Prison policy has two main and contradicting aims. One is to punish and inflict pain by depriving people of the freedom to move around and take part in society. The other is to rehabilitate prisoners by providing resources like work, education, programs, and others.

Prison policy states values of humane treatment and the principle of normalization. Even so, prisoner’s experiences of being locked up, monitored by cameras or officers, stripped and watched while urinating, and of isolation, are all beyond any experience of usual, social life. So, prison policy aims and practice are complex and contradictory.
Themes in the interviews with prisoners resemble those in usual conversations. But they have a twist, an imprint of the surroundings of control and security, and of cramped spaces that prisoners share with others for weeks and months. These others are persons they did not choose and cannot leave.

Some prisoners keep together in small groups for training and meals; others isolate in the cell.


In prison, time and daily routines are standardized. Prisoners are woken up at the same time, and all activities of the day take place at the same time, for everyone: meals, work and school, outdoor time, sleep. There are few and limited opportunities for choice.

Being in society, we often take time for granted and experience it as a resource. In prison, time becomes a problem. There is too much of it.

“It can be a lot of dead time here.”

“The daily life here is boring.”

“Most of the time, in the evening, I just sit here. I have headphones on, I listen to music most of the time. Try to read some books, write some letters.”

Sometimes, at the end of the interview we happened to use a phrase from the outside:

– "Well, thank you, we’ve taken lots of your time."

“Yeah, I have enough time [laughs].
A lot of time.”

“But in my opinion, in high security prison you always have something to do, so time goes faster. Because, in an open prison you have a lot of dead time … and then the time goes slow, in my opinion, of course.”

Three prisoners discuss time:

“Yeah, I agree.”

“And so the weeks are just flying, because you have a routine everyday, and you follow that routine and you know, okay, one more hour here, and then I am out, and then I have one hour again, and then, you know, it is night. And so the time just goes ... .
It is like working outside.”

“But I am of the opposite opinion of them. Because if you made your own routine, you fill your time with what you want to do.”

Learning and unlearning

Prisoners may learn in workshops and when taking part in education and courses run by teachers. Some prisoners value this. These opportunities may work for some, for others they do not.

Then there are experiences and learning beyond official plans and programs, which take place within the prison structure, among prisoners and among prisoners and staff.

There are prisoners who withdraw and isolate themselves from other prisoners and from friends and family outside.

“And they have good school programs, you know. You can take any kind of degrees here. So the big things are in order.”

“So, if you go to school here, you have the possibility to take two years in one year. So it’s a lot of things like that, that is good here. So you can make something useful out of your time of course, if you want to. …

These opportunities may work for some, for others they do not.

… But if you don’t want to, just be in your cell and take it easy. I see a lot of people that like to just lie in the bed all day.
For me, I can’t understand that.”

Prisoners learn to adjust to their surroundings:

– "Do you think the noise is disturbing?"

“I’m very adaptable, so it’s like, I can’t do anything about it, so why bother to waste energy about it? … That is how it is.”

“In the free-time, now there are cutbacks there as well. That’s a pity. To sit down is not good, at least for some people. …
But – you are in a prison, you just have to follow what’s decided. That’s how it is. It’s a reason why we are here.”

“I was [young] the first time I was in prison. It was strange going from having … I was a lot in opposition against the system.
So it took me many years before I kind of realized that it’s just like it doesn’t matter what I do, the system always wins, so … but now I don’t care anymore.”

“In [avdeling] I have no problem with anyone, everybody is minding his own business.”

– "You are interested to keep it calm?"

“Yes, everybody just minding their own business.”

“Well, sometimes you tell them if it’s too much, you
tell them: ‘Hey, turn down the TV,’ or:
‘Do this,’ you know.
But – you get used to it.”

Sometimes prisoners react to their surroundings:

“But I cannot take it, listening to the noise of the neighbor all the time. You may be patient, but not all the time.”

- "And if you find it too much, what do you do?"

"Then you go and talk to them.
... Usually it is ok, the situation calms down."

“Once in [Prison], we were three persons who stopped one prisoner until the guards came … Sometimes this may happen.
But there are people who should not be in prison.
This is about my security also.
It has happened that a prisoner has been attacked by another, just because he was mad. You see, these people, most of them are in Ila [prison], but you see some unstable persons also here.”

Some prisoners concentrate on the situation
and the future:

“I don’t mind sitting on my own, but I see here … what can I say, 2/3 of the inmates here, they like to be social, they like to be out in the avdeling
in the day. …
For me it’s more, school and programs, the training, the lufting here.
That’s where I can improve myself. …

... Most inmates here, actually, they’re more focused on avdeling, TV, play station, DVDs, toilet, shower – I don’t care about that.
It’s more about the stuff that correctional can offer me,
that is more important for me. This, and where I am in my life.”

“I don’t have so much experience with prison,
this is my first time.
But when I’m here, I think this is the optimal way to serve a sentence, because I got everything, I got everything what I need. I got a big living room, I got a big TV, nice kitchen, I got a nice room to sleep in, I got my own bathroom, I got my own TV, my own digital box, my own DVD player, I got my library and shop. ...

... So I don’t miss nothing, and I don’t have time to complain about anything.
I really have time to focus on what’s important for me. And for me what’s important is my family, my children, that I need to live another way if I want to have that.
So for me, this is – I don’t miss nothing.
I’ve got everything.” …

– "Do you feel busy? Your days feel busy?"

“My days are busy. They are filled up all the time. And I have also time you know, to focus on the right things for myself, what I want to do with my life: ‘Is this what I want? Do I want to run outside and make criminal things to buy myself a new car or a ... bigger TV?’
Actually no, because I’ve got it right here, I don’t need it.
I need the love of my family, I need my time with them. So I think it’s okay.
I don’t have experience so much.”

“To me, I have been so long in prison,
I have become institutionalized,
… so I like my cell ...”

Moments of freedom

Some prisoners spoke of moments of freedom, exceptions that confirm the fundamental experience of being locked up.

“Before I could go out when I wanted [when cell doors were open].
I could go outside the house and [sometimes] on the [large] site. It gave a feeling of freedom going out. …
When you may go out when you want [when cell doors were unlocked], you get rid of a burden on your shoulders, you don’t need to wait for that … just go outside.
That gave a feeling of freedom.
Now the situation is new.”

“The only time it is noisy, that if it is a football game or something, then you can hear it at night-time, after we are closed in at night,
and if it is going a football game, you can hear it from the other block and all the way over, and it goes from top to bottom.
You hear people good. Yeah ...

... I think it is good that way, it is good. … Because you don’t think so much about where you are.
You’re seeing something you like, and the time passes.”

– "Do you like the underground corridors?"

“Yeah, I think it’s a little bit cool.
Because then you know, when you have to go somewhere, it takes a little time to go there and it’s a little feeling to go a little free.” …

– "Right, on your own, in a way. You can go and nobody …"

“No, you don’t need to think about it, and you don’t have the guards following you.
In other prisons, normally the guards follow you or it’s not so far away from the avdeling.
But here it takes a little time to go from the avdeling maybe to medical or something, takes five minutes. And it’s good.”


Baumann, Z. (2000). Social Issues of Law and Order. The British Journal of Criminology, 40(2), pp. 205-221, https://doi.org/10.1093/bjc/40.2.205.

Crewe, B. (2009). The prisoner society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haugerud, M. (2011). De gode intensjoners tukthus – Fem teser om straffens idealer og fengslets realiteter fra et fangeperspektiv [The reform prison of good intensions – Five thesis of the ideals of punishment and realities from a prisoner perspective]. In: Med loven mot makta. Juss-Buss førti år [With the law against the power. Juss-Buss forty years]. Juss-Buss og O. Halvorsen (eds.). Oslo: Novus forlag.

Lauesen, T. (1999). Vridsløselille statsfængsel set i fangeperspektiv [Vridsløselille state prison seen in a prisoner perspective]. In: Nordisk tidsskrift for kriminalvidenskab 86(1), pp. 16-43.

Lid, T.V. (2012). Straff. Sørgespel [Punishment. Mourning play]. Performed in Bergen: Logen teater & Oslo: Dramatikkens hus. Autumn 2012.

Mathiesen, T. (2006). Prison on trial, 3rd ed. Winchester: Waterside press.

Revold, M. K (2015). Innsattes levekår 2014. Før, under og etter soning [Prisoners’ living conditions 2014. Before, during and after incarceration]. Report 2015/47. Oslo: Statistics Norway. Available at https://www.ssb.no/sosiale-forhold-og-kriminalitet/artikler-og-publikasjoner/_attachment/244272?_ts=150b8c1bce0

Ribe, A. (2019). Hva er et fengsel? [What is a prison?]. Samtiden 129(4), pp. 5-11.

Sykes, G. (1974 [1958]). The society of captives. A study of a maximum security prison. New Jersey: Princeton.

Vedeler, G.H. (1973/1993). Frihetsstraffens innhold – betraktninger om fangers rettigheter og fengselets forpliktelser. [The content of imprisonment – reflections on prisoners’ rights and obligations of the prison.] In: T. Mathiesen & A. Heli (eds.) (1993). Murer og mennesker. En KROM-bok om fengsel og kriminalpolitikk. [Walls and people. A KROM book on prison and criminal policy]. Oslo: Pax forlag..