A selfish society holds the keys to our prisons

There are relatively few people in jail in Ireland by comparison to Britain or the US. But our new-found wealth may see that change, respected criminologist Nils Christie warns. John Byrne reports

As a student, Nils Christie took part in a study of Norwegians who had tortured and killed prisoners under Hitler's "Nacht und Nebel" programme during the Second World War. Under this, trouble-makers and members of resistance movements in occupied countries were taken to camps in other Nazi-controlled states where many were killed.

"He sent Yugoslavs to Norway – several thousand of them", says Christie. "In the north of Norway the camps were under the command of the German SS officers, but Norwegians were placed there as ordinary guards also. Between 1942 and 1943, some 70 per cent of the prisoners there died. Killed, starved or tortured to death.

"Fifty Norwegians were sentenced after the War for this terrible behaviour. The prosecutor asked, 'How could this happen?' We could all understand how Germans could do this – that was no problem. But Norwegians?

"I never asked the guards why they did it, but I asked them 'What kind of people were these Yugoslavians? And it became very clear that the group of torturers had a very distant relationship to the prisoners."

According to Christie, the guards viewed their prisoners as little more than beasts.

"[The prisoners] didn't remove their trousers when they went to the toilet because they knew they would be killed. And since they were so hungry they had diarrhoea all the time. You can imagine what kind of ill-looking persons were walking along the roads. The diarrhoea, the lack of food and sleep – they looked awful, they smelled terrible. 'Maybe the German officers were right, maybe these were dangerous animals from the Balkans coming here' is what you might have thought if you saw them. This discovery had a very major effect on me."

Speaking at the annual lecture of the Irish Penal Reform Trust in Dublin, Christie is one of Europe's best-known crinimologists. Sometimes described as a radical, he has written a number of highly rated books, including Crime Control as Industry: Towards Gulags Western Style, Limits to Pain and A Suitable Amount of Crime. Although the Norwegian's work covers all aspects of criminology, much of his best-known material relates to the world-wide boom in incarceration, why it is occuring, and how it can be stopped.

"Eighty-five prisoners per 100,000 is a very low figure comparatively" he says of Ireland's rate of incarceration. "Ours is a little bit lower in Scandanavia, but not much. Your figure is extraordinary when compared to England and Wales – they have some 145 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants. And in the rest of Western Europe, the figure fluctuates around the 100 mark.

"The figures from the two leading incarcerators in the east – that is Russia and Belarus – are both up to some 530 at present. But the top incarcerator is the United States. Their figures have increased yet further to some 760 prisoners per 100,000. Again, very high when compared to your 85."

Although he thinks that Ireland should be reasonably happy with these figures, Ireland's increasing wealth may have a detrimental effect on them, as has happened in his home country.

"There has been an increase in crime in Norway – an explosion, some people call it. But what has also exploded is wealth. The affluence in my country is unbelievable. My guess is that the growth in my own country putting pressure on our penal apparatus is linked to the growth in wealth.

"I think it is related to the dominance of market-thinking, money as the standard as what is good in life. Capital is what it is all about. And the question of social capital – is it possible to retain the notion of social capital when so much emphasis is placed on monetary capital?

"When societies become afluent and civilised, they also become selfish, he says. He uses the example of the Norwegian response to the South East Asian tsunami to highlight this.

"The tsunami had a very big effect in Norway. Similar-sized disasters have happened in Africa, but a lot of Scandinavians go to South East Asia for recreational purposes. The whole country was tremendously upset. The prime minister declared on the one of the first days that perhaps 1,000 Norwegians had been killed.

"The reaction was very, very interesting. Suddenly, Norway was completley changed. There was so much sorrow, and so much preparation done to help those 1,000 families. The whole country was united. There was training done in the workplace for how to deal with survivors who were on their way home. An enormous stream of giving was exposed, with so much money given to the victims of the catastrophe.

"But it wasn't 1,000 people that had been killed. The figure went down to 500, and then maybe 200. And in the end, maybe less than 100 people were killed. And what amazed me was the aggression towards those who had delivered the figures. There was a kind of disappointment. Something happened – the communal spirit was gone. And there was great anger towards the messengers. The catastrophe had gone."

Summing up, he says that "our system of beliefs and our penal system will come under increasing pressure if we continue with all these conditions that seem to be necessary to further economic growth. They seem to be a type that needs you to forget your neighbours, and if you have enough money you don't need your neighbours. That is a very unhealthy system from a social control point of view.

"My fear for my own country – but also for your country – is that the pressure will be enormous and we will leave the police and the penal system to take care of the needs of our society.

"My answer is that I really want a new big wave, one that will wash away all the new-found wealth. We need to stop the growth of the number of people in our prison system. When is enough crime enough?"