The shadow of penal supervision

The Pains of Oversight: Comparing Penal Severity

In a week or so I’ll be heading off to Cardiff for this years Eurocrim Conference (the annual conference of the European Society of Criminology). This year, I’m really pleased to be presenting with David Hayes from the University of Sheffield. Some of you will probably already be aware of his excellent work on ‘penal severity’, proportionality and retributive justice. David has quickly become a leading light in thinking about how these concepts relate to punishments in the community (or ‘community sanctions and measures’ if you prefer the more technically correct European terminology).

David and I decided to work together on a paper that explores the relative severity of supervisory sanctions of two different (but sometimes overlapping sorts): electronic monitoring vs ‘human’ supervision. I’ve puzzled a little recently about which form of supervision would feel more painful to me. In some concluding thoughts assembled for the recent special issue of the European Journal of Probation on Electronic Monitoring, I noted:

‘Most probation advocates tend to assume that the experience of human supervision is likely to more congenial than standalone EM. But… imagine oneself compelled to choose between a ‘simple’ EM curfew between 8pm and 8am for 4 months and a year of fortnightly hour-long meetings with a human supervisor in an office on the other side of town, who is consistently late, or whose questioning you find intrusive, or whose judgment you find questionable, or whose advice you find patronising, or who seems intent on finding any excuse to breach your probation order or have you recalled you to prison. Perhaps if you like the place where you live and your own company, the choice would be easy’ (McNeill, 2017: 106).

A few years ago, Ben Crewe (2011) produced a brilliant paper suggesting that we need to think about the pains of imprisonment not just in terms of their ‘depth’ (how far they remove the individual from ordinary life) and weight (how heavily they bear down on the individual) but also in terms of their tightness:

‘The term ‘tightness’ captures the feelings of tension and anxiety generated by uncertainty… and the sense of not knowing which way to move, for fear of getting things wrong. It conveys the way that power operates both closely and anonymously, working like an invisible harness on the self. It is all-encompassing and invasive, in that it promotes the self-regulation of all aspects of conduct, addressing both the psyche and the body’ (Crewe, 2011: 522).

In Crewe’s analysis then, tightness relates to the pains of indeterminacy, of psychological assessment and of self-government that have become apparent in modern prisons (especially for those serving longer sentences). Crewe (2011) uses Max Weber’s metaphor of the ‘shell as hard as steel’ created by the bureaucratic machinery of corrections; something other than us that confines us and, in so doing, becomes part of us. As such, it has a certain degree of malleability and permits its wearer some motility, but it travels with him or her. As Crewe elaborates:

‘The shell of soft power is similar. At best, the prisoner can jettison some of its psychological weight, but he or she cannot simply detach it. The shell also represents the identity that the institution assigns to the prisoner, which has to be carried for the remainder of the sentence’ (Crewe, 2011: 523).

Crewe (2011) also alludes briefly to the tightening nature of supervision in the community. The shell of soft power may need to be carried long after the sentence; at least through the licence period, if recall to custody is to be avoided.

One thing that I hope ‘Pervasive Punishment’ will do is help us think about the depth, weight and tightness of different forms of supervision. My quote above implies, for example, that while EM might have more than ‘depth’ in the sense that a curfew removes us from ‘circulation’ in ordinary society ( at least a certain times), some forms of human supervision, at least if exercised in certain ways, might bear down more heavily. A capricious or authoritarian probation officer might be ‘heavier’ than a predictable and reliable tag. Similarly, while the tag might feel ‘tight’ in its restrictiveness, that constraint is at least worn on the outside and only temporarily. Undertaking an ‘offending behaviour programme’ as a condition of a community sentence — or as a precursor to a parole hearing — might expose its subject to a much more penetrating form of discipline. Also, if the subject’s performance in the programme influence their sentence progression in some way, then there may be a kind of durability to the discipline (or at least of the expectation to demonstrate having become disciplined). To me, that feels much ‘tighter’ to me than the idea of a temporary tag.

If you happen to be coming along to Eurocrim in Cardiff, come along and join the discussion. You can find out more about our session here:


Crewe, B. (2011) ‘Depth, weight, tightness: Revisiting the pains of imprisonment’, Punishment and Society 13(5): 509-529.

McNeill, F. (2017) ‘Postscript: Guide, guard and glue — Electronic monitoring and penal supervision’, European Journal of Probation 9(1): 103-107.