Magazine article New Internationalist

Crime and Civilization: For Nils Christie the Way in Which a Society Delivers Pain to Its Wrongdoers Is the Measure of Civilization

Magazine article New Internationalist

Crime and Civilization: For Nils Christie the Way in Which a Society Delivers Pain to Its Wrongdoers Is the Measure of Civilization

Article excerpt

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. …

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