Hva er Krom

Hva er KROM

ABOUT KROM – Past – Present – Future

Thomas Mathiesen
January 2000


In the past as well as today, there has been a considerable international interest in the development and activities of KROM – The Norwegian Association for Penal Reform, a non-governmental political organization and pressure group in the area of penal policy. Through the years, several publications relating KROM’s work have been published in English, German and other languages (for publications in English, see Mathiesen 1974 a, 1974 b).

The present paper gives an updated version of the development and activities, as well as some of the tactical and strategic concerns and ideas, of the organization. The paper should be read with an important qualification in mind: if an organization of this kind is established elsewhere, it should be developed with a view towards, and in line with, the local national culture and society. In other words, KROM should certainly not be taken as an ideal model to be replicated in other countries.

KROM builds on a Norwegian context. Other contexts may differ. But KROM may contain some ideas which may be inspiring and useful – about what to do as well as about what not to do – also for people working in a non-Norwegian contexts. About the author: Thomas Mathiesen is professor of sociology of law at the University of Oslo. He was the first chairman of KROM, and has throughout its history been an active participating member of the organization.


The late 1960s was a turbulent political period.
The United States was in the middle of a long-drawn war in Vietnam. Protests were mounting against the war. The protests reached far beyond the United States, for example to Europe, and to Scandinavia as the northernmost part of our peninsula.
Because of the war, and for other reasons which go beyond the scope of this paper, generalized political protests against established institutional arrangements were mounting in various parts of society, including the universities. This was the time of the student revolts. The protests were, of course, distinctly leftist. Whereas today the Left tries to defend existing welfare state arrangements as best it can, the so-called welfare state was at that time under offensive attack – for the clientizations and marginalization of significant parts of the population. And the prisons were under attack.

This was the context of the development of the Scandinavian prison movements – called KRUM in Sweden (established in 1966) KRIM in Denmark (established in 1967) and KROM in Norway (established in 1968). There were also similar developments in Finland. The context was one of political enthusiasm and optimistic belief in the future. The Swedish organization no longer exists (for several interesting reasons, from which we actually may learn a great deal, it ceized to exist towards the end of the 1970s, see Mathiesen 1992), but started it all with a major national meeting in 1966, called «The Parliament of Thieves». At «The Parliament of Thieves», prisoners and ex-prisoners for the first time in Scandinavian (and perhaps international) history in large numbers and openly told the audience and the press what prison was like.

I took part in the development of Norwegian KROM, and remember well the optimism. In 1969 I once flew over England and parts of the continent on my way from London to Strasbourg. It was the time when the planes still flew fairly low, so you could see something. And gazing out over the European landscape, I remember I was pondering what I at the time thought was a fact – that I, in my life time, would experience a society without prisons, or at least virtually without prisons.

We know now that things developed differently. The meeting of the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control in Hamburg in 1985 was devoted to the worrying increase in prison figures which then was in the making. The development was reported in Rolston and Thomlinson´s book in 1986 (Rolston and Thomlinson 1986). In 1990, when I wrote the first version of the present paper, the development was more than worrying, and I characterized it in the following words: «We can look back and ascertain that prisons are thriving more than ever, and that in the Western world prison figures are – with a few exceptions – mounting to unprecedented heigths». Today, toward the year 2000, this is more the case than ever, as was documented at an international conference i the mid 1990s in Oslo organized by Nils Christie, as well as in his recent book (Christie 1994). Through the 1980s, West Germany was one of the few large Western countries which saw a marked decrease in prison figures (Finland was a small country which in fact saw a decrease), and West Germany was looked upon as a case showing that increase was not inevitable. According to figures recently presented by the German law professor Johannes Feest, the figures of (earlier) West Germany are once more increasing. We also know that the mounting figures cannot be explained by increasing crime rates, but must be explained by a complex of factors including the anxiety level of society, the criminalization of new groups (such as, in my country, drug-related offences) and the increasing use of longer sentences for important groups (such as, again in my country, drug-related offences).

The explosive development of prison systems throughout the Western world is often taken to signify the uselessness of prison protests and struggles. Is it not like spitting against the wind?

I go strongly against such a signification. Would the conclusion of uselessness of protest and struggle against fascism have been sensible during the major period of fascist growth in the earlier part of the 1900s (or for that matter today)? Would the conclusion of uselessness of protest and struggle against the threat of atomic war have been sensible during the major period of escalation of nuclear arms?

I think it is important to stress the psychology or definition of the situation saying that when problems are escalating, there is more reason than ever to protest. I believe that the emphasis on this definition of the situation partly explains why Norwegian KROM have survived the 1980s and 1990s, despite the fact that the both decades have been politically rather dark, in Norway and elsewhere. In view of the fact that so many independent non-government political organizations from the late 1960s have disappeared, KROM’s survival actually represents an interesting case. I will touch on other partial explanations for it in later parts of the paper.

Let me now move on to provide a brief history of KROM, a brief account of the organization’s activities today, and a few remarks on the question of strategies as we are entering the 2000s – which may well differ from those of the 1960s and 1970s.


As mentioned already, KROM was founded in 1968. Four major ideas, or sets of ideas, guided its early development.

Four sets of ideas:

Firstly, there was a pent-up dissatisfaction, and a wish to do something with «the prison situation», among a number of intellectuals and socially oriented practitioners in Norway, such as social scientists, lawyers, some authors, and quite a few social workers. The feeling was that prisons were inhumane, and did not work according to plan.

Secondly, the notion of involving the grass roots, that is, the prisoners themselves, in political action, was central. The prisoners were to be brought into the organization as active participants. In this respect, KROM was a child of its time. The importance of involving the grass roots in political work was generally widespread and strong. But the involvement of prisoners was certainly a novelty, and caused great alarm and major writeups in the mass media at the time.

Thirdly, there was a strong emphasis on the abolition of prisons. This emphasis was not there in the very beginning. At the very beginning KROM emphasized prison reform with a change towards treatment. But this was, to repeat, 1968, and the treatment ideology in the penal context was moving rapidly towards its end. And KROM changed accordingly, emphasizing abolition instead. This also, I might add, created alarm and sensation in the mass media of the time.

I think it is fair to add also a fourth idea or set of ideas. Those of us who worked in KROM at the time, viewed political work as a learning experience, and felt that the learning experience was a part of the goal itself. Certainly, more substantial goals were also emphasized, and I will return to them shortly. But the notion of a learning experience as part of the goal was important. For one thing, it made even mistakes and set-backs – of which there were certainly many in the early phase – important and useful. Mistakes and set-backs were not wasted time, but something to scrutinize and use. For another, the notion made us patient. When mistakes and set-backs were not wasted time, it became possible to take the time to go through the mistakes and set-backs. For a third, it made us conceptualize and view political work of this kind as unfinished business. The notion of an unfinished movement became important, so important that I sat down and wrote a book about it, which I called, in its Norwegian version, The Unfinished (Mathiesen Eng. edition 1974 a). Finally, it made it possible for some of us – those of us who were researchers – to define our engagement in the organization as «action research», and to see it as a part of our research activity during «working hours». Let me emphasize that the concept and idea of action research was taken very seriously. We systematized our learning experiences, sifted principles of strategy and tactics from them, and published them in article- or book form. To some of us, participation in KROM is still action research, in that it provides indispensible documentation of a wide range of practices and policies in penal policy as well as a continual learning experience concerning principles of political action.

Viewed from the position of 2000, how did these four ideas or sets of ideas fare through the decades?


The pent-up dissatisfaction and wish to «do something» with prisons remained a driving force through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Without it – and with, let us say, a bureaucratic party affiliation leading to the notion that the party «needed» criminal policy as part of its platform (from the start, KROM emphasized independence of political parties) – I think KROM would have died in the 1980s. Anger and consternation are in a sense «simple» feelings, but of vital importance, as a human base, to an organization where most of the participants have a full time working day and have to use their leisure time for political work, and to an organization which receives no state support, and lives almost only on membership fees and a few public grants for special arrangements.

The Grass Roots

The notion of involving the grass roots, the prisoners themselves, in the organization, has remained an important feature all through. But the success of involving those roots has varied. During all of the first years, we had great difficulties, not because of lack of interest among inmates, but because of the closed character of the prison system. A number of attempts were made by the prison system to curtail communication with inmates (see Mathiesen 1974 a). Inmate attendance at outside meetings and conferences was unheard of. In those contexts, ex-inmates to a large extent did the job. Towards the end of the 1980s and in the 1990s, however, inmate participation increased very significantly. Today, inmates regularly get short term leaves to participate at board meetings and evening seminars, and at our annual conferences (which I will return to below).

Inmate membership in the organization has also varied. At some points in time, we have had up to 90 % of the prisoners in our main long-term prisons as members. At other times we have had far fewer. Today, the organization has a total of about 500 members, 20 % of whom are inmates or ex-inmates.

During the 1970s, Norwegian prisoners in the main prisons frequently went on strike, demanding better payment (though the Prison Act requires that inmates work, they do not receive wages), better visiting conditions, more liberal censorship of mail, acknowledgement (in 1972) of a prisoners’ organization behind the walls, and the like. Between 1970 and 1975, six major strikes took place in Norway’s main prison for long-term offenders, Ullersmo, which takes about 250 prisoners. (In Sweden, major hunger strikes on a nationwide basis involving several thousand prisoners took place in 1970/71.) Invariably, the strikes were peaceful reactions – work strikes – to prison conditions. Just as invariably, KROM supported the peaceful strikes and the demands, arguing, i.a., that the strikes showed how inmate resources and initiatives may be channelled into constructive political activity. Again invariably, the reaction of the prison administration was totally negative: Demands were consistently refused and inmates were frequently punished by long-term isolation. During the 1980s there were fewer strikes, but a peaceful one-day work strike, again supported from the outside by KROM, took place at Ullersmo in 1992, i.a. concentrating on the payment system. Again, the reaction of the prison was entirely negative, and all demands were refused. But in a long-term perspective, the strikes and the demands seem to have had an effect. Payment, visiting arrangements and censorship of mail have been somewhat improved through the years (though a major set back in these respects occurred in 1988, when new and very restrictive rules were introduced following i.a. a sensational but entirely harmless escape from a prison, and though the mounting drug controls in the prisons have created a new and highly destructive atmosphere in the prisons). Also, the prison system today is, as mentioned already, more open to organized political activity on the part of inmates in KROM.

There have, of course, been conflicts between the prisoner- and the non-prisoner sides in KROM, for example within its board. With one or two exceptions, the conflicts have not concerned concrete issues. Rather, they have been more generalized conflicts over «academism» in KROM. But I think we have managed to handle the conflicts reasonably well, and the fact that the organization has never experienced a split, is perhaps a sign of that. Two features of our conflict management may be mentioned. For one thing, alongside KROM there exists another organization which only has «punished people» as members (SON – Straffedes Organisasjon i Norge). During the 1980s, the existence of the latter organization was important to KROM. In addition to being a pressure group, this organization – which for a period received state support in the form of salaries provided for rehabilitation purposes – worked in a more practical way with released prisoners, whereas KROM from the start defined itself merely as a political organization. Especially in the earlier days (interestingly, less so today), inmates often demanded KROM´s engagement in practical rehabilitation work for inmates. The existence of the other organization, and the «division of labour» between the two, to some extent met the demand for concrete help, and made it possible for KROM to remain political. In earlier years, before the prison system granted current inmates leaves to participate as board members in KROM, ex-inmates in SON served that function, which also reduced conflict.

Secondly and in a more generalized way, when conflicts have appeared in KROM, we have – with one major recent exception – been able to use «soft conflict resolution», with an emphasis on compromise. The main exception concerned the financing and profile of the organization´s newsletter. The conflict raised important questions of principle: Quite a few inmates wanted to find private money and personnel for a much more visible and high-profile journal, emphasizing the urgent need for such a journal in the Norwegian public debate. To many inmates, the low-profile newsletter or journal symbolized a lack of drive and initiative in the organization. On the other hand, some inmates, and many non-inmate members, wanted to keep the less expensive, simple kind of newsletter, arguing that professionalization rather than grass roots participation would follow if the other model were followed, and that the allocation of the organization’s resources into one large project would be dangerous. Both views were well argued. The conflict was finally settled by vote, in favour of the latter view, at a large membership meeting in the early 1990s. But, to repeat, this conflict was an exception. In board meeting discussions, «soft conflict resolution» has been standard practice. In many cases, inmates have had an informal «veto right». Issues have rarely come up to a formal vote. This has also made us avoid splits.

In fact, during that last few years the question of conflicts has not been important in KROM. The discussions have been based on broad consensus. In general, having a non-prisoner and a prisoner side in the organization has proved extremely fruitful. It has widened our experience base, and has made it possible for us to attack the adversary from «two sides» at meetings, in newspaper articles and the like.


What about the abolitionist approach? The 1970s saw major abolitions of parts of the Norwegian penal system. Criminalization and long-term forced labour of alcoholic vagrants was abolished in 1970. This led to a substantial decrease in the prison population: Of the country’s about 2000 prisoners at the time (today we have about 2500 prisoners), about 250 or almost 13% were let out. The youth prison system was abolished in 1975. The background of these abolitions was complex, with many people and organizations participating, and they were a reflection of the political climate at the time. But KROM was clearly instrumental in focusing sharp attention on the systems in question through rallies, meetings, and newspaper write-ups, and in channeling critique. KROM concentrated heavily on these issues at the time. In addition, preventive detention, though not abolished, was for a long while greatly contracted in terms of use. And KROM made a special point of arguing that abolitions should not wait until «alternatives» were in hand, because alternatives would be extremely slow in coming without prior abolitions, and because they would tend to resemble the systems under critique.

The 1980s and especially the 1990s have obviously not been the time for abolitions. Rather, KROM’s aim has been to avoid or at least reduce further expansion of the penal system. Today, the pressure on the penal system is great in Norway as in most other European countries. Therefore, KROM’s task is now much more defensive than it was in the 1970s, the point being to avoid, or at least slow down, the ongoing increase rather than foster abolition.

Admittedly, the abolitionist goal has been changed into a vision or ideal. But history shows that visions are not necessarily unimportant.

Political Work as a «Process»

What, finally, about the definition of political work as a «process», as an unfinished learning experience, where the struggle itself is a part of the goal? It must be admitted that it has had its difficulties. In political work, there is a strong demand for visible results. There were, as I have mentioned, visible results in the penal policy area in the 1970s, but far fewer later on. And from the point of view of inmates, the definition of political work as «a learning experience» could easily be viewed as cynical.

Yet, I think the definition has survived. Because of the nature of the area of penal policy, visible results are today extremely scarce. This is clear to everyone. For that reason, the definition of the political task as a learning experience, where the struggle is a part of the goal, has taken on a new meaning: Because of the times, it is all the more important to keep the debate over penal policy, and the questions about penal policy, alive. Metaphorically, in the area of penal policy today the ice is closing in, threatening the channel in the ice to disappear. If the channel disappears, and there is only ice, it will be extremely difficult to reopen the channel. If this happens, the debate over penal policy will become truly one-dimensional. KROM´s task in Norway is to prevent the ice from closing further in, to keep the channel in the ice intact and if possible broaden it, meaning by this to keep the critical discussion over penal issues going. In today´s political situation, this is an extremely important task in itself.

Now, in 2000, the political climate is stiffening even more. An ultra-right party, demanding stiffer sentences and more closed institutions, has become the third largest party in the country. The party, which also is distinctly populist, actively uses crime and criminal policy (and ethnicity, in connection with crime) as an area for winning votes. Other parties are following suit, so that he political climate is continually becoming more difficult from a reformist point of view. Within the context of this climate, however, KROM sees it as all the more important to continue its work.

Activities Today

The level of activity in KROM has certainly varied over the years. The late 1960s and good parts of the 1970s were periods of great activity, involving a fairly large number of people. The level of activity in the 1980s was clearly lower. At times, very few people were active. I think this was related to the level of political participation in general in Norwegian society, which went down.

But there has always been some activity, which is of crucial importance. There has always been someone who has been doing something. And some people have been active for a very long time. These features, in addition to a certain patience during periods of relative inactivity or latency, have kept a kind of continuity in the organization and helped it survive.

Let me single out some of the activities in KROM today.

Three-day Conferences

In the first place, of primary importance are our three-day conferences in penal policy. They take place once a year. Between 1968 and 2000, there have been organized about 30 such conferences. Their continuity is important: In the public space concerned with penal policy, the conferences have become an «institution» – in a positive sense of the word. With a few exceptions, the conferences have also been held at the same place – a particular mountain resort, and in the same month of the year – today in early January (during the earlier years in September). This has also helped to «institutionalize» the conferences, again in a positive sense of the word. The «Synnseter Conference», as it is called among the interested public, has become a concept.

At the conferences, general themes of central importance to penal policy are taken up. The conferences have regularly had between 100 and 200 participants. For Norway, these are large figures. The participants come from a very wide range of institutions and professions related to penal policy – social workers, lawyers, social scientists, members of various interested organizations, as well as people from the Ministry of Justice and the prison system. In the early years, the Ministry openly refused to participate, a fact which was severely criticized in the newspapers. Today they come as a matter of course. In addition, a fairly large number of prisoners today receive furloughs to participate. At least 15% of the participants are regularly inmates. The debates are hot, and are meant to be hot. The mix of people and professions, and the meeting and clash between top and bottom in the prison system, make the conferences unique in the Norwegian setting, and perhaps internationally. Many participants seem to feel that the conferences «re-charge their critical batteries». This is an important goal in itself.


So much about the large conferences. Secondly, during the 1970s and 1980s, KROM organized a large number of public meetings, especially in the capital city of Oslo. In the 1970s, in the wake of turbulent late 60s, the meetings were very large, regularly with 300-400 participants. We called them «teach-ins». During the 1980s the public meetings became smaller, in line with the general political development. In the 1990s we relied more on fairly large evening seminars. Today, we usually organize three or four seminars each semester, with 30 to 60 participants, many of whom are inmates on short-term evening leaves. Again, we consider continuity of the seminars important. The seminars will usually be on concrete topics – the situation of foreign prisoners, the situation of mentally disturbed prisoners, drug controls in the prisons, mothers in prison, and so on.

Regularly, people from the Ministry or other relevant authorities are asked to come to present their policy in the particular case, whereupon they are questioned by the inmates and other participants. The authorities present frequently have to defend themselves as best they can, and the sessions often demask effectively the policies of the prison system. Nevertheless, the authorities usually continue to come if they are asked, which – together with their participation at the large yearly conferences – probably signifies that KROM has acquired a certain status in the area. To refrain from participation would imply a lack of courage.

Recently, we have once again begun to organize very large evening meetings, but we have done so in a new way: Rather than doing it alone, KROM has entered cooperative relationships with a broad scale of other organizations. Thus, in 1999 some ten small and large organizations (among them a social workers´ organization, two critical lawyers´ organizations and an organization for relatives of prisoners) organized two large meetings with several hundred people attending on the issues «Moral panics or a dignified criminal policy?» and «Criminal policy during election times». Quite consciously, we concentrated on issues on which we agreed rather than issues which would divide us. The response was veery great.


Thirdly, KROM publishes a newsletter, KROM-NEWS. We call it a journal. It started coming out in the 1970s, but then disappared. In the 1990s it was revived, especially by the prisoners who at that time participated in KROM, and published articles by inmates and critical professionals, reports on current concrete issues, book reviews, and the like. A main informal guide line for the newsletter or journal was that of demasking and documenting concrete practices and activities in the prisons – the drug controls which are used, the treatment of foreigners in our prisons, the use of pre-trial detention, and so on. In the editorial management, there was close cooperation between inmates and non-inmates. This is an activity in which the contribution of inmates, some of whom are well versed in computer technology and lay-out while at the same time having a fair amount of free time behind the walls, is close to indispensable. Some of them are also extremely good writers.

The newsletter is usually printed in about 1200 copies, on the simplest possible paper, and distributed free of charge to members and to a wide range of other interested individuals, institutions and agencies throughout Scandinavia. It lives on a shoe-string budget. Partly for idealistic reasons, a number of interested attorneys advertise their services in the newsletter, which provides an additional small but important source of income for the newsletter. But without the computer work and lay-out abilities and expertise of the inmates, it would obviously have been impossible to publish it. Their contribution is of crucial importance.

In large parts of the 1990s, we managed to publish four issues per year. Towards the end of the 1990s, and in 2000, only one or two issues per year have been published, due to a lack of funds. In other words, it goes up and down, whch is only to be expected. With slightly more funds, and with the unpaid labour of inmates and academics, we would be able to publish three or four issues per year.

Newspaper articles

Fourthly, some KROM-members try, as often as possible, to write newspaper articles. This is difficult work due to the fundamental changes in the media situation of Norway (as of other countries) which have taken place during the past few decades. Television has expanded enormously, in terms of viewing time and, during the past decade in Norway, in terms of number of channels. As a parallel, television has increasingly become an entertainment business. The American television analyst Neil Postman knew what he was doing when he gave his book on television the title Amusing Ourselves To Death (Postman 1985). Large parts of the press, especially the tabloid press, have followed suit. The background for this change, with increasing concentration of capital on a few hands, a changed technology, and increasing market-oriented competition, is extremely interesting, but lies outside the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say that news have increasingly become a commodity in the market place of entertainment.

This has also affected the formulation and presentation of news related to penal policy. It has made serious and consistent criticism in the media extremely difficult, and has opened up for major moral panics around celebrated individual instances of escapes etc. In turn, this has made it important to establish a public life and debate in the area of penal policy outside the mass media – as KROM tries to do at the yearly conferences and the evening seminars. I will return to this towards the end of this paper. Nevertheless, we also consider it important to write articles and have them published. From the start in 1968, KROM has kept newspaper clippings related to KROM´s activities and criminal policy in general, including all of our articles, systematically on file. The collection now comprises close to 60 large volumes, and is an interesting and useful source of information about aspects of criminal and penal policy through more than a quarter of a century.

KROM-inspired Books

In the fifth place, several members of KROM write and publish books. Earlier, the organization published its own series with a radical Oslo publisher. The series included volumes on prisoners’ experience of prison, preventive detention, strategies of political action, and the like. Today, there is no specific series, but a number of books have appeared covering typical KROM topics. At the organization’s 25th anniversary in 1993, a large volume was published, comprising a number of major papers from KROM’s early and recent history (Mathiesen and Heli 1993). Other books are published by individual researchers as a part of their regular work. It should be emphasized that these books are not published by or in the name of KROM, but the researchers I have in mind have all for a long time been «KROM activists», and I think it is fair to say that the books are in a general way inspired by KROM. Volumes on the fate of a treatment centre in a maximum security prison, the criminality of foreigners (which frequently is exaggerated and reported in a semi-racist fashion in the mass media), the structure and functioning of the police in political contexts, the functioning of the pre-trial detention court (where people are jailed, awaiting trial, for months and at top speed – the average pre-trial detention decision in the Oslo City Court takes about 25-45 minutes), the symbolic system and apparatus of the court system (which is a significant part of the authority structure of the courts), and the like are among the books I have in mind. In addition, a book taking stock of the prison as a mode of punishment has been published in several foreign languages (Mathiesen 1990).
These are the main modes of operation in the organization. The list given above suggests that while the prison constitutes the core issue of KROM, the organization is concerned with the area of penal policy as a whole – including the functioning of the courts, the police, and so on. The penal policy of the state constitutes an integrated system which must be dealt with as a totality. But it is important to emphasize that KROM works in a concrete way with concrete issues, a fact which also is suggested by the list.

I think it is fair to say that there is a kind of «pendulum» in KROM, between theoretical concerns with broad questions of political action, and concrete issues. The «pendulum» has been there from the start, and is still with us.


But it would be wrong not to emphasize that KROM´s existence, though it has continued for almost 30 years, is precarious. Financially, the organization is very poor, as I have said relying on membership fees and a few small public grants for specific purposes. So far, it has been a matter of principle not to become dependent on larger and permanent public money. This policy may have to be changed in the future. In terms of personel, the organization relies on people´s willingness to use their own free time, outside their work situation. For long periods of time, the organization has been dependent on the contributions of a few dedicated individuals, who have kept things going. The organization is also dependent on close association with researchers at the University Institute for Sociology of Law at the University of Oslo. Even minor changes for the worse in these conditions could become a major threat to the organization and its existence, and only the future will tell how the organization will fare.

On the other hand, KROM has three strengths which, together with the dedication of the few and the association with an interested university institute, probably explain and promote the organization’s continued existence. First of all, the participation of the prisoners, which in a very significant way places a concrete demand for continuation and action on the organization, is extremely important. I have already said something about the prisoners’ participation, and will not repeat that; let me only add that the expectations of the prisoners make it difficult indeed for anyone to close the organization down.

A second strength is the organization’s ability to recruit new activists. This ability is not so much thanks to KROM as it is the merit, if you can call it that, of the context in which KROM exists. There have been two main recruitment sources: For one thing, professionals who have worked in and left the system – especially teachers and social workers – and who have survived in the sense of keeping their critical spirit alive and undisciplined, have been important. For another, open minded and alert students – in recent years especially law and criminology students – have been recruited. These two sources of recruitment have come naturally to KROM: Critical professionals with system experience have as a matter of course oriented themselves towards KROM as the only centre of gravity of a critical kind in penal policy, and the law and criminology students have been inspired to participate by university teachers among the older generation of KROM activists. In the context of the law students, a free legal aid project organized by students, called «Juss Buss» or «Law Bus», has been an important channel of recruitment, but several young attorneys have also been recruited. It should be emphasized that after the 1970s, recruitment through these channels has certainly not been massive. The reason for this, I think, lies in the general change of political climate which began during the 1980s. But it has almost always been possible to recruit at least some – at least one or two – new interested participants, who have been able to spend at least some of their time on KROM and who have stayed on at least for a while.

A third very important strength of the organization is that a kind of «moral community» has developed over the years among a core of participants, say among 20-25 people. Most of these people are no longer active on a daily basis, but they are always «there» in the background. They have a common political history, when they occasionally meet it is almost as if they had never been away from each other, and they may easily be called upon when needed, for example to to give papers on criminal- and penal policy at ur three-day conferences. In dry times in terms of recruitment, the «moral community» has been psychologically very important in keeping the organization from withering away.

Two Notes on Strategy – I will end this paper with two «notes» on strategy.

Long-term and Short-term Goals

In the early days of KROM, we discussed at great length the relationship between long-term and short-term goals, and emphasized that since the long-term goal was abolition, short-term goals should also have an abolitionist stance, and «negate» the system rather than be «positive» towards it and thereby solidify it.

The discussion of long-term and short-term goals is still with us. But I think we have become less «purist» in terms of «negative» rather than «positive» reforms. Prisons are dehumanizing dungeons. Those who populate them, live under the worst possible conditions. As long as we have prisons, it is important to try to provide a more decent life for them. In this sense, KROM today works for «positive» reforms.

And, seen in the long-term perspective, we are not too worried about doing so. In the early days we thought, as I have said, that the «positive» reforms making prisons more humane also solidified the system. It is doubtful, I think, whether they actually do. The experience of the 1980s and 1990s has shown that prison thrives with or without humanity – and usually, I might add, without it. Other forces than a human touch in terms of content are decisive for its existence. Therefore, KROM today sees it as important to avoid cell crowding, to criticize the inhuman living conditions in the so-called «bunker» (a particular isolation section within our main maximum security prison), to provide better health- and educational services for prisoners, to work for an expansion of prisoners rights, and so on.

«Alternative Public Space»

Let me, by way of conclusion, briefly mention one line of action which I think is important under today’s conditions, and especially in view of the mass media situation which I sketched above.

The key word is, in Norwegian, «alternativ offentlighet», in German «Alternative Öffentlichkeit», in English the much more cumbersome phrase «alternative public space». The point is to contribute to the creation of an alternative public space in penal policy, where argumentation and principled thinking represent the dominant values. I envisage the development of an alternative public space in the area of penal policy as containing three ingredients.

Firstly, liberation from what I would call the absorbent power of the mass media. With the increasing importance of the mass media, and especially of television, many organizations tend to define success, indeed existence, in term of media coverage of what they are doing. Presumably, if your organization and its activities are not given mass media attention, they are worthless, and more or less non-existent. In this sense, we are absorbed into media participation and attention. I believe this is a very dangerous definition of the situation, which we should liberate ourselves from. As I have said, the mass media have developed into a gigantic entertainment business, where we very easily become clowns on a stage. In Western society, it is probably impossible to refrain completely from media participation, and as I have mentioned above, in KROM we do try to participate by writing newspaper articles. But it is certainly possible to say «no!» to the many talk shows and entertainment-like «debates» which flood our various television channels, and, most importantly, it is certainly possible not to let the definition of our success and very existence be dependent on the media.

The second ingredient is a restoration of the self esteem and feeling of worth on the part of the grass roots movements. It is not true that the grass roots movements, emphasizing network organization and solidarity at the bottom, have died out. What has happened is that with the development of the mass media which I have mentioned, these movements have lost faith in themselves. An important example from recent Norwegian history of the actual vitality of grass roots movements: In the early 1990s, thousands of ordinary Norwegians participated in a widespread movement to give refugees from Kosovo-Albania long-term refuge in Norwegian churches throughout the country. The movement ended in a partial victory, in that all of the cases concerning Kosovo-Albanian refugees were to be reviewed again by the Ministry of Justice. The example suggests that grass roots solidarity even with «distant» groups like refugees did not die out with the Vietnam war.

Thirdly, a restoration of the feeling of responsibility on the part of intellectuals is important. I am thinking of artists, writers, scientists – and certainly social scientists. That responsibility should partly be directed towards a refusal to participate in the mass media show business. Partly it should also be directed towards re-vitalization of research taking the interests of common people as a point of departure. This point is not new, but goes, of course, several decades back in Western intellectual history. The area is full of conflicts and problems, but they are not unsolvable.

I think we are in a way trying to do some of this in KROM, this strange hybrid of an organization, comprising intellectuals and prisoners with a common cause. The large yearly conferences, repeated again and again over several decades, the smaller seminars going from year to year, the large evening meetings where a number of like-minded organizations cooperate, constitute an attempt to create a network of opinion and information crossing the formal and informal borders between segments of the relevant administrative and political systems. The point is precisely that of trying to create an alternative public space where argumentation and principled thinking are dominant values, a public space which in the end may compete with the superficial public space of the mass media.

When we, back in the late 1960s, started our yearly conferences, I do not think we saw it this way. At that time, we were greatly preoccupied with getting media attention, and worried if we did not get it. Gradually, the focus shifted.

Our attempt at creating an alternative public space in the area of penal policy, which of course has its set-backs and difficulties, has one advantage over against what goes on in the mass media: It is based on the actual and organized relationships between people. The public space of the mass media is in that sense weak: It is a public space which is unorganized, segmented, splintered into millions of unconnected individuals – this is its truly mass character – and equally segmented into thousands of individual media stars on the media sky. This is the Achilles’ heel of the public space of the media, which we try to turn to our advantage.


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Mathiesen, Thomas: The Politics of Abolition. Essays in Political Action Theory. London: Martin Robertson 1974 a (German edition: Überwindet die Mauern! Die skandinavische Gefangenenbewegung als Modell politischer Randgruppenarbeit. 2. ed. Bielefeld: AJZ Verlag 1993).

Mathiesen, Thomas: «The Prison Movement in Scandinavia». Crime and Social Justice, Spring/Summer 1974 b, pp. 45-50.

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Mathiesen, Thomas: «Om en organisasjons vekst og fall. Noen refleksjoner ved et svensk 25-års jubileum». Årsmelding fra Institutt for rettssosiologi, Oslo 1992 s. 62-68 (On the Rise and Fall of an Organization. Som Reflections at a Swedish 25 Years’ Anniversary. Yearbook from the Institute for Sociology of Law, Oslo 1992, pp. 62-68).

Mathiesen, Thomas and Heli, Arne (eds.): Murer og mennesker. En KROM-bok om fengsel og kriminalpolitikk (Walls and People. A KROM-book on Prisons and Criminal Policy). Pax forlag 1993.

Postman, Neil: Amusing Ourselves to Death. Viking Penguin 1985.

Rolston, Bill and Thomlinson, Mike: The Expansion of European Prison Systems. Working Papers in European Criminology No. 7, 1986.

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