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Br J Sociol. 2014 Sep;65(3):387-410. doi: 10.1111/1468-4446.12084.

Heavy-light, absent-present: rethinking the 'weight' of imprisonment.

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Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge.


Since King and McDermott (1995), following Downes (1988), defined the psychological oppressiveness of incarceration in terms of 'weight', little has been written about the 'weight of imprisonment'. None the less, it is generally assumed that prisons that are 'light' are preferable to those that are 'heavy' - in part because of an assumption among many penologists that power, and its application, is dangerous and antagonistic. This article does not dispute that 'heavy' prisons are undesirable. Its argument is that there can also be dangers if prisons are excessively light. Many of these dangers are linked to the under-use of power. The tone and quality of prison life depends on the combined effects of institutional weight with the 'absence' or 'presence' of staff power. Drawing on prisoners' descriptions of their experiences in public and private sector prisons, and their assessments of important aspects of their quality of life, the article outlines what these concepts mean in practice. The authors develop a four-quadrant framework for conceptualizeng penal legitimacy and the experience of penal authority.


Imprisonment; legitimacy; power; prison staff; weight

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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