(Norman and Karin. Lisbon 2001. Photo taken by the author.)
Norman Bishop died at the end of July 2020, at the age of 99. Because of his great age and long retirement, many people will be unaware of his inspirational career and his enormous contribution to penal affairs across Europe. But his life and work need to be better known and to be celebrated. This essay is a very personal tribute. It is not a biography and although I have drawn on an article about him that was posted on Twitter by his dear friend, Professor Martine Herzog-Evans, my only ‘source’ is Norman himself. And, of course, when in the course of our friendship of nearly 20 years he spoke about of his career, I had no expectation of writing about him and took no notes. Apologies, then, for any inaccuracies, although I hope that I have been faithful to Norman and to his work. Apologies as well if my own experiences loom too large in this tribute.
Born in England, Norman became a prison governor and (I believe) was for a while the Head of the Prison Service College which was then in Wakefield. He was commissioned to undertake work with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. It was during his time in France that he met and fell in love with a Swedish lady, Karin, a judge by profession. He moved to live with her in Sweden and the couple remained deeply committed to each other for the rest of their long lives.
Norman told me that soon after his arrival a woman came to their home to teach him Swedish. She carried two large carrier bags full of things to make a start on learning his nouns and no conversation was allowed except in Swedish. Duly kitted out with his nouns and other parts of speech, he joined the Swedish Prison and Probation Administration, in time becoming Head of Research in the Directorate. He was a sophisticated cruncher of numbers and skilled in their interpretation, but never lost sight of the truth that behind all these figures are human lives influenced and often damaged by their experiences of prison.
I first met Norman Bishop in Kiev in 2000. I was working there at the time to help the Ukrainian administration to develop ways of managing a bloated and squalid prison estate, introducing them to ideas and practices which it was hoped would better represent the human rights aspirations of a nation struggling in its transitions towards democracy. Norman spoke at a small conference, as one of the representatives of the Council of Europe. At the end, my colleagues and I introduced ourselves and later dined with them. Norman and I exchanged email addresses and I wrote to him when I was back home a couple of weeks later. This was the start of a long and regular email exchange over many years.
Among his many other roles, Norman was a member of a Council of Europe Steering Group for the Reform of the Russian Prison System. Their rapporteur, Ken Neale (another eminent prison reform champion), had just had to stand down and Norman recommended me as a successor. (I suspect that the principal reason that Norman proposed me was that I had some knowledge of probation, while almost all the other members of the Steering Group had a background in prisons.) This was the start of my work with the Council and the first of many marvellous opportunities that this brought to me, both personally and professionally. Norman was my mentor and taught me much.
Norman was deeply respected at the Council in Strasbourg, for his perspicacity, clarity, eloquence and manifest integrity. He was an influence in the Council for Penological Co-operation (PC-CP) over many years. He recognised that the Recommendations of the Council are ‘soft law’ and that much of their influence depends upon the respect they are able to command. But he also saw that this was a strength as well as a potential limitation because it meant that hard work had to be done to explain any Rules and why they were important. These processes gave the Council’s Recommendations a legitimacy that many international regulations struggle to achieve. I believe that the Russian Steering Group, for example, accomplished a great deal and it did so in part because of the personal relationships that were formed between the members of the group and the representatives of the Russian Federation. In a sense, specific proposals for change mattered less than the gaining of mutual trust and confidence: in the context of respect and friendship, the detail could be worked out later.
Making friends wherever he went, Norman was a big part of such achievements. On a visit to a prison in rural Portugal, I entered one of the wings rather tentatively to be overtaken by Norman (about 80 years old then) who bounded ahead to introduce himself to the prisoners, shaking hands with everyone. He told me later that there was always someone to be found who could speak some English and although he was keen to speak to staff as well, he always felt he would get deeper insights from those serving their sentence. His good nature, courtesy and infectious smile unfailingly eased these conversations.
Norman had a particular affection for Albania and I worked there with him on a few occasions – the first time in the company of another friend, Gerhard Ploeg. Norman told me that on an earlier visit (1997) he and his colleagues had found themselves in the middle of a riot in the streets of Tirana at the time of the collapse of the economy. Seeking advice from Strasbourg, they were instructed to leave the country immediately. On later visits, Norman worked carefully to try to convince people of the advantages of ‘alternatives to custody’, although he was by no means unaware of the hazards of this idea and carefully avoided using that specific expression. There are two particular lessons I learned from and with Norman in Albania. First, having even a sound legal basis for penal affairs (and the Albanians were given a sound Penal Code by the Italians) is no assurance that policy and practice will improve. This is fairly obvious, but easy to lose sight of when studying texts and arguing about their implications. Second, these are projects of sowing seeds and, especially when personnel change rapidly (as they certainly did in that country at that time), the same discussions need to take place over and over again. In other words, and to change the metaphor, this is the boulder of Sisyphus and the best that most of us can hope for is to try to shove it up the hill a bit and try to stop it rolling all the way back down. I don’t think Norman was aware of the enormous progress that Albania has made in the development of its probation practices in recent years, but I’m sure he would have been most encouraged.
As well as developing practices in his own country of Sweden, he retained a particular interest in penal policy in France and up to 5 years ago was still lobbying actively for a more careful interpretation of statistical findings (in France and elsewhere) and for caution about some of the more extravagant claims of findings about ‘effective practice’. He was among the first to recognise that electronic monitoring would become a very significant penal practice and from the beginning urged people to think about its ethical implications and how it could be implemented in a principled manner. He was also among the pioneers of the idea (quite radical for its day) that prisoners should have ample opportunities to make representations to the prison management about their conditions of detention. In many countries nowadays, Prison Councils are well-established and, at a European level, Norman was among the first to recognise their potential value.
I had conversations with him about the advantages and drawbacks of combining a national Prison and Probation Service. I was eventually persuaded by his view that where a country sees imprisonment as truly a last resort, with a strong presumption in favour of other sanctions, a merged service might prosper; where, on the other hand, community sanctions and measures were regarded simply as a device for managing a swollen prison population and valued only to that extent, a merger was much more likely to be a takeover and the worth and achievements of probation put at risk.
Norman and Karin were in England visiting family in 2004 and accepted my invitation to dine at our house near Nottingham. He had driven a long way that day, arriving in the evening, and planned to drive on the following morning to catch the ferry back to Sweden. He tells us that he was to stay just one night at home, then pack up and go off to work in Kazakhstan for a fortnight, working in and around their prison system. He was well over 80 years old by then.
Norman’s was a very full and active life. He enjoyed sailing, skiing and tennis to an advanced age and was only slightly slowed down when he acquired a prosthetic knee. (He used to chuckle over stories about how this used to set off alarms at airports.) He was a very keen pianist and carried on taking lessons well after the age of 90. A touching memory for me is that when I told him that one of my sons played clarinet (he was then a novice, but has since become accomplished), Norman’s immediate reaction was to say that he hoped one day he might be able to accompany him. Such reactions of encouragement, warmth and generosity were altogether typical of Norman. He and I shared a fondness for feeble jokes, weak puns, limericks and clerihews and I find it hard to think of him without smiling.
By now we are used to the idea that scholars, managers and practitioners can sit down together in friendship and good faith to exchange ideas and to learn from one another. Such dialogue has a long history, but Norman Bishop was among those who championed and nurtured these exchanges. He understood that the tone of these meetings often makes quite as much difference as any formal conclusions they may reach. Through learning together and in conversation with other countries, we come to understand our own practices much more deeply, as well as opening our minds to new ideas. If nowadays this seems all too obviously true and we sometimes persuade ourselves that we can now see further, it is surely because we have been able to stand on the shoulders of people like Norman Bishop.
3 thoughts on “Norman Bishop: A Tribute”
Thank you, Ann. I should be very pleased if family members appreciate this essay. Your uncle was a fine man.
Thank you for writing these memories of the passion for his work Norman (my Uncle) achieved and to hear more about the changes he set about for the prison services throughout his long career.
Hi Rob, what an amazing person he was. Thank you for this great insight into his life. It’s making me think about all that really can be accomplished. It’s particularly good, in these strange times, to have some much that is interesting, energetic and vital to reflect on. Bw, Christina.