“Come to my office at midday”, Prof Christie replied in response to a message seeking an appointment with him during my visit to Oslo on 30 May. He went on: “my office is very centrally located but often, idiotically enough, blocked by locked doors – you will need help to get in”.
At 12 noon on the 30th I did get in, with help from some very friendly students who used their swipe cards to open various locked doors. However of Prof Christie there was no sign; after waiting for quarter of an hour I decided to leave but left my card with one of his colleagues.
As I finished another meeting later in the afternoon I noticed a message on my blackberry sent from London: please call Prof Christie, he was sorry to have missed you and would like to see if the meeting can be rearranged. So I call him and we agree to meet one hour later.
I go through the same complex procedure of getting into the University through locked doors and go up to his office again; this time he is there to greet me all smiles and apologies. “When I said midday I did not realise you would interpret that as being 12, I meant after 1 pm” he said; and “Look, even though this is supposed to be an open university, we have to sit behind locked doors; we have complained many times but no one takes any notice”.
We sit down in his book lined office (mostly all his own publications, thirty plus books written in Norwegian and English and published in both languages, as well as in many others – German, Russian, Japanese, Spanish, to name a few) and as he begins to speak I start to gain some insights into the humanity, the passion, the learning and the intelligence, as well as the modesty, which go into the making of one of the world’s leading criminologists.
Prof Christie’s work was an inspiration behind the founding of PRI; in addition he is a close friend of several of the founders of the organisation. His ground breaking works, which helped shape both policy and practice for penal reform worldwide, include “Crime Control as Industry” now in a 2nd edition, and “Limits to Pain: the role of punishment in penal policy” recently re-issued with a foreword by Howard Zehr (himself one of the founders of the movement for restorative justice based approaches to crime and punishment).
Prof Christie’s early work was a study of the role of Norwegian guards in Norwegian concentration camps responsible for killing hundreds of Yugoslav partisans who had been transported to Norway by the Nazis. He interviewed many guards, those in prison for having killed and those outside after serving shorter sentences for aiding and abetting.
Through these interviews and also through contact with some Yugoslavs who survived the concentration camps, he came up with his theory of categorisation.- where individuals are reduced to particular categories (thieve, murderer, rapist etc) and not seen as human beings; thus deprived of their innate humanity it becomes easier for those given the task of command and control to punish, torture and kill. A short version of this thesis has been published as “Seeing the Other”, a copy of which he gave me – it’s worth reading for the style, the humanity and the range of ideas relevant to current penal reform work.
Prof Christie talked of a number of his ideas which have slowly taken root in practice, two in particular which would be relevant for PRI’s current work are;
- The idea that social services for rehabilitation purposes should be provided inside the prison rather than waiting for the prisoner to come out – this is now being done in Norway;
- Professional services delivered inside prisons should be linked with professional services outside and not controlled by the prison authority; for example doctors working with prisoners should be part of a national health service and not be a stand-alone medical unit within the prison department; similarly teachers working with prisoners should be linked to the national education system; again this is now happening in Norway and could be replicated elsewhere.
The hour spent with Prof Christie was indeed very inspiring and thought provoking. He is now 85 and still does a full day’s work writing, editing and lecturing. Health permitting, he hopes to be in Oxford in October at a Howard League sponsored conference; if he does make it, it will be worth while attending the conference just to hear him speak. We may not agree with everything he says but his ideas are compelling and deserve to be widely known, heard and discussed.