Depth, weight, tightness: Revisiting the pains of imprisonment

AuthorBen Crewe
Published date01 December 2011
Date01 December 2011
Subject MatterArticles
Punishment & Society
13(5) 509–529
!The Author(s) 2011
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DOI: 10.1177/1462474511422172
Depth, weight, tightness:
Revisiting the pains
of imprisonment
Ben Crewe
University of Cambridge, UK
The ‘pains of imprisonment’ have been a longstanding concern within prison sociology.
This article revisits the topic, suggesting that modern penal practices have created some
new burdens and frustrations that differ from other pains in their causes, nature and
effects. It notes that the pains of imprisonment can be divided up conceptually, and to
some degree historically, into those deriving from the inherent features of incarceration,
those resulting from deliberate abuses and derelictions of duty, and those that are
consequences of systemic policies and institutional practices. Having described the
latter in detail – focusing on the pains of indeterminacy, the pains of psychological
assessment and the pains of self-government, the article explains the relevance of the
concept of ‘tightness’, as well as ‘depth’ and ‘weight’, to the contemporary prison
‘depth’, pains of imprisonment, psychological power, ‘tightness’, weight of imprisonment
They dangle carrots, so you’re walking on eggshells. (Prisoner, HMP Wolds)
The vernacular of prison life is a guide to its qualities. It is therefore significant that
prisoners regularly use phrases like the one above and are understood and endorsed
by their peers when they do so. The ‘carrots’ refer to the prison’s incentive scheme
and the promise of progressing through the system in return for engaging with
Corresponding author:
Ben Crewe, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge, Sidgwick Avenue, Cambridge CB3 9DA, UK.
the regime. ‘Walking on eggshells’ requires less explanation, but it points to one of
the key frustrations of confinement in England and Wales. Many of these frustra-
tions are longstanding and well documented. Others, while not new as such, reflect
the changed texture of modern imprisonment and require a different conceptual
vocabulary from that which has been used previously to describe the pains of
imprisonment. Drawing on empirical research, primarily in men’s prisons, this
article proposes the use of the term ‘tightness’, alongside ‘depth’ (Downes, 1988)
and ‘weight’ (King and McDermott, 1995), to describe the burdens of modern
Historicizing the pains of imprisonment
When Sykes provided his celebrated analysis of the pains of imprisonment, it
marked a moment when the prison was no longer intended to be painful: ‘severe
bodily suffering has long since disappeared as a significant aspect of the custodians’
regime’ (Sykes, 1958: 64; Ignatieff, 1978). Yet Sykes was eager to stress that the
psychological pains of confinement – including the loss of liberty, the deprivation
of autonomy and the frustration of sexual desire – could be just as damaging as
physical mistreatment: ‘Such attacks ...are less easily seen than a sadistic beating, a
pair of shackles on the floor, or the caged man on a treadmill, but the destruction
of the psyche is no less fearful than bodily affliction’ (Sykes, 1958: 64). Writing two
decades later, Foucault (1977) raised similar issues, questioning whether the tech-
niques of discipline and regulation that had replaced physical punishment at the
end of the 18th century were more civilized than their predecessors, or simply a
more efficient and penetrative means of ensuring penal control.
Sykes argued that attacks on the prisoner’s ego and sense of self-worth were
intrinsic to incarceration – ‘the acceptable or unavoidable implications of impris-
onment’ (Sykes, 1958: 64). His summary of these deprivations need not be
rehearsed, but to it we might add the pains and degradations that scholars such
as Cohen and Taylor (1972) and Erving Goffman (1961) identified as more or less
inherent in the nature of institutional confinement. For Goffman, these were the
micro-humiliations and assaults on the self that were imposed by the ‘total insti-
tution’; for Cohen and Taylor, they were the existential anxieties about identity,
survival and change that were provoked by long-term detention. In such accounts,
the prison stood almost as a metaphor for deprivation and domination. Cohen and
Taylor used narratives of extreme survival to draw parallels with the experiences of
their research participants. Goffman classified the prison with the mental asylum
and the military institution as places designed to mortify the self. Sykes himself
noted the similarities between the maximum security prison, the concentration
camp and the Soviet labour colony, describing the former as ‘the new leviathan’
(1958: xxxiii) – ‘a social system in which an attempt is made to create and maintain
total or almost total social control’ (1958: xxxii).
Accounts of imprisonment in the UK in the following decades suggested that
Sykes had been unduly optimistic. The forms of abuse and neglect that he assumed
510 Punishment & Society 13(5)

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