The shadow of penal supervision

Painting by numbers: The scale and distribution of supervision

Happy New Year!

Recently, I’ve been enjoying reading about the emerging field of visual criminology. I can’t recommend the excellent Routledge International Handbook of Visual Criminology highly enough. This quote from the introduction in particular piqued my interest: 

‘Criminological and criminal justice optics are incredibly powerful in the ways in which they facilitate practices of seeing and not seeing, practices that have the ability to render people, harm and control visible and invisible, apparent or disappeared… Counter-visuality, then, is about the deployment of a politics of visibility for change and transformation’ (Brown and Carrabine, 2017: 6).

The idea of developing a ‘counter-visual criminology’ (Brown, 2014; Schept, 2014) of mass supervision was implicit in the work of the COST Action IS1106 on Offender Supervision in Europe, particularly in two projects using visual methods that contributed to our “Seen and Heard” initiative. Both projects are discussed in chapters in the Handbook (Fitzgibbon, Graebsch and McNeill, 2017; Worrall, Carr and Robinson, 2017)  I’ll be writing much more about these counter-visual projects when I get to chapter 5 of the book, and I also have a paper coming out soon in Punishment and Society that reflects on these issues in more depth. But more of that later…

Here, as the title of this post implies, I want to ask for your help in relation to a quite different and very important form of representation — painting by numbers. Criminal justice statistics are powerful; they act in important ways both in justifying penal expansion and in making the case for penal reform or abolition. Necessarily, statistics about prison populations and about many aspects of life and death within prisons are often used in both academic and wider public debates about ‘mass incarceration’ for example. These numbers also reach into communities in socio-spatial analysis of where prison populations come from and return to.

Yet, statistics about ‘mass supervision’ and its subjects are much less well known and much less widely debated. They are also, in many respects, harder to collect, collate and interpret, partly because of the complexities of defining what counts as supervision. The graphic at the head of this post was my first attempt to visually summarise some important numbers related to supervision in Scotland. But I need much more information, and that’s why I need your help…

Michelle Phelps (2014, 2017a) has done great work analysing these sorts of numbers in the USA.  In various European states we now have somewhat similar data now available (Aebi, Delgrande and Marguet, 2015). But recently Phelps (2017b) has also extended her analyses beyond the scale of mass probation and into a careful consideration of its social distribution.  In other words, she has explored who is selected for (and deselected from) supervisory sanctions in the USA — looking at this in terms of ‘race’, class and gender.

So, my question is this: Do you know of any recent studies that explore the social characteristics of subjects of supervision in the UK jurisdictions, Europe and further afield and/or studies that look at the socio-spatial distribution of supervisees (for example via post-code analysis of probation or parole populations linked to indices of social inequality or deprivation)?

Please do let me know if you have any ideas…



Aebi, M. F., Delgrande, N. and  Marguet, Y. (2015). Have community sanctions and measures widened the net of the European criminal justice systems? Punishment & Society 17(5), 575- 597.

Brown, M. (2014) ‘Visual criminology and carceral studies: Counter-images in the carceral age’. Theoretical Criminology 18(2): 176-197.

Brown, M. and Carrabine, E. (2017) ‘Introducing visual criminology’ in Brown, M. and Carrabine, E. (eds.) Routledge International Handbook of Visual Criminology. London and New York: Routledge.

Fitzgibbon, W., Graebsch, C. and McNeill, F. (2017) ‘Pervasive Punishment: Experiencing Supervision’ in Carrabine, E. and Brown, M. (eds.) The Routledge International Handbook of Visual Criminology. London: Routledge.

Phelps, M. (2013) ‘The paradox of probation: community supervision in the age of mass incarceration’. Law and Policy, 35(1–2), 55–80.

Phelps, M. (2017a) ‘Mass probation: Toward a more robust theory of state variation in punishment’. Punishment and Society, 19(1): 53-73.

Phelps, M. (2017b) ‘Mass Probation and Inequality: Race, Class, and Gender Disparities in Supervision and Revocation’ in Ulmer, J.T. and Bradley, M.S. (eds.) Handbook on Punishment Decisions: Locations of Disparity. New York: Routledge.

Schept, J. (2014) ‘(Un)seeing like a prison: counter-visual ethnography of the carceral state’, Theoretical Criminology 18(2): 198-223.

Worrall, A., Carr, N. and Robinson, G. (2017) ‘Opening a window on probation cultures: A photographic imagination’ in Carrabine, E. and Brown, M. (eds.) The Routledge International Handbook of Visual Criminology. London: Routledge.

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