Law and culture in the juridical field of the prison: theoretical and empirical perspectives on the social uses of Law in prison

18 May to 19 May

Coordinators: André Giamberardino (Università Federal do Paranà), Francesca Vianello (Università degli Studi di Padova), Iñaki Rivera Beiras (Universitat de Barcelona), Luca Sterchele (University of Padova), Richard Sparks (University of Edinburgh)

Description of the meeting

Since the 19th century, the progressive affirmation of the prison as the main site for punishment has been accompanied by its legitimization focused on a “rehabilitative ideal”, which itself has contributed to frame prisons as paradigmatic sites of legality (Vianello, 2012). However, despite the progressive bureaucratization and rationalization of penal execution, the relationship between the prison moral and symbolic environment with legal norms remain uncertain (Mosconi, 2001). Prison is “saturated” of official norms (Benguigui et al, 1994), but this vast configuration of norms who is aimed to regulate and organize the institutional functioning clash with the localistic system of material conflict management and of the informal relationships that comes to be established between the confiners and the confined (Sarzotti, 2010; Salle and Chantraine, 2009). In view of these considerations, and following Carbonnier (1972), it is possible to glimpse the existence of an “infra-law” of prison practices, which leads to a possible “autonomy of the carceral” with respect to judicial power and any interference of the grammar of law. The reduced visibility of prison practices, together with the violence and power imbalance that frames the relationships between prison workers and inmates, leads to a continuous local reconfiguration of law’s meanings and uses.

This workshop is aimed at analyzing the social uses of law within what we may call, following Bourdieu (1987), the juridical field of the prison. In doing so, we want to consider how prison as a social institution has changed over the years, in a continuous tension between reforms and counter-reforms. Some research has been conducted to grasp the effects that different laws produced in the prison environment, but an international debate is strongly needed to consider more in depth the different ways in which law is grafted within prison’s moral and symbolic environment in each country. This will allow socio-legal scholars to consider the unpredictable (and sometimes ambivalent) effects that law may produce in changing prison practices.

In doing so, an extensive analysis on the professional cultures of different actors who work in prison should be done. The intersection between those and the local legal culture of the prison (Prina, 2018; cfr. Nelken, 2004) produces peculiar forms of adaptation, which are of crucial interest for researchers in Sociology of Law. As the first researchers interested in the prison community immediately sensed (cf. Sykes 1958), the prison regulations, the rules of execution, the internal regulations, the various circulars (in a word, the "positive" law of the penitentiary) play an important role in the daily reproduction of the internal order of the prison only to the extent that they define the parameters from which the bargaining and compromises, the tolerations and punishments that in fact constitute its everyday life can be defined. The order is in fact continually negotiated by the institution with the inmates themselves, who, even if they cannot be considered the bearers of a single normative code, soon end up internalizing a rather homogeneous set of norms and values that derive from the impact and permanence in the common prison environment.

According to the most attentive authors who are more familiar with the environment, a sort of "environmental culture" exist (Buffa 2013), which is capable of orienting the relationships between actors, composed of implicit messages and extremely consolidated subtexts: a culture that would be positioned above and beyond the normative framework conveyed by language, legitimizing "informal, irregular and finally illegal behaviors" (Manconi & Calderone 2011). Such a "culture", configurable to all intents and purposes as a habitus (cfr. Bourdieu 1986), necessarily correlates with the confused and the vague: it is nourished by the comparison with similar situations, continuously renewed in everyday life in prison, obeying a practical logic that maintains "this part of indetermination, of openness, of uncertainty, which makes us unable to rely completely on the habitus in critical, dangerous situations" (Bourdieu 1986).

Following these doubts about the effective possibilities for law to produce change within prison, some theoretical perspectives and practical experiments have tried to imagine alternative forms of punishment. In this sense goes the attempt to apply the so-called “alternative measures”, which, however, seem to have produced in many countries a "net widening" effect on the field of criminal control (see Cohen, 1985). Restorative justice has made a further important blow to the predominance of the prison as the central site of criminal execution, and abolitionist perspectives have for years been proposing a total dismantling of the penitentiary institution as it has been for other institutions of confinement in some countries (see the case of mental hospitals with Franco Basaglia, 1968).

The workshop aims to address these topics, adopting an international socio-legal perspective which could be of great value both in the advancement of socio-legal knowledge concerning the distance between “law in books” and “law in action”; and for a rethinking of some forms of legal support and guarantee in the prison system. Comparison and discussion between scholars from different European and non-European countries could allow to grasp sociological similarities about the effects of law when it is inserted into the prison’s organizational, moral and symbolic framework. We would like to take this opportunity to make those steps further, and to show and reaffirm the centrality that a peculiar context such as the penitentiary can hold for the sociological study of law as a whole.

To do this, the following lines of interest will be addressed:

  • Representations and narratives about law in prison;
  • The effects of laws on the concrete everyday life of the prison;
  • Prisoners’ rights and guarantees in the prison system;
  • Social uses of law within prison;
  • Relationships between juridical actors and other experts;
  • Prison legitimacy and abolitionist perspectives;
  • Legal culture and prisons.


Our experience in Oñati

Organising a workshop at IISL together with some international colleagues was a very exciting experience that I would repeat as soon as possible. The helpfulness and precision of the institute's managers in supporting us in every step of the work was crucial in making the whole process sustainable and in ensuring an excellent result. The institute, and the city of Oñati in general, proved to be places that significantly and profoundly stimulate debate among colleagues, enabling the definition of shared work and research perspectives among all participants. In this sense, the possibility of proposing the publication of the papers discussed during the workshop in Oñati Socio Legal Series or in a collective book are proving to be excellent resources to continue the work begun during the workshop and then, who knows, to resume it in a few years, hopefully again in Oñati.

For more information: 

Workshop Coordination Team

Avenida de la Universidad, 8
Apartado 28
20560 Oñati (Gipuzkoa) - Spain
T: +34 943 78... Ver teléfono