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The Metropolitan Police are under constant criticism, more than any other police force, for at least as long as I have been a criminologist. Their latest scandal began with the case of Child Q, a 15 year old girl who was strip searched in school while she was menstruating after being suspected of carrying cannabis. No drugs were found and Child Q was extremely traumatised, resulting in self-harm and a suicide attempt. Tré Ventour recently wrote a blog about Child Q, race and policing in education here but following this week’s Children’s Commissioner report, there’s so much more to discuss.
The report focussed on the Metropolitan Police who strip searched 650 children in 2 years, many (23%) of whom were searched without the presence of an appropriate adult and as we criminologists would expect, the children were disproportionately Black boys. These findings were not surprising or shocking to me, and I also know that the Metropolitan Police force are not just one bad apple in this respect. The brutal search of Child Q occurred in 2020 but incidences such as these have been happening for years.
A teenage boy aged 17 was subject to an intimate search in 2019 where the police breached a number of clauses of PACE, ultimately resulting in the boy receiving an apology and £10,000 damages for the distress caused by the unlawful actions. These actions started with basic information being withheld such as the police officer failing to identify himself and informing the boy of his rights and ended with the strip search being undertaken without an appropriate adult present, in the presence of multiple officers, without authorisation from a senior officer and with no justification for the search recorded in the officer’s pocket book. Now I understand that things may be forgotten in the moment when a police officer is dealing with a suspect but the accumulation of breaches indicates a more serious problem and a disregard to the rights of suspects in general but children more specifically.
These two cases are the cases of children who were suspected of carrying cannabis, an offence likely to be dealt with via a warning or on the spot fine. Hardly the crime of the century warranting the traumatising strip searching of children. And besides, we criminologists know that the war on drugs is a failed project. Is it about time we submit and decriminalise cannabis, save police time and suspect trauma?
What happens next is a slightly different story. Strip searching in custody is different because as well as searching for contraband, it can also be justified as a protective measure where there is a risk of self-harm or suicide. Strip searching of children by the police has risen in a climate of fear surrounding deaths in custody, and it has been reported that there could be an overuse of the practice as a result of this. When I read the report, I recalled the many conversations I have had over the years with my friend Rosie Flatman who is a practitioner who specialises in working with victims of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) and other forms of abuse. Rosie has worked with many girls who have been subject to strip searches when in custody. She told me how girls would often perceive the search as punishment for being what the police believed was disruptive. That is not to say that the police were using strip searches as punishment, but that is how girls would experience it.
Girls in custody are often particularly vulnerable. Like Rosie’s clients, many are victims and have a number of compounding vulnerabilities such as mental ill health or they may be looked after children. Perhaps then, we need to look at alternatives to strip searching but also custody for children, particularly for those who have suffered trauma. Rosie, who has delivered training to various agencies, suggests only undertaking strip searches where absolutely necessary and even then, using a trauma informed approach. She argues that even the way the procedure and justification is explained can make a big difference to the amount of harm caused to vulnerable children in police custody.
I joined the UCU last year, the first time I’d ever been a member of a union in my 43 years of working life. Admittedly, thirty years of that working life was spent in policing where membership of a union was unlawful. Yes, there was the Police Federation but to be honest it was a bit of a toothless tiger. During my career I saw successive governments hack away at pay and conditions in policing, sometimes only to be halted from catastrophic changes when they thought there might be an all-out mutiny, an example of which was the reaction to the Sheehy Inquiry in the early 1990s. In that policing career I was called upon to be involved in policing of pickets, sometimes peaceful, sometimes not. I never thought about joining a union or being part of a picket and when I started a second career in Higher Education, I didn’t think about it then. But my experiences in higher education over the last few years has driven me to join a union, mismanagement in various guises, has driven me to join.
I thought it somewhat ironic when I first saw the UCU posters declaring ‘we are at breaking point’; too late I thought, I’ve already been broken, and whilst I may have recovered, the scars are still there. Thirty years of policing, with all the horrors, the stresses and the strains didn’t break me, but 7 years of higher education managed to do so.
A couple of years ago, having been ill, resulting a short stay in hospital, I found myself on a farcical fast track of phased return to work. I managed to get back to some form of normality with the help of my colleagues, who took the brunt of my workload; I will return to that later. The new normality was however short lived, Covid hit, and we all went into lockdown and teaching online. It seemed that we might weather the storm and later the same year, amidst reported complaints from students about lockdowns, teaching online and mental health, our institution like nearly every other university in the country vowed there would be face-to-face teaching. And of course, if you promise it, you have to deliver it, particularly if you are under pressure from national student bodies about refunds and the like. As Covid took hold in earnest, as reports came in about people dying in the thousands, as the proliferation of news suggested who were the most vulnerable, and as we saw 50% of our team leave to join other institutions, our managers continued to insist that we do face to face teaching. Three members of staff could work 5 days a week, teaching over 250 students. The maths was confounding, the incredibility of it all was only surpassed by the staggering management determination to ensure that at least 2 hours of face-to-face teaching took place. The breath-taking simple-mindedness saw suggestions of cramming students, 40 at time into hired, poorly ventilated, venues. The risks were quite simply ignored, government guidelines were side-lined as were the university’s promises of a Covid secure environment. It was apparent, nobody cared; all that mattered was delivery of 2 hours of face-to-face teaching. The university had decreed it and so it had to be done.
If that wasn’t bad enough, our team had to endure machinations around how many new staff to advertise for. Three had left to be replaced by two because of the uncertainty around student recruitment. Even when we had ridden the wave of Covid, if we survived it unscathed, we were to be worked to the bone. The fifty to sixty odd hours a week would have to be increased. Nobody cared, just do what you are told and get on with it. Make use of associate lecturers, we were told, when we had very few and they were threatening to leave. Recruit more, from where we asked and what about their training? Such trivial matters were met with stony silence, face to face teaching, that was the mantra.
I remember one meeting, my colleagues will tell you about one meeting, where enough was enough. I was done and I couldn’t do anymore, I didn’t argue, I didn’t get cross, I just stopped, numbed by the sheer callousness and stupidity of it all. Signed off sick with work related stress I was told I was mentally burnt out. I was asked whether I ever switched off from work, the answer was no. Not because I didn’t want to, of course I did. But with lectures to prepare and deliver, with modules to manage, with Blackboard sites to build, with expectations of visiting schools and working open days, with expectations of helping with validations, with the incessant marking and second marking with dissertation tutorials and personal academic tutorship and the myriad of other tasks, I couldn’t switch off. Working evenings and weekends to keep up has been the norm, working even harder to buy space to take annual leave became unmanageable. Hollow words from management suggesting we have to take our annual leave. Hollow because they do not give you the time to do it. An extra closed day was the reward for our hard work, thank you, I worked that day as well. And after my absence from work, another attempt at fast tracking my phased return. And a return to full time work just meant a continuation of the fifty hours plus working week. My colleagues took a lot of work, too much work, to try to help manage workloads. So not just a return to challenging workloads for me but a guilt trip as well, as I felt I hadn’t been pulling my weight. On the one hand the institution makes the right noises, Covid safe environments and occupational health assistance and on the other its managers give scant regard for the human beings that work for them. Utilising outdated and unfathomable workload management tools, they manipulate data to provide a thin veneer of logic and fairness. If ever there were a good example of neo-Taylorism, look no further than higher education.
I’ve been on strike because of what happened to me and because of what is happening to my colleagues across the country. A failure to acknowledge working conditions, a failure to treat staff with dignity and respect and a failure to provide equal opportunity shows how little managers care for higher education vis-a-vis profit. I’ve been on strike because I don’t want my colleagues to be burnt out. I’ve been on strike because I don’t know how else to try to change the future for those that work in higher education. I don’t want to strike, I don’t want to impact my student’s education, but my colleagues are at breaking point, what else should we do?
Five year ago, Dame Sally Coates released an independent report on prison education. Recently the Chief Inspector for Ofsted, Amanda Spielman and The HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, made a joint statement reflecting on that report. Their reflections are critical on the lack of implementation of the original report, but also of the difficulties of managing education in prison especially at a time of a global pandemic. The lack of developing meaningful educational provision and delivering remote teaching led to many prisoners without sufficient opportunity to engage with learning.
In a situation of crisis such as the global pandemic one must wonder if this is an issue that can be left to one side for now, to be reviewed at a later stage. At the University of Northampton, as an educational institution we are passionate about learning opportunities for all including those incarcerated. We have already developed an educational partnership with a local prison, and we are committed to offer Higher Education to prisoners. Apart from the educational, I would add that there is a profound criminological approach to this issue. Firstly, I would like to separate what Dame Coates refers to as education, which is focused on the basic skills and training as opposed to a university’s mandate for education designed to explore more advanced ideas.
The main point to both however is the necessity for education for those incarcerated and why it should be offered or not. In everyday conversations, people accept that “bad” people go to prison. They have done something so horrible that it has crossed the custody threshold and therefore, society sends them to jail. This is not a simple game of Monopoly, but an entire criminal justice process that explores evidence and decides to take away their freedom. This is the highest punishment our society can bestow on a person found guilty of serious crimes. For many people this is appropriate and the punishment a fitting end to criminality. In criminology however we recognise that criminality is socially constructed and those who end up in prisons may be only but a specific section of those deemed “deviant” in our society. The combination of wrongdoing and socioeconomic situations dictate if a person is more or less likely to go to prison. This indicates that prison is not a punishment for all bad people, but some. Dame Coates for example recognises the overrepresentation of particular ethnic minorities in the prison system.
This raises the first criminological issue regarding education, and it relates to fairness and access to education. We sometimes tend to forget that education is not a privilege but a fundamental human right. Sometimes people forget that we live in a society that requires a level of educational sophistication that people with below basic levels of literacy and numeracy will struggle. From online applications to job hunting or even banking, the internet has become an environment that has no place for the illiterate. Consider those who have been in prison since the late 1990s and were released in the late 2010s. People who entered the prison before the advancement of e-commerce and smart phones suddenly released to a world that feels like it is out of a sci-fi movie.
The second criminological issue is to give all people, regardless of their crimes, the opportunity to change. The opportunity of people to change, is always incumbent on their ability to change which in turn is dependent on their circumstances. Education, among other things, requires the commitment of the learner to engage with the learning process. For those in prison, education can offer an opportunity to gain some insight that their environment or personal circumstances have denied them.
The final criminological issue is the prison itself. What do we want people to do in them? If prison is to become a human storage facility, then it will do nothing more than to pause a person’s life until they are to be released. When they come out the process of decarceration is long and difficult. People struggle to cope and the return to prison becomes a process known as “revolving doors”. This prison system helps no one and does nothing to resolve criminality. A prison that attempts to help the prisoners by offering them the tools to learn, helps with the process of deinstitutionalisation. The prisoner is informed and aware of the society they are to re-join and prepares accordingly. This is something that should work in theory, but we are nowhere there yet. If anything, it is far from it, as read in Spielman and Taylor’s recent commentary. Their observations identify poor quality education that is delivered in unacceptable conditions. This is the crux of the matter, the institution is not really delivering what it claims that is does. The side-effect of such as approach is the missed opportunity to use the institution as a place of reform and change.
Of course, in criminological discourse the focus is on an abolitionist agenda that sees beyond the institution to a society less punitive that offers opportunities to all its citizens without discrimination or prejudice. This is perhaps a different topic of conversation. At this stage, one thing is for sure; education may not rehabilitate but it can allow people to self-improve and that is a process that needs to be embraced.
Coates, S. (2016), Unlocking Potential: A review of education in prisons, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/unlocking-potential-a-review-of-education-in-prison
Spielman, A. and Taylor, C. (2021), Launching our Prison Education Review, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/launching-our-prison-education-review
Originally published here