Getting going: First-day prison ethnography in Iceland

By Francis Pakes, Professor of criminology at the University of Portsmouth, UK.

Let me start off with a little pro-tip: If you’re ever visiting an open prison in Iceland, try to arrive at lunchtime. Lunch is a big fixture in the daily routine. Staff and prisoners eat a hot meal together in a communal space, so that by arriving in time for this event, you do get to meet almost everyone, prisoners and staff, immediately. Apart from nourishment lunchtime also provides important social cues. It is interesting to observe who sits with who, to get a sense of social relations. Mind you, lunchtimes do not tend to last very long with many prisoners finishing their dinners in little time. In particular those who rather not spend time with others disappear quite quickly. Another may turn up somewhat late, also to avoid as much of the gathering as possible. In this way, lunchtimes provide important clues as to social structure and social status.

It was these things I quickly learned when I set out to spend a week in two open prisons in Iceland. I wanted to understand them from the inside. I assumed the role of (quasi-)prisoner, lived the daily routine and spoke with anyone who was prepared to speak with me. All prisoners and staff knew in advance who I was, and in the small world of Iceland’s open prisons, I was extremely visible from the start. But then, so was almost everybody else.

So, how do you get started? Who do you get to know first? I have learned that it rather depends on who you are. I am a white Dutch male living in the UK, now in my early fifties. I discovered that I tended to speak with older prisoners first as if being of a similar age creates a bond. In many cases I got to know them better too. I met the younger prisoners frequently later and it took a bit more effort. I have wondered whether these younger prisoners, often in their twenties, spoke with me the way they would speak to a social worker or probation officer: friendly and engaging but never forgetting the ‘professional’ nature of the conversation and therefore possibly somewhat less eager. As a foreigner who spoke very little Icelandic, I also got to know many foreign national prisoners sooner and better than some Icelandic prisoners who I tended to engage with more subsequently. Age and nationality correlated, with older prisoners often being foreign nationals. With several prisoners I spoke lots of times, usually in the shape of brief upbeat chats, but I also had some in depth conversations that involved a great deal of self disclosure. They were mostly older and non-Icelandic.

Prior to starting the fieldwork I had worries about the extent to which it would ‘work’. Would I be ostracised? If I was too friendly with staff, would that create a distance from prisoners? If I was friendly with a prisoner who, for whatever reason was ‘unpopular’ would that affect how I would be treated by others? I needn’t have worried so much. Others have found that navigating prison authorities to do prison fieldwork to be much harder than engaging with prisoners. I also found, with very few exceptions, prisoners open and frank. They were not only happy to be interviewed, but also happy for me to share their lives and life histories, if only for a week.

During some of these shared activities indeed, almost made me forget where I was. Playing a game of snooker with a prisoner for example, walking over to two guys fixed a roof of a barn a couple of hundred meters away and sharing a laugh while they were up on the roof and I was on the floor, the prisoner who showed me his artwork, another who explained his professional skill. It is these unscripted interactions that I remember most. So first-day prison fieldwork was about timing, and, on reflection about knowing who you are and letting your own self be a guide in the process. That was a valuable lesson learned for the future.

Francis Pakes. Photo: Private.

Francis Pakes is a professor of criminology at the University of Portsmouth, UK. He has studied prisons and prison policy for twenty years including those of Iceland, Norway, the UK and his native the Netherlands. His book Comparative Criminal Justice (2019, Routledge) is its 4th edition. When not injured he is a keen runner, hiker and walker.

His Nordic Journal of Criminology article “Old-fashioned Nordic penal exceptionalism: the case of Iceland´s open Prisons” was nominated for the Best Article Prize 2020.