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A Love Letter: in praise of art

Some time ago, I wrote ‘A Love Letter: in praise of poetry‘, making the case as to why this literary form is important to understanding the lived experience. This time, I intend to do similar in relation to visual art.

Tomorrow, I’m plan to make my annual visit to the Koestler Arts’ Exhibition on show at London’s Southbank Centre. This year’s exhibition is entitled Another Me and is curated by the musician, Soweto Kinch. Previous exhibitions have been curated by Benjamin Zephaniah, Antony Gormley and prisoners’ families. Each of the exhibitions contain a diverse range of unique pieces, displaying the sheer range of artistic endeavours from sculpture, to pastels and from music to embroidery. This annual exhibition has an obvious link to criminology, all submissions are from incarcerated people. However, art, regardless of medium, has lots of interest to criminologists and many other scholars.

I have never formally studied art, my reactions and interpretations are entirely personal. I reason that the skills inherent in criminological critique and analysis are applicable, whatever the context or medium. The picture above shows 4 of my favourite pieces of art (there are many others). Each of these, in their own unique way, allow me to explore the world in which we all live. For me, each illustrate aspects of social (in)justice, social harms, institutional violence and the fight for human rights. You may dislike my choices. arguing that graffiti (Banksy) and photography (Mona Hatoum) have no place within art proper. You may disagree with my interpretation of these pieces, dismissing them as pure ephemera, forgotten as quickly as they are seen and that is the beauty of discourse.

Nonetheless, for me they capture the quintessential essence of criminology. It is a positive discipline, focused on what “ought” to be, rather than what is. To stand small, in front of Picasso’s (1937) enormous canvas Guernica allows for consideration of the sheer scale of destruction, inherent in mechanised warfare. Likewise, Banksy’s (2005) The Kissing Coppers provides an interesting juxtaposition of the upholders of the law behaving in such a way that their predecessors would have persecuted them. Each of the art pieces I have selected show that over time and space, the behaviours remain the same, the only change, the level of approbation applied from without.

Art galleries and museums can appear terrifying places, open only to a select few. Those that understand the rules of art, those who make the right noises, those that have the language to describe what they see. This is a fallacy, art belongs to all of us. If you don’t believe me, take a trip to the Southbank Centre very soon. It’s not scary, nobody will ask you questions, everyone is just there to see the art. Who knows you might just find something that calls out to you and helps to spark your criminological imagination. You’ll have to hurry though…closes 3 November, don’t miss out!

The struggle is real

Stephanie is a BA Criminology graduate of 2019 and was motivated to write this blog through the experience of her own dissertation.

Last year was a very important time for me, during my second year of studying Criminology I began doing a work placement with Race Act 40, which was an oral history project to celebrate 40 years of the Race Relations Act 1974. The interviews that were conducted during my placement allowed me to get a variety of in-depth stories about racial inequalities of Afro-Caribbean migration settlers in the UK. During my time with the Race Act 40 project it became clear to me that the people who had volunteered their stories had witnessed a long line of injustices from not only individuals within society, but also institutions that makeup the ‘moral fabric’ within society. When exploring whether they have seen changes post and pre-Race Relations they insisted that although the individual within society treated them better and accepted them post-Race relations, to an extent there is a long way to go to improve the hostile relationships that has been formed with politicians and police.

The notion of hostility between politicians and the Afro-Caribbean community was reinforced, as the UK was going through the Windrush scandal which affected the core of every Afro-Caribbean household within the UK. This was extremely important for me as both paternal and maternal grandparents were first generation Windrush settlers. During the scandal my father became extremely anxious and the ramifications of the Windrush scandal hit home when some of his friends that came to the UK in 1961, the same time as he did, were detained and deported on the grounds of them being ‘illegals’. The UK Government used their ‘Hostile Environment’ policy to reintroduce Section 3 paragraph 8 of the Immigration Act 1971, which puts burden of proof on anyone that is challenged about their legal status in the UK’.

The UK government was ‘legally’ able to deport Caribbean settlers, as many of them did not have a British passport and could not prove their legal right to be in the UK and the Home Office could not help them prove their legal rights because all archival documents had been destroyed. This was a hard pill to swallow, as the United Kingdom documents and preserves all areas of history yet, overnight, the memory of my family’s journey to the UK was removed from the National Archives, without any explanation or reasoning. The anxiety that my father felt quickly spread over my whole family and while I wanted to scream and kick down doors demanding answers, I used my family’s history and the experiences of other Black people under British colonial rule as the basis for my dissertation. The hostility that they faced stepping off the Windrush echoed similar hostility they were facing in 2018, the fact that the British government had started deporting people who were invited into the country as commonwealth workers to build a country that had been torn apart as a corollary of war was a slap in the face.

Under Winston Churchill’s government, officials were employed to research Black communities to prove they were disproportionately criminal as a strategy to legally remove them from the UK and although they did not have any evidence to prove this notion the government did not apologize for the distasteful and racist treatment they demonstrated. It is hard to convince Black people in 2019 that they are not targets of poor similar treatment when they have been criminalised again and documents have been destroyed to exonerate them from criminality.

A final thought:

I have outlined the reasons why this topic has been important to me and my advice to any Criminology student who is going to be writing a dissertation is, to find a topic that is important and relevant to you, if you are passionate about a topic it will shine through in your research.

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.  

A Matter of Time

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Christmas was a rather sombre time in our household this year, my step dad died a few days before.  It wasn’t a surprise, he had been ill for some time, but it still felt like a huge shock.  Unlike the time when my dad died, some 12 years ago now, I didn’t have to deal with the all of the aftermath, my step brother did that and as a consequence, I was left with time to think and reflect.  The death of someone, particularly as we get older, reminds us of our own mortality. Phrases such as ‘time marches on’ simply remind us of the inevitable fact that our time is finite, unlike time itself, I’m not sure Stephen Hawking would agree with this (see below).  The hard part about someone dying is that they cannot give you any more of their time, just as you cannot give them any of yours.  It is this use of time that I want to reflect on using an eclectic mix of what may seem random ideas.

Coincidentally, I was given a book at Christmas authored by Stephen Hawking.  Most of you will be aware that he wrote A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (Hawking, 1995) and his latest book Brief Answers to the Big Questions (Hawking 2018) revisits some of the ideas.  I confess, I do not really understand some of the things he discusses although I do get the general idea. While reading, I started to think about how I would gain a better understanding of some of his key concepts. I decided two things were needed, time and effort. So, the question for me was, simply this, do I want to spend time and effort in gaining this understanding?  On reflection, it became rapidly apparent that to understand quantum physics, for example, I would need to start with some basics around mathematics and physics.  I think, given enough time and effort, I would be able to crack it.  But I must acknowledge that given other priorities, I simply do not have enough time to embark on this endeavour.  Consequently, I have to read, somewhat uncritically, Stephen’s ideas and accept them on face value.  This is not something that sits comfortably with me because I have always been a ‘I get it, but… person’.  I still want to know what was before the ‘big bang’, although Hawking (2018) says this is a pointless question.

Some time ago a colleague complimented another colleague’s writing.  It cannot be coincidence that the author of the eloquent piece has over many years, spent an inordinate amount of time reading academic literature.  So, time and effort spent doing something seems to produce rewards.

Whilst talking to another colleague, I described how I was renovating a house, much of the work I was doing myself. How did I know how to do all of this, he asked?  On reflection, it is through experience which, equates to time and effort put into finding out how to do things and then doing them.  That’s not to say that I can plumb a bathroom as quickly as a plumber or do the tiling in the same time as a professional tiler, or lay a floor as quick as someone that does it every day.  I have to spend more time thinking about what I want to do and thinking about how I’m going to do it.  I have to read and reread the instructions and research how to do certain things.  The more I practice, the better I get, the less effort required and perhaps the less time needed.  My dad always told me that a half a job is a double job, in other words, do it properly in the first place. The example of my colleague being able to write eloquently, suggests that time spent doing something might also produce better results as well as saving time and effort in the long run.

And so, I reflect on my time, which is finite, and marches on.  My time is valuable, just as your time is valuable.  I need to use my time wisely, so too should you. Giving people my time requires effort but as recent experience has demonstrated those that are close will not always be around to share time. Time and effort are required to achieve our goals, the more time we spend on something, accompanied by the requisite effort, the more likely we are to achieve what we want. Some things will take more time and effort but there is little that cannot be achieved. ‘Be brave, be curious, be determined, overcome the odds.  It can be done’ (Hawking, 2018: 22).

Hawking, S. (1995) A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, London: Bantam Books.

Hawking, S. (2018) Brief Answers to the Big Questions, London: John Murray.

The Criminology Toolbox

Abbie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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