Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Lithuania: The ESC Conference

Me & My Poster @ European Society of Criminology Conference
Those of you who follow my blog closely (Hi Mom!) may notice that my posting on visits to Lithuania prisons has not yet been realized.  Honestly, everything I felt, saw, heard and smelled in these prisons is still swirling around in my head.  The images have creeped into my dreams.  I just need a little more time to think about it.  Not stalling, just processing.

Questions about prisons, prison life and what prison means to both people who are incarcerated, and society at large, were central at the Annual Conference of the European Society of Criminology.  Europeans are less inclined to criminalize deviance - there are lots of administrative infractions that carry fines - and then, less inclined to incarcerate those who are convicted of crimes.  Lots of community supervision, probation, early release, etc.   So it ends up being fewer people for shorter sentences, but still people are incarcerated in all of these countries.  Prison, it seems, is a universal phenomenon.

It was interesting to talk with people about how food is distributed, prepared and consumed in prisons in their countries.  The "Most Different From the US" Award goes - probably not surprisingly - to Denmark and Holland.  In these countries, and perhaps in other Northern European countries as well, they take the position that incarcerated people should take care of themselves.  In terms of food, this means that it would be paternalistic to cater to prisoners with prepared meals - they have to cook for themselves.  Hmmm....teaching people skills they can use on the outside, making them responsible for their own lives, treating them like grown-ups...there's a concept!

I spoke to one woman from Denmark in detail about how this works.  At the prison where she did over 1,000 hours of ethnographic work, prisoners lived in groups of 20 with their own sleeping area, common room and kitchen.  At lunch they get some kind of food packet that can be warmed up in the microwave in the kitchen.  From 4:00 to 6:00 every day, the prison store is opened.  Prisoners go there to buy their food.  They each receive food coupons from the prison to cover the cost of basic food supplies.  They can supplement these purchases with money they have received through work or from home.  In the store, they sell meat, eggs, vegetables, pasta, rice, etc.  People buy what they want then go back to the dorm to cook it themselves.  Do their own dishes.  Sometimes they cook in groups, sometimes they cook alone.  According to this woman, what the prisoners are going to buy at the store and what and how and with whom they are going to cook is a major topic of conversation.  Field trip to Denmark, anyone??

By the way, in Denmark they have knives in the kitchen that can be used to prepare and eat the food.  The knives used to be stored freely there, but management got worried that the knives might be used for other non-cooking activities, so they secured them with a cord to the counter.  The woman I spoke to was not aware of violent knife incidents before the utensils were secured, but now that they are tied down apparently there have been several accidents as it is hard to cut food with a knife that is tied to the counter...

In other news, my poster was well received.  I want to first of all give a shout out to Professor Purrington of Biology at Swarthmore College.  His website on how to create an effective poster for conferences is funny and concise and was very helpful to me and much appreciated.  Through the poster, I connected with people from England, Germany, Spain, Holland, Denmark and Belgium.  It was interesting to hear their food stories and talk, more generally, about prison and the incarceration of women in their countries.  One professor from Belgium is actually in the process of developing a similar food study in her country, which was very Joseph Campbell.  The same stories are being told in all the corners of the earth. 

To check out my poster, with preliminary findings from my dissertation (!), click here.