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Punishment and Prisons


Admission requirements

Students who want to take this course need to be admitted to the Comparative Criminal Justice master’s programme.


This course aims to make students aware of the explanations, social consequences and guiding principles of punishment, comparing different contexts, cultures and countries. During the lectures, attention will be paid to the theoretical assumptions, normative implications and empirical knowledge on punishment and prisons, in comparative perspective. During the seminars, students will be stimulated to analyse and compare key developments on the different topics mentioned above.

Imprisonment is the most severe form of punishment available in countries without the death penalty. It is also widely used; the global prison population has grown rapidly over recent decades and currently exceeds 10 million. In many countries, prisoners are housed in overcrowded conditions. Given the heavy reliance on imprisonment as a sanction, it is important to understand what goes on inside prisons and how this affects those subjected to imprisonment. How do staff maintain order and exercise their power in prison? How do staff-prisoner dynamics and prison conditions affect the pains of imprisonment? What are the effects of imprisonment on prisoners’ well-being and their lives after imprisonment? This course will explore these topics in detail and also consider variations in prison experiences across countries and populations. Furthermore, in addition to the sociology of prison life, students will learn about relevant legal frameworks and current debates on, for example, life imprisonment and prison privatisation.

Both the range and the use of community sanctions and measures have increased significantly in most states in Europe and North America, but only for a small part as a replacement for imprisonment. As a consequence, impressive numbers of people are put under some form of supervision in the community nowadays, but theoretical background, aims and the legal framework of these developments are only scarcely studied at a comparative level. At the same time, alternatives for imprisonment are still lacking or not effectively used outside the Global North. Finally, high recidivism rates and the public call for security have put the effectiveness of punishment high on the political agenda, but heavy debate continues concerning the best methods to achieve the aim of crime reduction. This course, then, will enable students to critically evaluate the use of punishment in modern society.

Course objectives

Objectives of the course
By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  • Demonstrate a critical understanding of the function of punishment and prisons in society, prison life, and the impact of prisoners’ rights in national and international law on prison conditions

  • Analyse the legitimacy of imprisonment in general and specific cases of imprisonment, using a combination of legal and social scientific sources

  • Understanding aims and functions of non-custodial sentences, explain its growth and evaluate its potential to replace imprisonment

  • Describe and explain the extent to which punishment has a differential impact on vulnerable and minority groups and how this may vary across countries

  • Evaluate the effectiveness of punishment in terms of various indicators


Check MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction


  • Number of (2 hour) seminars: 9

  • The seminars are interactive in nature and require the active participation of students.

  • Names of instructors: dr. T. Peeters / prof. mr. dr. M.M. Boone

  • Required preparation by students: reading and questions will be communicated in advance via the course handbook and Brightspace.

Other methods of instruction

  • Weekly office hours.

  • Students who wish to ask a question during office hours should send an email to the secretarial office ( at least one day (24 hours) in advance with a short description of the reason.

Assessment method

Examination form(s)

  • 1 final written assignment (100%)

Submission procedures
All assignments are submitted via Turnitin (Brightspace).

  • The final grade should be at least a 5.5 in order to complete the course successfully.

  • There will be a resit opportunity.

Reading list

Mandatory and recommended reading will be listed in the course handbook and on Brightspace.


Check the website under “course and exam enrollment” for information on how to register for the course.

Contact information

  • Coordinator: dr. T. Peeters

  • Availability: Monday till Friday, through the secretariat

  • E-mail:


  • Institute: Criminal Law and Criminology

  • Department: Criminology

  • Opening hours: 09.00 to 12.30

  • Telephone secretariat: 071 – 527 7871

  • Room number: B3.11

  • E-mail:


The course equips students with the ability to independently assess criminal justice issues from a comparative perspective, which prepares for employment in the policy sector and with international (criminal justice) organizations.

In case of (corona)restrictions imposed by the government, this course description is subject to change.