Monash research finds higher prison rates in English-speaking nations

The contrast in the way modern societies punish offenders and the factors driving their approaches to crime has been investigated by researchers in their new book.

In their book, Contrasts in Punishment: An Explanation of Anglophone Excess and Nordic Exceptionalism, authors Dr Anna Eriksson, Monash University, and Professor John Pratt, Victoria Universitiy, draw on their decade-long research into the reasons behind contrasting attitudes to punishment in Anglophone and Nordic societies.

They analyse the development and current practice of the penal systems of England, Australia, New Zealand in contrast with Finland, Norway and Sweden. The authors argue that from the early 19th century onwards, Anglophone societies were dominated by value systems of division, intolerance and exclusion in contrast to high levels of social inclusion promoted by the Nordic.

Dr Eriksson said differences between the two clusters of societies are illustrated in their prison rates – Anglophone countries had some of the highest incarceration rates, and the Nordic countries the lowest, of those countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

“In the Nordic countries, there is a belief that prison conditions should recreate the outside world as much as possible,” Dr Eriksson said.

“Norway’s recently opened Halden Prison is a high-security jail where every cell has a television, en suite bathrooms, unbarred windows and designer furniture. Guards are unarmed and prisoners complete questionnaires asking how their prison experience can be improved.”

Dr Eriksson said it would be impossible to think of such a prison in the Anglophone countries, including Australia.

“Here, prison administration has come to be dominated by issues of security and control, in conjunction with overcrowded, deteriorating conditions,” Dr Eriksson said.

“The contrast in punishment could be illustrated well in the aftermath of the mass murder commited by Anders Behring Breivik in Oslo 2011.

“Such an event in Australia would most likely have called for a reintroduction of the death penalty, and wide-ranging punitive legislation to prevent such events in the future. In Norway, this exceptional crime was recognised with the emphasis on reaffirming solidarity, democray and unity.”

Professor Pratt said the reasons punishment is viewed so differently in the two clusters lies in the pattern of social arrangements developed over the last 200 years.

“The Nordic countries have become very socially inclusive and place high value on moderation, restraint and egalitarianism,” Professor Pratt said.

“In contrast, Anglophone societies became much more exclusionary as a result of an emphasis on individual responsibility and the accumulation of wealth and property.”

Professor Pratt said state power in Nordic countries tends to be used protectively and preventatively in the form of welfare, social and educational provisions. 

“In the Anglophone countries, despite all the political emphasis on ‘getting the state out of people’s lives’, there have been few qualms about using state power negatively and punitively against those thought to be unwanted or troublesome,” Professor Pratt said.