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Sonja Snacken

Emeritus Professor
+32(0)2 629 2644


Sonja Snacken is Professor of Criminology, Penology and Sociology of Law in the Department of Criminology at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB. Her research focuses on (comparative) penality and different forms of (extreme) institutional dependency. She has been involved in over 40 (inter)national research projects, with a special emphasis on the integration of empirical social science with human rights approaches. She was Research Fellow at the Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law and Justice, New York University School of Law (2010-2011) and has been Collaborateur-membre of the Centre International de Criminologie Comparée, Université de Montréal (since 2010). She was awarded the Belgian Francqui Chair at the Université Catholique de Louvain (2008-2009), the Ernest-John Solvay Prize for Scientific Excellence in the Human and Social Sciences by the National Science Foundation (FWO, 2010), and in 2015 she was presented with the European Criminology Award by the European Society of Criminology.

Among Sonja Snacken's most important contributions in the field of penal reform:


The relation between human rights and more moderate penal policies

In 2010 Ian Loader described how the concept of “penal moderation” could form the basis for a new “public philosophy of punishment”. Penal moderation cannot be achieved by a penal elite hoping its policies will remain hidden to the public (moderation-as-stealth). It must on the contrary explicitly engage with the (punitive) emotions raised by crime and punishment (moderation-as-politics). This research analyses which shared values between power holders and the audience (Bottoms & Tankebe 2012) can grant legitimacy to more moderate penal policies, and if/how human rights can contribute to such moderation. This is studied from a Belgian, European and international comparative approach.

• Snacken, S. (2015) Punishment, legitimate policies and values: Penal moderation, dignity and human rights, Punishment & Society, Special Issue: Punishment, Values, and Local Cultures, 17: 397-423

• Snacken, S. (2018) The European Court of Human Rights and National Penal Policies: Tackling Prison Population Inflation and Fostering Penal Moderation through Articles 3 and 5 of the Convention, La protection des personnes détenues en Europe/The protection of prisoners’ rights in Europe, Actes de colloque, Revue des Droits de l’Homme, 14: 56-66

• Snacken, S. (2019) Penal moderation between populism and penal hope - Europe and Australia, paper ANZSOC Conference, Perth, December 2019 


The relation between formal rights for prisoners and human dignity; the importance of staff

 “Human dignity” has sometimes been described as a container concept, too vague to be useful. It has therefore increasingly been translated into formal human rights. This trend is also witnessed with regard to human dignity in prisons. Both the Belgian Prison Act (2005) and the European Court of Human Rights refer to both dignity and formal rights for prisoners. The question remains whether formal human rights are sufficient to guarantee dignity, whether they produce counterproductive effects and how they increase resistance by prison staff against such endeavours.

• Snacken, S. (2015) Human dignity and/or human rights for prisoners? A Belgian example, Neue Kriminalpolitik, 27 (2): 181-189

• Snacken, S., Devynck, C., Distelmans, W., Gutwirth, S. & Lemmens, C. (2015) Demandes d’euthanasie en prison. Souffrance psychique entre dignité humaine et peine de mort, Criminologie (Montréal), Justice et santé mentale, 48(1) : 101-122

• Tournel, H., Snacken, S. & Jehaes, E. (2017) De penitentiair bewakingsassistenten, in: Beyens, K & Snacken, S (eds) Straffen. Een penologisch perspectief. Antwerpen: Maklu, 561-582

• Snacken, S. (2020) Empirical Prisoners’ Rights – Challenges and Risks of Proceduralisation of Dignity in Prison, in: Drenkhahn, K., Geng, B., Grzyswa-Holten, J., Harrendorf, S., Morgenstern, C., Pruin, I. (eds.) Kriminologie und Kriminalpolitik im Dienste der Menschenwürde - Festschrift fur Frieder Dünkel zum 70.Geburtsdag: 927-940 


The impact of control over and monitoring of prisons on prison policy and a more humane prison regime from a Belgian, European and international comparative perspective

Prisons worldwide are increasingly subjected to control and monitoring: local Boards of Visitors; National Preventive Mechanisms and the SPT under the OPCAT of the United Nations; the European CPT; national courts; the European Court of Human Rights.. They aim at improving the living conditions and dignity in prisons and other places of detention. Research into their real impact is only starting. As former expert for the CPT and chair of the Council for Penological Cooperation of the Council of Europe Sonja Snacken analyses the conditions of effectiveness of such mechanisms and performs international comparative research with scholars abroad.

• Snacken, S. (2012) Het Europees Comité voor de Preventie van Foltering. Beter een lappendeken dan koud in de naakte nacht? In B. Hubeau, S. Gibens, S. Mercelis,S. Parmentier, P. Ponsaers, K. Van Aeken, G. Vande Walle, J. Van Houtte (eds), Dialogen tussen recht en samenleving. Een handboek over het rechtssociologisch onderzoek in Vlaanderen, Leuven: Acco, 547-558

• Snacken, S., (2014) Les structures européennes de contrôle des administrations pénitentiaires : le rôle et l’impact du Conseil de l’Europe et du Comité de Prévention de la Torture, Déviance & Société, 38(4) : 405-423

• Snacken, S. & Kiefer, N. (2016). Oversight of international imprisonment: the Committee for the Prevention of Torture. In Mulgrew, R. and Abels, D. (eds.) Research Handbook on the International Penal System. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar: 322-344.

• Snacken, S. (2017) Internationale standaarden en monitoring, in: Beyens, K & Snacken, S (eds) Straffen. Een penologisch perspectief. Antwerpen: Maklu, 339-364

• Snacken, S. (2017) Europese standaarden en monitoring, in: Beyens, K & Snacken, S (eds) Straffen. Een penologisch perspectief. Antwerpen: Maklu, 365-424

• Cliquennois, G., Snacken, S. (2018) European and United Nations monitoring of penal and prison policies as a source of an inverted panopticon? Crime, Law and Social Change, 70 (1): 1–18

• Cliquennois, G., Snacken, S. (Issue Editors) (2018), European and United Nations monitoring of penal and prison policies as a source of an inverted panopticon? Crime, Law and Social Change, 70 (1): 1 - 173 Under review:

• Cliquennois, G, Snacken, S., van Zyl Smit, D. (Issue editors) (2020) Special Issue “Human rights, prisons and penal policies", European Journal of Criminology • Snacken, S., Cliquennois, G, van Zyl Smit, D. (2020) Can European human rights instruments limit the power of the state to punish? – A tale of two Europes, in: Special Issue “Human rights, prisons and penal policies" (Issue editors: G. Cliquennois, S. Snacken, D. van Zyl Smit), European Journal of Criminology 


Evaluation of the implementation of the Belgian Prison Act and the Act on the External Legal Position of Sentenced Prisoners and the Rights of the Victims

Both the Prison Act (2005) and the Act on the Legal Position of Sentenced Prisoners and the Rights of the Victims (2006) aim at integrating both human rights and penological principles. Their implementation however proceeds in a very fragmented way and requires constant evaluation. 

• Snacken, S. (2009) Dertig jaar strafuitvoering in België, in W. Bruggeman e.a. (eds.) Van Pionier naar onmisbaar. Over 30 jaar Panopticon, Antwerpen: Maklu, 278-304

• Snacken, S. (2014) De Commissie Holsters dan toch buitenspel? In: T. Daems, K. Beyens, E. Maes (red.) Exit gevangenis? Werking van de strafuitvoeringsrechtbanken en de wet op de externe rechtspositie van gevangenen. Reeks Panopticon Libri, nr. 6, Antwerpen: Maklu, 155-176

• Snacken, S. (2015) Tien jaar Basiswet – ‘Back to Basics’, in: Daems, T., Hermans, C., Janssens, F., Millen, J., Robert, L., Scheirs, V. (2015) Quo vadis? Tien jaar basiswet gevangeniswezen en rechtspositie van gedetineerden, Antwerpen-Apeldoorn: Maklu, 179-203

• Snacken, S. & Kennes, Ph. (2017) De interne rechtspositie van gedetineerden, in: Beyens, K & Snacken, S (eds) Straffen. Een penologisch perspectief. Antwerpen: Maklu, 425-474 


Experiencing human dignity in different institutions

This work has led to four PhDs under supervision of Sonja Snacken focus on this comparative approach to dignity in different institutions:

• Diete Humblet: The meaning of imprisonment in later life (funding: FWO-project 2013-2017; supra)

• Ineke Casier: De invloed van wetgeving op relaties van (extreme) institutionele afhankelijkheid: vormen van autonomie en participatie in de gevangenis en het ziekenhuis (exp.2020) (funding: FWO PhD 2012-2016)

• Caroline Devynck: Imprisonment and mental suffering: End-of-life questions from prisoners (exp 2020)(funding: Stichting Morele Bijstand aan Gedetineerden)

• Veerle Berx: Regimes in open reception centres for asylum seekers (exp. 2020)(no external funding) D)


Research Line: Penality and Society

Knowledge Cluster: Empirical Human Rights









SS2019Watch Sonja Snacken interviewed by Elena Larrauri on occasion of the European Society of Criminology (2019)


Vrije Universiteit Brussel
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