Thoughts from the criminology team

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The same old rhetoric, just another place

2+2=5My sister phoned me the other day in great excitement.  She’d just met a former criminology student from the University of Northampton, and she had an awful lot to say about it.  She wasn’t in her hometown and had asked directions from a stranger to the river embankment.  Having visited the embankment, she returned to town only to bump into the stranger again who enquired whether she managed to find it. They ended up chatting, my sister can do a lot of that, and she found out that the stranger was a police officer.  My sister asked whether she knew me, why she would ask that I have no idea, it seems that she has formulated some notion in her head that all police officers must know each other or at least know of each other.  This is the bit that my sister got so animated about, yes, the stranger did know me, I’d taught her at the University, and she was now in a budding police career.  Apparently, I had done so much to help her.  Now I don’t know about being that helpful and I suspect that many of my colleagues played a part in her success story, but it reminded me about what it is that we do and aspire to do as lecturers.

Whilst waiting to play my part in talking to school children the other day I started to read a new edition of a seminal piece of work on policing, The Politics of the Police (Bowling et al., 2019).  The preface alone makes interesting reading and in ‘mentioning populist political reactions towards crime’, ‘zero tolerance of the marginalised and outsiders’ and ‘laissez-faire economics’ that promotes individual interests, my mind turned to the managerialist ideals that have dogged policing for over three decades.  Those ideals saw the introduction of performance indicators, targets and the inevitable policing by objectives (Hallam, 2000), that resulted in some quite appalling manipulation of data and a diminution of service rather than an improvement.  The problem was that the targets were never achievable and were simply put in place for managers to simplify the social world over which they had no control.  What didn’t get measured, because it never could be, were the myriad of tasks that police officers and staff undertake daily.  Dealing with people with mental illness, searching for missing persons and dealing with minor disturbances are an example of just a few such tasks.  Bowling et al. (op cit.) subscribe to the notion that the job of the police is to help maintain social order, an ideal that does not lend itself to measurement. Counting the number of crimes committed in an area or the number of detected crimes is only an indication of failure, not success.

How does that policing narrative fit in with my opening paragraph? The former student was not an ideal student from a managerialist viewpoint.  She didn’t attain so called ‘good grades’, I’m not even sure if she fully completed her studies.  In terms of performance measurement, she doesn’t even feature and yet she, like so many others we have seen in Criminology, has flourished.  Whilst concentrating on ‘retention and progression’ and ‘fails’ and ‘good grades’ we neglect the very reason we exist.  Just as in policing where the figures were pored over by managerialist who had not slightest notion of the reality of the social world, so too are we in danger of simply seeking pleasing statistics to keep the wolves from the door because explanations of real success and failure are too complex for managers to understand or manage.

Imagine a world where the police just helped maintain social order, where probation were not plagued by notions of payment by results, where patients were just seen in A&E in a reasonable time and where lecturers just opened the minds of students and allowed them to think for themselves.  Imagine the time and expense that could be saved and reinvested in providing real service and dare I say it ‘value for money’ if we stopped gathering meaningless data.  Imagine managers casting aside the shackles of neoliberalist ideals and managing people, not using numbers as an indication of failure and impending doom.  We can but dream, but my reality, as I’m sure is the reality of many of my colleagues, is the success stories that I occasionally hear and can reminisce about.  No amount of number crunching can take that away and nor will it ever provide evidence of success or failure.

Bowling, B. Reiner, R. and Sheptycki, J. (2019) The Politics of the Police. (5th ed.) Oxford: OUP.

Hallam, S. (2000) Effective and Efficient Policing: Some Problems with the Culture of Performance, in Marlow, A. and Loveday, B. (eds.) After MacPherson: Policing after the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. Lyme Regis: Russell House

Documenting inequality: how much evidence is needed to change things?

In our society, there is a focus on documenting inequality and injustice. In the discipline of criminology (as with other social sciences) we question and read and take notes and count and read and take more notes. We then come to an evidence based conclusion; yes, there is definite evidence of disproportionality and inequality within our society. Excellent, we have identified and quantified a social problem. We can talk and write, inside and outside of that social problem, exploring it from all possible angles. We can approach social problems from different viewpoints, different perspectives using a diverse range of theoretical standpoints and research methodologies. But what happens next? I would argue that in many cases, absolutely nothing! Or at least, nothing that changes these ingrained social problems and inequalities.

Even the most cursory examination reveals discrimination, inequality, injustice (often on the grounds of gender, race, disability, sexuality, belief, age, health…the list goes on), often articulated, the subject of heated debate and argument within all strata of society, but remaining resolutely insoluble. It is as if discrimination, inequality and injustice were part and parcel of living in the twenty-first century in a supposedly wealthy nation.  If you don’t agree with my claims, look at some specific examples; poverty, gender inequality in the workplace, disproportionality in police stop and search and the rise of hate crime.

  • Three years before the end of World War 2, Beveridge claimed that through a minor redistribution of wealth (through welfare schemes including child support) poverty ‘could have been abolished in Britain‘ prior to the war (Beveridge, 1942: 8, n. 14)
  • Yet here we are in 2019 talking about children growing up in poverty with claims indicating ‘4.1 million children living in poverty in the UK’. In addition, 1.6 million parcels have been distributed by food banks to individuals and families facing hunger
  • There is legal impetus for companies and organisations to publish data relating to their employees. From these reports, it appears that 8 out of 10 of these organisations pay women less than men. In addition, claims that 37% of female managers find their workplace to be sexist are noted
  • Disproportionality in stop and search has long been identified and quantified, particularly in relation to young black males. As David Lammy’s (2017) Review made clear this is a problem that is not going away, instead there is plenty of evidence to indicate that this inequality is expanding rather than contracting
  • Post-referendum, concerns were raised in many areas about an increase in hate crime. Most attention has focused on issues of race and religion but there are other targets of violence and intolerance

These are just some examples of inequality and injustice. Despite the ever-increasing data, where is the evidence to show that society is learning, is responding to these issues with more than just platitudes? Even when, as a society, we are faced with the horror of Grenfell Tower, exposing all manner of social inequalities and injustices no longer hidden but in plain sight, there is no meaningful response. Instead, there are arguments about who is to blame, who should pay, with the lives of those individuals and families (both living and dead) tossed around as if they were insignificant, in all of these discussions.

As the writer Pearl S. Buck made explicit

‘our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is in the way that it cares for its helpless members’ (1954: 337).

If society seriously wants to make a difference the evidence is all around us…stop counting and start doing. Start knocking down the barriers faced by so many and remove inequality and injustice from the world. Only then can we have a society which we all truly want to belong to.

Selected bibliography

Beveridge, William, (1942), Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services, (HMSO: London)

Buck, Pearl S. (1954), My Several Worlds: A Personal Record, (London: Methuen)

Lammy, David, (2017), The Lammy Review: An Independent Review into the Treatment of, and Outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Individuals in the Criminal Justice System, (London: Ministry of Justice)

How to boil an egg…A criminological issue?

Another academic year is coming close to an end.  After the plans and the changes made there is always a little time for reflection to ask what is in a year?  The rhetorical question implies that there is an expected answer and that is true, well sometimes!  After years serving HE it is becoming clear that things change “τα πάντα ρει”, everything flows as Heraclitus once said.  Education is about knowledge and as it progresses, we progress with it. 

In previous posts the value of education and reading for a subject like criminology has been argued, but ultimately what does it really mean to complete one year of education in HE?  Well if you are on your first year it is the recognition that you can do this!  The first step in many more to follow on the road to academic understanding.  If you are on your second year you demonstrate perseverance, sticking with the subject you chose, and you continue to read more of it.  Finally, if you are on your third year it is the anticipation of completion of a course of study.  The successful conclusion of studies that will award you with a title. 

This end for some is the end of the formal part of their higher education, whilst for others it is simply the beginning of the end of a longer and more arduous journey in learning.  An exam board shall mark this end when all colleagues will read name after name, grade after grade, but this is only part of that story.  The other part is the memories on learning that it will launch.  I still hear stories of students remembering a lecture with a slide title “Lesbian Vampire Killers” on a session on media and crime which seems to tickle our alumni, or a phrase used in a class again and again for emphasis.  Using a metaphor or an example that takes you away from the prescribed values.  Some of the readers may remember my question “How long to hard boil an egg?”  A question that revealed some of us have limited culinary skills, but the intended purpose was to allow us to look at the question of positionality and context.  It only takes a couple of pre vs post- war Italian cookbooks to realise that the question can be answered considering the social situation and the energy requirements of its time.  A country famed for its culinary status, but also broken from a second world war that decimated infrastructures and harmed population.  Poverty, theft, antisocial behaviour, violence but also recriminations for the incurred destruction became the other effects hidden behind a seemingly random change in a number on a cookbook. *        

My personal favourite was going over a criminal profiling case with students of the wrong year who were looking at me rather confused on the content.  I shall never of course forget my sex offenders lecture to accounting students (I got the place and time wrong) which according to my bemused colleague who was watching me from the corner an interesting interlude from his session!  These little anecdotes do not sustain knowledge, but they remind us how we got to be in that place. 

Regardless of the subject of study or its level, all “participants” who engage in higher education gain one significant attribute, that of perspective.  The ability to look closely of a idea through the disciplinary lens but also to zoom out and look at the bigger picture, thus making perspective more relevant.  Perspective is distance and as we gain more knowledge, the better our judgement becomes in using this lens to zoom in and out. This is what we acquire as we progress through higher education.    

*I could also point out the existential symbolism of the egg as the representation of the soul and the time to boil it is a metaphor for torment in the proverbial purgatory…but I will not

Animal therapy in prisons – a loyal friend where it is needed most

This week I could have written about Brexit, the Tory Leadership contest, Trump’s visit or climate change, but I decided all of it was too depressing and anxiety inducing, so this week – Dogs in Prisons! There is a serious message behind this, as it is clear there needs to be a rethink about the use of prison and more attention paid to conditions if we are ever going to meaningfully address high re-offending rates. This is where I would normally link this to austerity and a need for wholescale reform in the delivery of justice. While this is important, I decided this week, it would be nice to focus on the positives of initiatives which aim to help the most marginalised in our society.

Animal Assisted Therapies (using animals to create a therapeutic environment) have been adopted in health settings, to enhance social care and mental health treatment, and findings from research show positive results (Durcan, 2018). The pilot for this innovation to be used in prisons was introduced by Rethink Mental Illness in the North East, and involved the use of therapy dogs working with men, women and young men. It was the result of a partnership between Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), Rethink and the National Health Service (NHS). The evaluation showed a ‘considerable, measurable, and statistically significant benefit to the scheme’s participants’ (p.4) during its inception, as represented by clinical ratings such as the reduction of self-harm.

 

The observations from the study noted the calming effects of therapy dogs – anyone who has a pet will know all about this – and, they also helped with coping skills, supporting engagement and provided prisoners with a space in which to express emotion and not feel judged. Of course, with findings like this they make a case for recommending roll out of the scheme, but also that the prison service needs to tackle the stigma which was reported by staff, about taking part in such innovations, cited as part of the ‘rehabilitative culture’ (Durcan, 2018). The title of the report itself is ‘restoring something lost’ and this struck a chord as I reflected that the loss is perhaps the rehabilitative function of prison. Instead we have a penal system which is dominated by security concerns and tough on crime rhetoric, meaning our prisons have become ‘abject places of despair built on the infliction of punishment and pain’ where prisoners feel ‘bereft, disorientated and terrorised’ (Simms, 2015 – see https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/resources/beyond-govism). Therefore, anything which changes this state of existence in prisons should be adopted, especially if it improves engagement between staff and prisoners and gives them a sense of normality in a place so far removed from life outside. Along with improving coping skills, better engagement could also mean prisoners are more invested in their rehabilitation and open to interventions which may change their behaviour in a way which leads to desistance.

This was certainly found to be the case with arts and music therapy in prisons as shown by an evaluation of the ‘Good Vibrations’ project, a music-based therapy programme used in HMP Grendon (Wilson et al, 2009). A key finding was that participation led to better engagement with other forms of education and skills training, building a sense of confidence among prisoners that they were capable of learning something new. As with the animal assisted therapy scheme, the findings also reported that prisoners felt a sense of calm and had better relationships with staff. Desistance theorists highlight the importance of understanding the interaction between individual motivation to change and external conditions required to support this (Maruna, 2001; King 2012). That said, it is also widely accepted that even with both in place, desistance is likely to be a process of dealing with obstacles, un-intended consequences and unforeseen risks. I would argue no amount of pet therapy can help anyone overcome the challenges of being labelled an ex-offender, seeking jobs, training, housing and support to resettle into a community which may or may not support them. However, if the support is in place, alongside more meaningful and widespread reforms, animal therapy and arts and music-based programmes could trigger a change of direction for those prisoners who feel a loss of hope and sense of despair.

 

David Gauke, the (current) Secretary of State for Justice has promised to abolish prison sentences under six months this summer – at a time when the make up of the Cabinet could be changing in late July, this may be another bold promise which will not be delivered. But much more needs to be done. Perhaps this reflects acknowledgement of the need for more radical change, and that innovations such as animal assisted therapies, problem solving approaches and restorative practice should be considered as part of the reforms of the justice system. My more cynical view is a change of cabinet roles will once again mean an announcement which may take us in the right direction becomes consigned to the past, and ‘normal’ service resumes. It makes the efforts of organisations such as Rethink, Good Vibrations and the hundreds of other charities which support marginalised groups more vital. Of course, they should be better supported and incorporated into mainstream policies, rather than left tinkering at the edges, on a constant scrabble for funding and subject to the whims of ministerial judgements on what is important. However, to end on a more hopeful note, the fact that there are people and organisations who still seek to find ways to improve the lives of those in prison, whether as part of rehabilitation or just in some small way to make prison bearable is something to be cherished. In the face of all the challenges, they carry on with their work and refuse to give up, much like our loyal pets who bring so much joy, wherever they are.

 

References

 

DURCAN, G. (2018) Restoring something lost: The mental health impact of therapy dogs in prisons, Centre for Mental Health, London.

 

KING, S. (2012) Transformative agency and desistance from crime. Criminology and Criminal Justice. 13 (3), 366-383.

 

MARUNA, S. (2001) Making Good: How ex-convicts reform and rebuild their lives. Washington DC: American Psychological Association Books.

 

SIMMS, J. (2015) Beyond Govism, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/resources/beyond-govism.

 

WILSON, D., CAULFIELD, L. AND ATHERTON, S. (2009) Good Vibrations: The long-term impact of a prison based music project. Prison Service Journal, 182, pp. 27-32

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