Penal Agnosis and Historical Denial: Problematising ‘Common Sense’ Understandings of Prison Officers and Violence in Prison

Part of the Critical Criminological Perspectives book series (CCRP)


The aim of this chapter is to consider if the much-publicised ‘causal relationship’ between prison officer numbers and prisoner violence is a form of ‘penal agnosis’: the cultural production of penal ignorance (Proctor, Agnotology: a missing term to describe the cultural production of ignorance. In R. Proctor & L. Schiebinger (Eds.), Agnotology: the making and unmaking of ignorance. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008). My use of penal agnosis draws directly from the writings of Cohen (States of denial. Cambridge: Polity, 2001) and Mathiesen (Silently silenced. Winchester: Waterside Press, 2004). Silencing techniques deployed in everyday life help to keep people quiet and neutralise criticism. Whilst these are varied, of particular concern here is when an event becomes “isolated in the present” (Mathiesen, Silently silenced. Winchester: Waterside Press, 2004: 42), specifically contemporary media and political discussions of prison officers and prison violence. This chapter provides a theoretical context to the invisibility of historical evidence regarding the deeply embedded harms and violence of penal confinement. It focuses on how the narrative of prison staffing levels is not only time-locked but also how the current understandings of the relationship with violence are derived primarily from the perspective of prison officers. Through critique of this approach an alternative space is opened for thinking differently about how to best respond to the current harms and violence of incarceration.


Prison officers Institutionally structured violence Media. historical context Penological illiteracy 


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Arts and SciencesThe Open UniversityMilton KeynesUK

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