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In memory of Nils Christie, 1928-2015

Nils Christie, the world-renowned criminologist, a member of the Prison Policy Initiative advisory board, and one of my personal inspirations, passed away on May 27 at the age of 87.

by Peter Wagner, June 9, 2015

I’m saddened to report that Nils Christie, the world-renowned criminologist, a member of the Prison Policy Initiative advisory board, and one of my personal inspirations, passed away on May 27 at the age of 87.

Christie came to my attention in 2001 when I tripped over a reference to his provocatively titled Crime Control as Industry: Towards Gulags, Western Style. The book reframed how I thought about both prisons and the movement to end them.

Even the title provided a completely new way to look at the problem. Rather than a “prison industrial complex”, which evokes an Eisenhower-era critique but little in the way of an organizing strategy, the framework of an industry seemed spot on:

Only rarely will those working in or for any industry say that now, just now, the size is about right. Now we are big enough, we are well established, we do not want any further growth. An urge for expansion is built into industrial thinking, if for no other reason than to forestall being swallowed up by competitors. The crime control industry is no exception. But this is an industry with particular advantages, providing weapons for what is often seen as a permanent war against crime. The crime control industry is like rabbits in Australia or wild mink in Norway–there are so few natural enemies around.

Christie later told me that he considered the book “sad”, and I tried to explain why, as someone living in the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world, the book was liberating: You simply can’t change what you don’t understand; and like the light at the end of the tunnel, Crime Control as Industry provided both hope and a path.

The book connected the dots in a way that I hadn’t seen done before. As I explained in a 2002 book review:

Christie does an important job providing an international perspective to incarceration, comparing disparate incarceration rates between otherwise similar European countries. Hope can be found in his story of Finland becoming accustomed to a high level of pain delivery and then deciding in the 1970s that its incarceration rate associated the country more with its enemy the Soviet Union than with its political allies in Western Europe. Finland’s incarceration rate quickly dropped from the highest in Europe, to the second lowest after Iceland….

Christie traces the extent to which crime control has come to dominate the economic structure by absorbing the unemployed into the roles of keeper and kept and then supplying services to each. Limited by space, let me highlight two of Christie’s many sharp observations. First Christie argues that the applicable political economy to describe prisons is not slavery, but rather old work-houses, where the objective was not profit for the State, but for private parties to relieve the State of its unwanted population at the lowest cost possible.

The second sharp observation is that justice itself has been mechanized to cope with the influx of raw materials and remove a democratic restraint upon growth. Mandatory minimums and the sentencing guidelines have served to remove discretion from judges, turning them into little more than secretaries for the legislature. While judges are in a unique position to learn details about victims and the accused; and could adopt sentences to match the needs of the offender and the community; that takes time. Time costs money, and the industry’s conveyor must be kept moving, hence the removal of judge’s discretion.

In the United States, the combined populations in prison, on parole and on probation exceed the incarceration rate of the old gulags. Christie’s excellent book asks: Do we want a societal culture with this much depersonalized pain delivery?

Without a doubt, Norway’s unique history and place in the world helped Christie develop his work and his approach. A teenager during the Nazi occupation of Norway, his first academic work involved interviews with Norwegian guards at a German concentration camp. As Nils’ friend David Cayley explained:

Conditions in these camps were terrible – during one year seventy per cent of the prisoners had died – and this could not be written off as a purely German atrocity, because several hundred Norwegian guards had also worked there. Nils’ assignment was to find out why some of these guards had killed or maltreated prisoners. He interviewed former prisoners and a cross-section of the guards, including both those who had behaved cruelly and those who had behaved decently. A stark conclusion presented itself: those who had behaved relatively well had gotten to know something about their prisoners – they had talked with them and had often seen pictures of their families – while those who had been vicious had made sure they knew nothing beyond what the Germans told them – that these were sub-human savages from the Balkans.

The insight he gained through this study became the central principle of Nils’ criminology: how punitive we are varies with how much we know about the one whom we believe ought to be punished.

Christie spent much of his life explaining the harms of designing our justice system around the idea that that part of our populace were not people but monsters. In 1996 he explained to the New Internationalist magazine why our culture is so fascinated with crime and yet how the current justice system serves to disempower victims:

This is so natural. As human beings we are interested in conflicts, it’s the theme for great authors and for ordinary people. But people no longer participate in such conflicts. If we become victims we leave it all up to professionals who are basically fed up. Conflict ought to be participated in by ordinary people, but we are just spectators of crime who now and again cry out for more severe punishment.

But if we come close to the people in prison for punishment we become more doubtful. We become more open to new ways of integrating that person into everyday life. It is very easy to create a monster of a stranger, seen only through the media.

Christie was not just a visionary thinker, he was a brilliant communicator and he credits his unique approach to academic writing to Norway’s small size, as he explained in an essay entitled Roots of a Perspective:

Living in small regions, or small national states, will certainly influence the type of science carried out. In small societies, two things happens. First, It is not so easy to shy away from taking part in the general cultural/political debate on how to run the country. It is as living in a small cottage, there are no janitors around, we have to mend damages ourselves. People get more active, scientists also. Small nations tend to have an extreme number of newspapers and readers. Iceland is at the top in Europe. The population is concerned. For many social scientists, a consequence of this is a wish to talk so that everybody can follow.

In first chapter of Crime Control as Industry he suggested a perfect target to aim for in one’s writing, and it’s a metaphor that we try to use each day at the Prison Policy Initiative:

Sociological jargon is usually filled with latinized concepts and complicated sentence structures. It is as if the use of ordinary words and sentences might decrease the trust in arguments and reasoning. I detest that tradition. So little of the sociology I am fond of needs technical terms and ornate sentences. I write with my “favourite aunts” in mind, fantasy figures of ordinary people, sufficiently fond of me to give the text a try, but not to the extent of using terms and sentences made complicated to look scientific.

And for Christie, the language barrier wasn’t a barrier at all, but a tool helping him to think more creatively and communicate more precisely. As he explained in Limits to Pain:

In this book I often apply the words “pain delivery”. But I have had to make a considerable effort to preserve that formulation from extinction. My kind and highly qualified adviser in the subtleties of the English language has insisted that the term does not exist. Pain delivery, it sounds like milk delivery. Dreadful. My point has been the opposite: It sounds like milk delivery. Perfect. This captures exactly what I want to convey. If pain delivery is not a concept in Oxford English, it ought to become one. Pain delivery is the concept for what in our time has developed into a calm, efficient, hygienic operation. Seen from the perspective of those delivering the service, it is not first and foremost drama, tragedy, intense sufferings. Infliction of pain is in dissonance with some major ideals, but can be carried out in an innocent, somnambulistic insulation from the value conflict. The pains of punishments are left to the receivers. Through the choice of words, working routines, division of labour and repetition, the whole thing has become the delivery of a commodity.

For these insights and many more, the world owes a huge debt of gratitude to Nils Christie. I also feel I owe him a personal debt as well for encouraging me personally and professionally. Back in 2001, he took the time to answer an email from a young law student and then, later, we would share footnotes and news items we knew would be of unique interest to the other. But his most generous contribution was his agreement to join the Prison Policy Initiative’s Advisory Board in March 2005. At a time when the Prison Policy Initiative wasn’t even a formal non-profit, Nils saw our potential, and for that I am eternally grateful.

The most important lesson that people in the United States can draw from Nils Christie’s work is that high incarceration rates should not be “taken for granted as a trend that must continue”. As he explained in the New Internationalist interview:

[W]hen is enough enough? How many people can you execute? How large a prison population can you have before you change the kind of country you live in? It is the same kind of question as to whether you want a national theatre or libraries. What kind of country would it be without them? How many prison camps can we have before my Norway isn’t Norway any more, or your Canada isn’t Canada?

For further reading:

Some of his major books and works include:

  • Conflicts as Property (1977) in British Journal of Criminology outlined a restorative justice program in which victims and offenders could meet as equals and take ownership of their personal conflicts. Christie urged people to actively participate in these conflicts instead of allowing lawyers, judges, and experts to take control.
  • Beyond Loneliness and Institutions: Communes for Extraordinary People (1989) about an intentional community for people with different physical and mental abilities.
  • Limits to Pain (1981) (which he graciously allowed us to make available online when the book was out of print) where he posits that the criminal justice system is in fact a pain delivery system, with the size of the system controlled not by the number of committed acts labeled as crimes but by the amount of pain that a society is willing to impose on its citizens.
  • Crime Control as Industry: Towards Gulags, Western Style (3rd ed. 2000) is an excellent overview of Christie’s critique.
  • A Suitable Amount of Crime (2004), drills down into his idea that while “deplorable acts” exist, crime itself is socially defined and therefore in infinite supply.
  • Victim movements at a crossroad (2010) in Punishment & Society addresses the rise of victim movements in most western countries in terms of both their promise and their potential to harm both society and victims.

Some of my favorite interviews include:

  • Empty the Prisons, 2009 interview by Wired Magazine. (When Wired Magazine asked for ideas for interview subjects for a piece on “12 Shocking Ideas That Could Change the World”, I didn’t hesitate at suggesting Nils and was thrilled when readers’ positive reaction surprised the editors. )
  • David Cayley of the Canadian Broadcasting Company did a great three part interview with Christie about Crime Control as Industry: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. Also don’t miss Cayley’s excellent remembrance of Nils Christie.
  • Crime and Civilization, New Internationalist interview 1996

One response:

  1. jonathan landau says:

    Having served over five years I U.S. federal prisons for a Conspiracy to Possess a Controlled Substance, in other words a convicted drug seller turned my name, along with nearly one hundred others, over to federal DEA agents in order to have his prison sentence reduced to a ridiculously low number of months. There was absolutely NO drugs in evidence nor were there any corroborated statements from anyone except the one previously convicted drug dealer. I was induced to plead guilty to this charge lest my very ill wife be charged similarly and, to quote the U.S. Attorney, “be allowed” to die in prison. Not nearly the only, or the worst of such cases but horrible beyond all reason. I became active in making my and other cases known after my release from prison which led to my being hounded by the authorities and returned to prison for a “technical violation” of my supervised release. My wife did indeed die while I was incarcerated and my life was all but destroyed by the emotional, physical, financial and societal damage caused by my initial and especially subsequent period spent in prison. I came to understand that even as a child can except punishment for an infraction that he knows he committed, neither a child not an adult can deal very well with being punished for a non existent crime.

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