Thoughts from the criminology team

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Industrial action, knowledge, and blurred lines

Another week has flown by, where has the time gone?  Every day I diligently fill out a time sheet, every week I work over my contracted hours and at the end of every week I reflect on the things that have not been done, thinking well when I get time, I’ll have a look at that. 

In conversations around the university, I hear students complaining about the current industrial action, one such conversation suggested it was disgusting that lecturers had been on strike.  Another overheard student conversation thought it was disgusting that students didn’t turn up for lectures and if they were the lecturer they wouldn’t allow them back in class, after all don’t they know how long it must have taken that lecturer to prepare for the class.  Juxtapose this with a workload model that only allows an hour for preparation and marking for every hour spent in the classroom and we have an interesting mosaic of what can only be described as blissful ignorance of what a lecturer’s job entails.

Now I can’t talk about other subject areas but I’m sure that many of the lecturers in those areas will have the same issues that we have in criminology or that I have regarding what we do.   There are some subjects within the criminology discipline that are pretty much the staple diet and as such don’t really change much, after all Bentham’s ideas for instance were formed a couple of centuries ago and teaching a class about Bentham’s ideas won’t really change much over time. That is of course until someone, probably far brighter than me, discovers something about Bentham or produces a different take on Bentham’s writings.  But generally, I suppose I might be inclined to suggest that preparation time for a lecture and seminar around the topic of Bentham’s ideas would not be too lengthy.  But then what is too lengthy? How long would it take to prepare a lecture and a seminar task? That would depend on how much research was required, how many books and papers were read and probably importantly, well it is for me, how prepared the lecturer wants to be for the session.  Do we as lecturers prepare for the lowest common denominator, the student that rarely reads anything and perhaps hardly turns up or do we prepare for the student that is an avid reader and will have read more than what they can find on Wikipedia. How long is a piece of string when it comes to preparation time.

Those of you that might have read my first blog about the industrial action will recall how I described that having been signed off ill with work related stress, I was told that I was burnt out. One of the questions in conversation was whether I ever turned off, the answer of course was no. And it is still difficult to do that, Criminology is one of those disciplines that is all consuming. I watch the news, or I read about something, and I immediately think of criminological aspects.  I must admit most of the time I have the Metropolitan Police to thank for that.  There doesn’t seem to be much delineation, certainly in terms of cerebral activity, between being at work and being off.  I want to make my lectures, seminars or workshops (call them what you will) interesting and current.  By exploring current issues in society, I end up researching both the current and historic, I end up making links between reality and theory and I produce what I hope is thought provoking and interesting subject matter for consumption in class. I have recently prepared a workshop which required me to read two IPCC reports and a three hundred word plus transcript of a civil case, all highly relevant to the topic of failed investigations.  The civil case took me to 10 other stated cases.  I can’t tell you exactly how long it took me, but it was longer than a day.  Most of it in my own time because the topic is of interest to me.  Lecturing, the acquisition of knowledge and at times the production of knowledge takes time, often the lines are blurred as to whose time is being used.  My seeds of ideas and basic research are often in my time not my employer’s time.  To have students turn up unprepared for my workshops, to turn up late (frequently) to fail to engage and then to have the gall to bemoan industrial action is soul destroying.  To have a workload model that allows a pitiful time for preparation of lectures is simply ignorance and quite frankly, crass.  We are in higher education not a sausage factory. 

It is easy then, to see on reflection, where my time has gone each week.  Given the work entailed in lecturing and the myriad of other requirements, it is hardly a surprise that there is a successful mandate for continued industrial action.  I’m working more hours than is stated in my contract, cheating a bit on ASOS because it feels impossible not to, and I still can’t get anywhere near to fulfilling my workload.  When I fill out my time sheet, I don’t include all of my own time as I’ve described above.

I won’t stop formulating my ideas. I wont stop using my own time to further my knowledge so that I can pass it on to students that are interested.  But I would like some acknowledgement that the current system employed for gauging my workload is out of kilter with reality.  And for those students that put the effort in and by doing so make my classes enjoyable, I am extremely grateful. As for the rest, well I suppose ignorance is bliss.

Meet the Team: Helen Trinder, Associate Lecturer in Criminology

My Academic Journey

Two weeks ago, I attended a university reunion. My cohort are now in our late 40s or early 50s but it is remarkable how little we had all changed. Being back in the place where we all studied together put me in reflective mood and that (combined with some timely prompting from Paula) inspired me to share my academic journey.

I was one of those annoying kids who did well at school and knew exactly what they wanted to do. As a small child, I wanted to be a nurse but I later developed an aversion to bodily fluids which made that career choice untenable. I briefly flirted with the idea of being an English teacher, but both of my parents were in education and strenuously tried to dissuade me. So, at the age of about 14, I decided that I wanted to be a prison psychologist. I was in a careers lesson at school, and we had a big green plastic box filled with cards on which were written descriptions of different jobs. I announced that I wanted to be a psychiatrist (I think I was just being provocative) but I couldn’t find “psychiatrist” in the box, so I picked the closest one that I could find: “psychologist”. I read the card and it sounded really interesting, so I decided to find out more about psychology. The more I read, the more interesting I found it, and when I looked into the sorts of settings where I could work as a psychologist, prisons called out to me.

I was very lucky to secure a place to read Experimental Psychology at University College, Oxford in 1990. People have an image of ancient universities as being elitist, but what struck me was the huge diversity of people who were there. They were all clever and had studied hard to achieve their places, but beyond that they came from an enormous range of backgrounds – a far greater variety than I had encountered in my Shropshire comprehensive school. Our tutors worked us extremely hard. We had weekly tutorials, either in pairs or one-to-one, in two modules every term and we had to prepare an essay for each tutorial (two essays a week). In tutorials, we read out, discussed and analysed our essays and the reading on which they were based. There were lectures and practical classes on top of that and we had exams at the beginning of each term to make sure that we hadn’t forgotten anything over the vacations! That’s why I’m sometimes not very sympathetic to students who struggle to read one paper in preparation for a seminar!

At the end of my undergraduate studies, I still wanted to work in prisons but I knew very little about them. My degree had given me an excellent grounding in psychology but I knew little about the study of crime. So I applied to do an M.Phil. at the Institute of Criminology in Cambridge. This gave me an extra year as a full-time student and I thoroughly enjoyed it! I was privileged to be taught by such eminent criminologists as Loraine Gelsthorpe, Alison Liebling and David Farrington. I particularly enjoyed the penology seminars with Nigel West, which I attended just out of interest – I wasn’t taking the assessment in that module! The assessments were all coursework (extended essays and a dissertation) and had to be submitted at the start of each term, so I studied hard in the vacations, and I attended my seminars in term time, but there was also plenty of time for sport and socialising and making the most of my last year as a student!

At that time, HM Prison Service recruited new psychologists once a year through a national assessment centre. I applied in 1994, just after I had submitted my M.Phil. dissertation but I was unsuccessful. I got a job instead at the University of Wales, Swansea, as a research assistant in the Department of Social Policy and Applied Social Studies. I was involved in an evaluation of drug and alcohol treatment centres, funded by the Welsh Office, which employed both quantitative measures and participant observation. When that contract ended, I obtained another contract with Swansea City Council to compile a community profile of a “problem” estate. This required knocking on doors to interview residents, and participant observation in community settings such as the youth club, old people’s bingo sessions and the local pub. It was considered a rather intimidating environment to drop a well-educated 24-year-old English girl into, but I found the residents to be remarkably warm and welcoming and it was a highly rewarding piece of work.

By the time I finished the community profile, I had re-applied to the Prison Service and passed the assessment centre – the interpersonal skills I had developed through my action research had served me well. I had, however, joined the Prison Service at an unfortunate time. There was a recruitment ban in force which meant that although I had passed the psychologist assessment centre, I couldn’t actually secure a job. I was eventually given a temporary contract to collect data at HMP Littlehey for a large-scale research project analysing effective prison regimes.  After 10 months of doing this, the recruitment ban was lifted and I was taken on as a prison psychologist, sharing my time between HMP Littlehey and HMP Wellingborough. The Prison Service used to fund a part-time M.Sc. at Birkbeck University, which all newly recruited psychologists undertook. Obtaining a suitably accredited M.Sc., along with completing a satisfactory period of supervised practice, is an essential requirement of becoming a fully qualified “Chartered” psychologist. In another piece of unfortunate timing, the Birkbeck M.Sc. ceased to run just as I joined the service. At first, there was nothing to take its place. However, other universities soon noticed the gap in the market. I, and others in my prison psychology cohort, were relieved when the University of Leicester set up an M.Sc. in Forensic and Legal Psychology by Distance Learning. The Prison Service agreed to pay my fees and my manager allowed a small amount of study leave when assignments were due. Completing a post-graduate degree while working full-time in a demanding job was hard work and I vowed I would never do it again!

I moved to HMP Woodhill in 1998, completed my M.Sc. in 1999 and became a Chartered Psychologist in 2001. At some point after that, I remember receiving a phone call at work from someone called “@manosdaskalou” at, what was then, University College Northampton! I don’t know where he got my number from, but he wanted someone to talk to his third year Forensic Psychology students about the work that psychologists do in prisons. My parents had not completely succeeded in knocking a desire to teach out of me (in fact I probably inherited my urge to educate from them), and my Dad had taught at Northampton when it was Nene College, so I was keen to fulfil the request. The talk became a regular fixture and, after a few years (by which time I was Head of Psychology at HMP Woodhill), we extended it from a single guest lecture to a series of four, to allow me to cover topics such as risk assessment and offending behaviour interventions in more detail.

My son was born in 2008 and I took 12 months maternity leave from the Prison Service. At the end of that time, I didn’t feel ready to go back, so I negotiated a further 12 months career break. I wasn’t ready to return to the full intensity of managing a team in a high security prison, but I did want to keep my brain active. I asked Manos if there were any opportunities to expand my teaching commitments. The University was in the process of setting up a foundation degree in Offender Management, which was aimed primarily at custodial officers at HMP Rye Hill but was also delivered to a small cohort of full-time students. They were short of lecturers to deliver the modules and my offer to help out was eagerly accepted. The terms of my career break meant that I couldn’t earn money from another employer, but a couple of hours a week teaching suited me very well, so I gave my services for free and taught a module on Professional Practice alongside a lecturer with a background in probation, from another university, called Keith Davies.

After a year of this arrangement, HMP Woodhill were unwilling to have me back part-time, so I resigned from the Prison Service and joined the Parole Board as a part-time psychologist member. This allowed me to work much more flexibly and, with a toddler in the family, it suited me well. It also meant that I could have a proper contract with the University of Northampton and I became an associate lecturer in September 2010. Keith had moved to a different job but I continued to teach Professional Practice on the Offender Management degree. There was also a module in Offender Management on “The Psychology of Crime and Criminal Behaviour”. The person who taught this left after a couple of years and I took it over. Returning to basic psychology and teaching it every week was daunting at first, but I really enjoyed going back to what I had learned as an undergraduate and re-discovering how relevant it was to real-life criminal justice.

The arrangement with HMP Rye Hill had never really taken off and the Offender Management degree only ever attracted small numbers of full-time students, so in 2014 the course closed. Manos was keen, however, to incorporate more psychology into the B.A. Criminology course, so we adapted “The Psychology of Crime and Criminal Behaviour” into a first-year criminology module and I’ve been teaching it ever since! I’ve also taught a module on violence and I’ve covered maternity leave and sickness absence in other modules too. My students will have heard me banging on about forensic psychologists being “scientist-practitioners” and I feel that teaching at the University of Northampton has allowed me to fulfil this role. As a practitioner, I have lots of interesting real-life examples to use to illustrate points to my students, but teaching also keeps me up-to-date with research and theory which I can use to inform my practice.

My academic journey continues to take me to new places. My position on the Parole Board was a public appointment with a fixed tenure that came to an end in September 2020. I decided at that point to start a part-time Ph.D. with the University of Birmingham. I had not wanted to go into research straight from my M.Phil. because I felt that, in order to understand people who committed offences, I really needed some direct experience of working with them, but after 24 years as a practitioner, the time seemed right. I am now 18 months into a 6-year part-time degree. I am exploring the role of empathy deficits in violent and sexual offending. Trying to undertake research (which ideally requires access to prisoners) has not been easy during a pandemic and I have faced a number of obstacles but nothing insurmountable yet.

I am still keen to maintain a scientist-practitioner balance, and I need to pay my university fees and make a contribution to the family income, so in February of last year I started working as a Forensic Psychologist at St Andrew’s hospital. I am primarily based on a medium-secure ward for men with learning disabilities. Forensic mental health is a new area of practice for me and, although I have plenty of transferable skills from my previous roles, I have had to adapt to a different approach to the people we work with and a completely new set of jargon.

Reflecting on my academic journey, it is the people that stand out. I think that the most profound learning has taken place when I have been able to engage with experts who have shared their enthusiasm. In this respect, my undergraduate tutorials and M.Phil. seminars contrast with my distance learning M.Sc., which was a means of obtaining a qualification rather than an immersive learning experience. I hope that, as a practitioner who also teaches, I have been able to share some of my enthusiasm for forensic psychology with my own students. In order to benefit from this, however, students need to take up the opportunity to engage fully with teaching and not just see their university experience as a means to a qualification. Of course, COVID has not helped this, and the university’s penchant for remote learning placed it in a good position to maintain teaching when the pandemic struck. But it is very difficult to engage students when they are just names on a screen. I hope that, as we return to more face-to-face teaching, I can once again inspire my students, not just to pass their exams but to develop a life-long fascination for understanding criminal behaviour and the people that perpetrate it.

Helen Trinder, M.A., M.Phil., M.Sc., C.Psychol.

Forensic Psychologist and Associate Lecturer

Meet the Team: Paul Famosaya, Lecturer in Criminology

Hi all! My name is Dr Paul Famosaya and I have just joined UoN as a Lecturer in criminology. Prior to joining UoN, I have taught as a Lecturer in criminology and policing at the University of Cumbria – where I contributed to the development and running of modules at both Undergraduate and Masters level. In addition, I have taught criminology at Middlesex University, London as an HP Lecturer (during my PhD days). So, over the years really, I have developed and taught a variety of modules around the theories of crime, the crimes of the powerful, global dimensions of crime, policing, new ideas in criminology, crimes & deviance, social exclusion, criminological frameworks etc. I also serve as a reviewer of a few international reputable journals.

In terms of my academic background, I completed my undergraduate degree in Nigeria, 2010 and then went straight on to complete my Masters in Criminology at Middlesex University, London. I then dived straight in to my PhD, which I completed also at Middlesex in 2019 – with my thesis focusing on police experiences, actions and practices.

I came into the world of Criminology simply for my interest in understanding the logic of corruption and the network of greed. I realised that these two components are largely the foundational problems of my home country Nigeria, and many other countries. So, the plight to unravel these dynamics from both institutional and personal level triggered my interest in the discipline. To a large extent, this interest has continued to strengthen my area of specialisation which concentrates largely on the areas of Critical and Theoretical criminology, Police culture, Social harms and Injustice. Criminology is something I’ve really enjoyed doing and while I have taught it for many years, I still consider myself to be a student of Criminology really.

I am currently completing another article on pandemics and criminology – so it’ll be cool to chat with colleagues looking at similar area(s). Looking forward to meeting everyone soon!

Higher education, the strikes and me

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?

Meet the Team: Dan Petrosian, Lecturer in Criminology

Hi all! My name is Dan Petrosian and I have recently joined the Criminology team as a Lecturer. I also teach at The Open University where I am a member of the Harm & Evidence Research Collaborative, and have previously taught at Croydon University Centre and University of Westminster, where I am part of the Convict Criminology Research Group. Currently I am still working on my PhD with the aim of submitting later this year.

Having thought initially about studying law for my undergraduate degree, I couldn’t imagine the prospect of spending 3-4 years of my life trawling through pages on Corporate and Tort Law to eventually specialise in an area I was really interested in. Just as well…studying Criminology from a critical and holistic angle, it became clear to me that Law was never really my area of interest at all. Almost instantly, I knew Criminology was where life would take me for the long-haul. The ‘common-sense’ and ‘taken-for-granted’ narrative about crime/criminality that I had long been accustomed to suddenly looked flawed…and, in many ways, deliberately tilted towards those who had the power to set the narrative. Over the years, I became particularly interested in how this power manifests itself in different areas of society, how it is exercised through the use of ‘video activism’ and the media in general, and how language and discourse is used in order to shape collective stereotypes about some groups but not others.

My PhD focusses specifically on racial (in)justice; how dominant mainstream media and political discourse is used to ‘frame’ immigration, how this is then challenged by the broader anti-racist movement in the UK through the use of ‘video activism’, and what types of knowledge are produced from this process which can help us understand the complex power interplay between the state and those within its borders. It would be amazing to meet and work with other academics interested in these areas of research!

Although I still have deeply-rooted Imposter Syndrome from having migrated to the UK in the 90s without speaking a word of English and trying to ‘fit in’, studying and working in higher education has taught me that there is always a gap that can be filled at the right time in the right place…a gap that can flip every self-critical flaw into momentary virtue. Joining the Criminology team at Northampton has become part of my learning curve, and I am very much looking forward to working closely with the team and meeting all our students when teaching starts this semester!

Meet the Team: Stephanie Richards, Associate Lecturer in Criminology

A Warm Welcome

Hello all! I would like to introduce myself. My name is Stephanie Richards and I am your Student Success Mentor (SSM). Some of the criminology and criminal justice students would have already had the opportunity to meet me, as I was their Student Success Mentor previously. So, it will be great to touch base with you all and it would also be great for the new cohorts to say hi when you see me on campus.

It is that time of the year when we see new students and our existing students getting ready to tackle the trials of higher education. Being a SSM I am fully aware of the challenges that you will face, and I am here to support you throughout your time at UON. As a previous student I can testify that studying at university is incredibly challenging. The leap from school/ college can be daunting at first. A new building that seems like a maze or the idea of being  surrounded by strangers that you probably think you have nothing in common with can be enough to encourage you to run for the hills….stepping into a workshop for the first time can give you a stomach flip, but once you take that first seat in class you will come to realise it does get easier.

Upon reflection of my experience as a new undergraduate student I would have to be honest and express the difficulties that I suffered adjusting to my new way of life. I could  not keep my head above the masses of reading, and when I did manage to get some of the seminar prep completed, most of the time I struggled with the new questions and concepts that were posed to me. This will be the experience of most, if not all the new students starting out on their university education. This is part of the complex journey of academia. My advice would be to pace yourself, time management is key, if you struggle to understand the work that has been set, ask for clarity and develop positive relationships with your peers and the staff at UON…………..being part of a strong community will get you through a lot!

My role is not just about assisting the new students that have started their university journey, I am also here to help UONs existing students. Getting back into the swing of studying can be daunting after the summer break. Adjusting to face-to-face education can be an overwhelming process but one that should be embraced. We will all miss our pyjama bottoms and slippers but being back on campus and getting some normality back in your day is worth the sacrifice.  

The team of SSM’s are here to support you throughout your journey so please get in touch if you require our assistance. We never want you to feel alone in this journey and we want to assist you the best ways we can. We want you to progress and meet your full learning potential, and to get the most out of your university experience.

Meet the Team: Francine Bitalo, Associate Lecturer in Criminology

Hi everyone! My name is Francine Bitalo and I will be your new Student Success Mentor for this year. I am looking forward to meeting and assisting you all in your academic journey. Feel free to contact me for any support.

Being a graduate from the University of Northampton I can relate to you all, I know how challenging student life can be especially when dealing with other external factors. You may go through stages where you doubt your creativity, abilities and maybe even doubt whether the student life is for you. When I look back at when I was a student, I definitely regret not contacting the Student Success Mentors that were available to me or simply utilising more of the university’s support system. It is important for you seek support people like myself are here to help and recommend you to the right people.

Besides everything, Criminology is such an interesting course to study if you are anything like me by the end of it all you won’t view the world the same. Many of you have probably already formed your views on life especially when it comes to understanding crime. Well by the end of it all your ways of viewing the world will enhance and become more complex, theoretical and constructive. The advice I give you all is to enjoy the journey, be open minded and most importantly prepare for exciting debates and conversations.

Look forward to meeting you all.

Prison education: why it matters?

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.  

 

References

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 Reviewhttps://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/launching-our-prison-education-review

Originally published here

Gypsy, Roma, Traveller History Month: #MakeSomeSpace

When I reflect upon my childhood, I recall the fondness that I have towards the Romany culture. I am reminded of the wonderful bond that my family had with horses, of good people, of the older generations of my family telling stories and singing Romany songs around tables at parties, of a strong sense of tight-knit togetherness and resilience when times got tough. I remember being educated about life from a young age and being taught the skills needed to be able to earn a living when it became difficult to do so. I am also reminded of the generosity involved in giving all that you can to your family and friends despite not having much. I especially think of this generosity in relation to the Irish Travellers that welcomed my brothers into their homes and provided for them when they were in times of need.

My instant thoughts about Gypsy, Romany Travellers (GRT) is that of fondness, but living in our society I have learnt that this is not the typical thoughts of the dominant public, media or government. When considering dominant media, public and government attitudes towards travellers, I am reminded of the GRTs that live in a society where people are prejudice because of long-standing stereotypes that have been created about their culture. I am also reminded of the lack of understanding and/or empathy that others have about the disproportionate amounts of social harm that those within the GRT families will encounter.      

Since the recent Black Lives Matter protests there has been an explosion of anti-racist efforts, which I am hopeful of, yet, even some of those who are passionately ‘anti-racist’ continue to either project prejudice towards GRT people or deny that prejudice towards GRT is a problem. Adding to this, anti-racist messages communicated via the media do not seem to apply to GRT. A recent example of this is Dispatches: The Truth About Traveller Crime which is like a thorn in my side. This documentary discusses GRT as though they are a group of ‘dangerous criminals’. With an ‘expert’ criminologist present within the documentary it becomes difficult for the public to understand the stereotypes and lack of understanding that the documentary includes.

This year I have been able to incorporate GRT into the modules that I teach. I am pleased that some students have been able to navigate themselves to information about GRT from organisations like Traveller Movement and Friends Families and Travellers as these provide me with some hope in terms of GRT awareness and inclusion. However, it seems that these organisations will continue to have many pressing concerns to deal with, especially as the recent government proposals included within the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill seem to be nothing more than another attack on the more traditional way GRT of life.

There is a worry for some GRT that upon moving into housing these cultures will decline. In terms of my own family my Nan was my idol, she was born in the 1920s in a traditional horse drawn wagon. Since moving into housing my Nan remained proud of her Romany heritage and she instilled this within my Dad’s upbringing. I only ever practiced aspects of the Romany culture in a marginal sense, and the decline of this part of my own heritage is connected to the social harm that my own family have experienced.

With GRT month I hope that more people question the prejudices that they have about others, I hope that people also question the media, government and supposed ‘experts’. You could begin by attempting to put yourself in the shoes of others, try to imagine how you would feel if society collectively judged yourself or your family despite knowing little to nothing about who you/they are. After all, this kind of overt prejudice that GRT encounter would not be acceptable in many situations if this was aimed at other groups, so why should it be acceptable when aimed at GRT?

#CriminologyBookClub: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

As you know from our regular #CriminologyBookClub entries a small group of us decided the best way to thrive in lockdown was to seek solace in reading and talking about books. Building on on what has quickly become standard practice, we’ve decided to continue with all eight bloggers contributing! Our tenth book was chosen by @amycortvriend As can be seen from below, this text gave us plenty to think and talk about.

This was an interesting choice. Having lived through 2001, it was interesting to reflect on events almost two decades ago. I’ve read quite a lot of material around the area, so the content of The Reluctant Fundamentalist didn’t really have any surprises. The use of just one voice to tell the story was interesting and left you wondering what (if anything) the other person in the conversation was saying. I found the sex scenes with Erica rather disturbing, primarily recognising that this was a vulnerable women, regardless of Changez’ motivations. Overall an interesting read, with many unanswered questions left hanging. I know I’ve filled in the blanks, but equally I recognise that other members of the criminology book club may have very different answers….

@paulaabowles

Set in a Lahore café it is easy to imagine the scene and the changing scenery as day turns to night and a one-sided conversation takes place between the narrator and a stranger. In a story of the clash of two cultures and ideologies, the protagonist explains how he at first embraces the ‘American Dream’, soaking up the capitalist vision and the pathway to riches and success only to turn against these ideas as a result of some inner turmoil that he cannot fully explain. For the reader the explanation may become somewhat clearer as each page is turned but still you are left with the question, what is the purpose of this conversation? All becomes clear at the end or does it? A cleverly written plot that captivates from the start. The storyline takes the reader on a journey that is carefully narrated and beautifully descriptive. I really enjoyed the book and it took me back to some of the academic work around terrorism and fundamentalism. A good read that certainly makes you ponder some western values.

@5teveh

When I think back to The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I remember being swept up in the unique style of writing, the timely and thought-provoking themes and the somewhat questionable characters. I struggled to put it down and I think it navigates some themes well (I’ll be careful of spoilers). However, once I had finished the book I was left with a crucial question: ‘What is the ending?’. I struggled with the ‘love’ relationship depicted, even more so upon reflection. And was rooting for a love interest between the protagonist and his boss, Jim, but that was not to be. All in all, I could not put the book down and thoroughly enjoyed it, however as always when I take time for critical reflection: things become a little unstuck. However, excellent choice @amycortvriend!

@jesjames50

The book mostly consists of a person telling his life-story in a restaurant. For me, the storyteller’s life experiences were at times very sad, and when reflecting on scenes involving the women who he loved…maybe even a little strange. The book includes plenty of themes that are relevant to the field of criminology so I think it’s a book that criminology students would find interesting. I was intrigued by this book as I wanted to know more about the main character’s story, I also wanted to know why he was bothering to tell his story to a stranger in such detail in the first place. Overall, I thought the book was good, despite ambiguous ending!

@haleysread

I did not enjoy this book. I really struggled to get past the style in which it was written which I found at times irritating and at others uncomfortable. The descriptions of the narrator’s ‘relationship’ with Erica were particularly difficult to read. There were too many things left unknown to the reader which made it difficult to feel sympathetic to any of the characters involved and the ambiguous ending was more frustrating than intriguing.

@saffrongarside

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is a novel that we as a society should read. This novel will not give you a manual on how to treat people, but it will hopefully get you to reflect on the implicit ignorance of society and the violence that is legitimised in the name of politics.

Although the backdrop of the novel is set during the 9/11 terror attacks, Mohsin Hamid, does not address the clichés of terrorism, or the morals of individuals. The focus of the novel rests on the problematic treatment  and labels that society pushes onto ‘suspect’ communities, and the power that Western society holds over the rest of the world.

The main character of the story Changez, is not necessarily a likeable or loveable character, he is human, he is flawed he holds the qualities that all humans possess. But being a Pakistani national that is living in the U.S at such a volatile time, creates an atmosphere of angst that is exclusive to him and people that look like him. Throughout the novel I constantly wanted him to comply with the ideals of Western society so that he could fit in to win and be Othered less.

As an individual that is deemed different than the ‘norm’ and part of a suspect community, it is difficult to ignore how hard it is to be completely accepted and given access into a society that only gives you part membership. The blurred boundaries between fiction and nonfiction of this novel, allows for uncomfortable reflection of my own tireless navigation through society and the problematic narratives that has been thrust upon others.

This book will not solve the problems of the world, but it will allow us to reflect on who we are, how we treat each other and how we can do better as humans.

@svr2727

The Reluctant Fundamentalist was definitely a fascinating read. It leaves an impression to you. There is something unsettling about the way the story progresses, and you are always on edge about what is likely to happen next. The story is a constant narration as a one-way conversation. At first the novelty of the conversation is interesting and engaging, but in parts it is stretching it, feeling a bit exaggerated. The protagonist is unclear if they are a hero or a villain, friend or foe and this sustains that suspense even further. We are left wondering as we trace different parts of his story through a seemingly random recollection of events. The writing is good and engaging leaving you wanting to know more, but for those who like the certainty of what happens this may not be for you. After I finished the book, I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not, mainly because I wasn’t sure of how I felt about the characters. One thing is for sure the subject matter and the pace of writing will leave you guessing.

@manosdaskalou

Having read another of the author’s novels, I was looking forward to The Reluctant Fundamentalist and it did not disappoint. It took me a chapter or two to get used to the writing style which was almost a one-sided conversation which made you constantly wonder who the other person is, why they are there and what they are saying. Spoiler alert: we never find out. I like that the ending is open, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. I also enjoyed the journey of the protagonist from his desperation of wanting to succeed in his pursuit of the American dream to the realisation, triggered by 9/11, that he never truly would fit in, nor does he want to anymore.

@amycortvriend
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