaping prisoners’ networks, social life and sense of security
inside, outside realities also influence how prisoners interact
with officers, and officers’ abilities to effectively intervene and
comprehend prisoners’ affairs. As realities operating from out-
side, they surface only subtly in the alliances and obligations
that shape prisoners’ networks and that are not always visi ble t o
staff. In penal institutions prisoners are units in a wider network
that illuminate the functionality and usefulness of alternative,
informal networks, rules and approaches to life.
This does not imply that the penal system has no significance
in terms of shaping prison life. Staff composition and profes-
sional orientation, the implementation of new policies or the
public resources invested in penal institutions obviously in-
fluence daily life. In general, however, I observe that staff play
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
a limited role when prisoners’ settle in both in terms of their
capacity to intervene—as James’s story illustrates—and also in
terms of providing information to prisoners about prison rou-
tines and life and the possibilities they offer. Whether prisoners
are novices, like James, or experienced criminals, they have to
take into account the multiplicity that characterise enactments
of security, control and order. Furthermore, they have to cope
with the uncertainties, ambiguities and ambivalences that the
intertwined realties generate; realities that prisoners and staff
enact and embody.
Puzzling Dialogue
The first of April 2004 a new penal policy was introduced in
Denmark. In effect the policy rewards prisoners an early release,
i.e., half time, if they demonstrate a special effort to start afresh
without crime. Along with other policies2, this policy provided
directions for the implementation of the Prison and Probation
Service mission: to complete punishment with control and se-
curity, and support and motivate convicts to live a life without
crime through personal and social development (Kriminalfor-
sorgen, 2000).
Although the first of April 2004 policy, in practice, involves
only a fraction of the total prisoner population (RoPaD, 2006-
2009), the way in which prisoners respond to it exemplifies
well how I generally observe prisoners adapt to and navigate
the possibilities and constraints of the penal system. As such,
the response of prisoners to this policy provides a typical exam-
ple of institutional penal interaction relating to the supportive
and motivational work.
The possibilities available for convicts to demonstrate their
non-criminal aspirations typically involve participation in of-
fender behaviour courses, e.g., cognitive skills programmes,
and anger management- and drug programmes (RoPaD, 2006).
Other possibilities relate to prisoners’ educational skills and
their efforts to improve these. The policy, hence cultivates
compliance with the moral values and normative orientation of
mainstream society and the capabilities of individuals to lead a
life without crime.
Prisoners who decide to pursue an early release typically
regulate their behaviour or align it with institutional goals as
they sign up for different programmes or apply for courses. In
so doing, they appear to take responsibility for their own per-
sonal development (see also Bosworth and Carrabine, 2001;
Crewe, 2007) whereby one could argue that aspects of ac-
countability and governance shift from the institution to the
individual prisoner.
Not all prisoners are equally competent or strategic in terms
of the way they choose to navigate institutional possibilities.
Kim, an educated prisoner with a job on stand-by outside, con-
fides with me that he is planning to apply for an early release,
and he had looked, therefore, at ways in which it will be sensi-
ble for him to demonstrate his aspirations to start afresh. But
how do you express will and motivation in a penal institutional
context? With what you say or do, or with what you refrain
from saying or doing? As my fieldnote extracts below illustrate
this is not an easy task.
Kim: “I don’t want to apply for an apprenticeship or a truck
licence—as most people do. I have applied for a course that
adds to the educational background I already have. I have been
discussing this with the prison for months now—the idea be-
ing, of course, eh... I apply for an educational course so I can
get an early release. But I am stuck. When the social workers
here call the Prison and Probation Service at the Municipa-
lity, staff at the Municipality claim they provide financial sup-
port to such courses whereas the social workers and the offi-
cer here (Kim’s Contact Person) argue that, if you already have
an education, the Prison and Probation Service doesn’t sup-
port additional courses. Meanwhile, time passes and now I have
so little time left, it nearly doesn’t make sense to apply any-
As Kim clarifies his application process has been long and
painful, and when I leave, i.e., ten months after he started to
prepare for an early release, his application is still not processed
or approved, and Kim has served half time months back. I un-
derstand that Kim has had a conflict with the social workers
and his Contact Person on what he experiences as bureaucratic
inefficiency, lack of transparency in decision making processes
and slow progress. When I meet Kim’s Contact Person I learn
that Kim initially told him (the Contact Person) that he (Kim)
would apply for an educational course in order to get an early
release. The Contact Person tells me:
“I told Kim, he has to do something exceptional to get an
early release, and he hasn’t. So, Kim tells me, he’ll apply for an
education in order to get an early release, although, he knows,
he’ll never make use of it. It doesn’t make sense to apply for an
education, if you know, you’ll never use it... so he’ll have to
apply, and we’ll have to reject his application.”
Kim’s story resembles those of other prisoners who staff
come to look upon as unreliable and difficult. They become
prisoners who take advantage of the system; prisoners who
pretend to be, do or want things that do not correspond with
reality, in this case applying for a course Kim does not believe
he will ever use. They become prisoners who staff do not trust
and, therefore, resist. As Kim’s Contact Person rationally notes:
“It doesn’t make sense to apply for an education, if you know,
you’ll never use it...” In revealing that he actually wants an
early release and, therefore, applies for an educational course,
instead of simply and subtly expressing, he is planning to take a
training course because he wants to reform his life or seeks to
improve himself, Kim comes to appear insincere. The applica-
tion process accentuates the image of Kim as a kind of person
who does not subject to collectively defined ideals and ideas of
right and wrong; a criminal who is morally astray.
Similar to the role religion was ascribed by prison reformers
in the establishment of the modern Danish prison during the
second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth
century (Scharff Smith, 2003), the implementation of the new
policy extends the moral project of the institution. This is a
moral project where the ideal prisoner is expected to reform and
repent; a moral orientation also observed in recent studies of
social work (Jarvinen & Mik-Meyer, 2003). In this study re-
form refers to a morally informed change in the individual
prisoner towards compliance with collectively defined ideals of
right and wrong. Repent refers to an institutional expectation
towards prisoners to express regret. I will primarily focus on
reform in this analysis.
2Other initiatives introduced in this period included, e.g., the implementation
of a zero drug tolerance with mandatory drug testing; an initiative that like-
wise promoted compliance with rules and regulations (Flerårsaftale, 2004-
The moral project likewise reflects the orientation of Danish
penal policies from the beginning of the twentieth century and
until the 1970 ties that were marked by a treatment ideology.
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 139
Crime and deviancy were considered pathological, and crime
was essentially related to the individual rather than to society’s
failure to cater for its citizens and, as a result, it could only be
attended to through treatment and moral rehabilitation. The last
three decades have seen a rejuvenation of the treatment ide-
ology although treatment now has a status similar to that of
education and employment (see also Engbo, 2005).
The moral project emerges as an ideal in staff discussions
and assessments of prisoners, and it surfaces in institutional
expectations, i.e., in what is said, done, rewarded and punished.
For example, upon arrival of re-offenders, or when they leave
prison, I often hear staff saying either: “so you didn’t get the
message,” or “you better learn to behave,” indicating, in a
friendly tone, the moral distinction between staff and prisoners
and the necessity of prisoners to continue to aspire for reform.
While it is possible Kim aspires to reform and regrets his
criminal acts, he does not communicate it in a way that owes
justice to the institutional moral logic and imperative. To ap-
propriately honour the moral project, Kim should ideally ex-
press determination to reform through the choices he makes. In
addition, he should silence any personal doubts about or devia-
tions from institutional ideals; a behaviour that requires strategy,
self-control and discretion. As should be evident from the
fieldnote extracts, you certainly do not reveal the possible miss-
ing link between the relevance or quality of institutionally
available possibilities such as training courses and offender
programmes, your aspirations to reform your life and start
afresh, and your plea for release.
Another prisoner, Hans, convincingly explains how it should
be done. Hans confides with me, he uses other prisoners to
scrutinise and plan the possibilities for an early release; in this
case, a release that includes participation in a training course
outside prison during his last months of confinement:
“When my Contact Person comes, I’ll have everything in
control, you know, so I appear to be a person with a drive; a
person who has a plan, you know, instead of saying—ehh, I
don’t know, what I want, I just want a life where I get out of
prison every day—that doesn’t really work, you know.”
As the extract from my interview with Hans illustrates, most
prisoners are aware how they should appear in order to conform
to the penal moral project. This does not imply that some pri-
soners do not withdraw from contact with staff altogether, but it
implies that those who engage with staff mostly plan their en-
gagements carefully. It also does not imply that prisoners do
not think they might benefit from the educational and other
skills, they may acquire whilst attached to the prison system.
However, they mostly express, they use their participation in
offender or educational programmes to get a good report or to
spend parts of their day outside prison so they can attend to
other interests, in particular, being in regular contact with fa-
mily, partners and friends, or maintain different income gener-
ating activities. It also does not imply, they cannot reveal to
staff their strategic interests or “amoral” thinking. This, how-
ever, is typically done with a smile that frames such utterances
as humorous only.
As my field work progresses, I come to realise that prisoners
are not rewarded with the benefits on offer through penal po-
licies and daily practices if, like Kim, they do not manage to
circumvent the moral project by carefully disguising their aspi-
rations. The puzzling concern related to this observation is, of
course, that Kim transparently reveals what he (and most other
prisoners) intends to do, and that he from this perspective is
both sincere and trustworthy. His transparency and trustwor-
thiness are not rewarded, however, because his intentions are
not considered legitimate and in line with the ideal implementa-
tion of the penal moral project and policy.
In other words, while Kim was punished with exclusion from
society because he did not behave in accordance with collec-
tively defined ideals of right and wrong, i.e., he was unreliable
and jurisdictionally and morally astray—he may have been
rewarded with goodwill or a rapid inclusion back into main-
stream society, had he convincingly pretended to be reliable
and morally on course. Meanwhile, prisoners, like Hans, who
are strategic in their communication with staff; they are the
ones who benefit from staff goodwill and, at times, possibly
also an early release.
As such and in comparison with the penal institutional work
related to security and control, the supportive and motivational
work is also characterised by ambiguity and ambivalence. In so
being, ambiguity and ambivalence not only typify the institu-
tional logic and incentive system, it cultivates specific kind of
clients: prisoners who simultaneously enact and embody com-
pliance and non-compliance.
Adaptive Strategies: Soft Power, Resistance, or
Means to Personal Ends?
If one uses a Foucaudian perspective, it is difficult not to
understand the self governance and endless manoeuvring and
circumvention of the system as a blend of resistance, i.e., reac-
tions to the disciplinary grip of the penal regime, and manifes-
tations of soft power. With soft power I refer to versions of
power that do not constrain, command or suppress the indivi-
dual as much as stimulate the subject, and where the distinction
between choice and necessity is, therefore, blurred (Crewe,
2009; Garland, 1997).
While this is probable, the interpretive road I will take, in
this analysis, is simply to note that prisoners’ compliance and
aligning of their behaviour with the expectations of governing
authorities is, mostly, impression management implemented as
opportunist and pragmatic attempts to pursue personalised ends.
In other words, while penal institutional life clearly is sought to
stimulate individuals to proactively take responsibility for their
own development and improved moral performance, the stimu-
lation mostly, does not imply moral or normative compliance.
Prisoners rather use available stimuli as means to other ends.
Time and again prisoners describe how they use rules and
regulations to advance their own agendas both in and outside
prison. Thomas, e.g., has a small company that he would like to
attend to from prison which has not been easy to organise. Like
many other prisoners, he has used official rules and procedures
to make this possible, and he has had to accept both frustrations
and delays related to the penal bureaucracy. When I meet him,
he has successfully established himself in a position where he is
formally doing an apprenticeship that is being monitored with
control calls and visits while, in reality, and through an infor-
mal set-up, he is attending to his company.
Another prisoner, Frank, describes to me how, in a similar
fashion, he used his high blood pressure as an excuse to get a
cell on his own thereby avoiding to share a cell with a prisoner
he dislikes (prisoners are initially placed in a cell that sleeps
Frank: “When you have been in and out of prison, like me,
you get to know a few tricks.”
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
Interviewer: “Yeah?”
Frank: “So I got hold of my General Practitioner (GP) who
wrote, eh, if you know your GP you can sort out things. So the
GP wrote to the prison nurse.”
Interviewer: “And then you what?”
Frank: “Well, then, when I got my pills (against high blood
pressure), I just didn’t take them, and then my blood pressure
went up. So when I went to the prison doctor, well then, I got a
room on my own very fast—cause I needed calm, right?!”
Frank does not question, he has to share a cell with another
prisoner. Instead, he uses one local authority, the prison nurse,
to push for a single room in a way that is considered legitimate
in the penal system. By not taking the pills his GP prescribed,
Frank demonstrates, how his blood pressure rises in relation to
imprisonment, and how, urgently, he needs calm and a room on
his own.
Frank and Thomas have their own references and ends and
similar to how de Certeau depicts the reaction of Indians to
their colonizers (de Certeau, 1988): they make of the rituals,
representations and laws imposed on them something quite
different from what their conquerors have in mind. They sub-
vert them not by rejecting or altering them, but by using them
with respect to ends and references foreign to the system they
have to accept (de Certeau, 1988). In so doing, they deflate its
power and come to appear to escape the regime without leaving
In pursuing their own interests, prisoners draw on their per-
sonal talents, institutional experiences and criminal habitual
behaviour that for obvious reasons promote oppositional values
but that do not necessarily come about as a reaction to the penal
regime per se. While Thomas clearly expresses he regards the
police and the penal system as his enemies, his accounts of how
he handles both in-and outside of prison, respectively, do not
differ radically: both in-and outside prison he acknowledges
their official status and devices strategies to circumvent them.
As such, the adaptive strategies of Thomas, Frank and many
other prisoners bring to light the furtive forms taken by groups
or individuals who make the most of imprisonment.
Concluding Discussion: To Be and Not to Be
In analysing prisoners’ experiences of and adaptation to
prison life, as I have done in this text, the being and doing of
officers and prisoners merge in a praxis-bound ontology at the
expense of a clear moral divide as, e.g., Goffman has described
it (Goffman, 1961). Officers and prisoners become co-partici-
pants in enactments of realities characterised by criminal codes,
conventions and practices, and penal ideals, procedures and ac-
tions. I have argued that these realities with their diverse value
systems, legal statuses, moral orientations, ideals and means of
establishing order and security are incompatible. I have also de-
monstrated how they are intertwined in daily practices where
they are related because one makes possible the enactment of
the other.
The result is, on the one hand, bewildering because we have
lost an ideal conception of right and wrong as each others’ op-
posites where one excludes the other. Furthermore, we have
added a dimension to the uncertainties of prison life, the pains,
by pointing to the doubts that the presence of multiplicity
evokes because it is not always clear what realities are enacted
and when. On the other hand, we have also gained: namely the
necessity to rethink the two as simultaneous and united in the
same locations, i.e. in prison and the enactments and expe-
riences of people who live and work there. In so doing, prisons,
officers and prisoners not only manifest a moral divide; they
also enact a moral sameness that includes moral opposites.
Following this line of argument, it is not a question of being
trustworthy or untrustworthy, right or wrong, sincere or insin-
cere, morally astray or morally on course, but rather a question
of being and not being: a question of being both at the same
With Despret I have connected enactments with experience
making ambiguity and ambivalence pivotal characteristics of
adaptation and being in prison; characteristics that reflect the
multiple realities of officers and prisoners and the relationships
they have with each other.
In adapting to prison life, prisoners draw extensively on their
networks in-and outside of prison to provide safety and collect
information about staff, rules, regulations, daily life and the
possibilities that this offers. In this context, I have argued staff
play only a limited role. I have also argued that although pri-
soners’ adaptive strategies are subject to change, and it is pos-
sible to diversify them, a general picture emerges nevertheless.
In relation to the penal supportive and motivational work, ad-
aptation mostly comes with a circumvention of a penal ideal
moral project that staff assess prisoners in terms of, i.e.: by
rewarding those who comply with it and resisting those who do
The moral project provides an institutional imperative and
logic that, together with the implementation of penal policies,
seek to stimulate individual prisoners to take responsibility for
a morally aligned future and life. I have explained how pri-
soners mostly do take responsibility for their lives, however, in
ways that are foreign to the penal system and its moral ideals.
By pretending an alliance with institutional ideals, prisoners
circumvent the moral project while, simultaneously, using in-
stitutional stimuli to pursue diverse individual ends. Against
this background, I argue that prisoners deflate institutional
power and appear to escape the regime and its ideals without
leaving it.
I have also argued that in this context, institutional interac-
tion can be perplexing when prisoners are met with staff resis-
tance because they do not manage the art of convincingly pre-
tending moral alliance, whereas prisoners who pretend with
conviction are rewarded with good will. This typically happens
when staff comes to regard prisoners as morally astray, insin-
cere and untrustworthy because they communicate intentions in
ways that do not honour the institutional logic and policies. It is
against this background, staff appears, simultaneously, to im-
plement ideals and policies that promote moral rightness and
incentives schemes that favour those who are morally astray,
hence, adding layers of ambiguity to prison life.
Although the Scandinavian regimes expose exceptional cha-
racteristics through their extraordinary good material conditions,
their low levels of imprisonment and their ideal emphasis on
punishment as deprivation of liberty only, these regimes may
also come with additional challenges, as this analysis demon-
strates. Prisoners’ experiences of and adaptation to prison life
are characterised by a striking lack of clarity that unveils a dis-
crepancy between penal institutional ideals and practices; a
discrepancy that calls for a rethinking of the implementation of
punishment that is visionary and relevant because it reflects an
awareness of penal everyday realities as they can be observed
from within.
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