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Volunteering Matters

Some people volunteer because they have to, I volunteer because I want to. From a personal perspective I knew that the foodbank was the place that I wanted to be at.

I started volunteering in 2016, doing just 1 day a week and as the years have gone by it has meant more hours spread over a couple of days, especially during the Christmas holidays which are incredibly busy. Proving that many volunteers are necessary and needed to help keep it going.

It is a place that suits me because its local and fits around my studies. I am able to learn new skills and gain insightful knowledge. The volunteers are very welcoming and warm people. However, over the years I’ve noticed a dramatic increase in the use of the foodbank and its diversity. In theory, its usage should be on the decrease.

Within the foodbank, we deal with some very complex individuals who require different approaches. It sounds cliché, but I volunteer to make a difference and eradicate the myth that the foodbank is used for those in society that are labelled as people who can’t budget properly.

I have found that service users are predominantly people living on low incomes. People who are working on zero hours contracts; or have reduced hours and having their wages topped up with benefits like Universal Credit. As a result, they just don’t have enough money coming in; leaving hardly anything for essentials such as food and heat. I found during my research that many families have been without electricity, that means no cooking facilities or warmth! Pushing them further into poverty. In this day and age people should not be without the basics.

In my time as a volunteer I have met some lovely people who have been affected by different adverse life events and it is heartbreaking to witness, but equally by giving something back I can see their eyes light up when they are given their food parcels. I feel I am learning to be more compassionate. However, if the person has no access to electricity how are they supposed to cook or provide a meal for their children without electricity?

On a weekly basis we see many different people from so many backgrounds; from civil servants, to social workers and the homeless. Service users can often be emotional and sometimes defensive, who feel they don’t deserve to be given food because they are working. The foodbank does not discriminate, it sees everyone as equal.

What does that say about the world we live in? That being food poor or food insecure is something that must stay hidden and not be talked about…people living with food insecurity would rather go without, than ask for help. The basic income does not cover the essentials such as food after paying bills.

It makes me mad that poverty is an accepted part of society and service users state they feel undervalued and unaccepted. The question that must be asked ‘Is poverty violence? The answer is a resounding YES, due to the structures within society that prevent people living with food insecurity from accessing food. Therefore, locking them into poverty, preventing them from moving out of the cycle of deprivation.

It is left to charitable organisations to do whatever they can to help that person to be able to eat and survive. But how long can these charities go on for? The Trussell Trust began in 2000 in the UK….

Children and families should not be going without food, as it is a fundamental right that everyone should have access to the basics. Food insecurity is more prominent now than ever with The Trussell Trust (2020) reporting an increase of 81% in emergency food parcels.

The foodbank is available to help people to access a 3 day food parcel to ‘see them through” a difficult period in their lives. During my time spent conducting my dissertation within the foodbank, food poverty was a combination of a variety of reasons such as low income, often together with a contributory factor such as an adverse life event. For example, the loss of employment or breakdown of a relationship which will only add more shame and stigma. The foodbank is not just about giving away free food, it’s about offering a safe place to sit and get warm and service users can relax, tell their stories and feel free for as long as they can, before they have to face more challenges from the world.

Furthermore, some in society see the foodbank as the sticking plaster that holds the poor in society together. I would say that without the foodbank many people would be committing crimes or be starving. Some politicians have stated that food banks are the heart of community cohesion. The only time I have seen the local MP at our foodbank is for a photo opportunity. The poor in society are forgotten and its about time they weren’t!

The service users are people who are neglected by society and the government, who by definition, make them feel they are to blame for their situation. By visiting the foodbank we show them respect and compassion.

Things I Miss (and don’t) – Flower Violet (Stephanie Nixon)

“Once this is all over, Steph, you can come over and we can have a great big hug!”

Things I miss… let’s just start by highlighting that it is a lot of things!

Since the lockdown and being furloughed,  my daily routine been shot, and all the freedoms that everyone once had have now been restricted. However, I am taking each day as it comes, and I endeavor to remain as positive as possible and do what makes me happy.   This pandemic has opened up people’s eyes to everything that they take for granted on a daily basis, whether it’s visiting friends and family, going shopping or spending time out with others. 

Here are some of the things that I miss: 

I miss visiting some of my friends in the local area. I miss having cups of tea and doing shopping with them too.

I miss my occasional trip to Costa, or some cafe, where I can sit on my own, gather my thoughts, and put together my to-do list.

I miss going to my 2 church services on Saturday evenings, and Sunday Mornings. I miss serving the church community, and spending time with people that I love, and supporting Christian campaigns.

I miss taking my dad who his favourite Indian restaurant, and my mum to her favourite Singaporean and Malaysian restaurant.

I miss doing all my face-to-face community work and activities, and meeting with members of the community.

I miss visiting family members, and have had to call and text them to check in on them, and make sure that they are safe.

I miss going out to collect donations of glasses and small ink jets for my local Lions club as part of our local and international service.  

I miss being able to regularly leave my house and go out as many times as I would like to. Before the pandemic, I would often leave the house on multiple occasions (predominantly on Saturdays as I work Monday-Friday) whether it’s to do a family shop run, post bottle tops to Lush, visiting friends and family,  or going for a long walk.

However, whilst there is so much I miss doing, I am getting as much done as I possibly can during this time too, so, it’s not all that bad and negative. 

I am doing so much more writing, have drafted multiple blog posts and have even tried my hand at poetry! (1) I have also immersed myself in other hobbies, such as reading more books, doing longer and multiple workouts at home. I’ve also got more time to continue working on my author page and reach more people (2).

I am calling my partner multiple times a day! Due to being furloughed and my partner working from home, we can speak on the phone for longer periods, and call each other during the day to check in on each other! It’s wonderful being able to check in on each other regularly! ❤️

As I am at home most of the time now, I am using the time to rest, recharge my batteries, and clear my head. Something which I really need to do more of…

I’ve caught up with people that I haven’t spoken to in a while. I’ve connected with old friends from university, and kept in touch with people to see how everyone is doing during this time. It’s been great catching up and speaking to people who I love and  care about ❤️ 

In my part time job as a Member Pioneer, myself and the store have worked tirelessly to help the community. Together, we have donated PPE equipment to district nurses, donated care packs to the police, fire service and NHS staff for their work, and donated 100 Easter Eggs, 50 for nurses and 50 for a local food pantry, to say thank  you, and help struggling families. This was earlier blogged about here:   Love, Resilience and Practicality in the face of a Pandemic  ❤️ 

In addition, there has been a massive increase in the time spent with the family at home! Everyone is together, and we have played games, laughed together, done family workouts, done more baking, did a family BBQ in the hot sunshine, and have spent so much more time together! The family bonding has been wonderful! 

It does ask the question; once this pandemic is over, will we ever take for granted all the liberties and freedoms that were restricted? I know I certainly will not! 

Let’s just take each day at a time – we’ll all pull through this! 

Links

(1) The poem I wrote: Mercy! Mercy! https://blog.sivanaspirit.com/mercy-mercy/

(2) https://www.facebook.com/LifeOfMiraclesAndLove/  

Other

My author page: https://www.facebook.com/LifeOfMiraclesAndLove/

A positive new story for HMPPS – a step in the right direction

There are not many good news stories about our prison and probation system so of course, when one does crop up, it catches our attention. Recently, ‘failing Grayling’ has dominated discussion, with the reforms to the National Probation Service described as disastrous, ill-thought out and costing the tax payer millions of pounds. The academic criminology community and practitioners on the front line all saw it coming, but there is little comfort to be taken from being vindicated. Instead, for me there remains the question of ‘when will they learn?’ This is a subject I have written about before, my frustration at the lack of political will to meaningfully reform the CJS despite all the evidence demonstrating the need for this and the viable alternatives which could be adopted. However, it is still the case that a tough stance on law and order continues to gain political traction, just see some of the quotes coming from our new Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who seems determined to re-introduce the death penalty and has already outlined plans for increased surveillance.

So, back to the good news. A restaurant, open and managed by CLINKS has been shown to have a significant impact on re-offending rates – according to research conducted by the Ministry of Justice (Coughlan, 2019). CLINKS are an organisation which supports voluntary work in the CJS (see https://www.clinks.org). I first came across them when doing research into the experiences of BAME ex-offenders. It was clear this was a group who particularly benefitted from the work of volunteers, due to state services not meeting their cultural and spiritual needs, or even acknowledging their existence. In addition, CLINKS advised the Ministry of Justice on tackling the over-representation of BAME groups in the prison system. The research I did with colleagues at Birmingham City University also showed that having the status of an ‘ex-offender’ further compounded participants sense of hopelessness and resignation about the discrimination they faced (Sharp et al, 2006).

The ‘Clink’ restaurant is an initiative run in various prisons throughout the UK, and it has been cited as successful in providing prisoners with valuable work experience while serving their sentence – a project which Clink chief Christopher Moore said “works on both sides of the walls”. The Ministry of Justice clearly liked the link to employment and education, and the outcome of driving down re-offending rates – the figures do make for interesting reading, at a time when there is not much else to celebrate. For those trained in the restaurant at HMP Brixton, the re-offending rate was 11%, compared to those with similar offending history, who had a re-offending rate of 32%. But beyond the statistics, what really struck me was what some of those prisoners who were involved with the restaurant said. They expressed emotions of positivity, hope, and feeling valued.

There are clear links here to literature on desistance, which requires behavioural change and structural change to offer those willing to desist from crime, realistic and sustainable opportunities for them to do so (King, 2012). The Clink restaurant project also helps prisoners gain City and Guilds vocational qualifications, to be able to work in the wider hospitality industry. There is recognition of the need to help prisoners overcome the stigma they faced when trying to get jobs, homes and even make connections for social support. Another interesting quote came from a City and Guilds manager working with CLINKS, who said that “educating prisoners is not a reward for committing a crime – it’s about preventing further crime from being committed.” This shows the shift in thinking which is needed throughout government, the CJS and the wider public – that rehabilitation is necessary to prevent crime, and should be prioritised over those approaches which only promise to deter others.

This research and the reactions by prisoners themselves demonstrates how important is to understand what works in terms of outcomes, but also why. In this case there is a clear emotional need being met in training prisoners to work in teams, rely on each other, be valued and be able to respond positively to a training opportunity. The ethos of the Clink restaurant and those providing training show a clear sense of inclusivity and being non-judgemental for a group of people who experience stigma and discrimination, before, during and after their sentence. This ethos is at the heart of the voluntary sector who work with prisoners and ex-offenders more widely.

But what must be clear by now, is the best will in the world cannot overcome basic needs which must be met, resources which are needed to implement and sustain projects, and for the same opportunities and ethos to be replicated in the community. These are bigger issues to address, they reflect how limited the effect of an initiative such as Clinks restaurant can be for ex-prisoners needing to get jobs, homes and support outside the prison gates. However, perhaps this broader change can come with small, but significant steps, to change the narrative of the purpose of punishment and the approach of law and order in England and Wales. If that is the case, our current cabinet may find themselves on the wrong side of history, reflecting views which need to be consigned to an uncivil past. There is much to be done, it will probably get worse before it gets better, but those who know what works, why it works and how it works need to be the vanguard of reform in the CJS, and need to keep pushing for this.

References

Couglan, S. (2019) Prison restaurant serves up cut in reoffending, BBC News, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-49150997.

King, S. (2012) Transformative agency and desistance from crime. Criminology and Criminal Justice. 13 (3), 366-383.

Sharp, D, Atherton, S & Williams, K (2006) Everyone’s Business: Investigating The Resettlement Needs Of Black And Minority Ethnic Ex-Offenders In The West Midlands Government Office For The West Midlands.

 

Thinking “outside the box”

@alisonhodson3

Having recently done a session on criminal records with @paulaabowles to a group of voluntary, 3rd sector and other practitioners I started thinking of the wider implications of taking knowledge out of the traditional classroom and introducing it to an audience, that is not necessarily academic.  When we prepare for class the usual concern is the levelness of the material used and the way we pitch the information.  In anything we do as part of consultancy or outside of the standard educational framework we have a different challenge.  That of presenting information that corresponds to expertise in a language and tone that is neither exclusive nor condescending to the participants. 

In the designing stages we considered the information we had to include, and the session started by introducing criminology.  Audience participation was encouraged, and group discussion became a tool to promote the flow of information.  Once that process started and people became more able to exchange information then we started moving from information to knowledge exchange.  This is a more profound interaction that allows the audience to engage with information that they may not be familiar with and it is designed to achieve one of the prime quests of any social science, to challenge established views. 

The process itself indicates the level of skill involved in academic reasoning and the complexity associated with presenting people with new knowledge in an understandable form.  It is that apparent simplicity that allows participants to scaffold their understanding, taking different elements from the same content.  It is easy to say to any audience for example that “every person has an opinion on crime” however to be able to accept this statement indicates a level of proficiency on receiving views of the other and then accommodating it to your own understanding.  This is the basis of the philosophy of knowledge, and it happens to all engaged in academia whatever level, albeit consciously or unconsciously.

As per usual the session overran, testament that people do have opinions on crime and how society should respond to them. The intriguing part of this session was the ability of participants to negotiate different roles and identities, whilst offering an explanation or interpretation of a situation.  When this was pointed out they were surprised by the level of knowledge they possessed and its complexity.  The role of the academic is not simply to advance knowledge, which is clearly expected, but also to take subjects and contextualise them.  In recent weeks, colleagues from our University, were able to discuss issues relating to health, psychology, work, human rights and consumer rights to national and local media, informing the public on the issues concerned. 

This is what got me thinking about our role in society more generally.  We are not merely providing education for adults who wish to acquire knowledge and become part of the professional classes, but we are also engaging in a continuous dialogue with our local community, sharing knowledge beyond the classroom and expanding education beyond the campus.  These are reasons which make a University, as an institution, an invaluable link to society that governments need to nurture and support.  The success of the University is not in the students within but also on the reach it has to the people around.

At the end of the session we talked about a number of campaigns to help ex-offenders to get forward with work and education by “banning the box”.  This was a fitting end to a session where we all thought “outside the box”. 

Back to school; who would have thought it could be fun?

A few years ago, probably about three or four, I found myself appointed as some form of school liaison person for criminology.  I’m still trying to conjure up a title for my office worthy of consideration as grand poohbah.  As I understood my role, the university marketing department would arrange for schools to visit the university or for me to visit schools to promote the university and talk about criminology.

In the beginning, I stumbled around the talks, trying to find my feet and a formula of presentation that worked.  As with most things, it’s trial and error and in those earlier days some of it felt like a trial, and there were certainly a few errors (nothing major, just stuff that didn’t work).  The presentations became workshops, the ideas morphed from standing up and talking and asking a few questions, with very limited replies, to asking students to think about ideas and concepts and then discussing them, introducing theoretical concepts along the way.  These days we try to disentangle scenarios and try to make sense of them, exploring the ideas around definitions of crime, victims and offenders.

There is nothing special about what I do but the response seems magical, there is real engagement and enthusiasm.  I can see students thinking, I can see the eyes light up when I touch on topics and question society’s ideas and values.  Criminology is a fascinating subject and I want everyone to know that, but most importantly I want young minds to think for themselves and to question the accepted norms.  To that extent, criminology is a bit of a side show, the main gig is the notion that university is about stretching minds, seeking and acquiring knowledge and never being satisfied with what is supposedly known.  I suppose criminology is the vehicle, but the driver decides how far they go and how fast.

As well as changing my style of presentation, I have also become a little more discerning in choosing what I do.  I do not want to turn up to a school simply to tell pupils this is what the course looks like, these are the modules and here are a few examples of the sorts of things we teach at the university.  That does nothing to build enthusiasm, it says nothing about our teaching and quite frankly, its boring, both for me and the audience. 

Whilst I will turn up to a school to take a session for pupils who have been told that they have a class taken by a visitor, I much prefer those sessions where the pupils have volunteered to attend.  Non-compulsory classes such as after school events are filled with students who are there because they have an interest and the enthusiasm shines through.   

Whilst recognising marketing have a place in arranging school visits, particularly new ones, I have found that more of my time is taken up revisiting schools at their request.  My visits have extended outside of the county into neighbouring counties and even as far as Norfolk.  Students can go to university anywhere so why not spread the word about criminology anywhere.  And just to prove that students are never too young to learn, primary school visits for a bit of practical fingerprinting have been carried out for a second time.  Science day is great fun, although I’m not sure parents or carers are that keen on trying to clean little inky hands (I keep telling them its only supposed to be the fingers), I really must remember not to use indelible ink!

Lest we forget

Chain_of_Friendship_cartoon

Today marks 100 years since the end of the First World War and commemorations will be taking place across the land. I will be overseas for much of the pomp and circumstance, but the build-up each year appears to begin earlier and earlier. As a pacifist, I always find this time of year very troubling, particularly the focus on the Royal British Legion [RBL] poppy.

Most combatants (both axis and allies) in both world wars were conscripted, that is they were legislatively compelled into military uniform. This was also the case in the UK, with the passing of the Military Service Act, 1916, Military Training Act, 1939 and National Service Act, 1948 ensuring that men had little option but to spend a period of time in the military. Objections on the grounds of conscience were legally tolerated, although not always upheld. As I have written about previously, this was a particularly treacherous path to follow in WWI.

So, for many men* during the period of 1916-1960, military service was not a choice, thus it makes sense to talk about a society which owes a debt to these individuals for the sacrifice of their time, energy and in some cases, lives. Remember these men were removed from their jobs and their families, any aspirations had to be put on hold until after the war, and who knew when that was likely to occur?

Since 1960, military service in the UK has been on a voluntary basis, although, we can of course revisit criminological discussions around free will, to ascertain how freely decisions to enlist can truly be. Nevertheless, there is a substantive difference between servicemen during that period and those that opt for military service after that period. Such a distinction appears to pass by many, including the RBL, who are keen to commemorate and fetishize the serviceman as intrinsically heroic and worthy of society’s unquestioning support.

The decision to wear a poppy, whether RBL red or peace pledge union [ppu] white is a personal one. The former is seen as the official national symbol of commemoration, designed to recognise the special contribution of service personnel and their families. The latter is often attacked as an affront to British service personnel, although the ppu explicitly note that the white poppy represents everybody killed during warfare, including all military combatants and victims. It draws no distinctions across national borders, neither does it privilege the military over the civilian victims. These different motifs, each with their own specific narratives, pose the question of what it is as individuals and as a society we mean by ‘Lest we forget’.

  1. Do we want to remember those conscripted soldiers and swear that as a society we will not force individuals into the military, regardless of their personal viewpoints, desires, aspirations?
  2. Do we want to remember soldiers and swear that as a society we will not go to war again?

If it is the latter, we should take more notice of the work of RBL, who although coy about their relationships with arms dealers, accept a great deal of money from them (cf. Tweedy, 2015, BAE Systems, 2018). We should also consider the beautiful and poignant display at the Tower of London in 2014, entitled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red (Cummins and Piper, 2014). The week after this display began to be dismantled, a dinner for arms dealers was held at the same venue. Whilst RBL is keen to deny that their poppy is partisan and political, it is evident that this little paper flower is not neutral. Discussions and arguments on social media have demonstrated that this motif can and is used as a battering ram to close down questions, anxieties and deliberation. Even more worrying is the rewriting of history, that WWI and WWII were won by British forces, neglecting that these were world wars, involving individuals; men, women and children, from all over the globe. This narrative seems to have attached itself to the furor around Brexit, “we saved Europe, they owe us”!

For me, on an extremely personal level, we should be looking to end war, not looking for ways in which to commemorate past wars.

*For more detail around the conscription of women during WWII see Nicholson (2007) and Elster and Sørensen (2010).

References

BAE Systems, (2018), ‘Supporting the Armed Forces,’ BAE Systems, [online]. Available from: https://www.baesystems.com/en-uk/our-company/corporate-responsibility/working-responsibly/supporting-communities/supporting-the-armed-forces [Last accessed 20 October 2018]

Cummins, Paul, (2016), ‘Important Notice,’ Paul Cummins Ceramics, [online]. Available from: https://www.paulcumminsceramics.com/important-notice/ [Last accessed 11 November 2016]

Cummins, Paul and Piper, Tom, (2014), Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, [Ceramic Installation], (London: Tower of London)

Elster, Ellen and Sørensen, Majken Jul, (2010), ‘(Eds), Women Conscientious Objectors: An Anthology, (London: War Resisters’ International)

Military Service Act, 1916, (London: HMSO)

Military Training Act, 1939, (London: HMSO)

Milmo, Cahai, (2014), ‘The Crass Insensitivity’ of Tower’s Luxury Dinner for Arms Dealers, Days After Poppy Display, i-news, Thursday 27 November 2014, [online]. Available from: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/the-crass-insensitivity-of-tower-s-luxury-dinner-for-arms-dealers-days-after-poppy-display-9888507.html [Last accessed 27 November 2014]

National Service Act, 1948, (London: HMSO)

Nicholson, Hazel, (2007), ‘A Disputed Identity: Women Conscientious Objectors in Second World War Britain,’ Twentieth Century British History, 18, 4: 409-28

peace pledge union [ppu], (2018), ‘Remembrance & White Poppies,’ peace pledge union, [online]. Available from: https://ppu.org.uk/remembrance-white-poppies [Last accessed 11 November 2018]

Tweedy, Rod, (2015), My Name is Legion: The British Legion and the Control of Remembrance, (London: Veterans for Peace UK), [online]. Available from: http://vfpuk.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/my_name_is_legion-web.pdf [Last accessed 14 May 2017]

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