“We cannot build up a system of sanction on supposed danger, in my view.”

Nils Christie.


Nils Christie, Norwegian sociologist and criminologist, died Wednesday May 27th at the age of 87.

Christie’s great achievement was to detach discussion of prisons solely from discussions of crime and to afix them firmly to conversation about economic inequality and the definitions of behaviour we attach hastily to those outside of our social class.

Christie ushered in the modern prison abolition movement. Activist group Critical Resistance writes:

“Christie challenged the accepted notions of crime and the legitimacy of imprisonment throughout his career. Along with Thomas Mathiesen and Louk Hulsman, Christie was at the forefront of a tendency of European social scientists that pushed prison abolition into mainstream conversation.”

In this very accessible Q&A, Christie explains that someone stealing money or threatening violence inside or outside the family is an unwanted act in both cases, but only in the latter is it defined as “crime” and therefore more likely to be dealt with courts. Transgression has other “solutions” and responses than prosecution. Judicial systems have to be more than merely punishment.

At different times, Churchill, Mandela and Dostoyevsky encouraged scrutiny of a society’s prisons in order to understand a society itself. Christie asked us to go further and scrutinise the level of pain — psychological, physical, medical — induced by a society’s systems of crime control and punishment in order to understand a society’s character. What level of widespread revenge and hurt are American prisons willing to enact under the auspices of “justice”?

Christie’s seminal book Limits To Pain was the most rounded delivery of his ideas. It was translated into 11 languages. You can read it in full online here.


Christie was able to stave off, somewhat, the drive toward punitive sentencing and warehousing in his home nation Norway. He and other thinkers in the social sciences had a place at the table.

Unfortunately, the U.S. prison boom was driven by politicians’ fear of losing votes, guards’ fear of losing jobs, and the public’s fear of the ever-present, media-manufactured predator. The Prison Industrial Complex emerged as a result. Christie describes this money-driven brand of American exceptionalism:

It is quite a fantastic situation when those who administer the pain-delivery in our society have such a great say. It’s as if the hangman’s association got together to work for more hanging. We might feel a bit uneasy about this. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a trend in the military industry to turn to law-and-order production. There has been a series of meetings between defence contractors and penal authorities. The US Secretary of Defence addressed them saying: ‘You won the war abroad, now help us win the war at home.’ It is the electronics industry that is most heavily involved wiring prisons, producing electronic bracelets, electric monitoring both inside and outside prisons. It involves lots of industries – construction, food-catering, even telephone companies. The journal of the American Corrections Association is filled with ads to tap this billion-dollar market.

Rest in peace, Nils.