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A race to the bottom

Happy new year to one and all, although I suspect for many it will be a new year of trepidation rather than hope and excitement.

It seems that every way we turn there is a strike or a threat of a strike in this country, reminiscent, according to the media, of the 1970s.  It also seems that every public service we think about (I mean this in the wider context so would include Royal Mail for example,) is failing in one way or another.  The one thing that strikes me though, pardon the pun, is that none of this has suddenly happened.  And yet, if you were to believe media reporting, this is something that is caused by those pesky unions and intransigent workers or is it the other way round?  Anyway, the constant rhetoric of there is ‘no money’, if said often enough by politicians and echoed by media pundits becomes the lingua franca.  Watch the news and you will see those ordinary members of the public saying the same thing.  They may prefix this with ‘I understand why they are striking’ and then add…’but there is no money’.  

When I listen to the radio or watch the news on television (a bit outdated I know), I am incensed by questions aimed at representatives of the railway unions or the nurses’ union, amongst others,  along the lines of ‘what have you got to say to those businesses that are losing money as a result of your strikes or what would you like to say to patients that have yet again had their operations cancelled’? This is usually coupled with an interview of a suffering business owner or potential patient.  I know what I would like to say to the ignorant idiot that asked the question and I’m sure most of you, especially those that know me, know what that is.  Ignorant, because they have ignored the core and complex issues, wittingly or unwittingly, and an idiot because you already know the answer to the question but also know the power of the media. Unbiased, my …. 

When we look at all the different services, we see that there is one thing in common, a continuous, often political ideologically uncompromising drive to reduce real time funding for public services.  As much as politicians will argue about the amount of money ploughed into the services, they know that the funding has been woefully inadequate over the years. I don’t blame the current government for this, it is a succession of governments and I’m afraid Labour laying the blame at the Tory governments’ door just won’t wash.  Social care, for example, has been constantly ignored or prevaricated over, long before the current Tories came to power, and the inability of social care to respond to current needs has a significant knock-on effect to health care.  I do however think the present government is intransigent in failing to address the issues that have caused the strikes.  Let us be clear though, this is not just about pay as many in government and the media would have you believe.  I’m sure, if it was, many would, as one rather despicable individual interviewed on the radio stated, ‘suck it up and get on with it’. I have to add, I nearly crashed the car when I heard that, and the air turned blue.  Another ignoramus I’m afraid.

Speak to most workers and they will tell you it is more about conditions rather than pay per se. Unfortunately, those increasingly unbearable and unworkable conditions have been caused by a lack of funding, budget restraints and pay restraints. We now have a situation where people don’t want to work in such conditions and are voting with their feet, exacerbating the conditions.  People don’t want to join those services because of poor pay coupled with unworkable conditions. The government’s answer, well to the nurses anyway, is that they are abiding by the independent pay review body. That’s like putting two fingers up to the nurses, the health service and the public.  When I was in policing it had an independent pay review body, the government didn’t always abide by it, notably, they sometimes opted to award less than was recommended. The word recommendation only seems to work in favour of government. Now look at the police service, underfunded, in chaos and failing to meet the increasing demands. Some of those demands caused by an underfunded social and health care service, particularly mental health care.

Over the years it has become clear that successive governments’ policies of waste, wasted opportunity, poor decision making, vote chasing, and corruption have led us to where we are now. The difference between first and third world country governments seems to only be a matter of degree of ineptitude.  It has been a race to the bottom, a race to provide cheap, inadequate services to those that can’t afford any better and a race to suck everyone other than the rich into the abyss. 

A government minister was quoted as saying that by paying wage increases it would cost the average household a thousand pound a year. I’d pay an extra thousand pound, in fact I’d pay two if it would allow me to see my doctor in a timely manner, if it gave me confidence that the ambulance would turn up promptly when needed, if it meant a trip to A&E wouldn’t involve a whole day’s wait or being turned away or if I could get to see a dentist rather than having to attempt DIY dentistry in desperation.  I’d like to think the police would turn up promptly when needed and that my post and parcels would be delivered on time by someone that had the time to say hello rather than rushing off because they are on an unforgiving clock (particularly pertinent for elderly and vulnerable people).

And I’m not poor but like so many people I look at the new year with trepidation.  I don’t blame the strikers; they just want to improve their conditions and vis a vis our conditions.  Blaming them is like blaming cows for global warming, its nonsensical.

And as a footnote, I wonder why we never hear about our ex-prime minister Liz Truss and her erstwhile Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng; what a fine mess they caused. But yesterday’s news is no news and yet it is yesterday’s news that got us to where we are now.  Maybe the media could report on that, although I suspect they probably won’t.

I am not your “ally” (or am I?)

Today’s blog entry is a stream of consciousness rather than a finished entry with an introduction, middle and conclusion. It’s something that has been puzzling me for sometime, trying to work out why the term “ally” discomforts me and yet, not really coming to a firm conclusion. So I thought I’d explore it through a blog entry and would welcome anyone’s input to help me clarify and refine my own thinking and either embrace or reject the term.

Anyone that knows me, knows I love reading and of course, I love words. I love to play with them, say them, write them, discover new ones and trace the etymology as far as I can. Equally, I do not hide the fact that I try to understand the world through both pacifism and feminism. This makes me rather susceptible to interrogating and challenging the things that I see around me, including the written and spoken word.

The most obvious place to start when exploring words, is a dictionary, and this blog entry does similar. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary the term “ally” has three distinct definitions:

“a country that has agreed officially to give help and support to another one, especially during a war”

“someone who helps and supports someone else”

“someone who helps and supports other people who are part of a group that is treated badly or unfairly, although they are not themselves a member of this group”

Now for obvious reasons, I find the first definition problematic, put simply for me, war is a crime. The act of waging war includes multiple violences, some individual, some institutional, some structural and all incredibly harmful decades, or even centuries later. Definitions which have roots in the military and warfare leave me cold and I hate the way in which they infiltrate civilian discourse. For example “the war on drugs”, “the war on poverty”, “officer to the meeting” and the reshaping of the term “ally” for the twenty-first century” I definitely don’t want to be the “ally” described in that definition.

Definition two is also problematic, albeit for different reasons. This definition seems far too broad, if I hold the door open for you, is that me being an ally? If I help you carry your heavy bags, can I say I’m your ally? This seems a nonsensical way to talk about everyday actions which would be better described as common civility, helping each other along the way.Should I say “thank you kind ally” every time, someone moves out of my way, or offers their seat on the bus? It seems evident that this definition does not help me explore my reservations.

The third definition appears to come closest to modern usage of the term “ally”. This term can be applied to many different groups (as can be seen from the badges below and these are just some of the many examples). “whilst I identify as cisgender, I’m a trans ally”, whilst currently heterosexual, I’m a LGBTQ+ ally”, despite being white, I’m a BLM ally” and so on. On the surface this is very positive, moving society away from the nonsense of people describing themselves as “colour-blind”, “gender-blind” or such trite phrases as “we all bleed the same”, ignoring the lack of equity in society and pretending that everyone has the same lived experience, the same opportunities, the same health, wealth and happiness. Buying into the hackneyed idea that if only you work hard enough, you will succeed, that we live in a classless society and the only thing holding anyone back is their own inertia.

However, maybe my problem isn’t with the word “ally” but the word “I”, and the fact that the two words seem inseparable, After all who decides who is an ally or who is not, is there a organisation somewhere that checks your eligibility to be an ally? I’m pretty sure there’s not which means that that “ally” is a description you apply to yourself. After all you can buy the badge, the t-shirt, the mug etc etc, capitalism is on your side, provided the tills are ringing, there’s every reason to sign up. Maybe a tiny percentage of your purchases goes to financially benefit the people you aim to support, for example the heavily criticised Skittles Pride campaign which donated only 2p to LGBTQ+ charities (and stands accused of white supremacy and racism). Of course, once you have bought the paraphernalia, there is no need to do anything else, beyond carrying/wearing/eating your “ally” goods with pride.

All of the above seems to marketise and weaponise behaviour that should be standard practice, good manners if you like, in a society. Do we need a special word for this kind of behaviour or should we strive to make sure we make space for everyone in our society? If individuals or groups gain civil rights, I don’t lose anything, I gain a growing confidence that the society in which I live is improving, that there is some movement (however small) toward equity for all. Societies should not make life more difficult for the people who live in them, regardless of religious or spiritual belief, we have one opportunity to make a good life for ourselves and others and that’s right now, so why seek to dehumanise and disadvantage other humans who are on the same journey as we are.

Ultimately, my main concern with the use of term of “ally” is that it obscures incredibly challenging social harms, with colour and symbols hiding inaction and apathy. Accept the label of “ally”, wear the badge, if you think it has meaning, but if you do nothing else, this is meaningless. if you see inequality and you do not call it out, take action to remedy the situation, the word “ally” means nothing other than an opportunity to make yourself central to the discussion, taking up, rather than making, room for those focused on making a more just society.

I still remain uncomfortable with the term “ally” and I doubt it will ever appear in my lexicon, but it’s worth remembering that an antonym of ally is enemy and nobody needs those.

Criminology First Week Activity (2021)

Winning posters 2021, from L to R: Year 1, Year 2 and Year 3

Before embarking on a new academic year, it is always worth reflecting on previous years. In 2020, the first year we ran this activity, it was a response to the challenges raised by the Covid-19 pandemic and was designed to serve two different aims. The first of these, was of course, academic, we wanted students to engage with a activity designed to explore real social problems through visual criminology, inspiring the criminological imagination for the year ahead. Second, we were operating in an environment that nobody was prepared for: online classes, limited physical contact, mask wearing, hand sanitising, socially distanced. All of these made it very difficult for staff and students to meet and to build professional relationships. The team needed to find a way for people to work together safely, within the constraints of the Covid legislation of the time and begin to build meaningful relationships with each other.

The start of the 2021/2022 academic year had its own pandemic challenges with many people still shielding, others awaiting covid vaccinations and the sheer uncertainty of going out and meeting people under threat of a deadly disease. After taking on board student feedback, we decided to run a similar activity during the first week of the new term. As before, students were placed into small groups, advised to take the default approach of online meetings (unless all members were happy to meet physically), provided with a very short prompt and limited guidance as to how best to tackle the project. The prompts were as follows:

Year 1: Femicide

Year 2: Mandatory covid vaccinations

Year 3: Revoking British citizenship

Many of the students had never physically met, yet managed to come together in the midst of a pandemic, negotiate a strategy, carry out the work and produce well designed and thoughtful, criminological posters.

As can be seen from the collage below, everyone involved embraced the challenge and created some remarkable posters. Some of these have been shared previously across social media but this is the first time they have all appeared together in one place.

I am sure everyone will agree our students demonstrated knowledge, understanding, resilience and stamina. We will be running a similar activity for the first week of the academic year 2022-2022, with different prompts to provoke thought and encourage dialogue and team work. We’ll also take on board student and staff feedback from the previous two activities. Plato once wrote that ‘our need will be the real creator’, put more colloquially, necessity is the mother of all invention, and that is certainly true of our first week activity.

Who knows what exciting ideas and posters will be demonstrated this time, but one thing is for sure Criminology students have the opportunity to flex their activism, prepare to campaign for social justice, in the process becoming real #Changemakers.

No April Fools

The first of April has consisted of a steep 54% rise in what energy company’s can charge customers for using energy, with further rises set to occur in October. This coincides with rises to other bills such as council tax, national insurance and water within a climate of inflation. Previous to this many were struggling to make ends meet…what are these people supposed to do now?

Russia’s atrocities and Covid-19 have been blamed for the steep price increases and inflation. I suspect that employers will be using this as a reason to not increase the persistent low rises in wages that workers are receiving, all whilst their bosses are becoming richer and richer. Of course, both Russia and Covid will have a significant impact on the economy, however, it does not take a genius to be aware that people have been struggling to survive well before this, hence terms like, food poverty, period poverty and fuel poverty predate these issues. Also, so do the persistent low rises in wages for workers.  

Apparently, MPs are due a £2,200 pay rise which whilst it seems low (2.7%) compared to inflation, a few MPs themselves (such as Zarah Sultana) have stated that they do not need this pay rise as they already receive a high paying wage.

Oh, and let us not forget that the increasing energy prices will ensure that privatised fuel companies such as Shell and BP continue to profit, with a predicted profit of £40 BILLION for this year.

Meanwhile benefits for those who are not formally employed and spend a higher proportion of money on household bills and rent are set to increase by 3.1% – a rise which will not cover these price increases.

How is it that employers and the State cannot afford to pay people more – but can ensure high wages for the already rich, privileged and powerful?

It is not surprising that the government’s measures to deal with the problem, such as one-off payments and energy loans, have been heavily criticised as inadequate and significantly failing to support the lowest income homes. The government employs a group of elites and many are completely out of touch with reality. Apparently the man presiding over these measures, millionaire Rishi Sunak and his billionaire wife, often donate to charitable causes, such as donating £100,000 to Rishi’s former elitist private school. Because a private school in need is a pressing cause…yeah right!

Image from Hollie McNish Cherry Pie 2014

The opposition parties have rightly criticised the Conservatives take on this but listening to Keir Starmer’s bumbling take on what Labour would do to solve these issues is also worrying. During an interview he stated that windfall tax could be a solution ‘for right now’ with no feasible long term plan. My usual vote for Labour in May will be damage control against more Tory time in power.

A long term TAX on THE RICH to use this money to support those that need it is not even that simple, given that the government accepts donations from the super-rich it is unlikely that decisions would be made to genuinely reduce inequality between the rich and poor. The world will never be a better place if those in power continue to focus on their own interests and huge profits in place of looking after people. The rise in energy prices on the first of this month was no April Fools’ joke…I really wish that it was.

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!

Criminology First Week Activity (2020)

Winning posters 2020, from L to R: Year 1, Year 2 and Year 3

As we prepare to start the new academic year, it is worth reflecting on the beginning of the last one. In 2020 we began the academic year with a whole cohort activity designed to explore visual criminology and inspire the criminological imagination. Students were placed into small (socially distanced) groups, provided with a very short prompt and limited guidance as to how best to tackle the project. The prompts were as follows:

Year 1: Knife Crime

Year 2: Policing Protest (e.g. Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion and so on)

Year 3: Creating Criminals: the CJS during the Covid-19 pandemic

Many of the students had never physically met, yet managed to come together in the midst of a pandemic, negotiate a strategy, carry out the work and produce well designed and thoughtful, criminological posters.

As can be seen from the collage below, everyone involved embraced the challenge and created some remarkable posters. Some of these have been shared previously across social media but this is the first time they have all appeared together in one place.

I am sure everyone will agree our students demonstrated knowledge, understanding, resilience and stamina. We will be running a similar activity for the first week of the academic year 2021-2022, with different prompts to provoke thought and encourage dialogue and team work. Who knows what exciting ideas and posters will be demonstrated this time, but one thing is for sure Criminology students have the opportunity to campaign for social justice becoming real #Changemakers.

Thinking Criminologically: Engaging with darkness

https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DPn5dvawbDqU&psig=AOvVaw0yd1_IN4i6nvRNKI_g5i7z&ust=1624102316299000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=0CAoQjRxqFwoTCLCyseeKofECFQAAAAAdAAAAABAf

Often when you mention the word criminology to lay people outside of the academy, the initial response is “ooh that’s interesting” or “that sounds exciting”. The next step in the conversation usually reverts to the most extreme forms of interpersonal violence, murderers, serial killers and so on. For many, criminology appears to be the home of “whodunnits”. People talk of Ted Bundy, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, Fred and Rose West and want to know why they did what they did. For decades, the unsolved case of Jack the Ripper has been pored over by authors, television makers and the general public. For those who choose to engage, we have seen the female victims of this unknown man, eviscerated, degraded and ultimately slain, again and again for the reader/viewers’ delectation. This is not criminology.

Criminology recognises there are no winners in crime, only people left shattered, those devastated by their actions or those impacted by criminality. People are left bloody, bowed and bereaved through victimisation by individuals, institutions and the State. Yet just look on a bookshops ‘Crime’ shelves or flick through the programme schedules and you will find no sign of this. As a society we revel in this darkness and package it as entertainment. This is not criminology.

On the news we see discussions around crime and criminals. What should we do? Shall we give the police yet more powers? Shall we give those oh so lenient judges less leeway for discretion? Should we lock the offenders up and throw away the key? Should we bring back National Service? What about a boot camp? Should we consider bringing back the death penalty? How can we teach these people a lesson they won’t forget? Notice that all of these suggestions are designed to be more and more punitive, no discussions are focused around purely rehabilitative programmes, defunding the police or penal abolition. This is not criminology.

The problem with all of the ideas contained within the preceding paragraphs, is they are entirely negative. Criminology despite its focus on crime, criminality and criminalisation, has a positive focus, motivated by empathy and non-violence, if not pacifism. It is about trying to understand complexity and nuance in human and institutional behaviour. It is not interested in simplistic, quick fire, off the cuff answers for crime. It is forward looking, unconcerned with the status quo and more focused on what ought or might be. It intrinsically has social justice at its heart, an overwhelming desire for fairness for everyone, not just some. This is criminology.

This month is Gypsy, Romany, Traveller History Month, this week is also Refugee Week. Both are groups rarely treated fairly, they are criminalised and subjected to victimisation by individuals, institutions and the State. Their narratives have profound importance to our society. These experiences are far more central to Criminology than who Jack the Ripper might have been. This is criminology.

Also the beginning of this week marked the fourth anniversary of the disaster at Grenfell Tower. The graffiti above (I know, @5teveh and @jesjames50!) seems to capture the feelings of many when we consider this horrific tragedy. I taught for the first time on Grenfell in 2020/2021 and again this year. Both times I have been wracked with huge concerns around whether it was appropriate (many of our students are intimately connected), whether it was too soon and whether I could teach around the disaster with sensitivity. Running counter to this was a strong belief that criminology had a duty to acknowledge the disaster and enable our students to also make sense of such horror. In classes we have utilised poetry, music, graffiti and testimony in sessions to give us all space to consider how we can respond as a society. The biggest question of all, is what would justice look like for the bereaved, the survivors, friends, families and neighbours, the first responders? Some of that discussion is focused on the Grenfell Inquiry but far more is on how we can support those involved, what kind of advocacy can we engage with and how we can all raise our voices. As a society we cannot bring the dead back to life, but we can insist that the survivors and their families get meaningful answers. We can also insist that we make room for these individuals and families to have their voices heard. We can demand that fundamental changes are made so that disasters like these do not happen again. That we learn valuable lessons. This is criminology.

Unfortunately, experience tells us that previous victims of similarly horrible disasters do not receive anything that approximates justice, consider the events at Hillsborough in 1989. Likewise, as a society we do not seem able to learn lessons from inquiries, think about the deaths of Victoria Climbié and Peter Connelly. Nevertheless, as humans we have huge capacity for change, we do not need to keep repeating the same behaviours ad nauseum. As scholars of criminology we are well placed to argue for this change, to understand holistically, the complexities of crime and deviance, to empathise and to make space for marginalised voices to be heard. In addition we must be prepared to challenge and advocate for change. Some of us may be pacifist in orientation, but we must never be passive! This is Criminology.

Refugee Week 2021

This year’s refugee week begins today, 14th June 2021 with the theme ‘we cannot walk alone’. The aim is to encourage all of us to reach out and help someone new. This week is close to my heart as border criminology is one of my key research interests. I am strongly committed to impactful research, activism and contributing my time and resources to helping refugees and making those fleeing persecution feel welcome in the UK’s hostile environment. As the resident border criminologist, I want to introduce Refugee Week activities at the University of Northampton but also to suggest how we can help ensure nobody walks alone.

The University of Northampton is hosting a week of talks in conjunction with Northampton Town of Sanctuary. Beginning on Monday at 2pm we welcome Gulwali Passarlay who fled Afghanistan at the age of 12, travelling alone through 8 countries to the UK where he was eventually granted asylum. Having spent the last few years interviewing, supporting and advocating for refugees I have heard many stories of survival. No two have been the same but each shares such painful paths that I cannot imagine. Each time I hear a refugee speak about the situations they fled I feel humbled, and grateful that despite its array of flaws, the UK is safe. In our Outsiders module, students were recently asked to challenge assumptions of minority groups. Hearing the stories of refugees from the mouths of refugees is enough to shatter any assumptions, rhetoric and media narratives about those fleeing persecution so for those who have undertaken or will sit the module next year this is a must!

On Tuesday 15th June at 2pm there will be an introduction and update to the City of Sanctuary movement.  Being a City (or Town) of Sanctuary means committing to becoming a place which welcomes those seeking safety. The movement extends to universities, many of which offer Sanctuary Scholarships to asylum seekers and refugees. The Northampton Town of Sanctuary movement wants the University of Northampton to become a University of Sanctuary. Dependents of asylum applicants who arrive in the UK as children, go to school and college here, make friends, speak English, and have GCSEs and A-levels, are then unable to continue in their education as they would be liable to pay international student fees. Asylum seekers currently receive £39.63 per week from the government and are prohibited from seeking employment. They are not entitled to student finance. They are at the end of the road, forced to sit quietly and wait for the letter to come through their door with a decision.

In my own research, many of the asylum seekers I interviewed had been in the asylum process for years. For those who arrived as children and attended school here, once they left college and all their friends were going to university, they were left behind with nothing to do. This had enormous impact on their mental health and their sense of identity. They hid their asylum-seeking identity from their friends in fear of judgement, creating false narratives about who they were. This was often due to past experience of xenophobic abuse after disclosing their immigration status at school. Upon leaving school they would further advance these false narratives, making up stories about why they were not working or going to university. Just one of the people I interviewed managed to secure a Sanctuary Scholarship, despite many of them submitting applications. Having seen the impacts of exclusion from higher education, I want to see every university being a University of Sanctuary, but let’s start with the University of Northampton.

The third talk of the week is delivered by Emma Harrison from IMIX, an organisation which delivers valuable work in changing the conversation around migration and refugees. We’ve all seen the headlines and media reports of ‘illegal immigrants’ (the term ‘illegal immigrant’ infuriates me but that’s another future blog). We’ve heard Priti Patel’s plans to overhaul the ‘broken’ immigration system. The plans include further criminalisation of people seeking safety, avoiding death, rape, persecution, war; and extreme sentencing rules for those who help them reach a place of safety. The media and political rhetoric are relentless and a change in the conversation is desperately needed. I often feel hopeless about my work, that the work of myself and other border criminologists falls on deaf ears. I was at a conference a few weeks ago where the keynote was discussing the abolition of immigration detention. Immigration detention is pointless and harmful and research outputs have been good at pointing out the harms but perhaps we need to tell them what they want to hear: immigration detention is a pointless waste of money. I am looking forward to listening and hope I can pick up some tips to alter the way I communicate findings to different audiences. This talk is on Wednesday 16th June at 2pm.

The final talk of the week is delivered by a representative from the British Red Cross on Friday 18th June at 11am. The British Red Cross do a range of invaluable work from practical support such as supplying clothing and food, to finding missing family members of people seeking sanctuary. The talk will be focussed on the work the organisation does in Northamptonshire and Leicestershire during the pandemic. One of the first things I intend to do when I move to Northampton is to familiarise myself with the local service provision for refugees and asylum seekers and get involved so for me this will be a good place to start.

I encourage all our students to attend at least one of these events. They are all virtual so you could even listen while you sunbathe in the park. To attend, please email Nick who will forward a link. For our students who are interested in supporting refugees, we have a Student Action for Refugees branch at the university who coordinate student efforts to help refugees. There are many other ways we can all contribute to making sure people do not ‘walk alone’. We can read books such as Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains or The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla, or watch one of the films free on the British Film Institute’s Refugee Week event. We can have conversations with others and try to think about what refugees might be going through. Next time you see a news report about a conflict talk about what you would do in that situation, what belongings you would take, which of your family would you leave behind? Having conversations such as these helps to build empathy and compassion. We can go further to challenge racist and xenophobic assumptions. I often ask, ‘what is your fear?’ to which I can invariably rationally explain why whatever they disclose will not materialise. Do one, all or some of these things. But I implore you to do SOMETHING to contribute not only to Refugee Week but to making the UK a more welcoming place.

April Showers: so many tears

What does April mean to you? April showers as the title would suggest, April Fools which I detest, or the beginning of winter’s rest? Today I am going to argue that April is the most criminogenic month of the year. No doubt, my colleagues and readers will disagree, but here goes….

What follows is discussion on three events which apart from their occurrence in the month of April are ostensibly unrelated. Nevertheless, scratch beneath the surface and you will see why they are so important to the development of my criminological understanding, forging the importance I place on social justice.

On 15 April 1912, RMS Titanic sank to the bottom of the sea, with more than 1,500 lost lives. We know the story reasonably well, even if just through film. Fewer people are aware that this tragedy led to inquiries on both sides of the Atlantic, as well, as Limitation of Liability Hearings. These acknowledged profound failings on the part of White Star and made recommendations primarily relating to lifeboats, staffing and structures of ships. Each of these were to be enshrined in law. Like many institutional inquiries these reports, thankfully digitised so anyone can read them, are very dry, neutral, inhumane documents. There is very little evidence of the human tragedy, instead there are questions and answers which focus on procedural and engineering matters. However, if you look carefully, there are glimpses of life at that time and criminological questions to be raised.

The table below is taken from the British Wreck Commissioners Inquiry Report and details both passengers and staff onboard RMS Titanic. This table allows us to do the maths, to see how many survived this ordeal. Here we can see the violence of social class, where the minority take precedence over the majority. For those on that ship and many others of that time, your experiences could only be mediated through a class based system. Yet when that ship went down, tragedy becomes the great equaliser.

On 15th April, 1989 fans did as they do (pandemics aside) every Saturday during the football season, they went to the game. On that sunny spring day, Liverpool Football Club were playing Nottingham Forest, both away from home and over 50,000 fans had travelled some distance to watch their team with family and friends. Tragically 96 of those fans died that day or shortly after. @anfieldbhoy has written a far more extensive piece on the Hillsborough Disaster and I don’t plan to revisit the details here. Nevertheless, as with RMS Titanic, questions were asked in relation to the loss of life and institutional or corporate failings which led to this tragedy. Currently it is not possible to access the Taylor Report due to ongoing investigation, but it makes for equally dry, neutral and inhuman, reading. It is hard to catch sight of 96 lives in pages dense with text, focused on answering questions that never quite focus on what survivors and families need. The Hillsborough Independent Panel [HIP] is far more focused on people as are the Inquests (also currently unavailable) which followed. Criminologically, HIP’s very independence takes it outside of powerful institutions. So whilst it can “speak truth to power” it has no ability to coerce answers from power or enforce change. For the survivors and family it brings some respite, some acknowledgement that what happened that day should have never have happened. However, for those individuals and wider society, there appears to be no semblance of justice, despite the passing of 32 years.

On 22 April 1993, Stephen Lawrence was murdered. He was the victim of a horrific, racially motivated, violent assault by a group of young white man. This much was known, immediately to his friend Duwayne Brooks, but was apparently not clear to the attending police officers. Instead, as became clear during the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry the police investigation was riddled with institutional racism from the outset. The Macpherson report (1999) tries extremely hard to keep focus on Stephen Lawrence as a human being, try to read the evidence given by Duwayne Brooks and Stephen’s parents without shedding a tear. However, much of the text is taken is taken up with procedural detail, arguments and denial. In 2012 two of the men who murdered Stephen Lawrence were found guilty and sentenced to be detained under Her Majesty’s pleasure (both were juveniles in 1993). Since 1999, when the report was published we’ve learnt even more about the police’s institutional racism and their continual attacks on Stephen’s family and friends designed to undermine and harm. So whilst institutions can be compelled to reflect upon their behaviour and coerced into recognising the need for change, for evolution, in reality this appears to be a surface activity. Criminologically, we recognise that Stephen was the victim of a brutal crime, some, but not all, of those that carried out the attack have been held accountable. Justice for Stephen Lawrence, albeit a long time coming, has been served to some degree. But what about his family? Traumatised by the loss of one of their own, a child who had been nurtured to adulthood, loved and respected, this is a family deserving of care and support. What about the institutions, the police, the government? It seems very much business as usual, despite the publication of Lammy (2017) and Williams (2018) which provide detailed accounts of the continual institutional racism within our society. Instead, we have the highly criticised Sewell Report (2021) which completely dismisses the very idea of institutional racism. I have not linked to this document, it is beneath contempt, but if you desperately want to read it, a simple google search will locate it.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/katy_bird/6633864913

In each of the cases above and many others, we know instinctively that something is fundamentally wrong. That what has happened has caused such great harm to individuals, families, communities, that it must surely be a crime. But a crime as we commonly understand it involves victim(s) and perpetrator(s). If the Classical School of Criminology is to be believed, it involves somebody making a deliberate choice to do harm to others to benefit ourselves. If there is a crime, somebody has to pay the price, whatever that may be in terms of punishment. We look to the institutions within our society; policing, the courts, the government for answers, but instead receive official inquiries that appear to explore everything but the important questions. As a society we do not seem keen to grapple with complexity, maybe it’s because we are frightened that our institutions will also turn against us?

The current government assures us that there will be an inquiry into their handling of the pandemic, that there will be some answers for the families of the 126,000 plus who have died due to Covid-19. They say this inquiry will come when the time is right, but right for who?

Maybe you can think of other reasons why April is a criminologically important month, or maybe you think there are other contenders? Either way, why not get in touch?

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

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