Nils Christie

Nils Christie: In Memoriam


On May 27th in Oslo, my friend Nils Christie died at 87.  The news was a blow, and it was a solace to set down some of my memories of this dear man.  The result was the following reminiscence.  It reflects on the significance of Nils’ work, and the way my life became intertwined with his:


Nils Christie was born in 1928 and was just entering his adolescence when Nazi Germany occupied his native Norway.   After the war, as a student of criminology, he was asked by his professor, Johannes Andenæs, to investigate what had gone on during the occupation in the northern camps where the Nazis had imprisoned captured Yugoslavian partisans, brought to Norway,  without being told where they were going, as part of Hitler’s campaign of Nacht und Nebel, or night and fog.   Conditions in these camps were terrible – during one year seventy per cent of the prisoners had died – and this could not be written off as a purely German atrocity, because several hundred Norwegian guards had also worked there.  Nils’ assignment was to find out why some of these guards had killed or maltreated prisoners.  He interviewed former prisoners and a cross-section of the guards, including both those who had behaved cruelly and those who had behaved decently.   A stark conclusion presented itself: those who had behaved relatively well had gotten to know something about their prisoners – they had talked with them and had often seen pictures of their families – while those who had been vicious had made sure they knew nothing beyond what the Germans told them – that these were sub-human savages from the Balkans.  


The insight he gained through this study became the central principle of Nils’ criminology:  how punitive we are varies with how much we know about the one whom we believe ought to be punished.  He pursued it through many books and articles during a long and fruitful career in which he became, first, a leading voice for the steady reduction in imprisonment that took place in Europe and North America after the Second World War, and, then, when this trend reversed and rates of imprisonment began a rapid rise after the 1980’s, a voice of prophetic warning against the dangerous political implications he saw in this increase.  Again and again he demonstrated that the rate of imprisonment is largely unconnected to the rate of crime, and that the rate of crime itself is an easily manipulated artifact.  (He called one of his books A Suitable Amount of Crime.)  During his own career, imprisonment fell while crime was rising, and then increased while crime was falling.  Crime control, he showed, is always a question of policy, and not of some necessary and predetermined response to crime.


Nils wrote in English in what he called “the saga style,” and he claimed that whatever virtues his vigorous and rough-hewn English prose possessed were born of necessity.  He didn’t have the ability to write elegant, swirling English sentences, he said, so he was forced to carve out his words and concepts, as if writing with a chisel in rock.   I found it an eloquent style, which needed no other justification, but it also supported a lifelong campaign against euphemism in criminology.  This campaign and the saga style came together in the first book he wrote in English, 1981’s Limits to Pain.   Here he argued that the operations of criminal justice are typically swathed in soft words that conceal what is going on.  Imprisonment is the intentional infliction of pain, but it often speaks of itself as correction (the Correctional Service of Canada), or penitence (the penitentiary), or reform (the reformatory).  Call a spade a spade, Nils argued, and it would be less easy to punish.


Nils is often credited as one of the inspirers of restorative justice, and this is true, but he was also an opponent of professionalization; and, insofar as the once vital movement for restorative justice has been professionalized, bureaucratized and turned into a minor subdivision of the criminal justice system in recent years, he was also a critic.   A look at one of his most influential articles shows why.  “Conflicts as Property” appeared in the British Journal of Criminology in 1977, and it argued in Nils’ bold, direct way that conflict belongs to the community in which it occurs. The criminal justice system appropriates it and translates it into its own terms.  To take a real example from my experience, a shooting of a citizen by the police at the end of my street was treated as none of my business because it was under confidential investigation by the special branch of the police set up to investigate police shootings.   What concerned me personally, and them only professionally, belonged entirely to them.  To tell me anything about it would have been a violation of their duty.  In similar way, court proceedings are limited to what is considered relevant under legal rules, which often involve what Nils calls a “trained incapacity” to see the case in dispute as a whole.   Conflict is expropriated and turned into a legal resource.   The effect is to weaken the community.  Conflict builds moral muscle, and when it is habitually referred to professional authorities these muscles grow flabby. 


What Nils argues for in this article is a balance between the formal justice system and the informal processes by which people try to get along with one another and keep the peace – what his friend Ivan Illich called “people’s peace”.  Formal justice is blind.  In the personification of Lady Justice that has come down to us from ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman sources, the scales and double-edged sword she is holding are complemented by a blindfold, and Nils never tired of pointing out that this showed not just her impartiality but also her inability to see beyond what could be accomplished with sword and scales.  As a final resort against violence, the formal legal system is infinitely precious.  When it monopolizes all conflict and undermines the community’s capacity for reconciliation, it becomes tyranny.   This was the basis for his position on restorative justice: by all means address conflict in the community but never allow this capacity to be professionalized and reabsorbed into the formal system.


I met Nils Christie at the urging of our mutual friend Ivan Illich.  Nils and Ivan had known each other since the early 1970’s when they found common ground in their attitude to schooling.  Nils had written a book, not yet translated from the Norwegian, whose title he rendered in English as “What if there were no school?” Ivan had just published his book Deschooling Society.  Nils also took part in meetings at CIDOC (the Centre for Intercultural Documentation in Cuernavaca, Mexico) on the role of law in a convivial society.  They kept in touch, and, when I came under Ivan’s influence around 1990, one of the first things he insisted that I do was to visit Nils Christie in Oslo and produce a radio series on his thought.   So, early in 1993, I took the overnight train from Hamburg to Oslo and found Nils waiting for me on the platform.   The next few days produced not just an inspiring set of broadcasts, which you can find under his name in the podcast section of this site, but also an enduring friendship, not just with Nils but also with his wife and fellow criminologist, Hedda Giersten.  She welcomed me at their table, just as Nils had welcomed me at the station, and I returned to Oslo, and to that table, several times in subsequent years, as well as several times receiving Nils at my home in Toronto. 


In 1993, when I first went to Oslo, Nils was about to publish a book called Crime Control as Industry: Towards Gulags Western Style?  It went through several editions, and, after the first, he removed the question mark from his subtitle.    It was his rueful reflection on the ever-increasing rates of imprisonment that he had been observing in the years before he wrote – most notably in the United States, and the former Soviet republics, but even under mild social democratic regimes – the Netherlands, for example, which had gone down to an astonishingly low 17 prisoners per hundred thousand of population in the 1960’s had reverted to 85 per hundred thousand by the time the third edition of  Nils’ book appeared in 2,000.   Crime Control as Industry asked why prison rates were growing so fast, and then considered the dystopian possibility that large prison complexes might offer considerable advantages to the emerging neo-liberal state and so become a permanent part of its social landscape.   Imprisonment provides jobs for those who build, supply and staff the prisons, but it also provides jobs for the prisoners, and in two senses: they become the raw material that the prison/industrial complex requires, and at the same time serve as convenient enemies for a society held together only by loose and provisional bonds.  Once capital abandons all local loyalties, Nils says, and even the winners in the economic sweepstakes feel how precarious their position is, a supply of certified losers can acquire a crucial symbolic function. 


Nils viewed the prison boom as, above all, a political emergency.   The societies that emerged from the Second World War contained a lot of people who knew at first hand the terrors of imprisonment.  Nils himself experienced a terrorized society as a teenager and knew in his bones what had happened in the Norwegian prison camps.  Post-war societies managed to control and reduce rates of imprisonment because they contained enough people who remembered concentration camps and refugee camps and who felt the awe and trepidation that the administration of pain ought to inspire.  But memories are short where mass media relentlessly highlight the present, and the appetite for enemies grew as societies polarized and became more complex after the 1960’s.   Nils worried about the emergence of “Gulags Western style” on two levels – the first was his compassion for the sufferings of the prisoners, the second, equally important, was his fear of the coarsening and desensitizing effect that large prison complexes have on political sensibilities.  Deprivation of liberty comes to seem normal and necessary; the state expands, while an intimidated civil society contracts; and the law wastes the majesty it ought to hold in reserve by involving itself in matters best left to the concerned community.  


In 1995, Nils’ sense of a dire political emergency inspired him to summon many of his old allies in the fight against mass imprisonment to Oslo for a consultation.  He also asked a number of prison insiders to join this gathering.  The head of the Correctional Service of Canada was there, as was the director of the prison system for the state of Texas, which then had a prison rate in almost vertical ascent, moving from under 200 per 100,000 in 1980 to almost 800 per 100,000 by 1995.   When this conference was in preparation, Nils called me and asked for my help in publicizing its findings. This was a moment of crisis for me because I had other projects in hand, and no desire at that moment to delve further into criminology.  However, with a little reflection, I soon saw that for years the success of my work as a broadcaster had depended on others saying yes, when I asked, and that it was now my turn to say yes.  I never regretted it, despite the diversion of my plans.  I went to Oslo and set to work on the first of the several series of broadcasts that I would end up making on the subject of criminal justice over the next five years. 


I recorded a number of excellent interviews, with Nils and others, after the conference in Oslo, and then when I returned home continued to explore alternatives to imprisonment.  In Oslo, I had sensed discouragement among many of the people there, people who had worked so hard to reduce rates of imprisonment only to see them take a sharp U-turn in the later 1980’s.  Back home in Canada I found more optimism.   Canada’s rate of imprisonment was a small fraction of the American rate, but it had still been inching up from 91 in 1981 to 114 in 1995 according to Correctional Service of Canada data.  (The American rate, by Nils’ calculation, was then nearing 600.)  The government would soon have to make a decision about whether to expand the existing prisons or build new ones.   The surprise to me, given the mood in Oslo, was that there was a lot of opposition to any prison expansion – within the Correctional Service and the Department of the Solicitor General, in the judiciary, and amongst the proponents of what was then just beginning to be called, in a new articulation of an old idea, restorative justice.   This preference for controlling Canada’s rate of imprisonment won the day, and the reaction I received made me believe that “Prison and Its Alternatives,” the series of ten broadcasts I presented on CBC Radio’s Ideas in 1996, might have played some small part in helping to consolidate this consensus in favour of holding the line.  Canada built no new prisons, and the rate of imprisonment declined slightly in subsequent years, until our current government began to deliberately force it up again.


 “Prison and Its Alternatives” told stories about promising alternatives to imprisonment around the world.  It did not make extravagant claims for these new/old forms of resolving conflict, but the series certainly had a “blue skies” element to it.  One of its interesting sequels was a call I received from David Cole, a provincial court judge here in Toronto.  He proposed that I spend a day “watching the parade”, as he put it, in his Scarborough court room.  The suggestion was not hostile, just a friendly attempt to bring me down to earth.  I went, learned something about the painful dilemmas involved in the day-to-day operations of the justice system, and later attended a conference of the Canadian Criminal Justice Association that David Cole helped to organize in Saskatoon on the pros and cons of restorative justice.   Nils was also there, and, in connection with the conference, he and I and the Australian criminologist John Braithwaite were invited to visit a “healing lodge,” a new type of prison  developed by the Correctional Service of Canada for aboriginal inmates.  There are now eight of these small institution altogether.  The one we visited was the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge, a women’s prison in the Cypress Hills near Maple Creek.  We were very hospitably received and all three of us, as I recall, were terrifically impressed by an atmosphere that seemed to justify the prison’s ambitious name.  One of the people who show us round was Yvonne Johnson, a long term prisoner who had recently published a memoir, written with novelist Rudy Wiebe, called Stolen Life: A Cree Woman’s Journey.  (A very painful book to read, but, for me, a revelation, and I would unreservedly recommend it to anyone who thinks they can bear the ordeal.)

The Saskatoon conference became the seed of a radio series called “To Hurt of To Heal”, broadcast in 2,000.  The year before I had also published The Expanding Prison: The Crisis in Crime and Punishment and the Search for Alternatives, a book which I dedicated to Nils, since he not only inspired it but also, in a certain sense, asked for it when he sought my help in his dark hour in 1995.   And the work I did, at Nils’ instigation, was just one instance of the influence he exercised on reformist criminology in Canada.  Mary Campbell, who retired in 2013 as Director General, Corrections & Criminal Justice in the federal government, says that “his intellectual influence on Canadians over the decades cannot be overstated.”  (Her obituary, for Policy Options, is at  She particularly mentions Ole Ingstrup, twice the commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada, who was a good friend of Nils, and Judge David Cole.  I would also add the whole broad movement for restorative justice, which was permeated by Nils’ thinking.

What I have said so far might lead you to think that Nils’ influence was limited to criminology, but this is not so.  One of his most profound books, for me, is a short work – Nils was always wonderfully terse – called Beyond Loneliness and Institutions.  It describes the life of a rural Norwegian community called Vidaråsen, with which Nils was closely involved for many years and where he lived for a time.  It is one of the communities established world-wide under the influence of Rudolf Steiner that welcomes people with mental handicaps – Nils in his subtitle speaks of “communes for extraordinary people,” his preferred term for his friends there.  (In English these communities are usually called Camphill villages after the place near Aberdeen in Scotland where Austrian émigré Karl König and his associates established the first one.)  Nils admired and enjoyed the vivid and elemental quality of life there and also liked the challenge of presenting his ideas to people so far outside the ambit of academic discourse.  During one academic term, he had his University of Oslo seminar on “principles of justice” meet alternately at the university and at Vidaråsen.   What he discovered, he said, was that normal academic presentations were a flop, but when he “took up…concrete cases of justice, then the audience turned into a very vivid and active group.”  He compared the atmosphere in these seminars to what he experienced at the University of California at Berkeley when he lectured there in 1968 and “when the whole place was filled with vivacity and energy and student activity.”  (The quotations are from “Beyond Institutions,” a series I did in 1994 in which Nils discussed his experiences at Vidaråsen.)  He summarized his “life in the villages” by saying that “the increasing circle of extraordinary people I meet has made me aware of how handicapped we ordinary people are, when we are kept away from people who are extraordinary.”  This view was of a piece with his feelings about crime – the community is diminished when it doesn’t include everyone, just as it is diminished when it loses its power to resolve conflict. 

I cannot conclude without again mentioning Nils’ relationship with Ivan Illich.  Nils dedicated Crime Control as Industry to Ivan and gave him an honoured place at the conference in Oslo in 1995.  (An account of Ivan’s remarks on that occasion is given in my book The Expanding Prison.)   In the years after Ivan died in 2002, Nils and I had several long conversations about him.  I was trying to orient a book I writing about Ivan, but Nils was just as eager to ponder his friend’s legacy.  The two men couldn’t have been more different – Ivan, the Christian; Nils the humanist who recalled, the last time we spoke, that he had edited an anti-Christian newspaper while he was in high school.  And yet they were fast friends, and inspirations to one another.  Nils said that he got on best with Ivan when he treated him as “a visitor from the 12th century.”  Ivan doted on Nils and, early in their acquaintance, learned enough Norwegian to read  Nils’ book on schools.  Nils, doubtful, said that he examined him on the text and found that he had indeed understood it.  I see them as complements to one another, reaching the same place by very different routes, but both, in the end, equally devoted to the human scale and the face of the neighbor.

Nils died in hospital in Oslo on May 27th, the day after a collision with a tram while riding his bicycle.  He never recovered consciousness.  Nils was a lifelong cyclist and the last time I was with him in the summer of 2013 he took me riding through his hilly Oslo neighborhood on the electric bicycles he and Hedda had recently bought.  For me there is something glorious in knowing that he died as he lived, active and vigorous to the end, in the streets of the Oslo neighborhood where he was well known and well loved.  He will stay with me until the end of my days.