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Empathy Amid the “Fake Tales of San Francisco”*

This time last week, @manosdaskalou and I were in San Francisco at the American Society of Criminology’s conference. This four-day meeting takes place once a year and encompasses a huge range of talkers and subjects, demonstrating the diversity of the discipline. Each day there are multiple sessions scheduled, making it incredibly difficult to choose which ones you want to attend.

Fortunately, this year both of our two papers were presented on the first day of the conference, which took some of the pressure off. We were then able to concentrate on other presenters’ work. Throughout discussions around teaching in prison, gun violence and many other matters of criminological importance, there was a sense of camaraderie, a shared passion to understand and in turn, change the world for the better. All of these discussions took place in a grand hotel, with cafes, bars and restaurants, to enable the conversation to continue long after the scheduled sessions had finished.

Outside of the hotel, there is plenty to see. San Francisco is an interesting city, famous for its Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars which run up and down extraordinarily steep roads and of course, criminologically speaking, Alcatraz prison. In addition, it is renowned for its expensive designer shops, restaurants, bars and hotels. But as @haleysread has noted before, this is a city where you do not have to look far to find real deprivation.

I was last in San Francisco in 2014. At that point cannabis had been declassified from a misdemeanour to an infraction, making the use of the drug similar to a traffic offence. In 2016, cannabis was completely decriminalised for recreational use. For many criminologists, such decriminalisation is a positive step, marking a change from viewing drug use as a criminal justice problem, to one of public health. Certainly, it’s a position that I would generally subscribe to, not least as part of a process necessary to prison abolition. However, what do we really know about the effects of cannabis? I am sure my colleague @michellejolleynorthamptonacuk could offer some insight into the latest research around cannabis use.

When a substance is illegal, it is exceedingly challenging to research either its harms or its benefits. What we know, in the main, is based upon problematic drug use, those individuals who come to the attention of either the CJS or the NHS. Those with the means to sustain a drug habit need not buy their supplies openly on the street, where the risk of being caught is far higher. Thus our research population are selected by bad luck, either they are caught or they suffer ill-effects either with their physical or mental health.

The smell of cannabis in San Francisco is a constant, but there is also another aroma, which wasn’t present five years ago. That smell is urine. Furthermore, it has been well documented, that not only are the streets and highways of San Francisco becoming public urinals, there are also many reports that public defecation is an increasing issue for the city. Now I don’t want to be so bold as to say that the decriminalisation of cannabis is the cause of this public effluence, however, San Francisco does raise some questions.

  1. Does cannabis cause or exacerbate mental health problems?
  2. Does cannabis lead to a loss of inhibition, so much so that the social conventions around urination and defecation are abandoned?
  3. Does cannabis lead to an increase in homelessness?
  4. Does cannabis increase the likelihood of social problems?
  5. Does the decriminalisation of cannabis, lead to less tolerance of social problems?

I don’t have any of the answers, but it is extremely difficult to ignore these problems. The juxtaposition of expensive shops such as Rolex and Tiffany just round the corner from large groups of confused, homeless people, make it impossible to avoid seeing the social problems confronted by this city. Of course, poor mental health and homelessness are not unique to San Francisco or even the USA, we have similar issues in our own town, regardless of the legal status of cannabis. Certainly the issue of access to bathroom facilities is pressing; should access to public toilets be a right or a privilege? This, also appears to be a public health, rather than CJS problem, although those observing or policing such behaviour, may argue differently.

Ultimately, as @haleysread found, San Francisco remains a City of Contrast, where the very rich and the very poor rub shoulders. Unless, society begins to think a little more about people and a little less about business, it seems inevitable that individuals will continue to live, eat, urinate and defection and ultimately, die upon the streets. It is not enough to discuss empathy in a conference, no matter how important that might be, if we don’t also empathise with people whose lives are in tatters.

*Turner, Alex, (2006), Fake Tales of San Francisco, [CD]. Recorded by Arctic Monkeys in Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, The Chapel: Domino Records

How to prepare for a year in University

In our society consumerism seems to rain supreme.  We can buy stuff to make us feel better and we can buy more stuff to express our feeling to others and mark almost most events around us.  Retail and especially all the shops have long been aware of this and so they have developed their seasonal material.  These seasonal promotions may have become consumer events now although they do signify something incredibly important to culture and our collective consciousness.  There is time for Christmas decorations and festive foods, Easter time and chocolate eggs, mother’s day and nauseating cards father’s day for equally grinchworthy cards.  There is valentine’s day to say I love you in full fat chocolates, Halloween to give little kids rotten teeth and a red poppy to remember some of our dead.  To those add the summer season with the disposable BBQs and of course the back to school season! 

The back to school is one of the interesting ones.  Geared to prepare pupils and parents for going back to school and plan ahead.  From ordering the uniforms to getting all the stationery and books required.  I remember this time of the year with some rather mixed emotions.  It was the end of my summer holidays, but it was also the time to get back to school.  Until one day I finished school and I went to university.  Education is seen as part of a continuous process that we are actively involved from the first day at school to the last day in high school and more recently for more people also involve the first day of going to university.  Every year is more challenging than the next, but we move up and continue.  For those of us who enjoy education we continue the journey further to further or high education. 

There is something to said about the preparation process coming to University; it is interesting seeing advertisements on education this time of the year on the tv and social media promoting stuff for this transition; from the got to have smartphone to the best laptop, the fastest printer scanner all in one thingy to the greatest sound system and many more stuff that would get you ready for the year ahead.  Do they really help us out and if not, what do we got to do to prepare for coming to university?

Unfortunately, there is no standard formula here but there is a reason for that.  Higher education is adult education.  This is the first time in our educational journey that we are sitting firmly on the driving seat.  We choose to study (or ought to) what we wish to study.  It is an incredibly liberating process to have choice.  This however is only the beginning.  We make plans of our time.  In higher education the bulk of the time required is independent study, and as such we got to negotiate how we will plan our time.  We got to decide which reading we are going to do first which notes to read what seminar we shall prepare and what assignment we will make a draft of. 

There will be days spent in the library looking for a book, days in a coffee shop talking to fellow students about the seminar reading, days in the learning hub working on an assignment.  There are highs, lows and everything in between.  But regardless of the emotion at every stage thee will be a sense of ownership of knowledge.   

In the first couple of sessions, the bulk of the students keep quiet expecting the correct answer to be given.  One interpretation or one truth that describes all.  It takes a few times before the realisation emerges that the way we analyse, and project knowledge can be different provided we go through the same processes of scrutiny and analysis.  Then conversation emerges and the more reading the better the quality of the ideas that shall emerge. 

The first year at University is definitely a declaration of independence and the realisation that we all have a voice.  Getting on to the road on empowerment.  This is a long journey, and on occasions arduous but incredibly rewarding because it leads to an insight greater than before that removes ignorance and lifts the veil of the unfamiliar. 

To our newest students – Welcome to the University and to our returning 2 and 3 years – Welcome back!

How literature failed me as a black student

My name is Francine Bitalo, I am 21 years old and a Criminology undergraduate at the University of Northampton. Coming from a black African background I have always had a strong interest in the Criminal Justice System and its treatment towards different groups in society.

My dissertation was based on the impact of police practices such as stop and search on young black men and their families. Whilst statistics present the alarming racial disproportionately which exist in many areas in the criminal justice system, it fails to portray the long-lasting effects it has had on Black families. For example, the daily harassment and differential treatment subjected to young Black men has forced black families to reinvent themselves to conform to institutional racism. Coming from a Black family myself and having male family member, the findings in my dissertation quickly became personal to me, as I could constantly relate them to the structuring of my own family. For example, the fact that it would take my father longer to find a job due to institutional racism, making my mother the breadwinner, or when my mother is preparing my brothers for police harassment and discrimination, but not me and sisters.

While conducting my research I was quick to learn that what literature may describe as a phenomenon, for many of us is a reality. If I am honest the writing stage of my dissertation was difficult for me because it was a passionate topic. I experienced a lot of self-doubt regarding my positionality for example, being a Black woman and facing my own forms of discrimination and now having to talk about the experiences of young Black men. I think my dissertation tutor would agree with me on this as I remember emailing her after I submitted my work expressing how I felt like I didn’t effectively capture the effects and the voices of the young Black men I interviewed, despite that being my main goal. I mean who would blame me, as a student, if I am honest I felt like literature really let me down for instance, when writing my literature review I found that literature neglected the subject of racism solely from the perspectives of young Black men, despite statistics showing them to being the largest group to experience institutional racism. At this point I had to laugh at the criminal justice system and its propositions to improving police relations as well as re offending.

With that being said the information I did come across I couldn’t help but sense the notion of white privilege lingering in the perspective of some scholars. I understand this is a strong claim to make however I say this because not only did literature provide little of the work of Black scholars regarding the topic, yet it was evident that most white scholars did not see the issue with stop and search and its discriminate use. Arguments for this were discussed in my dissertation for example, some argued that the process of racial socialisation in Black households were ineffective to police relations and the functioning of their services, which creates the notion that the Black community should submit to discrimination and harassment in favour of procedures and compliance during police encounter. Some tried to justify the disproportionality in stop and search by claiming that young Black men should be harassed because they tend to be out more especially in certain urban areas or the disproportionate targeting of Black minors is due to parental criminality. I felt there was a lack of accountability from white scholar thus, little understanding in the issue of race which is natural because their experiences do not allow them to understand. Yet this led me to ask questions such as why shouldn’t Black mothers have the right to prepare their sons for police discrimination, does it matter what time and area should a person of colour be around for them to be targeted at?

After completing my dissertation and getting a First Class I felt extremely proud of myself, the fact that I did not shy away from the research topic despite it being limited in literature. As a result, it was satisfying to know that I was able to articulate the experiences of others to a First Class standard. I hope this can encourage others to trust in their abilities and put aside any doubts especially when choosing a research topic. As a student writing a dissertation or even an assignment, I believe we should explore the unexplored, open the unopened and always be willing to discover and learn. Do not be afraid of researching something that is limited or has never been done. Lastly as my dissertation was extremely passionate to me I have decided to turn it into a personal project and continue researching the topic

The Bride of Frankenstein

The classic novel by Mary Shelley back in the early 19th century was an apocalyptic piece of work that imagined the future in a world where technology appeared to be a marvel that professes to make everyday people into gods.  The creation of a man by a man (deliberately gendered) in accordance to his wishes, and morals.  The metaphysical constraints of the soul seemingly absent, until all comes to head.  This was dystopic, but at the same time philosophical, of the future of humanity.    

In the 20th century John B. Watson believed that he could shape the behaviour of anyone, mostly children in any possible way.  Some of his ideas even made it into popular psychology where he offered advice to parents of how to raise their children.  Although no monster is mentioned, there is still the view that a man can shape a child in whatever way he chooses.  A creationist and most importantly, arrogant view of the world.

Decades later Robert Martinson, a sociologist will look at all these wonderful and great programmes designed to challenge behaviours and change people, so they can rehabilitate leaving criminality behind.  He found the results to be disappointing.  In the meantime, child psychologists could not achieve this leap that Watson seem to think they could make in changing people. 

In the 21st century we began to realise at a discipline level that forcing change upon people is rather impossible.  How about a man creating a man?  Can you develop a new human that will be developed espousing the creator’s desired attributes and thus become a model citizen?  In recent years we have been talking about designer babies, gene harvesting and genetic modification.  Such a surprising concept considering the Lebensborn experience during the Nazi regime.  That super-man concept was shattered in thousands little pieces, and for many relegated to history books.  Therefore, designer babies are such a cautionary tale. 

As a society we are still curious on what can technology can achieve, how far can we go and what can we develop.  Still in science there are seeds of creationism proposing ideas of that we can develop; a world of people without illness, disorder and deviance.  Pure, healthy and potentially exceptional individuals who may be physiologically right but sadly devoid of humanity.  Why devoid?  Because what makes a person?  Our imperfections, deviances and foibles.  These add to, rather than substract from, our uniqueness and individuality. 

In a recent twitter discussion one of my colleagues engaged in a discussion about the repatriation of one of those women called “Isis brides”.  The colleague posed the question, why not allow her to return, only to receive in response, because these are no humans.  As I read it I thought, well this is a new interpretation of the monster.  A 21st century monster that we can chase out of the proverbial village with torches because its alive and it shouldn’t be.  We can wish for people to be good to us, open armed and happy all the time, but that is not necessarily how it is.  We know that this is the case and of course we want to be reminded of our humanity, not for the positives but for the negatives.  Not what we can be but what the others are not.  So, we can always be the villagers and never the monster.   

Mary Shelley (1888) Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, London, George Routledge and Sons.  

The Criminology Toolbox

Abbie

Whilst sitting at my desk at work recently I realised just how much I took away with me in my toolbox from my time studying Criminology. I wanted this blog to be about exactly how this discipline has helped me in my personal and working life and the transferable skills I acquired without even realising I was using them.

In 2011 I came to University an 18 year old with a very closed and one sided mind set and this is something I will openly admit to! A memory that I feel will stick with me forever is from a Crime and Society seminar in the first year with @manosdaskalou. I remember openly saying to him that I felt prisoners should not be allowed to have televisions whilst in prison and that they were there to do their sentence and not watch this week’s Hollyoaks (@manosdaskalou you may remember that sour faced girl sat in front of you, although the sour face is still very much there!). I am sure those of you reading will be cursing BUT my self-righteous opinions did change and the more I attended various lectures and seminars, the more I became open to listening to and respecting the opinions of my peers and became further educated about the impact rehabilitation and second chances have on lives.

In my second year I volunteered for an organisation focusing primarily on helping individuals who had been in the Criminal Justice System with gaining employment and education. As soon as I walked through those doors I saw first-hand the positive impact this organisation had on the lives of those using the service.

I had an opportunity to assist on a healthy living course for individuals recovering from drug and alcohol addictions. Some of those attending the course had never taken an exam before or even been in an educational setting and others struggled with reading. I quickly realised the privileged position I was in to be able to even be at University and do things I feel we all take for granted sometimes such as reading. I also provided some advice to a young female who completely freaked out at the idea of taking a multiple choice test. I gave her some tips before that I had acquired from my own experiences. She was so very thankful to me and I will always remember her.

In terms of the other skills I now have in my toolbox, the thought of standing up and presenting in front of my peers at University terrified me, however in doing that I can now confidently stand up in front of my colleagues and bosses to present information and contribute in meetings. I can also provide evidence in court thanks to learning about the criminal process.

Having the opportunity to debate certain issues within the criminological world and society has taught me to have a voice and provide my point in a professional manner whilst listening to others. From the assignments set, to working within a timetable, it has all enabled me to build upon my time management and organisational skills. Working to tight deadlines also does not daunt me especially when I now have work to them daily.

I think we can all be truthful here and say we did groan a little bit when we were given extra reading to do at home and to critically analyse various pieces of text for the next seminar (heaven forbid!). However, being able to analyse a piece of text is a skill I use every day in my job with Northamptonshire Police especially when building court files and reading the fibs and fairy tales that some of our customers can provide. Criminology taught me to be critical of everything around me, take on board criticism and ask questions. I now ensure I stick my head above the parapet and often put the police officers in their place, as they do need it sometimes!

On the whole, I am thankful for the transferable skills I acquired from studying Criminology despite using them daily and not realising until my desk epiphany! I graduated in 2014 with a toolbox of skills ready for the big wide world and I will cherish them always. Who knows, it may even help me with becoming a parent in November!

 

 

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