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Come Together

For much of the year, the campus is busy. Full of people, movement and voice. But now, it is quiet… the term is over, the marking almost complete and students and staff are taking much needed breaks. After next week’s graduations, it will be even quieter. For those still working and/or studying, the campus is a very different place.

This time of year is traditionally a time of reflection. Weighing up what went well, what could have gone better and what was a disaster. This year is no different, although the move to a new campus understandably features heavily. Some of the reflection is personal, some professional, some academic and in many ways, it is difficult to differentiate between the three. After all, each aspect is an intrinsic part of my identity. 

Over the year I have met lots of new people, both inside and outside the university. I have spent many hours in classrooms discussing all sorts of different criminological ideas, social problems and potential solutions, trying always to keep an open mind, to encourage academic discourse and avoid closing down conversation. I have spent hour upon hour reading student submissions, thinking how best to write feedback in a way that makes sense to the reader, that is critical, constructive and encouraging, but couched in such a way that the recipient is not left crushed. I listened to individuals talking about their personal and academic worries, concerns and challenges. In addition, I have spent days dealing with suspected academic misconduct and disciplinary hearings.

In all of these different activities I constantly attempt to allow space for everyone’s view to be heard, always with a focus on the individual, their dignity, human rights and social justice. After more than a decade in academia (and even more decades on earth!) it is clear to me that as humans we don’t make life easy for ourselves or others. The intense individual and societal challenges many of us face on an ongoing basis are too often brushed aside as unimportant or irrelevant. In this way, profound issues such as mental and/or physical ill health, social deprivation, racism, misogyny, disablism, homophobia, ageism and many others, are simply swept aside, as inconsequential, to the matters at hand.

Despite long standing attempts by politicians, the media and other commentators to present these serious and damaging challenges as individual failings, it is evident that structural and institutional forces are at play.  When social problems are continually presented as poor management and failure on the part of individuals, blame soon follows and people turn on each other. Here’s some examples:

Q. “You can’t get a job?”

A “You must be lazy?”

Q. “You’ve got a job but can’t afford to feed your family?

A. “You must be a poor parent who wastes money”

Q. “You’ve been excluded from school?”

A. “You need to learn how to behave?”

Q. “You can’t find a job or housing since you came out of prison?”

A. “You should have thought of that before you did the crime”

Each of these questions and answers sees individuals as the problem. There is no acknowledgement that in twenty-first century Britain, there is clear evidence that even those with jobs may struggle to pay their rent and feed their families. That those who are looking for work may struggle with the forces of racism, sexism, disablism and so on. That the reasons for criminality are complex and multi-faceted, but it is much easier to parrot the line “you’ve done the crime, now do the time” than try and resolve them.

This entry has been rather rambling, but my concluding thought is, if we want to make better society for all, then we have to work together on these immense social problems. Rather than focus on blame, time to focus on collective solutions.  

Halloween Prison Tourism

Haley 2

 

Haley Read is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first and third years.

Yes, that spooky time of the year is upon us! Excited at the prospect of being free to do something at Halloween but deterred by the considerable amount of effort required to create an average-looking carved pumpkin face, I Google, ‘Things to do for Halloween in the Midlands’.

I find that ‘prison (and cell) ghost tours’ are being advertised for tourists who can spend the night where (in)famous offenders once resided and the ‘condemned souls’ of unusual and dangerous inmates still ‘haunt’ the prison walls today. I do a bit more searching and find that more reputable prison museums are also advertising similar events, which promise a ‘fun’ and ‘action packed’ family days out where gift shops and restaurants are available for all to enjoy.

Of course, the lives of inmates who suffered from harsh and brutal prison regimes are commodified in all prison museums, and not just at Halloween related events. What appears concerning is that these commercial and profit-based events seem to attract visitors through promotional techniques which promise to entertain, reinforce common sensical, and at times fabricated (see Barton and Brown, 2015 for examples) understandings of history, crime and punishment. These also present sensationalistic a-political accounts of the past in order to appeal to popular  fascinations with prison-related gore and horror; all of which aim to attract customers.

The fascination with attending places of punishment is nothing new. Barton and Brown (2015) illustrates this with historical accounts of visitors engaging in the theatrics of public executions and of others who would visit punishment-based institutions out of curiosity or to amuse themselves. And I suppose modern commercial prison tourism could be viewed as an updated way to satisfy morbid curiosities surrounding punishment and the prison.

The reason that this concerns me is that despite having the potential to educate others and challenge prison stereotypes that are reinforced through the media and True Crime books, commercialised prison events aim to entertain as well as inform. This then has the danger of cementing popular and at times fictional views on the prison that could be seen as being historically inaccurate. Barton and Brown (2015) exemplify this idea by noting that prison museums present inmates as being unusual, harsh historical punishments as being necessary and the contemporary prison system as being progressive and less punitive. However, opposing views suggest that offenders are more ordinary than unusual, that historical punishments are brutal rather than necessary and that many contemporary prisons are viewed as being newer versions of punitive discipline rather than progressive.

Perhaps it could be that presenting a simplified, uncritical and stereotyped version of the past as entertainment prevents prison tourists from understanding the true pains experienced by those who have been incarcerated within the prison (see Barton and Brown, 2015, Sim, 2009). Truer prison museum promotions could inform visitors of staff corruption, the detrimental social and psychological effects of the prison, and that inmates (throughout history) are more likely to be those who are poor, disempowered, previously victimised and at risk of violence and self-harm upon entering prison. But perhaps this would attract less visitors/profit…And so for another year I will stick to carving pumpkins.

 

Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

Barton, A and Brown, A. (2015) Show me the Prison! The Development of Prison Tourism in the UK. Crime Media and Culture. 11(3), pp.237-258. Doi: 10.1177/1741659015592455.

Sim, J. (2009) Punishment and Prisons: Power and the Carceral State. London: Sage.

Questions, questions, questions…..

Question everything

Over the last two weeks we have welcomed new and returning students to our brand-new campus. From the outside, this period of time appears frenetic, chaotic, and incredibly noisy. During this period, I feel as if I am constantly talking; explaining, indicating, signposting, answering questions and offering solutions. All of this is necessary, after all we’re all in a new place, the only difference is that some of us moved in before others. This part of my role has, on the surface, little to do with Criminology. However, once the housekeeping is out of the way we can move to more interesting criminological discussion.

For me, this focuses on the posing of questions and working out ways in which answers can be sought. It’s a common maxim, that within academia, there is no such thing as a silly question and Criminology is no exception (although students are often very sceptical). When you are studying people, everything becomes complicated and complex and of course posing questions does not necessarily guarantee a straightforward answer. As many students/graduates over the years will attest, criminological questions are often followed by yet more criminological questions… At first, this is incredibly frustrating but once you get into the swing of things, it becomes incredibly empowering, allowing individual mental agility to navigate questions in their own unique way. Of course, criminologists, as with all other social scientists, are dependent upon the quality of the evidence they provide in support of their arguments. However, criminology’s inherent interdisciplinarity enables us to choose from a far wider range of materials than many of our colleagues.

So back to the questions…which can appear from anywhere and everywhere. Just to demonstrate there are no silly questions, here are some of those floating around my head currently:

  1. This week I watched a little video on Facebook, one of those cases of mindlessly scrolling, whilst waiting for something else to begin. It was all about a Dutch innovation, the Tovertafel (Magic Table) and I wondered why in the UK, discussions focus on struggling to feed and keep our elders warm, yet other countries are interested in improving quality of life for all?
  2. Why, when with every fibre of my being, I abhor violence, I am attracted to boxing?

Nicola Adams

3. Why in a supposedly wealthy country do we still have poverty?

4. Why do we think boys and girls need different toys?

boys toys

5. Why does 50% of the world’s population have to spend more on day-to-day living simply because they menstruate?

6. Why as a society are we happy to have big houses with lots of empty rooms but struggle to house the homeless?

buckingham palace

7. Why do female ballroom dancers wear so little and who decided that women would dance better in extremely high-heeled shoes?

This is just a sample and not in any particular order. On the surface, they are chaotic and disjointed, however, what they all demonstrate is my mind’s attempt to grapple with extremely serious issues such as inequality, social deprivation, violence, discrimination, vulnerability, to name just a few.

So, to answer the question posed last week by @manosdaskalou, ‘What are Universities for?’, I would proffer my seven questions. On their own, they do not provide an answer to his question, but together they suggest avenues to explore within a safe and supportive space where free, open and academic dialogue can take place. That description suggests, for me at least, exactly what a university should be for!

And if anyone has answers for my questions, please get in touch….

The Voice Behind the Music

Sinead

Marginalised voices were the focal point of my dissertation.

My dissertation explored social issues through the musical genres of Rap and Hip-Hop. During the time period of writing my dissertation there was the rising debate surrounding the association of a new genre, Drill music, being linked to the rise in violent crimes by young people in England (London specifically). The following link to an article from the Guardian newspaper will provide a greater insight to the subject matter:

The idea of music having a direct correlation with criminality sweeps issues such as poverty, social deprivation, class and race all under the rug; when in reality these are just a few of the definitive issues that these marginalised groups face. We see prior examples of this in the late 80s, with rap group N.W.A with their song “F*** the police”. The song surrounded the topic of police brutality and brought light to the disgust and outrage of the wider community to this issue. Simultaneously to this, the N.W.A were refused from running concerts as they were accused of starting revolts. The song was made as a response to their environment, but why is freedom of speech limited to certain sectors of society?

In the present day, we see young people having lower prospects of being homeowners, high rates of unemployment, and the cost of living increasing. In essence the rich are getting richer and the poor continue to struggle; the violence of austerity at its finest. Grenfell Tower is the perfect example of this, for the sake of a cheaper cost lives were lost. Simply because these individuals were not in a position to greatly impact the design of their housing. Monetary status SHOULD NOT determine your right to life, but unfortunately in those circumstances it did.

The alienation of young people was also a topic that was highlighted within my research into my dissertation. In London specifically, youth clubs are being closed down and money is being directed heavily towards pensions. An idea would be to invest in young people as this would potentially provide an incentive and subsequently decrease the prospect of getting involved in negative activities.

In no means, was the aim to condone the violence but instead to simply shed light on the issues that young people face. There is a cry for help but the issue is only looked at from the surface as a musical problem. If only it were that simple, maybe considering the voice behind the music would lead to the solution of the problem.

 

Oh, just f*** off.

banksy

A strange title to give to a blog but, one that expresses my feelings every time I turn the television and watch politicians procrastinating about a major issue.  How else do I try and express my utter contempt for the leaders of this country that cause chaos and misery and yet take no responsibility for what they have done.

I watch Donald Trump on television and I’m simply given to thinking ‘You’re an idiot’, I appreciate that others may have stronger words, particularly some immigrants, legal or illegal, in the United States.  I will draw parallels with his approach later, how could I not, given the Empire Windrush disgrace.

A week or so ago a significant topic on the news was the gender pay gap.  The Prime Minister Theresa May was all over this one, after all it is the fault of corporations and businesses the pay gap exists.  No responsibility there then but votes to be had.

Within the same news bulletin, there was an interview with a teacher who explained how teachers were regularly taking children’s clothes home to wash them as the family couldn’t afford to do so.  Children were appearing at school and the only meal they might have for the day was the school meal.  Now that might seem terrible in a third world country but he wasn’t talking about a third world country he was talking about England.  Surprisingly, the prime minister was not all over that one, no votes to be had.

Within the same time frame there were more deaths in London due to gang crime.  The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary Amber Rudd were all over that one, well of sorts, but then it is a political hot potato.  The police and the community need to do more, an action plan is produced.

Then we have the Windrush debacle, tragedy and disgrace.  The Home Secretary eventually said she was sorry and blamed the civil servants in the Home Office.  They had become inhuman, clearly not her fault.  The Prime Minister said sorry, it was under her watch at the Home Office that the first seeds of this disaster were plotted and then hatched, clearly though not her fault either.  Got the right wing votes but seem to have lost a few others along the way.

What ties all of these things together; class structure, inequality and poverty and an unwillingness in government to address these, not really a vote winner.  The gender pay gap is someone else’s fault and even if addressed, won’t deal with the inequalities at the bottom of the pay structure. Those women on zero hour contracts and minimum wages won’t see the benefit, only those in middle or higher ranking jobs. Votes from some but not from others, a gain rather than any loss.

The fact that children exist in such poverty in this country that teachers have to intervene and take on welfare responsibilities is conveniently ignored.  As is the fact that much of the violence that plagues the inner city streets happens to occur in poor neighbourhoods where social and economic deprivation is rife.  The Windrush issue is just another example of right wing rhetoric leading to right wing action that impacts most on the vulnerable.

When the gender pay gap hit the news there was a senior figure from a company that appeared in the news. He said that addressing the gender pay gap by having more women in higher positions in his company was good for the company, good for the country, and good for the economy.

Judging from the example given by the country’s senior management, I have to say I am far from convinced. And yes as far as I’m concerned, when they open their mouths and pontificate, they can just f*** off.

‘I read the news today, oh boy’

 

NagasakibombThe English army had just won the war
A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look
Having read the book

(Lennon and McCartney, 1967),

 

The news these days, without fail, is terrible. Wherever you look you are confronted by misery, death, destruction and terror. Regular news channels and social media bombard us with increasingly horrific tales of people living and dying under tremendous pressure, both here in the UK and elsewhere in the world. Below are just a couple of examples drawn from the mainstream media over the space of a few days, each one an example of individual or collective misery. None of them are unique and they all made the headlines in the UK.

‘Deaths of UK homeless people more than double in five years’ 

‘Syria: 500 Douma patients had chemical attack symptoms, reports say’

‘London 2018 BLOODBATH: Capital on a knife edge as killings SOAR to 56 in three months’

‘Windrush generation NHS worker lost job and faces deportation despite living in the UK for more than 50 years’

So how do we make sense of these tumultuous times? Do we turn our backs and pretend it has nothing to do with us? Can we, as Criminologists, ignore such events and say they are for other people to think about, discuss and resolve?

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Stanley Cohen, posed a similar question; ‘How will we react to the atrocities and suffering that lie ahead?’ (2001: 287). Certainly his text States Of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering makes clear that each of us has a part to play, firstly by ‘knowing’ that these things happen; in essence, bearing witness and acknowledging the harm inherent in such atrocities. But is this enough? 

Cohen, persuasively argues, that our understanding has fundamentally changed:

The political changes of the last decade have radically altered how these issues are framed. The cold-war is over, ordinary “war” does not mean what it used to mean, nor do the terms “nationalism”, “socialism”, “welfare state”, “public order”, “security”, “victim”, “peace-keeping” and “intervention” (2001: 287).

With this in mind, shouldn’t our responses as a society, also have changed, adapted to these new discourses? I would argue, that there is very little evidence to show that this has happened; whilst problems are seemingly framed in different ways, society’s response continues to be overtly punitive. Certainly, the following responses are well rehearsed;

 

  • “move the homeless on”
  • “bomb Syria into submission”
  • “increase stop and search”
  • “longer/harsher prison sentences”
  • “it’s your own fault for not having the correct papers?”

Of course, none of the above are new “solutions”. It is well documented throughout much of history, that moving social problems (or as we should acknowledge, people) along, just ensures that the situation continues, after all everyone needs somewhere just to be.  Likewise, we have the recent experiences of invading Iraq and Afghanistan to show us (if we didn’t already know from Britain’s experiences during WWII) that you cannot bomb either people or states into submission. As criminologists, we know, only too well, the horrific impact of stop and search, incarceration and banishment and exile, on individuals, families and communities, but it seems, as a society, we do not learn from these experiences.

Yet if we were to imagine, those particular social problems in our own relationships, friendship groups, neighbourhoods and communities, would our responses be the same? Wouldn’t responses be more conciliatory, more empathetic, more helpful, more hopeful and more focused on solving problems, rather than exacerbating the situation?

Next time you read one of these news stories, ask yourself, if it was me or someone important to me that this was happening to, what would I do, how would I resolve the situation, would I be quite so punitive? Until then….

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you (Nietzsche, 1886/2003: 146)

References:

Cohen, Stanley, (2001), States Of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, (Cambridge: Polity Press)

Lennon, John and McCartney, Paul, (1967), A Day in the Life, [LP]. Recorded by The Beatles in Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, EMI Studios: Parlaphone

Nietzsche, Friedrich, (1886/2003), Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, tr. from the German by R. J. Hollingdale, (London: Penguin Books)

A Bloody Shame

tampon-495739_640

I find it fascinating that when I ask my students whether they watch or read the news the reply is generally in the negative.  Maybe part of the reason might be found in the fact that so much news resides only temporarily in our conscience before it is replaced by yet another item of news, ‘fake or not’ and we are bombarded with information churned out 24/7, minute by minute.  What is alarming is that important issues are reported on, sometimes in a somewhat perfunctory manner, and lost in the mix of other important and less important issues.

And so it is for an item of news that caught my eye just before Christmas.  I didn’t really think much about it until somewhere in the back of my mind I had a niggling feeling that just can’t be right. The news item, as I recall it, related to a protest outside Downing Street about women’s sanitary products.  A young lady led the protest about the lack of availability of the products for young people, or was it that V.A.T was being added to the products?  I just remember the banal comments made by some supporting actress and what I thought were somewhat distasteful banners being displayed. But on reflection all of this masked a serious issue, that of equality and Human Rights.  Part of the storyline behind the news was that some young women were not going to school at certain times because they could not afford sanitary products. I couldn’t even imagine the embarrassment this must cause for young ladies.  And then I thought about how it might affect other women on low or no income.

There has been much in the news about equality for women recently, most notably around the issue of equal pay.  But this issue of sanitary products is even more fundamental. If you don’t have a decent education, how can you get into the work place, let alone achieve parity on pay?

The last time I looked, education was a Human Right.  I don’t think the basis of this was something along part time education according to certain times of the month.  Women did not ask to be put into this position and it isn’t something that afflicts men.  I bet if it did, sanitary products would be available in every public toilet for free and you could probably order your free delivery on line.

I’m not sure how it should work but if we believe in Human Rights and we believe in equality, sanitary products, or the lack of should not be allowed to hold women back.  There may be a cost but the payback would be tremendous.

More recently in the news, the Prime Minister, Mrs May, has been visiting China and according to the news had some difficult conversations about Human Rights records.  I would suggest that perhaps she ought to look closer to home.  And as for the media, perhaps some issues should linger longer to have a chance of embedding themselves in the public’s conscience.

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