Pervasive Punishment: Making sense of ‘mass supervision’

Pervasive Punishment: Making sense of ‘mass supervision’

Fergus McNeill

Twenty-four-year-old Lavinia Woodward was an unusual offender. Privileged and/or talented enough to win a place to study medicine at Oxford, and seemingly destined for a high-flying career, last September she found herself in the dock awaiting sentence, found guilty of the unlawful wounding by stabbing of her (then) boyfriend. The Judge’s remarks in her case had already caused controversy in an earlier hearing; the sentence he eventually handed down provoked the ire not just of the tabloids but also of the ‘quality’ press:

‘An Oxford medical student “too bright” to be given a prison sentence has been allowed to walk free from court – despite the judge acknowledging that she broke her bail conditions… Lavinia Woodward… was spared jail yesterday as she was commended for her “strong and unwavering determination” to address her drug addiction… It comes four months after Judge Ian Pringle QC described Woodward, an aspiring heart surgeon, as an “extraordinarily able young lady” whose talents meant that a prison sentence would be “too severe”’ (Daily Telegraph, 26th September 2017, emphases added).

In fact, contrary to the press reports, the judge had imposed a 10-month prison sentence, but he had suspended it for 18 months under a Suspended Sentence Order. She may have been spared immediate imprisonment, but did she ‘walk free’ from court? None of the newspapers reported the conditions of the suspended sentence, so none of us knows precisely what she has been required to do and not do to avoid the implementation of the jail term.

In my new book, Pervasive Punishment, I argue that the invisibility of supervisory forms of punishment in the community – and our ignorance of what they entail – hamstrings scholarly, political and public debate about the legitimacy and effectiveness of penal systems. We are so preoccupied with the prison as the quintessential site and form of modern punishment that we lack the resources to analyse the increasingly pervasive and diverse forms of punishment that happen before, instead of and beyond the prison. While we have begun to debate and contest ‘mass incarceration’, it is also time that we started to talk about and restrain mass penal control in all its forms, including ‘mass supervision’. To enable that conversation, Pervasive Punishment focuses on supervision’s scale and social distribution, how it has been legitimated, how it is experienced and what can be done about it.

In most Western countries, the population under supervision in the community far exceeds that in custody. For example, in the USA at yearend 2015 there were more than 6.7 million people under ‘correctional control’ with more than 4.6 million of them on probation or parole. In 1980, these numbers stood at 1.8 million and 1.3 million respectively [1].  Over the same period, but in the very different context of my own country, Scotland, the prison population rose from about 5,000 to 8,000 while the population under supervision climbed from less than 3,000 to about 22,000. Crime rates cannot account for the huge growth in penal populations in either country. Indeed, in Scotland, there were 10 times as many community sentences per crime in 2015 as there had been in 1980.

In both countries, most subjects of supervision (like imprisonment) look distinctly unlike Woodward; predominantly, they are young men who come from much more disadvantaged communities; and there is compelling evidence (particularly from the USA) that while probation and parole sometimes become an ‘off-ramp’ from more severe punishment for its better-off subjects, for the most marginalized supervision is more like a ‘conveyer-belt’, carrying them deeper and deeper into the penal net [2].

Although probation, community service and parole have often been justified and legitimated as a way of avoiding the fiscal, human and social costs of imprisonment, the evidence suggests that in most countries, imprisonment and supervision have grown side-by-side [3]. To make sense of this conundrum, I explore the history of the development of probation in Scotland. Here, an enduring commitment to reducing imprisonment has been discursively interwoven with rehabilitative, reparative and managerial logics at different times in the history of supervision. But, like so many others, the often-lauded Scottish case in fact turns out to be a salutary tale of ‘successful failure’. The belief that supervision could and would do good to and for its subjects justified its enormous expansion, and thus the growth of our penal system, precisely because supervision was not understood to be penal.

To challenge that important misapprehension – the same misapprehension reflected in press reporting of the Woodward case — requires an examination of supervision as a lived experience. In Pervasive Punishment, I focus on findings from two recent creative projects – Supervisible and Seen and Heard – that explored how supervisees chose to represent their experiences of supervision in pictures and in songs. These findings have much in common with a wider range of recent ethnographies of supervision, which draw attention to the pervasiveness, and painfulness of supervision as a lived experience. Unsurprisingly perhaps, from these accounts there is little or no sense of ‘walking free’ from court or prison. Rather, supervision imposes significant constraints; in some senses, it suspends time; it invokes feelings of waste; it entails judgement; and, sometimes, it enables growth. It also requires a compelling performance of personal change to persuade the supervising authorities of reduced risks.

These pains of supervision can be moderated if supervision is experienced as legitimate, helpful and time-limited but, absent these three conditions, mass supervision develops what I term ‘Maloptical’ qualities.  Unlike Bentham’s Panopticon, in which the prisoner is discipline through hyper-visibility, the Malopticon fails to see its subjects — at least as they seem themselves. Rather, it sees them as bad and projects this badness to the rest of society. In other words, it represents a form of pervasive penal control that disperses degradation and disqualification as much as discipline, diminishing its subjects’ civic standing and rights, and thus the state’s responsibilities to and liabilities for them.

In the final two chapters of Pervasive Punishment, I try to move beyond analysis, exploring what can be done to restrain and reform mass supervision. I argue that, as a first step, we need to be able to see, hear, feel and imagine supervision, and that requires new, creative and sensory forms of social science, informed by engagement with the arts and humanities. With that in mind, and in addition to the pictures and songs from the projects mentioned above, the book also features a short story, ‘An Invisible Collar’, which in episodic form is threaded through the more conventional academic analysis. The story begins in this way:

‘Joe sat on the bench in the waiting room. Looking down, he noticed that the bench was screwed to the floor. Not even the furniture here was free. Perspex screens and locked doors separated him and the others waiting from those for whom they waited; the veils between the untrustworthy and those to whom they were entrusted. Joe absent-mindedly read the graffiti carved into the bench; testimonies of resistance that made the place feel even more desperate. […]  Joe wondered what she would be like – Pauline — the unknown woman who now held the keys to his freedom. Her word had become his law: This was an ‘order’ after all. He was to be the rule-keeper, she the ruler – cruel, capricious or kind. She might hold the leash lightly or she might drag him to heel. Instinctively, he lifted his hand to his neck, but no one can loosen an invisible collar. At least it was not a noose. Joe swallowed uncomfortably, noticing the dryness of his mouth and the churning in his gut. He was not condemned to hang. He was condemned to be left hanging.’

‘An Invisible Collar’ is a work of sociological fiction. Though rooted in and representing both research findings and practice experiences, its characters, settings and plotlines are the product of my imagination.

Since my own attempts at creative representation are necessarily amateur, and to provide one further resource for imagining supervision, I asked my colleague Jo Collinson Scott (who is both a musicologist at the University of the West of Scotland and the songwriter and recording artist ‘Jo Mango’) to write and record an EP of songs engaging creatively with the short story and with the book’s themes. She worked with other artists to produce ‘System Hold’; a profound and evocative set of songs that explore the depth, weight and tightness of supervision, as well as the ways in which it suspends the lives it penetrates. Fittingly, the keys that unlock access to the EP are found in the book’s Postscript, which we co-authored.

The final chapter of Pervasive Punishment is book-ended by two alternative endings of ‘An Invisible Collar’. The first of these imagines a dystopian future form of supervision, which combines artificial intelligence, virtual reality and electronic tags that can administer electric shocks or release nauseating, drugs. The second imagines a practical utopia in which supervision is characterized by cooperation, recognition, legitimacy, helpfulness and strictly limited intrusion.  In between these two endings, I suggest how we might and why we must tread the path towards the better future by scaling down supervision, clarifying and circumscribing its legitimate purposes and role, and within these constraints, developing and delivering it constructively.

My hope is that, as Emily Dickinson once wrote [4]:

The Possible’s slow fuse is lit
By the Imagination
If we fail to imagine a better future, we may drift into the worse.

[1] See:, accessed 28th October 2018.
[2] Phelps, M. (2017) ‘Mass Probation and Inequality: Race, Class, and Gender Disparities in Supervision and Revocation’ pp. 43-63 in Ulmer, J.T. and Bradley, M.S. (eds.) Handbook on Punishment Decisions: Locations of Disparity. New York: Routledge.
[3] Aebi, M. F., Delgrande, N., & Marguet, Y. (2015). Have community sanctions and measures widened the net of the European criminal justice systems? Punishment & Society, 17(5), 575- 597.
[4] Dickinson, E. (1924) The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little Brown, p1687.


Fergus McNeill is Professor of Criminology & Social Work at the University of Glasgow where he works in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research and in Sociology. His work examines institutions, cultures and practices of punishment and alternatives to punishment. His new book, Pervasive Punishment, will be published by Emerald on 16th November 2018.  Writing it was made possible by a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship (MD160022): see