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Empathy Amid the “Fake Tales of San Francisco”*

This time last week, @manosdaskalou and I were in San Francisco at the American Society of Criminology’s conference. This four-day meeting takes place once a year and encompasses a huge range of talkers and subjects, demonstrating the diversity of the discipline. Each day there are multiple sessions scheduled, making it incredibly difficult to choose which ones you want to attend.

Fortunately, this year both of our two papers were presented on the first day of the conference, which took some of the pressure off. We were then able to concentrate on other presenters’ work. Throughout discussions around teaching in prison, gun violence and many other matters of criminological importance, there was a sense of camaraderie, a shared passion to understand and in turn, change the world for the better. All of these discussions took place in a grand hotel, with cafes, bars and restaurants, to enable the conversation to continue long after the scheduled sessions had finished.

Outside of the hotel, there is plenty to see. San Francisco is an interesting city, famous for its Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars which run up and down extraordinarily steep roads and of course, criminologically speaking, Alcatraz prison. In addition, it is renowned for its expensive designer shops, restaurants, bars and hotels. But as @haleysread has noted before, this is a city where you do not have to look far to find real deprivation.

I was last in San Francisco in 2014. At that point cannabis had been declassified from a misdemeanour to an infraction, making the use of the drug similar to a traffic offence. In 2016, cannabis was completely decriminalised for recreational use. For many criminologists, such decriminalisation is a positive step, marking a change from viewing drug use as a criminal justice problem, to one of public health. Certainly, it’s a position that I would generally subscribe to, not least as part of a process necessary to prison abolition. However, what do we really know about the effects of cannabis? I am sure my colleague @michellejolleynorthamptonacuk could offer some insight into the latest research around cannabis use.

When a substance is illegal, it is exceedingly challenging to research either its harms or its benefits. What we know, in the main, is based upon problematic drug use, those individuals who come to the attention of either the CJS or the NHS. Those with the means to sustain a drug habit need not buy their supplies openly on the street, where the risk of being caught is far higher. Thus our research population are selected by bad luck, either they are caught or they suffer ill-effects either with their physical or mental health.

The smell of cannabis in San Francisco is a constant, but there is also another aroma, which wasn’t present five years ago. That smell is urine. Furthermore, it has been well documented, that not only are the streets and highways of San Francisco becoming public urinals, there are also many reports that public defecation is an increasing issue for the city. Now I don’t want to be so bold as to say that the decriminalisation of cannabis is the cause of this public effluence, however, San Francisco does raise some questions.

  1. Does cannabis cause or exacerbate mental health problems?
  2. Does cannabis lead to a loss of inhibition, so much so that the social conventions around urination and defecation are abandoned?
  3. Does cannabis lead to an increase in homelessness?
  4. Does cannabis increase the likelihood of social problems?
  5. Does the decriminalisation of cannabis, lead to less tolerance of social problems?

I don’t have any of the answers, but it is extremely difficult to ignore these problems. The juxtaposition of expensive shops such as Rolex and Tiffany just round the corner from large groups of confused, homeless people, make it impossible to avoid seeing the social problems confronted by this city. Of course, poor mental health and homelessness are not unique to San Francisco or even the USA, we have similar issues in our own town, regardless of the legal status of cannabis. Certainly the issue of access to bathroom facilities is pressing; should access to public toilets be a right or a privilege? This, also appears to be a public health, rather than CJS problem, although those observing or policing such behaviour, may argue differently.

Ultimately, as @haleysread found, San Francisco remains a City of Contrast, where the very rich and the very poor rub shoulders. Unless, society begins to think a little more about people and a little less about business, it seems inevitable that individuals will continue to live, eat, urinate and defection and ultimately, die upon the streets. It is not enough to discuss empathy in a conference, no matter how important that might be, if we don’t also empathise with people whose lives are in tatters.

*Turner, Alex, (2006), Fake Tales of San Francisco, [CD]. Recorded by Arctic Monkeys in Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, The Chapel: Domino Records

Visa by Impression, Atavism or Exploitation?

My paper, ‘beyond institutional autonomy: a quadrumvirate interaction theory of civil-military relations’ was accepted for presentation at the 2019 Biennial International Conference of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society scheduled for November 8-10, 2019 at the Hyatt Regency, Reston, Virginia. However, I am unable to attend the conference because I was denied visa at the US Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria. In this entry, I wish to highlight and add my voice to the concerns academics and non-academics, especially those from the ‘Global South’ face in securing visas to enable them attend conferences in the supposed ‘developed world.’ Hence, this entry is a personal reflection on the US visa regime in Nigeria, and its nexus with criminology.

Individual visas are often issued based on the merit of an application and the adequacy of the supporting documents submitted by applicants who are also required to pay certain fees and charges for the application. The issuing authorities would normally consider the criminal background record of an applicant, their previous travel history and the adequacy of funds to cover for the cost of the trip. In some cases, as typical with the US visa regime in Nigeria, applicants are required to present themselves before a consular officer for a visa interview and the decision to issue a visa is at the discretion of the consular officer.

Given this, one would expect that the consular officer would in the least, view/review the supporting documents of an applicant, in addition to asking some pertinent questions. The rationale being that the US visa web-application platform does not provide a link/option for submitting the supporting system prior to the interview. However, this was not the case when I was denied a visa. In fact, the interview barely lasted two minutes, and the following was the ‘interview’ conversation I had with the male consular officer:

Why do you want to go to Reston Virginia? To attend a conference.

What do you intend to do in the conference? I will be presenting a paper, a theory from my PhD research.

Who would pay for the conference and travel fee? The conference organisers and (he interjects with the next question, but I told him I still have another source of income, but he replied saying I had told him enough and that I should answer the next question).

What is your highest academic qualification? A PhD from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, I just concluded last December.

What do you do for a living? I just concluded a Postdoctoral Fellowship with the University of Stellenbosch and I have just accepted an appointment with the University of Jos as a Lecturer.

Do you have a family? Yes, a wife and a child, and we are expecting another.

For how long have you been married? 3 years

How old is your child? 1 year and 8 months

What does your wife do for a living? She is a housewife, she looks after the family

Are you travelling alone? Yeah (At this point, he faced his computer keyboard, typed some few words, then turned to me and told me, unfortunately we cannot issue you the visa while handing over a pre-printed form containing the reasons for visa denials).

From this ‘interview’ conversation, two things stood out for me. One is the fact that the consular officer made his decisions without viewing or considering any of my supporting documents and the second was the question, what did I do, say, or answer wrongly?

In terms of the latter, I found nothing wrong with my responses, but I found a huge systemic fault with regards to the former. The internet is rife with complaints from individuals, organisations and recently countries accusing the US of implementing a harsh visa regime which deliberately frustrates and traumatises visa applicants. My web application process in Nigeria is nothing short of this, in fact, I thought it was easier to make heaven than to obtain the US visa from Nigeria.

Having carefully thought about the visa regime in the light of my ‘interview,’ I concluded that the US visa regime is anachronistically atavistic, an exploitative business strategy, or both. My opinion is simply that I was denied visa not because of my responses to the questions but because the consular officer found a questionable impression through observing my face as he had not viewed or considered my supporting documents. For this, I appreciate Cesare Lombroso and one needs not be a Criminologist before knowing that facial impression and appearance are never better yardstick than considering the merits of the supporting documents.

A fair and equitable visa system will consider the merit of an application, the travel history of an applicant (which I have a reasonable one), whether the supporting documents are convincing, the criminal record background, purpose of travel, sufficiency of funds, and the existence of a strong tie with one’s origin. However, this was not the case, and this led me to the business exploitation opinion.

Customarily, when one pays for a service, the norm is to provide quality and effective service worth the value of the money paid or promised, anything short of this is clear exploitation – unfortunately, this is how the US visa regime operates in Nigeria. On the day of my interview, there were at least seventy (70) persons queuing up for theirs early in the morning, but it is not my intention to analyse how much income the US derives from this.

Are we really free?

freedom

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’

 

 

San Francisco: A City of Contrast

Golden Gate Bridge

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

Often when I visit different cities around the world, I notice that huge contrasts in the standards of life experienced by others are ‘plain for the eye to see’ within such small spaces.

What seems interesting is that inequality between the rich and poor are striking within western countries that are often perceived as being quite wealthy, ‘forward thinking’ and technologically advanced. This brings me to my recent trip to San Francisco, a city partly characterised by the beautiful red Golden Gate bridge which is situated near a beach where sun kissed, athletic and healthy-looking San Francisco residents seem to spend their free time socialising, sailing on boats, walking their pedigree dogs and playing sports. Of course, the view of the isolative Alcatraz prison to the East of the bridge dampens the illusion that San Francisco is a city which has historically upheld progressive and rehabilitative ideas. Whilst today, within this very same space, and more evidently, within a few blocks walk from this location, residents experience life in a very different manner. Many individuals are homeless, have significant physical and mental problems, the occasional prostitute hangs around attracting business and drugs are taken and offered out to passers-by. And on that very same red bridge many individuals attempt to and/or take their own lives out of desperation. So, for me, San Francisco exemplifies a city that is steeped in inequality.

In fact, a recent United Nations (2017) report points to high housing prices, the lack of social, educational and healthcare services for poorer Californian populations and tough responses to issues of homelessness and petty crime as being key to the increasing and continued levels of inequality within cities such a San Francisco. Last week in seminar sessions [CRI1007] we discussed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). What appears interesting here is that despite an international agreement that every individual should have a Right to Life, domestically, San Francisco’s approach to the provision of social and medical care for individuals results in the lesser quality and length of life for poorer populations. As in San Francisco the Right to Life is limited, as the city does not seem to be obliged to protect individuals who may die due to ill mental or physical health, the lack of medical insurance or the numerous experiences of poverty.

Prior to visiting San Francisco, I was quite excited to revel in its famous music scene and its picturesque charm. Yet, despite it being a fantastic place to visit that is full of eccentricity and character, the sombre tone of the city was made blatantly clear. I did however, leave feeling incredibly grateful for non-government organisations and communities who often provide for those who are viewed as being ‘deviant’ and not worthy of help. Such as the Gubbio Project, which, with the help of volunteers and public donations, provides Church shelter and basic provisions for the homeless. However, it is clear that a greater amount of support is required for the poorer residents of San Francisco.

 

Photo by Life Of Pix on Pexels.com

Are we facing an ‘arms race’ on the streets of the UK?

HP guns

Dr Helen Poole is Deputy Dean in the Faculty of Health and Society and Lead for University of Northampton’s Research Centre for the Reduction of Gun Crime, Trafficking and Terrorism

As the Government’s Violent Crimes Bill passes through its second hearing, the emphasis is clearly on controlling corrosive substances and knives. This is entirely appropriate since the vast majority of armed crime resulting in death or injury in the UK currently involves one or the other. Other than proposing tighter controls on 0.5 calibre rifles and bump-stock devices, the Bill is virtually silent on firearms, although it is surprising that either of these devices are not more tightly regulated already.

However, what is of greater concern is that the UK and other EU jurisdictions are not taking stronger heed of the findings of the EU funded Project SAFTE, published by the Flemish Peace Institute in April 2018. SAFTE alludes to what it calls an ‘arms race’ based on the fact that there are more weapons entering the illicit market than are being seized. Thus, according to basic economic principles of supply and demand, firearms, and particularly military grade firearms, will become cheaper on the illicit market. Furthermore, as organised crime groups and gangs weaponise, there will be a greater need for their foes to be equally equipped.

The question of where these firearms and small arms and light weapons emanate from is key to understanding the potential problem this poses on the streets of the UK. The vast majority of firearms are produced legally, by states such as the UK and USA. However, the reason that there are so many illicit weapons in circulation, is that these firearms are often diverted into illicit hands, either through corruption or criminal activity. This diversion into what is commonly referred to as the ‘grey market’, contributes to more than 200,000 global firearms deaths every year, excluding conflict zones.

The firearms black-market, whereby weapons and ammunition are produced illegally, is of relative insignificance in the overall global picture of firearms related harm. Therefore, tackling the diversion of firearms from lawful production is more likely to have a positive impact on firearms related harm, and also combat the emerging arms race identified through Project SAFTE. Considering the scale of the grey market problem, it would appear that this is where resources should be directed if states and international organisations are serious about reducing the harm caused to societies by firearms. Indeed, the United Nations regard firearms as one of the obstacles to obtaining Sustainable Development Goal 16 on Peace Justice and Strong Institutions, particularly 16.4 which aims to ‘significantly reduce illicit financial and arms flows, strengthen the recovery and return of stolen assets and combat all forms of organized crime’ by 2030.

The international arms trade and its subsequent implications for state sponsored and criminal diversion it clearly a politically sensitive topic. However, it is at the core of addressing the tens of thousands of lives that are lost to firearms annually.

 

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