Prison reform and torture prevention under ‘compromised circumstances’

Published date01 April 2024
AuthorAndrew M Jefferson
Date01 April 2024
Subject MatterArticles
Criminology & Criminal Justice
2024, Vol. 24(2) 413 –429
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/17488958221105442
Prison reform and
torture prevention under
‘compromised circumstances’
Andrew M Jefferson
DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture, Denmark
In this article, drawing on two decades studying prisons and prison reform practices in (mostly)
southern countries undergoing transition, I examine the challenges facing anti-torture professionals
and prison reformers working in the global south and critically interrogate the assumptions of
dominant models of reform. Rights and health-based entry points to the prevention of torture
and inhumane treatment and prison reform are argued to be necessary but insufficient. I propose
the concept ‘compromised circumstances’ to counter the structural biases that diminish and
erase ordinary everyday experience. The ‘compromised circumstances’ of countries torn by
conflict, inequality, poverty and mundane violence call for innovative interventions based on
reflexive social scientific description and analysis. The inevitable sense of dizziness and uncertainty
such circumstances induce must be embraced not denied. A dynamic, organic and relational entry
point to reform is required.
Compromised circumstances, dominant assumptions, global south, prison reform, torture
Ambitions, drivers and focus
Classic torture prevention aims to prevent the worst excesses associated with sites of
institutional confinement. This article takes torture prevention as a specific kind of prison
reform and adds to a growing body of critical scholarship that calls for more thorough
contextualisations of the ordinary lives, situations and practices that are the subject of
Corresponding author:
Andrew M Jefferson, DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture, Bryggervangen 55, DK 2100
Copenhagen, Denmark.
1105442CRJ0010.1177/17488958221105442Criminology & Criminal JusticeJeerson
414 Criminology & Criminal Justice 24(2)
reform efforts. I identify and examine the ‘if only’ and ‘as if’ logics that commonly pro-
pel reform efforts with specific focus on the drive to transfer knowledge; the insistence
that norms and standards be adhered to; and the promotion of professionalism. Put sim-
ply, I critically examine the belief that transformation is best achieved through new
knowledge, better rules and more professionalism. To counter the structural biases that
diminish and erase ordinary everyday experience, I propose the concept ‘compromised
circumstances’ as a novel way of drawing attention to the oft-neglected contexts in which
reforms take place. My ambition is that this new term might disrupt the all too easy
acknowledgement that ‘of course context matters’ only for the business of reform to
continue as usual.
The article is driven by theory, the field-based research of others and my own experi-
ence of conducting reflexive, ‘against-the-grain’ research on interventions (rights-based
reform) and the sites of interventions (prisons) within a norm-driven activist organisa-
tion. It also draws on my experience participating in collaborative reform efforts with
partners in the global south. It is inspired by the theorising of Jean Lave (2011) on situ-
ated learning and contentious social practice and the work of theorists of everyday life
(e.g. Das, 2007, 2020; Povinelli, 2009; Segal, 2015, 2016; Stevenson, 2014) and further
exemplifies the ecological approach to torture prevention developed by Danielle
Celermajer (2018).1
Focus is on the way the compromised and compromising circumstances of prisons in
the global south present tough challenges for reformers armed often with models and
solutions designed in and for other contexts. Without awareness and recognition of such
circumstances, with all their nuances and complexity, reform efforts will inevitably have
limited effect and may even fail.
The article is structured as follows. After some further introductory remarks and a
brief consideration of common forms of prison reform and torture prevention, I set the
scene with an empirical example from my own experience accompanying detention
monitors in Sierra Leone. I then elaborate on the concept of ‘compromised circum-
stances’ before considering the way that prisons and those who encounter them are
always already compromised. Then I dismantle the three generic assumptions. In conclu-
sion, I call for more synergy between critical, reflexive social scientific analysis and
norm-driven activism. I suggest that exploring the potential of ‘anticipatory’ interven-
tions that protect populations rendered imprisonable and torturable by structures of inter-
sectional oppression might be a progressive move for anti-torture professionals and
others made indignant by the pains of penality.2
Abolitionism, reform and prison failure
The topic of the conference, for which this article was initially prepared, was ‘what kind
of prisons for Haiti?’ By the end of the first day, I had an answer: fewer prisons, smaller
prisons and prisons where fewer people are incarcerated. This, I felt, would be a step in
the right direction and would clearly solve some of the problems of Haitian prisons:
overcrowding, degrading conditions, violence and so on (see This
answer falls within a tradition of critical or abolitionist criminology (e.g. Armstrong and
Jefferson, 2017; Canning, 2014; Coyle and Scott, 2021; Drake, 2012; McMahon, 1992;

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