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‘The Problem We All Live With’

The-problem-we-all-live-with-norman-rockwell

The title of this blog and the picture above relate to Norman Rockwell’s (1964) painting depicting Ruby Bridges on her way to school in a newly desegregated New Orleans. In over half a century, this picture has never lost its power and remains iconic.

Attending conferences, especially such a large one as the ASC, is always food for thought. The range of subjects covered, some very small and niche, others far more longstanding and seemingly intractable, cause the little grey cells to go into overdrive. So much to talk about, so much to listen to, so many questions, so many ideas make the experience incredibly intense. However, education is neither exclusive to the conference meeting rooms nor the coffee shops in which academics gather, but is all around. Naturally, in Atlanta, as I alluded to in my previous entry this week, reminders of the civil rights movement are all around us. Furthermore, it is clear from the boarded-up shops, large numbers of confused and disturbed people wandering the streets, others sleeping rough, that many of the issues highlighted by the civil rights movement remain. Slavery and overt segregation under the Jim Crow laws may be a thing of the past, but their impact endures; the demarcation between rich and poor, Black and white is still obvious.

The message of civil rights activists is not focused on beatification; they are human beings with all their failings, but far more important and direct. To make society fairer, more just, more humane for all, we must keep moving forward, we must keep protesting and we must keep drawing attention to inequality. Although it is tempting to revere brave individuals such as Ruby Bridges, Claudette Colvin, Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X to name but a few, this is not an outcome any of them ascribed to. If we look at Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘“The Drum Major Instinct” Sermon Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church’ he makes this overt. He urges his followers not to dwell on his Nobel Peace Prize, or any of his other multitudinous awards but to remember that ‘he tried’ to end war, bring comfort to prisoners and end poverty. In his closing words, he stresses that

If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong,
Then my living will not be in vain.
If I can do my duty as a Christian ought,
If I can bring salvation to a world once wrought,
If I can spread the message as the master taught,
Then my living will not be in vain.

These powerful words stress practical activism, not passive veneration. Although a staunch advocate for non-violent resistance, this was never intended as passive. The fight to improve society for all, is not over and done, but a continual fight for freedom. This point is made explicit by another civil rights activist (and academic) Professor Angela Davis in her text Freedom is a Constant Struggle. In this text she draws parallels across the USA, Palestine and other countries, both historical and contemporaneous, demonstrating that without protest, civil and human rights can be crushed.

Whilst ostensibly Black men, women and children can attend schools, travel on public transport, eat at restaurants and participate in all aspects of society, this does not mean that freedom for all has been achieved. The fight for civil rights as demonstrated by #blacklivesmatter and #metoo, campaigns to end LGBT, religious and disability discrimination, racism, sexism and to improve the lives of refugees, illustrate just some of the many dedicated to following in a long tradition of fighting for social justice, social equality and freedom.

Are we really free?

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This year the American Society of Criminology conference (Theme: Institutions, Cultures and Crime) is in Atlanta, GA a city famous for a number of things; Mitchell’s novel, (1936), Gone with the Wind and the home of both Coca-Cola, and CNN. More importantly the city is the birthplace and sometime home of Dr Martin Luther King Jr and played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout the city there are reminders of King’s legacy, from street names to schools and of course, The King Center for Non-Violent Social Change.

This week @manosdaskalou and I visited the Center for Civil and Human Rights, opened in 2014 with the aim of connecting the American Civil Rights Movement, to broader global claims for Human Rights. A venue like this is an obvious draw for criminologists, keen to explore these issues from an international perspective. Furthermore, such museums engender debate and discussion around complex questions; such as what it means to be free; individually and collectively, can a country be described as free and why individuals and societies commit atrocities.

According to a large-scale map housed within the Center the world is divided up into countries which are free, partially free and not free. The USA, the UK and large swathes of what we would recognise as the western world are designated free. Other countries such as Turkey and Bolivia are classified as partially free, whilst Russia and Nigeria are not free. Poor Tonga receives no classification at all. This all looks very scientific and makes for a graphic illustration of areas of the world deemed problematic, but by who or what? There is no information explaining how different countries were categorised or the criteria upon which decisions were made. Even more striking in the next gallery is a verbatim quotation from Walter Cronkite (journalist, 1916-2009) which insists that ‘There is no such thing as a little freedom. Either you are all free, or you are not free.’ Unfortunately, these wise words do not appear to have been heeded when preparing the map.

Similarly, another gallery is divided into offenders and victims. In the first half is a police line-up containing a number of dictators, including Hitler, Pol Pot and Idi Amin suggesting that bad things can only happen in dictatorships. But what about genocide in Rwanda (just one example), where there is no obvious “bad guy” on which to pin blame? In the other half are interactive panels devoted to individuals chosen on the grounds of their characteristics (perceived or otherwise). By selecting characteristics such LGBT, female, migrant or refugee, visitors can read the narratives of individuals who have been subjected to such regimes. This idea is predicated on expanding human empathy, by reading these narratives we can understand that these people aren’t so different to us.

Museums such as the Center for Civil and Human Rights pose many more questions than they can answer. Their very presence demonstrates the importance of understanding these complex questions, whilst the displays and exhibits demonstrate a worldview, which visitors may or may not accept. More importantly, these provide a starting point, a nudge toward a dialogue which is empathetic and (potentially) focused toward social justice. As long as visitors recognise that nudge long after they have left the Center, taking the ideas and arguments further, through reading, thinking and discussion, there is much to be hopeful about.

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr (in his 1963, Letter from Birmingham Jail):

‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly’

 

 

“Letters from America”: Why do we even bother?

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As I sit in one of those busy hotel cafés writing these lines, worrying that someone will spill their double decaf latte with a dash of hazelnut, over my laptop, I wonder.  What is the point to a conference?  Why seemingly normal academics will spend any time in hotels next to noisy honeymooners or loud party people who like to play their tunes at 03:00?

As we finished our first session the other day, in keeping with our own tradition, we overran, we sat and had a long discussion of the key points we got out of the session. The discussion was very interesting to talk to people who may do something similar to you, but so very different.  “Comparing notes” has always been one of those processes in academia that promote understanding and enhance the way we learn.

The conference for any discipline is a mass gathering of professionals that do just that; exchange ideas and engage in discussions about the discipline and its practices away from all the other less academic endeavours of the profession.

Usually conferences carry a theme, our conference the theme this year is “Crime, Legitimacy and Reform”.  I found it interesting, considering the sessions we are presenting, focus on subverting facets of an established penal institution into providing higher education classes and altering ever so slightly some of its founding principles.  Reform?  Perhaps, but definitely an attempt to address a profound disciplinary question what are prisons for?  This is a question that considers if prison is a relevant institution for a 21st century society.  Education in prisons is not a novel idea, but introducing HE education inside a carceral environment provides a new suggestion of what prisons might be for.  Clearly this is something worth debating and this week we have been exploring some of the aspects of our work and research.

In a group discussion after one session, we identified the principle ideas of our approach to HE in prisons.  The notions of mutual respect, equity for all and educational purpose are the things we identify as the most important.  It was interesting to hear the responses from other delegates who seemed to have slightly different views about who ought to participate in such an educational initiative.  Sessions such as these allows me to reflect also on what we do.  One of the thoughts, I have had regarding the educational approach we have taken, is whether we “normalise” incarceration in a way that justifies/legitimises its hold as an established penal institution rather than challenging its authority (as @paulaabowles asks, quite graphically, is it better to be inside the tent and pissing outside than be outside the tent pissing in?!)  Leaving colourful metaphors to one side, the question of what is the obligation/duty of a modern day criminologist regarding criminal justice institutions remains. In essence, should it be different from before; what Liebling calls; a critical friend towards all those institutions of control or not?

Finally the conference is where trends and ideas come to be tested, explored and debated.  I remember being in one session back in 2000, when one colleague said; looking into the new century and predicting that the main concern for criminology will be youth crime and initiatives to control it.  A year later, 9/11 made terrorism an emerging priority and the collective discussion shifted quite dramatically.

What are conferences for? A great deal of academic discourse…and an interaction that reaffirms why we care so deeply for our discipline

“Letters from America”: III

imageFor those of you who follow The Criminology Team on Facebook you might have caught @manosdaskalou and I live from Eastern State Penitentiary [ESP]. In this entry, I plan to reflect on that visit in a little more depth.

We first visited ESP in 2011 when the ASC conference was held in Washington, DC. That visit has never left me for a number of reasons, not least the lengths societies are prepared to go in order to tackle crime. ESP is very much a product of its time and demonstrates extraordinarily radical thinking about crime and punishment. For those who have studied the plans for Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon there is much which is familiar, not least the radial design (see illustration below).

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This is an institution designed to resolve a particular social problem; crime and indeed deter others from engaging in similar behaviour through humane and philosophically driven measures. The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons*  was  philanthropic  and guided by religious principles. This is reflected in the term penitentiary; a place for sinners to repent and In turn become truly penitent.

This philosophy was distinct and radical with a focus on reformation of character rather than brutal physical punishment. Of course, scholars such as Ignatieff and Foucault have drawn attention to the inhumanity of such a regime, whether deliberate or unintentional, but that should not detract from its groundbreaking history. What is important, as criminologists, is to recognise ESP’s place in the history of penology. That history is one of coercion, pleading, physical and mental brutality and still permeates all aspects of incarceration in the twenty-first century. ESP have tried extremely hard to demonstrate this continuum of punishment, acknowledging its place among many other institutions both home and abroad.

For me the question remains; can we make an individual change their behaviour through the pains of incarceration? I have argued previously in this blog in relation to Conscientious Objectors, that all the evidence suggests we cannot. ESP, as daunting as it may have been in its heyday, would also seem to offer the same answer. Until society recognises the harm and futility of incarceration it is unlikely that penal reform, let alone abolition, will gain traction.

 

 

*For those studying CRI1007 it is worth noting the role of Benjamin Rush in this organisation.

 

 

“Letters from America”: II

Lange-MigrantMother02

Having only visited Philadelphia once before (and even then it was strictly a visit to Eastern State Penitentiary with a quick “Philly sandwich” afterwards) the city is new to me. As with any new environment there is plenty to take in and absorb, made slightly more straightforward by the traditional grid layout so beloved of cities in the USA.

Particularly striking in Philadelphia are the many signs detailing the city’s history. These cover a wide range of topics; (for instance Mothers’ Day originates in the city, the creation of Walnut Street Gaol and  commemoration of the great and the good) and allow visitors to get a feel for the city.

Unfortunately, these signs tell only part of the city’s story. Like many great historical cities Philadelphia shares horrific historical problems, that of poverty and homelessness. Wherever you look there are people lying in the street, suffering in a state of suspension somewhere between living and dying, in essence existing. The city is already feeling the chill winds of winter and there is far worse to come. Many of these people appear unable to even ask for help, whether because they have lost the will or because there are just too many knock backs. For an onlooker/bystander there is a profound sense of helplessness; is there anything I can do?, what should I do?, can I help or do I make things even worse?

The last time I physically observed this level of homelessness was in Liverpool but the situation appeared different. People were existing (as opposed to living) on the street but passers by acknowledged them, gave money, hot drinks, bottles of water and perhaps more importantly talked to them. Of course, we need to take care, drawing parallels and conclusions across time and place is always fraught with difficulty, particularly when relying on observation alone. But here it seems starkly different; two entirely different worlds – the destitute, homeless on the one hand and the busy Thanksgiving/Christmas shopper on the other. Worse still it seems despite their proximity ne’er the twain shall meet.

This horrible juxtaposition was brought into sharp focus last night when @manosdaskalou and I went out for an evening meal. We chose a beautiful Greek restaurant and thought we might treat ourselves for a change. We ordered a starter and a main each, forgetting momentarily, that we were in the land of super sized portions. When the food arrived there was easily enough for a family of 4 to (struggle to) eat. This provides a glaringly obvious demonstration of the dichotomy of (what can only really be described as) greed versus grinding poverty and deprivation, within the space of a few yards.

I don’t know what the answer is , but I find it hard to accept that in the twenty-first century society we appear to be giving up on trying seriously to solve these traumatic social problems. Until we can address these repetitive humanitarian crisis it is hard to view society as anything other than callous and cruel and that view is equally difficult to accept.

 

 

“Letters from America”: I

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This weekend @manosdaskalou and I flew from London to the USA and thus had the opportunity of experiencing two different airports. Travelling is always an insightful  – if sometimes physically draining – experience and even more so when crossing continents. It is striking that one of the very first things that you confront upon arriving at your destination (no matter whether home or abroad) is generally a very long queue. There are queues to check in, queues to drop bags, queues for security, queues to get on the plane and to get off the other end. These are followed by yet more queues to enter the country and a wait to collect your bags. All of this is par for the course and perhaps to be expected given the volume of people travelling. What is perhaps more unexpected is the overall patience demonstrated by those in the seemingly endless queues.

I find the airport an interesting no-man’s land where individuals appear to become simply part of a giant machine. Once inside the airport you become subject to the whims and vagaries of the machinery. “Take off your shoes”, “take off your coats, jackets, scarves”, “laptops here”, “bags there’ ,”show your clear plastic bag  containing approved liquids”, the list goes on and that’s before you’ve even let the country. If we want to fly we accept these rituals as a price worth paying. However, it is worth considering if many would tolerate such rituals away from this setting?

All of these processes are predicated on an ethos of security and the protection of life and limb. However, we do not insist on such protocols when we use other forms of transport; buses, trains, trams or the tube where similar conditions prevail (i.e.lots of people, baggage etc. moving from place to place. The tactics used in the airport are far more reminiscent of the police station or the prison than they are of travel yet we  simply grit our teeth and bear the incongruity and indignity of the situation.

Whilst not suggesting that security is unimportant, it is worth considering that we focus far greater attention on flying than we do on other modes of transport. Of course, for those who fly infrequently this can be absorbed as a part of their travelling experience as predictable as a trip to the duty free shop. On a daily basis, as part of the 9-5 commute, such tactics would bring the world to a grinding halt…

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