Encountering the C Wing

The Relationship Between Prisoner Self-Governance and “Pains of Imprisonment’’

  • Marlies Talay Solitary Watch, New York City Criminal Justice Agency, US
  • Brunilda Pali KU Leuven, Belgium


Since Gresham Sykes completed his influential work documenting what he termed the “pains of imprisonment”, criminologists and sociologists have sought to study the prison as an institution and the effects it has on the people who are confined in it. Researchers have also studied prisons in different geopolitical contexts in order to understand the varied effects that diverse types of prison governance may have. Especially important has been understanding the impact on the “pains of imprisonment” of an emerging trend in prison governance, called prisoner self-governance, which is essentially the encouraged or mandated participation of prisoners in decision-making, or else a greater degree of prisoner autonomy within the prison. Research has generally shown that the relationship between prisoner self-governance and the “pains of imprisonment” is complicated, suggesting that self-governance may alleviate “pains of imprisonment” while at the same time creating new pains. To better understand this relationship, and especially to understand it from the point of view of prisoners who undergo such governance regimes first-hand, we conducted ethnographic research in an “open wing” of a Belgian prison over a period of eight months. Our research showed that the freedoms that the “open wing” offers do partially mitigate the “pains of imprisonment” identified by Sykes over 50 years ago. Additionally, our findings highlight the deprivation of community as a potential “pain of imprisonment” not listed by Sykes and subsequent prison literature. Finally, our research supports more recent research that has suggested that the freedoms enabled in open prison regimes may cause additional pains – also known as “pains of freedom”.