The rise of populism has become a central feature of contemporary political and penal practices. What are the common (or country-specific) causes of these seemingly isolated strains of penal populism and how do they take shape in different social milieu? This paper addresses these salient questions. Its objectives are two-fold. First, it develops a typology of the mechanisms and dynamics of penal populism. Its attention to populism in non-democratic settings complements existing literature. Second, this article sheds light on the social forces which underpin the rise of penal populism across national borders, including both endogenous and exogenous drivers which arouse concerns about security in public psyche. Whether and how these conditions trigger penal populism depends on a range of factors, including, but not limited to, the political currency of popular involvement and the degree of division in identity formation.