Beyond 'Egulags Western Style'? A Reconsideration of Nils Christie's Crime Control as Industry

John Pratt, Victoria University of Wellington

Nils Christie in Crime Control as Industry has suggested that our spiraling prison populations, particularly in the United States, represent a move towards gulags Western Style.i. In much the same way that Zygmunt Bauman sees modernity itself as creating the possibility for the Holocaust, so for Christie the current egulagizationi of the West is not an aberration of modern society but is something that occurs naturally within it. While sympathetic to Christie, this paper seeks to extend some of the themes of his book. In particular, it suggests that we may already be moving into an area of penal control that takes us ebeyond the gulag.i The gulag itself may no longer be a sufficient modality of punishment to absorb the punitive sentiments now at work in modern societies. What we thus find is the supplementation of modern penal sanctions by new forms of legal and extra legal punishments that privilege community involvement and interests over those of bureaucratic rationalism, leading to an uncertain and fragmented penal terrain. While, for Christie, there is the hope that at some point the basic good sense of ordinary people will prevail and counter the trends that the forces of modernity have made possible, it is argued that there is no essentialized goodness to human values and public sentiment: unleashing them may only add to the spiral of penal control.

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Updated 05/20/2006