The shallow end: understanding the prisoner experience in Iceland’s open prisons

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The way in which prisoners talk about their prison experience is often couched and understood in spatial metaphors like weight and depth (Crewe, 2015, 2021). Imprisonment is frequently experienced as deep, with prisoners reporting feeling buried alive or submerged, with the outside world both physically and emotionally perceived as remote. But what about its opposite? Can we consider a prison experience that not only lacks these experiential qualities but could in fact be felt and described as shallow? What characteristics would such a ‘shallow’ prison experience have? In order to investigate this I spent time in Iceland’s two open prisons. Both are very small with about 20 prisoners, run with few staff, set in rural, scenic settings and lack most of the features typically associated with imprisonment. I found that in essence, shallowness is both sensorily and interactively experienced. Sensory in the sense that these shallow prisons allow for a range of sensory experiences of which prisoners are typically deprived, and interactive in the sense of the outside world permeating the prison in a range of ways including generous visiting arrangements and contact with the outside world via phone and the internet. I therefore concluded that shallowness comes with its own positive characteristics so that it is more than the absence of depth. In addition, such arrangements are likely to reduce the pains associated with imprisonment considerably.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages16
Early online date2 Apr 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2023


  • Iceland prisons
  • open prisons
  • prison ethnography
  • Nordic penal exceptionalism

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