The Role Of Prison In Europe: Travelling In The Footsteps Of John Howard

Author: Tom Vander Beken
Publisher: Basingstoke, UK; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 243p.
Reviewer: Pieter Spierenburg | March 2017

This book will probably be read in different ways by historical and contemporary criminologists. As the combination of title and subtitle suggests, it deals both with today’s prisons and with the eighteenth-century visitor of carceral institutions, John Howard. The link between these two subjects is that the author does the same as Howard did — looking into prisons throughout Europe and reporting about it.

The countries visited by the author are England, Norway, the Netherlands, France, Italy and Azerbaijan. Each chapter begins with Howard’s experience in the country in question (Russia and the Ottoman Empire substitute for Azerbaijan). Usually this is followed by a historical overview of imprisonment there. These accounts may be too short or superficial for historians (for France, for example, he omits transportation to New Caledonia and Guyana, and the Dutch overview has a few errors), whereas for criminologists, the accounts are perhaps unnecessary. Moreover, the connection between the historical narrative and contemporary events remains ephemeral, largely amounting to “Howard would have liked this” now and then.

The author’s account of his own visits assumes the form of an hour-to-hour narrative of his activities, research-related and leisurely (“It is raining today; NN is my guide and we first have a coffee”). At times this works rather well, as when he describes his welcome by prison officials or observes minor but interesting details. The selection of prisons was determined primarily by his own interests and secondarily by admission policies. After reading about a number of institutions, it became for me a bit tedious. The overwhelming impression is that prisons are different everywhere: in terms of rehabilitation or not, activities, architecture, degree of seclusion or openness and, especially, for what category of inmates they were destined in the first place. Of course, the number of visits is much smaller than during Howard’s endless travels, but who has ever read Howard from beginning to end? On the other hand, the total set of reports serves as a useful data base, if only to formulate research questions, for other students of prisons.

I should highlight one criticism here. The author very frequently uses the expression “return to society” when he refers to the release of a prisoner. This laymen’s term should be absolutely anathema to all social scientists. It perpetuates the illusion that society consists only of nice people. In fact, prisons are part of society, just like schools or pubs (see my Prison Experience, Amsterdam UP: 212-19). Every person belongs to a national society, just be being there and interacting with others.

The chapters about the author’s visits are preceded by an introduction and a prologue (the list of contents strangely in between), both explaining his purposes. An epilogue serves as conclusion, in which the author briefly systematizes his findings. First, he defends his method, arguing that only by personally visiting prisons could he have noticed some important details, such as the lack of warders’ uniforms in the Netherlands or the fact that in Italy inmates showed him around. He then assesses the balance between the aims of protecting the rest of society and rehabilitating offenders, concluding that Britain and France are the hardest, while Norway, Italy and to a lesser extent the Netherlands maintain more of an equilibrium between the two aims. Prisons in Azerbaijan are a showcase for the European Union. These conclusions will certainly provoke discussion.

In sum: this is a book less useful for historical scholars, but interesting for criminologists.

Emeritus professor of Erasmus University and program leader at the Dutch Institute for War and Genocide Studies (NIOD).

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