A conversation with Johannes Feest[i]

BP. Johannes, I am honored you have accepted to talk to me. I really appreciate this immediate openness of yours to communicate between generations and between perspectives, such as restorative justice and abolitionism, which I think might become perhaps the focus of our talk. It seems to be a disposition of your character to engage in dialogue, intended as respectful and honest talk, not as smooth talk. I have in mind for example the exchange with abolitionists you started together with Bettina Paul in 2007, starting with the question “Does abolitionism have a future?”, and invited them quite simply to express their opinions in that collective frame. A fascinating and monumental record has remained to us -thanks to that exchange- of people whom we don’t have with us anymore, and whom we miss quite frankly. I would love to hear about your memories of that exchange; it must have made you and Bettina quite excited to receive those answers! I find them pretty amazing, strong, but also quite funny at times, tender even.

JF. Before answering that question, I feel the need to give some context and go back to my abolitionist roots. My first contact with abolitionist ideas came through my colleague Karl Schumann and his assistants Knut Papendorf and Michael Voss. They came to the University of Bremen from the University of Bielefeld with a decidedly abolitionist agenda. Knut, whose mother was Norwegian, translated a version of Thomas Mathiesen’s Politics of Abolition into German in 1979, with an introduction by Karl on political action with marginalised groups (politische Randgruppenarbeit). They went on to publish articles and books in that vein, for example the edited volume Vom Ende des Strafvollzugs (about the end of the penitentiary), edited by Karl Schumann, Michael Voss and Heinz Steinert.

The next influence was Louk Hulsman, whom I must have met at a conference of the European Group. From Hulsman I learned to focus on deconstructing concepts like “crime” and focus on the way things are perceived by the participants in everyday life. This idea was later in 1989 taken up by Gerhard Hanak, Johannes Stehr and Heinz Steinert in Ärgenisse und Lebenskatastrophen (nuisances and life catastrophies). I also learned from him not to substitute punishments as measured according to guilt with preventive measures (Maßnahmen), measured by dangerousness. In my teaching, I used mainly his work on decriminalisation (published in the context of the Council of Europe)

Nils Christie was another big influence, through his Conflict as Property but even more through his Limits to Pain, which was translated by my student Peter Selling in 1986. I met Nils in 1990, when he participated in a symposium organised by Karl Schumann, at the University of Bremen. He gave a fascinating talk on his new book Beyond Loneliness and Institutions. The talk was tape-recorded, but it turned out to be too difficult to transcribe. We therefore decided to publish instead my translation of one of the book’s chapters in a little booklet called Unvernunft und Menschenwürde (unreasonableness and human dignity). I loved the style of his writings and his humanistic approach to crime and punishment. On his invitation, I participated in a small conference about prisons in Oslo with Ivan Illich, Thomas Mathiesen, Andrew Rutherford and others. In the later years Nils came regularly to Bremen to visit Ivan Illich and we continued to meet in that context.

@ Oslo Street Art, 2015

One of the abolitionists I found originally not easy to appreciate was Thomas Mathiesen. I found him rather dogmatic in his views, somewhat bland and repetitive in his writings. But with my students, I had some interesting discussions about his concept of “positive” and “negative” reforms, especially with respect to our counselling of prisoners. Later, he stayed for a few weeks in Bremen and I came to respect his stern and moralistic views. During that time, he participated, on my invitation, in the doctoral exam of my assistant Wolfgang Lesting, who wrote Normalisierung im Strafvollzug (normalisation in penitentiaries), where he endorsed the possibility that adaptation of prison conditions to outside conditions could be seen as an abolitionist strategy. Later in 2006 I wrote a review of his book Silently Silenced for the Journal of Law and Society. From this book I took the idea that it may be problematic, even counterproductive, especially in the context of political action, to juridicalise political questions. Later I began to appreciate Mathiesen’s concept of the “unfinished” as a warning to believe in perfect solutions. I was then very honoured, when Mathiesen asked me in 2017 to write a contribution in the context of his book The Politics of Abolition Revisited.

I must admit, that for a long time, I had not much use for Thomas (aka Herman) Bianchi’s type of abolitionism. I had met him in Amsterdam, when he helped me to find the place for a lecture I was supposed to give at the annual meeting of the Dutch Society of Criminology. His publications struck me as too religious for my taste. But then, one of my students drew on his work for his doctoral thesis on Kirchenasyl (church asylum). Only in 2007, during the email-exchange between abolitionists that you mentioned earlier, I began to appreciate his humanism (e.g. his feelings for Fay Honey Knopp and pacifism (e.g. his change of first name from Herman to Thomas, because he realised that Herman had to do with the German word Heer, used in the military).

And when Kriminologisches Journal asked me and Bettina Paul to edit a special issue on prisons, we drew mainly on my past contacts with abolitionists. With varying degrees of success, we also tried to add some other scholars with abolitionist leanings. Marie Andrée Bertrand, an old friend of my days as graduate student in Berkeley, who was a true abolitionist, especially in the field of drug laws. Renée van Swaningen, whom I had met when he was still an assistant to Louk Hulsman in Rotterdam and who turned out to be a former student of Thomas (aka Herman) Bianchi. Harold Pepinsky, with whom I had never been in contact before, but who turned out to be another early admirer of Fay Honey Knopp. Heinz Steinert, an old abolitionist friend of mine from Vienna, with whom I have remained in contact until his death. Gerlinda Smaus, who had written a beautiful article on abolitionism and feminism for the Kriminologisches Journal. Stephan Quensel, another old friend of mine and colleague in Bremen, co-founder of the Kriminologisches Journal and author of the seminal article Wie Wird Man Kriminell (how does one become criminal?). And then there was Sebastian Scheerer, who had promoted Louk Hulsman’s work in Germany and with whom I have been in contact since my early days at Bremen University. Karl Schumann did not want to participate, maybe because he had turned his back on abolitionism, or even criminology. Unfortunately, I never reached Vivian Stern because I had the wrong email address. Mathieu Deflem joined the project, but later dropped out, angered by a comment made from Heinz Steinert, which tells us something about academia.

The experience with the interviews itself was a very gratifying one. All participants were happy to explore the issue of whether abolitionism had a future, and of course, the issue of what it meant in the first place. After my retirement from the university, I remained in contact with Sebastian Scheerer, who drew me into the No Prison project of his Italian friends and we ended up last year writing a chapter for the book No Prison.

BP. It’s quite amazing to hear these stories for several reasons. One of the reasons is the extent of importance you all seemed to give to concepts, and to the treasuring, deepening, and circulation of these concepts. Another reason seems to me to be the willingness to translate each other’s work, this circulation of texts, rendered into German, and the incredible efforts that went into that engagement. Today, this project of “translation” and dialogue seems to me to be a project we have almost renounced. Something else I realised in that exchange is that there were quite some women involved and highly respected in that period, such as Marie Andrée Bertrand, Gerlinda Smaus, Fay Honey Knopp, Vivian Stern, Bettina Paul, and yet we do not know or hear much about these women, whereas we have heard and still hear a lot about all the men you mentioned of course. I would love to hear a few thoughts about that.

Besides these very first intuitive reflections, something I am also curious about in relation to that special issue, is that you asked two different groups of people two different questions: one was “does abolitionism have a future”, and the other was “does prison have a future?”. Can the way we ask a question, lead our quest and affect our answers, and did it in that case?

I might come back to some of your other reflections, but meanwhile I would like to know whether you sense a difference and how would you articulate the difference between the ‘old’ abolitionism and the very ‘new’ initiative you have been involved, the No Prison initiative?

JF. First on your question on women abolitionists. Yes, they exist, and I have tried to contact them. I should have added Angela Davis to the list of interviewees, but did not know her personally, which was generally one of my criteria for inclusion. Meanwhile, there is a young generation coming to the fore. This was clear at the International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA) conference in London in 2019. There I learned, from Ruth Wilson Gilmore, the pejorative term “carceral feminism”. But I also learned that most of the young participants come from currents such as restorative justice and transformative justice. And recently, I was interviewed by SM Rodriguez, a professor at Hofstra University in New York, who is trying to figure out the development of abolitionism in the US and in Europe.

Gerlinda Smaus would definitely be worth a case study. She was, and still is, a critical criminologist and sociologist. A German-Czech expatriate, she found a job at the University of Saarland in Saarbrücken, at the Institut für Rechts- und Sozialphilosophie (Institute for Legal and Social Philosophy), where Italian expat Alessandro Baratta, famous in Italy and ignored in Germany, was director. She participated regularly in the discussions of the young criminologists, published important books and articles, and tackled the, then quite neglected, topic of abolitionism and feminism. But she never had a chance to become a university professor, since most criminology in Germany is based in law departments, but in order to be hired you need a law degree. I had lost contact with her, when she started teaching in the Czech Republic, but fortunately, our conversation caused me to renew this contact.

Fay Honey Knopp is another highly interesting case. She was probably, in the 1970s, the most influential abolitionist in the US, but all grassroots, no academic career (“Her inability to attend college was probably the one regret of her life”). But I had never heard of her myself before Thomas (aka Herman) Bianchi mentioned her name to me. She is virtually unknown among the European abolitionists, but also not quoted in academic US criminology, the only exception being Harold Pepinsky. She was a radical, but not identified as a leftist, therefore Angela Davis does also not mention her. There is no Wikipedia article to her name and this could be my next little project.

BP. I would really support the project on Wikipedia on Fay Honey Knopp. I find it bewildering that no one ever speaks of her, even though she co-authored in 1976 Instead of Prisons: A Handbook for Prison Abolitionists, a book which seems to have fallen into oblivion. Perhaps we can organise a visit to Gerlinda Smaus together? I would love that. I find it actually quite interesting that even in that exchange when you asked everyone to comment on the question of abolitionism, the comments made by the women are in a shadow, despite them being very good. No one of the other abolitionists directs their comments to them, answers them, but instead they only address each other.

JF. In relation to the exchange, you are right to remind me that there were two questions. The first one “Is there a future for prisons?” became the title of the special issue of Kriminologisches Journal in 2008. But it was more of a rhetorical and even ironic question, which sounds even more ironic in the German original “Ist das Gefängnis noch zu retten?” (can prison be saved?). In our email exchange with abolitionists, we asked the question “what became of abolitionism as a movement and whether it is still valid as a theoretical and/or strategic approach?”. Therefore, we were aware of the difference in these questions, but they served for us different purposes. But then again, in the discussion between the abolitionists, these two questions become two sides of one coin.

Regarding your question on the new and old abolitionism, in our book No Prison, you find a hodgepodge of different strains of “old” abolitionist thinking. What’s new about it might be the attempt to bring them all together: the leftists and anarchists, the religious and the non-religious, the academics and the practitioners, the lawyers and the sociologists. At least that is what we are trying to do at the moment in Germany. And that is why I am eager to establish contact with those who work on restorative justice and transformative justice.

BP. The reason I asked you the question related to comparing the “old” and “new” abolitionism is because of a comment made by Thomas (aka Herman) Bianchi in that exchange. Speaking about futurology, he identifies big cultural changes more or less every 60 years. According to his calculation, currently (to be precise he says in 2020), we should have the “first results and return of abolitionism”. What do you think of that forecast, could it be prophetic?

JF. This strikes me as an example of mysticism and/or fake science. If abolitionism will return by 2020, which is not unlikely by the way, it will be the result of the hard work of people like David Scott and many others, and not the inevitable consequence of prophecies.

BP You mentioned David Scott, the No Prison initiative, but also the ICOPA conference, and other related developments. There is indeed a glorious comeback of abolitionism, a way of thinking which somehow had fallen into disrepute in academia and policy making, although certainly not for everyone. It seems perhaps important in terms of strategy that the seeds planted by the older generation have been nourished in dialogue with the younger generations and adapted to their struggles. In a paper I have written on responses to sexual violence, I reflect on the pros and cons of different schools of thought in offering a response to this phenomenon, and I come to the conclusion that we need an integrative response where the feminist, abolitionist, restorative, but also transformative impulses (or as you call them ‘stances’) are put in a dialogue with each other.

As you also read from the paper I have published with Christa Pelikan, inside the restorative justice community, we are sending a strong reminder regarding our abolitionist roots. In the 2018 conference of the European Forum for Restorative Justice in Tirana we invited Vincenzo Ruggiero, another critical criminologist who has been persistent in his engagement with abolitionism and contact with the European Group. We had invited in one of our seminars on “Critical theory and restorative justice” Massimo Pavarini and Dario Melossi, but both rejected the invitation on the grounds of their lack of familiarity with restorative justice. Thanks to that exchange, Pavarini referred us to a great scholar of restorative justice in Italy, Claudia Mazzucato, who has become an amazing friend and ‘discovery’, so overall it went well.

But there has been a certain hesitation from ‘abolitionist circles’ to engage with restorative justice, which I find hard to understand. At the end of the day, the restorative paradigm took seriously some of those early concepts of abolitionism you were mentioning, such as reducing the interference of the state on the lifeworld, dealing with cases individually and differently, creating a democratically oriented justice system where people were owners of their acts, and replacing punishment with restoration, reparation, and so on, all while bringing attention to the harm instead of crime. But I admit it hasn’t gone far enough and that is why I think that both stances have so much to learn from each other.

The best example I can think of today, since you also mentioned Angela Davis, is the merging of the abolitionist stance that is typical of Angela with the restorative and healing justice stance of her sister, Fania Davis. They might have had their discussions, but I think they have chosen to put the two stances in a dialogue (the radical work of healing) and it is that dialogue that results to be the most fruitful outcome in my view. I am aware that in that search for contact that you are trying to establish with the restorative community, you have met some great friends from the Basque Country, certainly Roberto Moreno I assume. How did your talk “Only no prison is a good prison” go down in a seminar organised by the Ministry of Justice on Justicia Restaurativa y Prisión (restorative justice and prison)?

JF. Yes, I was invited by Roberto Moreno, when he heard that I was staying at the Oñati Institute. I had not much time to prepare the short presentation, just sketched it in the night before going to Bilbao. It became something like an abolitionist manifesto. I had no idea what to expect. But it turned out to be a surprisingly successful meeting, with an audience mainly of civil servants, including prison and probation officers. While there were some people in the audience whom I had met before, I knew none of the other speakers. But I felt very close to Jorge Olero Perán (Federación Andaluza Enlace, Sevilla), who regards “restorative justice as an abolitionist and pragmatic movement that aims to modify the current criminal justice system” (Pragmatic Abolitionism). In the discussion, I was surprised about the open-mindedness of the audience, even the government officials present seemed unafraid of such ‘revolutionary’ ideas.

My own unfamiliarity with restorative justice theory and practice is in fact probably even less than that professed by Massimo and Dario. In that respect I am very happy that we will meet in Saarbrücken soon together with Gerlinda Smaus, as this will give us a chance to talk further about abolitionism and its relationship with restorative justice. Thank you especially for mentioning Fania Davis, whose new book I have immediately ordered.

BP. I am looking forward to that meeting with you and Gerlinda Smaus and I thank you for making it happen and being such a man of action[ii].

@ Johannes Feest and Gerlinda Smaus in Saarbrücken, 20 May 2019

Johannes, you have done extensive research on prisons in Germany. What was your relation as a professor in the University of Bremen with prisons, police, and the like, and were they in Germany, differently from the Basque, afraid of a scholar with ‘abolitionist’ ideas doing research about them? How have you experienced that type of cooperation in Germany?

JF. In its beginnings, in the early 1970s, the University of Bremen was denounced in the media as a “rote Kaderschmiede” (a red cadre training unit). The truth of the matter is that inside this “reform” university many different points of view were tolerated. The university administration was, at the time, inclined to strongly defend academic freedom. Outside, one had to be a little more circumspect and diplomatic. This is especially true in dealing with the prison administration, where we organised and still organise a legal clinic in the local prisons. The same goes for research on police and prisons. But penal abolitionism never became a major public issue. It was only in 2009 that the local edition of the tabloid BILD ran a headline “Grüner will den Bremer Knast abschaffen” (member of the Green party wants to abolish Bremen prison). The background was that a member of the state legislature had invited me to participate in a parliamentary hearing about draft law on pre-trial detention. I could not participate anyway (because I was abroad) and he won in court against the tabloid, they had to rectify and pay him a sum of money as compensation. But he also made it clear that he was not an abolitionist.

BP. Before arriving at the University of Bremen, you had studied sociology at Berkeley. Can you tell me something about that experience, and especially how did you carry it to Germany, and to the University of Bremen in particular?

JF. Berkeley in the mid-1960s was an important and lasting experience for me. I was 26 years old at the time, had finished a training in law (in Vienna and Munich) and had started to study sociology (in Munich and Heidelberg). In Vienna I had been fascinated by the controversy between the legal philosopher Hans Kelsen and the early sociologists of law (see my articles on Hans Kelsen and Eugen Ehrlich in the Encyclopedia of Law and Society). I went to Berkeley primarily with the intention to meet Hans Kelsen, who still lived there, but also to get a better idea of the sociology of law. However, when I arrived, the Free Speech Movement[iii] and the protests against the War in Vietnam became an important part of my practical education.

View of students in Sproul Plaza surrounding police car, October 1, 1964. Mario Savio speaking from roof of car, @ Lon Wilson, UC Berkeley, University Archives, Free Speech Movement Photographs

On the academic side, I completed a Master’s program in sociology with inspiring teachers like Philip Selznick, Laura Nader, David Matza and Aaron Cicourel. At the Center for the Study of Law and Society, I was imbued with bottom-up approaches to research (“immerse yourself into the data”) and warned against grand theorising. In due course, I was hired as research assistant of Jerome Skolnick whose work on curbside justice by the police (Justice without Trial) became a model for my own later ‘participant observation’ research with the police in Munich.

Back in Germany, I became part of a group of young scholars, who introduced the ‘labeling approach’ into German criminology. In this vein, I studied how the police selectively “identified” people as suspects and made their assessment stick on the basis of what I came to call their “definitional powers”. When I was hired at the University of Bremen law department, I was supposed to integrate as much as possible social science findings and ideas into the teaching of criminal law (“social science integrated”). There I was able to make good use of another concept I had learned in the United States, the idea of the “legal clinic”. Together with my students, I started offering legal advice to prisoners at the local prisons in Bremen, as part of the Projektstudium (project studies) favoured at this “reform university”.

BP. Indeed, the idea of “legal clinic” was an important one in your work. I know that a significant part of your time, more than 30 years in fact, has gone to corresponding with prisoners. Can you tell me something about that fascinating project?

JF. This project grew indeed out of the legal clinic work. In order to prepare us for that job, we had to immerse ourselves into the law and its implementation in German prisons. It proved very helpful to hire, in 1983, a lifetime prisoner as an assistant, who had already published on this subject, from his prison cell. He came every day from an open prison in Hamburg to work with me in Bremen and he brought to this project a large correspondence with other prisoners all across Germany. When he left, after two years, to prepare for his release, we decided to carry on with this correspondence and it became a constant source of information on prison conditions (in exchange for legal advice). This became also the basis for empirical research on legal protection in total institutions (Totale Institution und Rechtsschutz) and several smaller empirical research projects. It is also the basis, since 1980, of a critical commentary of the German prison law (Kommentar zu Strafvollzugsgesetzen). The correspondence is still ongoing and comprises more than 8000 letters (and answers). For me, it is full of insights and surprises and has become the most fascinating part of my work.

BP. Extremely interesting indeed, I would learn German only to be able to read that correspondence! To come back to more current developments, I heard that the No Prison Manifesto of Massimo Pavarini and Livio Ferrari has triggered you to create a German version of a prison abolitionist manifesto. Can you tell me something about this current initiative?

JF. Pavarini and Ferrari published in Italian a No Prison manifesto, which was eventually translated into several languages. On that basis, they organised a conference with some of the leading European abolitionists. The result was the publication in 2018 of the No Prison book, which includes contributions from different European countries. Germany was represented with an essay written by Sebastian Scheerer and myself. While working on it, we realised that the idea of abolitionism has been in decline in Germany since the 1990s. It had almost disappeared in academia. But outside the universities, there are signs of resurgence. A few anarchist groups engage in grassroots political work. A fledgling prisoners’ labour union has been formed, with clear abolitionist leanings. And there are a today on the internet frequently interesting references to penal abolitionism. But the larger media took notice only when in 2016, Thomas Galli, a prison governor, resigned from his job after publishing a book on the experience, which led him to believe that prison is “an obsolete societal institution”.

The time seemed to us to be ripe to do some networking and try to bring together the dispersed believers in the abolitionist idea. We circulated a draft manifesto and had a first small but encouraging meeting last month in Dortmund. The people present were from very different walks of life and the exchanges were quite exciting. We were able to identify a long list of other people and organisations that should be approached and be drawn into the process to expand and refine the manifesto. We also discussed the necessity to include different strands of abolitionism and to establish links to related movements like restorative justice and transformative justice. A next meeting is already planned for June in Hamburg (mainly for those who could not make it in May). It is quite unclear, where this process will lead us. Certainly, to publications, maybe to the creation of a website, hopefully to propositions for abolitionist legal changes.

BP. Talking about abolitionism, you have told me that you would rather define yourself as a prison abolitionist instead of an abolitionist. What do you mean by that?

JF. Well, over the years, I realised that for me, following Thomas Mathiesen, the starting point is “overcoming the walls” (Überwindet die Mauern, the title of the German translation of his book on the politics of abolition). The goal of eliminating the prison institution implies and presupposes a number of intellectual and practical steps, as can be seen from our draft manifesto. In order to reach this goal, wider changes in society will be necessary and they will come about by pursuing this goal. But it is not for me to speculate in detail about these changes. My approach is an inductive one, a piecemeal one, one that is mainly concerned with deconstructing, disassembling parts of the existing criminal justice machinery. It is not by chance that I have come closest to restorative justice when I helped build up a victims’ aid organisation in Bremen, read about the Victim-Offender Reconciliation movement and participated in a related working group in the Council of Europe led by Lode Walgrave. Not surprisingly, I feel close to what he now writes about restorative justice in Critical Restorative Justice: for me too, penal abolition is “not a panacea against all social evils”. I am content to restrict myself to the task of removing one major social institution that has become manifestly obsolete. For that purpose, abolitionists will need all the theoretical and practical help that they can get.

BP. During our conversation with Gerlinda Smaus, she said that during the 1970s you were one of the three important “gurus” in Germany, together with Fritz Sack and Stephan Quensel. Ego not being part of your character, you questioned that statement with great elegance. It was clear though, during that conversation, how important your work had been for her and for a whole generation of critical criminologists. She was constantly referring for example to the concept of “definitional power”, a concept that as you said, you have first used in the early 1970s and that belongs intimately to your work. How do you yourself see your place in German criminology?

JF. My place in German criminology is a very marginal and modest one. As a matter of fact, I do not know whether I am a criminologist. Let me explain what I mean by that. As I told you before, I came back from the United States with the idea of applying sociology to law, in other words to become a sociologist of law. When I had finished my empirical research on the police, I applied for a job at the Institute of Sociology in Freiburg. The Institute was beginning to be famous for its work on the study of social norms. That seemed a very appropriate place for me, but unfortunately, there was no open position at this institute and so I had to look for a job elsewhere. It turned out that, the nearby Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law was planning to follow a modern trend by adding a department for criminological research. The director there was very happy to hire someone like me, because I already had research experience. When I arrived for work, I was introduced as “our new criminologist”. So I bought a few German books on criminology, which I found quite old-fashioned and almost unreadable. I also attended a congress of the equally old-fashioned German Society for Criminology.

Fortunately, a newly constituted group of young scholars used this congress as a meeting place. They called themselves Arbeitskreis Junger Kriminologen (working group of young criminologists). Hidden behind that innocuous name, was an onslaught on the old “etiological” (biological/psychiatric) criminology. Their founding mother was Lieselotte Pongratz, a social worker turned sociologist, and Stefan Quensel, a very unusual lawyer turned social scientist. They had started to publish a journal (Kriminologisches Journal), which for many years became the flag ship of critical criminology in Germany (and still exists). My police research was seen as an early proof of the fruitfulness of the ‘labeling approach’ and I was immediately welcomed. I became therefore part of a movement, from below, that aimed at transforming German criminology from a narrow etiological endeavor trying to explain and prevent “crime”, to the development of critical and constitutive approaches. As a member of the Max Planck Institute’s research group, I was able to conduct empirical research, mainly on Betriebsjustiz (informal sanction systems in enterprises). And I became coauthor of a relatively critical pocket encyclopedia of criminology (Kleines kriminologisches Wörterbuch).

When the new and “radical” University started in Bremen, the law department was looking for people like me. This suited me fine, since, at the time, no other university in Germany would have taken me. I had not gone through the required steps, for example I had not been a university assistant (and slave) to some big professor, and had not acquired the Habilitation, the irreplaceable entrance requirement for the traditional universities etc. That’s how I became a professor of criminal law and corrections in Bremen. It turned out that teaching law and social science integrated, was quite to my liking. But over time, also in Bremen, law was gradually taking precedent over social science and I lost more and more touch with the developments in sociology. At the same time, my long and deep involvement with prisoners and prisons enabled me to become something of an authority in that field, able to impress my colleagues in law school, who had no idea about prison law or reality.

If I can sum up, I think I have never become a full-fledged sociologist, nor a classical German legal scholar. On the basis of my early involvement with the German criminological young Turks, I am still considered by most colleagues as a criminologist, but I have stopped considering myself as one. I was doing socio-legal studies and at the same time something like critical (“sociological”) jurisprudence. To use an epithet coined by Fritz Sack, the pope of German critical criminology, I had become something maybe unique, but also seemingly impossible: the cross-breed between a horse and a car. Therefore, it came as a surprise to find myself eulogised recently in a book dealing with “Key works in Critical Criminology” (Schlüsselwerke der Kritischen Kriminologie), where a chapter is devoted to my doctoral dissertation on the Definitionsmacht der Polizei (definitional power of the police).

BP. It comes as a surprise to no one but yourself in fact. There is clearly a lot of value in that crossbreeding type of work you have conducted, a value that can be indeed quite unique. The reflections you are making are not outdated and are very much alive today in the ongoing debates on ‘interdisciplinary’ or ‘transdisciplinary’ studies. As to your metaphor of a ‘cross-breed between a horse and a car’, which might sound strange at first sight, I think we have plenty of examples of horses on wheels reaching us from ancient Greece, Egypt and the Romans, so it does not strike me as an impossibility of thought.

There are advantages of “purity” and advantages of “impurity” of disciplines, and I don’t think we can solve that debate once and forever. The best way of thinking about this, I have found myself in the work of Primo Levi, in particular in The Periodic Table. A chemist, survivor of Auschwitz and writer, Levi wrote 21 chapters of personal stories, each of which he assigns to and links with a chemical element. In the chapter on Zinc (an element with which he identifies), Levi takes advantage of the behaviour of this element (“yielding” to fusion with other acids, but “resistant to attack” in its pure state) to draw a philosophical conclusion, which I find very profound and far reaching: purity protects, but it is impurities that generate life.

[i] Johannes Feest is a German penologist and sociologist of law. He has studied law in Vienna and Munich and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. After his return to Germany, he got involved with the Arbeitskreis Junger Kriminologen, a working group of young criminologists who became the critical criminologists in Germany. From 1974 until his retirement in 2005 he was professor of criminal law and criminology at the University of Bremen, where he has done extensive socio-legal research on courts, police and prisons. During 1995-1997 he directed the International Institute for the Sociology of Law in Oñati.

[ii] Meanwhile during our conversation, we have travelled to Saarbrücken to meet Gerlinda Smaus. Gerlinda hosted us in her home and we had a long conversation about critical criminology, feminism, abolitionism, and restorative justice.

[iii] The Free Speech Movement (FSM) was a college campus phenomenon inspired first by the struggle for civil rights and later fueled by opposition to the Vietnam War.