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Penal Subjectivities: Developing a Theoretical Framework for Penal Consciousness

NCJ Number
Punishment & Society Volume: 17 Issue: 1 Dated: January 2015 Pages: 114-136
Date Published
January 2015
23 pages

This article develops a new theoretical framework, penal consciousness, that examines the ways in which prisoners orient to and make meaning of their punishment.


Penal consciousness identifies the processes from which penality emerges by simultaneously privileging the subjective consciousness of individual prisoners and locating this consciousness within the structure of the larger carceral system. In doing so, the penal consciousness framework moves beyond the limited, objective view of punishment as legal sanction to a more expansive view of penality that privileges subjectivity and meaning. From the inductive analysis of 80 qualitative interviews with prisoners, two dimensions of punishment emerged as key to understanding penality: salience, and severity. Findings reveal that severity of punishment is predicated on the level of abstraction at which punishment is experienced, and salience of punishment is determined by the "punishment gap" between an individual's expectations and experiences of punishment. By examining punishment as the nexus between the objective and the subjective, the penal-consciousness framework conceives punishment, as it is understood by prisoners, to differ markedly from what is conceived of as punishment by lawmakers, but at the same time to be contingent upon it. This allows punishment to be examined in situ rather than in its ideal, articulated, or abstract forman important advancement from conventional understandings of punishment. (Publisher abstract modified)

Date Published: January 1, 2015