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The never-changing face of justice

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There are occasions that I consider more fundamental questions beyond criminology, such as the nature of justice.  Usually whilst reading some new sentencing guidelines or new procedures but on occasions major events such as the fire at Grenfell and the ensuing calls from former residents for accountability and of course justice!  There are good reasons why contemplating the nature of justice is so important in any society especially one that has recently embarked on a constitutional discussion following the Brexit referendum.

Justice is perhaps one of the most interesting concepts in criminology; both intangible and tangible at the same time.  In every day discourses we talk about the Criminal Justice System as a very precise order of organisations recognising its systemic nature or as a clear journey of events acknowledging its procedural progression.  Both usually are summed up on the question I pose to students; is justice a system or a process?  Of course, those who have considered this question know only too well that justice is both at different times.  As a system, justice provides all those elements that make it tangible to us; a great bureaucracy that serves the delivery of justice, a network of professions (many of which are staffed by our graduates) and a structure that (seemingly) provides us all with a firm sense of equity.  As a process, we identify each stage of justice as an autonomous entity, unmolested by bias, thus ensuring that all citizens are judged on the same scales.  After all, lady justice is blind but fair!

This is our justice system since 1066 when the Normans brought the system we recognise today and even when, despite uprisings and revolutions such as the one that led to the 1215 signing of the Magna Carta, many facets of the system have remained quite the same.  An obvious deduction from this is that the nature of justice requires stability and precedent in order to function.  Tradition seems to captivate people; we only need a short journey to the local magistrates’ court to see centuries old traditions unfold. I imagine that for any time traveler, the court is probably the safest place to be, as little will seem to them to be out of place.

So far, we have been talking about justice as a tangible entity as used by professionals daily.  What about the other side of justice?  The intangible concept on fairness, equal opportunity and impartiality?  This part is rather contentious and problematic. This is the part that people call upon when they say justice for Grenfell, justice for Stephen Lawrence, justice for Hillsborough.  The people do not simply want a mechanism nor a process, but they want the reassurance that justice is not a privilege but a cornerstone of civic life.  The irony here; is that the call for justice, among the people who formed popular campaigns that either led or will lead to inquiries often expose the inadequacies, failings and injustices that exist(ed) in our archaic system.

These campaigns, have made obvious something incredibly important, that justice should not simply appear to be fair, but it must be fair and most importantly, has to learn and coincide with the times.  So lady justice may be blind, but she may need to come down and converse with the people that she seeks to serve, because without them she will become a fata morgana,a vision that will not satisfy its ideals nor its implementation.  Then justice becomes another word devoid of meaning and substance.  Thirty years to wait for an justice is an incredibly long time and this is perhaps this may be the lesson we all need to carry forward.

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Safety in Numbers?

The BSC Blog

PBowlesPaula Bowles has taught Criminology at the University of Northampton since 2010. Her research interests focus on historical criminology, zemiology, state and institutional violence.

In childhood, I loved numbers, the ability to manipulate, rearrange, reorder, substitute one for another, to create symmetry and yet always end up with an answer. Numbers were as abstract as a jigsaw puzzle, lots of meaningless pieces that, if assembled in the right way, meant that eventually the whole picture would emerge. Along the way the process could go awry, but there was always certainty, always an answer: a solution to the problem. Importantly, that puzzle or equation could be tackled again and again, and provided all the pieces were in order, the solution would be rendered visible once more.

In adult life, my love of numbers has dissipated, primarily because of their application to people. With a global population inexorably heading toward 8 billion…

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The changing face of criminology

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We can profess that those of us in academia get to own a small nugget of knowledge on their chosen subject.  This is how specialism is developed and cultivated.  We start our long journey into knowledge first by learning the discipline as a whole, going through the different theories and issues, becoming aware of the critical debates, before we embrace the next step of in depth understanding.  Little by little knowledge becomes a road full of junctions, intersections and byroads, constantly fueled by one of the most basic but profound parts of human experience, curiosity.  Academia, was originally developed by a person looking up in the wider cosmos and wondering; surely there is more to life than this.  When the recorded experience aligned with imagination it produced results; civilization emerged as a collective testament of being.  Arguably the first ever question, whenever it was posed and however it was phrased, philosophy was born; any attempt to answer it generated reason and logic.

The process of learning is painstaking because education is a process and as such it requires us to grow as we absorb it.  This process is never ending because “The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing” to quote Ecclesiastes and therefore learning is lifelong.  In academia, in particular, this thirst for knowledge is unquenchable and because of it we progress our respective disciplines further, constantly expanding the boundaries.  Anyone of us who had a discussion in or out of a classroom will testify that even on the same topic, with the same material, a seminar is never the same.  The main reason for this is, education is active and as a learner I gain from whatever I can relate to and comprehend.  Time and time again, I go back to my own learning as I adapt my pedagogy, because to teach is a dialectic; we impart an idea and we let it flourish to those who shall be taking it further.

There is a reason why I am so reflecting of education on this entry; recently we had a reunion of our alumni and in preparation of the event, I was looking back at the way we taught criminology, what changed and how things have progressed.  Colleagues, moved on as expected and the student demographics may have changed but the subject is still taught.  It is this ongoing process that fascinated me in that reflection.  The curriculum and the ideas behind it.  As an institution we offer a number of subject areas, criminology included, that other institutions around the world do, but no other institution will have the unique blend of what we offer.  This part is quite astounding that in the reproduction of ideas and across the continuity of disciplinary knowledge, there is always a place for originality.

On the day, I could hear the stories from some of our alumni with a latent sense of pride as they spoke with some confidence about their life plans, work commitments and ideas.  These were the same people who some years ago, blushed in a seminar from shyness, were anxious about their exam results and worried about their degree classification.  Now with confidence, they embrace their education with the realisation that they have just made the first step into a terra incognita… their journey into learning continues.  During the next weeks (and hopefully, months), a number of our alumni (and current students) will put pen to paper of their thoughts, on our blog and talk about their experiences and their criminology.  We thank them in advance and are looking forward to read their thoughts.

Is Easter a criminological issue?

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Spring is the time that many Christians relate with the celebration of Easter. For many the sacrament of Easter seals their faith; as in the end of torment and suffering, there is the resurrection of the head of the faith. All these are issues to consider in a religious studies blog and perhaps consider the existential implications in a philosophical discourse. How about criminology?

In criminology it provides great penological and criminological lessons. The nature of Jesus’s apprehension, by what is described as a mob, relates to ideas of vigilantism and the old non-professional watchmen who existed in many different countries around the world. The torture, suffered is not too dissimilar from the investigative interrogation unfortunately practiced even today around the world (overtly or covertly). His move from court to court, relates to the way we apply for judicial jurisdiction depending on the severity of the case and the nature of the crime. The subsequent trial; short and very purposefully focused to find Jesus guilty, is so reminiscent of what we now call a “kangaroo court” with a dose of penal appeasement and penal populism for good measure. The final part of this judicial drama, is played with the execution. The man on the cross. Thousands of men (it is not clear how many) were executed in this method.

For a historian the exploration of past is key, for a legal professional the study of black letter law principles and for a criminal justice practitioner the way methods of criminal processes altered in time. What about a reader in criminology? For a criminologist there are wider meanings to ascertain and to relate them to our fundamental understanding of justice in the depth of time. The events which unfolded two millennia back, relate to very current issues we read in the news and study in our curriculum. Consider arrest procedures including the very contested stop and search practice. The racial inequalities in court and the ongoing debates on jury nullification as a strategy to combat them. Our constant opposition as a discipline to the use of torture at any point of the justice system including the use of death penalty. In criminology we do not simply study criminal justice, but equally important, that of social justice. In a recent talk in response to a student’s question I said that that at heart of each criminologist is an abolitionist. So, despite our relationship and work with the prison service, we remain hopeful for a world where the prison does not become an inevitable sentence but an ultimate one, and one that we shall rarely use. Perhaps if we were to focus more on social justice and the inequalities we may have far less need for criminal justice

Evidently Easter has plenty to offer for a criminologist. As a social discipline, it allows us to take stock and notice the world around us, break down relationships and even evaluate complex relationships defying world belief systems. Apparently after the crucifixion there was also a resurrection; for more information about that, search a theological blog. Interestingly in his Urbi et Orbi this year the Pope spoke for the need for world leaders to focus on social justice.

Anniversaries and Festivities

HMPAbout a year ago, as a team we started  this blog in order to relate criminological ideas into everyday life.  News, events and markers on our social calendar became sources of inspiration and inquiry.  Within a year, we have managed somehow to reflect on the academic cycle, some pretty heavy social issues that evoked our passions and interests. Those of you who read our entries, thank you for taking the time, especially those who left comments with your own experiences and ideas.  

For us as a contributing team, the opportunity to talk outside the usual spaces about things that we regard as interesting is a real pleasure.  A colleague of mine, tends to say that criminology is a subject made for discussions.  These discussions usually grow in classrooms but they are restricted of time.  In some way, our blog is an extension of that environment but we are also cognisant that we want to talk beyond the parochial “ivory towers” of academia.

The first blog entry was about running a pilot then, for a new module delivered entirely in prison with students from the university and the prison.  This week, we celebrated the first cohort who completed the module.  I have been an observer of social conventions all my life and to see the way people in the celebration connected with each other was great.  For all of us in the module, it makes perfect sense because we have done that journey together but for anyone coming for the first time in prison this must have been an astounding experience.  

This is what we commemorate in a celebration.  Not necessarily the end result whatever that is, but the journey.  As people consumed with speed in a modern society, we very rarely take the time to look back and reflect.  It can be argued that we can do so when we reach our ever expanding retiring age; reflect on our life’s work.  Nonetheless, it is important now and then to look back and see how we get here.  For example, I am proud that I serve a university that offers opportunities to students from the wider society without barriers or obstacles.  Some of our students are first in their family to go to University.  This is an amazing opportunity that leaves the doors of social mobility open.  A number of our graduates are now my colleagues or work in the wider criminal justice system.  

So what is a celebration? A moment in time to look back and say, “hey I have a journey ahead but look how far I have come”.  This is why these little moments are so watershed to all; whether we celebrate a year in the blog, a year on a module or a year in a job, marriage etc.  Some celebrations are small reminders of time, other of events and some other of accomplishments.  In a world where the news should be accompanied with health warnings, as people feel insignificant as individuals to bring about change, a celebration is a mark that things can happen.  A person who decides to be an agent of change, whether it is a message against racism (#blacklivesmatter) sexual abuse (#metoo), or gun violence (#enoughisenough), they can do so without realising that one day when they will look back things will be very different for all; a possible cause for another celebration then.  It matters to look back when you want to change the future.  Life is experiential journey and marking these experiences is our way of leaving a trace on a large social wall.  

In a couple of months (May 14) we shall be celebrating 18 years of Criminology at the University of Northampton.  Another moment in time to reflect of the impact and the effects this programme has had on the students and the community.  

Cheers

Modern University or New University?

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As I am outside the prison walls on another visit I look at the high walls that keep people inside incarcerated.  This is an institution designed to keep people in and it is obvious from the outside.  This made me wonder what is a University designed for?  Are we equally obvious to the communities in which we live as to what we are there for?  These questions have been posed before but as we embark in a new educational environment I begin to wonder.     

There are city universities, campuses in towns and the countryside, new universities and of course old, even, medieval universities.  All these institutions have an educational purpose in common at a high level but that is more or less it.  Traditionally, academia had a specific mandate of what they were meant to be doing but this original focus was coming from a era when computers, the electronic revolution and the knowledge explosion were unheard of.  I still amuse my students by my recollections of going through an old library, looking at their card catalogue in order to find the books I wanted for my essay.

Since then, email has become the main tool for communication and blackboard or other virtual learning environments are growing into becoming an alternative learning tool in the arsenal of each academic.  In this technologically advanced, modern world it is pertinent to ask if the University is the environment that it once was.  The introduction of fees, and the subsequent political debates on whether to raise the fees or get rid of them altogether.  This debate has also introduced an consumerist dimension to higher education that previous learners did not encounter.  For some colleagues this was a watershed moment in the mandate of higher education and the relationship between tutor and tutee.  Recently, a well respected colleague told me how inspired she was to pursue a career in academia when she watched Willy Russell’s theatrical masterpiece Educating Rita.  It seems likely that this cultural reference will be lost to current students and academics. A clear sign of things moving on.

So what is a University for in the 21st century?  In my mind, the university is an institution of education that is open to its community and accessible to all people, even those who never thought that Higher Education is for them.  Physically, there may not be walls around but for many people who never had the opportunity to enjoy a higher education, there may be barriers.  It is perhaps the purpose of the new university to engage with the community and invite the people to embrace it as their community space.  Our University’s relocation to the heart of the town will make our presence more visible in town and it is a great opportunity for the University to be reintroduced to the local community.  As one of the few Changemaker universities in the country, a title that focuses on social change and entrepreneurship, connecting with the community is definitely a fundamental objective. In this way it will offer its space up for meaningful discussions on a variety of issues, academic or not, to the community saying we are a public institution for all.  After all, this is part of how we understand  criminology’s role.  In a recent discussion we have been talking about criminology in the community; a public criminology.  One of the many reasons why we work so hard to teach criminology in prisons.   

     

The true message of Christmas

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One of the seasonal discussions we have at social fora is how early the Christmas celebrations start in the streets, shops and the media.  An image of snowy landscapes and joyful renditions of festive themes that appear sometime in October and intensify as the weeks unforld.  It seems that every year the preparations for the festive season start a little bit earlier, making some of us to wonder why make this fuss?  Employees in shops wearing festive antlers and jumpers add to the general merriment and fun usually “enforced” by insistent management whose only wish is to enhance our celebratory mood.  Even in my classes some of the students decided to chip in the holiday fun wearing oversized festive jumpers (you know who you are!).  In one of those classes I pointed out that this phenomenon panders to the commercialisation of festivals only to be called a “grinch” by one of the gobby ones.  Of course all in good humour, I thought.  

Nonetheless it was strange considering that we live in a consumerist society that the festive season is marred with the pressure to buy as much food as possible so much so, that those who cannot (according to a number of charities) feel embarrassed to go shopping;  or the promotion of new toys, cosmetics and other trendy items that people have to have badly wrapped ready for the big day.  The emphasis on consumption is not something that happened overnight.  There have been years of making the special season into a family event of Olympic proportions.  Personal and family budgets will dwindle in the need to buy parcels of goods, consume volumes of food and alcohol so that we can rejoice.       

Many of us by the end of the festive season will look back with regret, for the pounds we put on, the pounds we spent and the things we wanted to do but deferred them until next Christmas.  Which poses the question; What is the point of the holiday or even better, why celebrate Christmas anymore?  Maybe a secular society needs to move away from religious festivities and instead concentrate on civic matters alone.  Why does religion get to dictate the “season to be jolly” and not people’s own desire to be with the ones they want to be with?  If there is a message within the religious symbolism this is not reflected in the shop-windows that promote a round-shaped old man in red, non-existent (pagan) creatures and polar animals.  

According to the religious message about 2000 years ago a refugee family gave birth to a child on their way to exile.  The child would live for about 33 years but will change the face of modern religion.  He promised to come back and millions of people still wait for his second coming but in the meantime millions of refugee children are piling up in detention centers and hundreds of others are dying in the journey of the damned.  “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, because her children are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15).  This is the true message of Christmas today.

Happy Holidays to our students and colleagues.  
FYI: Ramah is a town in war torn Middle East

 

“Letters from America”: Why do we even bother?

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As I sit in one of those busy hotel cafés writing these lines, worrying that someone will spill their double decaf latte with a dash of hazelnut, over my laptop, I wonder.  What is the point to a conference?  Why seemingly normal academics will spend any time in hotels next to noisy honeymooners or loud party people who like to play their tunes at 03:00?

As we finished our first session the other day, in keeping with our own tradition, we overran, we sat and had a long discussion of the key points we got out of the session. The discussion was very interesting to talk to people who may do something similar to you, but so very different.  “Comparing notes” has always been one of those processes in academia that promote understanding and enhance the way we learn.

The conference for any discipline is a mass gathering of professionals that do just that; exchange ideas and engage in discussions about the discipline and its practices away from all the other less academic endeavours of the profession.

Usually conferences carry a theme, our conference the theme this year is “Crime, Legitimacy and Reform”.  I found it interesting, considering the sessions we are presenting, focus on subverting facets of an established penal institution into providing higher education classes and altering ever so slightly some of its founding principles.  Reform?  Perhaps, but definitely an attempt to address a profound disciplinary question what are prisons for?  This is a question that considers if prison is a relevant institution for a 21st century society.  Education in prisons is not a novel idea, but introducing HE education inside a carceral environment provides a new suggestion of what prisons might be for.  Clearly this is something worth debating and this week we have been exploring some of the aspects of our work and research.

In a group discussion after one session, we identified the principle ideas of our approach to HE in prisons.  The notions of mutual respect, equity for all and educational purpose are the things we identify as the most important.  It was interesting to hear the responses from other delegates who seemed to have slightly different views about who ought to participate in such an educational initiative.  Sessions such as these allows me to reflect also on what we do.  One of the thoughts, I have had regarding the educational approach we have taken, is whether we “normalise” incarceration in a way that justifies/legitimises its hold as an established penal institution rather than challenging its authority (as @paulaabowles asks, quite graphically, is it better to be inside the tent and pissing outside than be outside the tent pissing in?!)  Leaving colourful metaphors to one side, the question of what is the obligation/duty of a modern day criminologist regarding criminal justice institutions remains. In essence, should it be different from before; what Liebling calls; a critical friend towards all those institutions of control or not?

Finally the conference is where trends and ideas come to be tested, explored and debated.  I remember being in one session back in 2000, when one colleague said; looking into the new century and predicting that the main concern for criminology will be youth crime and initiatives to control it.  A year later, 9/11 made terrorism an emerging priority and the collective discussion shifted quite dramatically.

What are conferences for? A great deal of academic discourse…and an interaction that reaffirms why we care so deeply for our discipline

Leave my country

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One image, one word, one report can generate so much emotion and discussion.  The image of the naked girl running away from a napalm bombed village, the word “paedo” used in tabloids to signal particular cases and reports such as the Hillsborough or the Lamy reports which brought centre stage major social issues that we dare not talk about.*

Regardless of the source, it is those media that make a cultural statement making an impact that in some cases transcends their time and forms our collective consciousness.  There are numerous images, words and reports, and we choose to make some of these symbols that explain our theory of the world around us.

It was in the news that I saw a picture of a broken window, a stone and a sign next to it: “Leave my country”.  The sign was held by an 11 year old refugee with big brown eyes asking why.  This is not the only image that made it to the news this week; some days ago following the fatal car crash in New York the image of a 29 year old suspect from Uzbekistan appeared everywhere.  These two images are of course unconnected across continents and time but there is some semiology worth noting.

We make sense of the world around us by observing.  It is the media that are our eyes helping us to explore this wider world and witness relationships, events and situations that we may never considered possible.  It must have been a very different world when over a century ago news of the sinking of the Titanic came through.  We store images and words that help us define the way our world functions.  In criminology, words are always attached to emotion and prejudice.

I deliberately chose two images: a victimised child and an adult suspect of an act of terror.  They have nothing in common other than both appear foreign in the way I understand those who are not like me.  Of course neither of these images is personally relatable to me but their story is compelling for different reasons.  Then of course as I explore both stories and images, I wonder what is that remains of my understanding of the foreigner?

Last year, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo produced a caricature of what would little Aylan would have done if he was to grow up, presented as a sex pest.  The caricature caused public outcry but at the time, like this week, I started considering the images and their meanings.  Do we put stories together based on the images we see around us?  If that is a way of defining and explaining our social world then the imagery of good and bad foreigners, young and old, victims and villains may merge in a deconstruction of social reality that defines the foreigner.  In that case and at that point the sign next to the 11 year old may not be voiced but it can become an implicit collective objective.

*At this stage I would like to mention that I was considering to write about the media’s “surprise” over the abuse allegations following revelations for a Hollywood producer but decide not to, due to the media’s attempt to saturate one of the most significant social issues of our times with other studies with varying levels of credibility.  We observed a similar situation after the Jimmy Saville case.

 

Welcome Week

 

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Every year in late autumn, all universities prepare to welcome new students onto their campuses.  In the media, we know this as “Freshers week”, a period when new students become familiar with university life.  Throughout the years this particular week has grown in importance for the students’ social life, activities and other out of classroom activities.  Students can taste the nightlife of the campus and that of the nearby town, engage in group activities, join a society and of course have, in many cases, their first taste of independence away from home.  For the University, it is the first opportunity to engage students and get them involved in societies, volunteering and other after hours activities.  

Year by year, this week is becoming increasingly important for the student calendar.  

Returning students participate and graduating students remember when they were involved.  A clear watershed moment in the student diary, so much so that special wristbands are produced and different special events are organised, only for this week.  There is clearly some attraction, into being part of “freshers” so strong, that is now recorded into our collective vernacular.  Finally, the freshers apart from the commercial, cultural attractions, is even connected with health, the infamous “freshers flu” is presented as the scourge for many students who will suffer some ill-health in their first term at Uni/life.      

For an academic welcome week is interpreted differently.  It is definitely an important week because it signifies the start to another form of education.  It is transitional in terms of age for those who just crossed the 18 year old threshold marking the first part of adult education.  It is a declaration of independence for many students and the time to make one of the many transitions into the world of academia.  

This is why, instead of wristbands, I was frantically preparing my plenary lecture last week.  Every year, I dig deep inside to find something that will signal to our newest cohort why I feel so passionate about criminology.  This year, using the 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality, I considered the importance of criminology, as a discipline.  The main points focused on the multidisciplinary nature of criminology, the ability of criminology to holistically explore complex phenomena and the immense service, criminology offers to understanding crime from a dynamic/ever changing standpoint.  The reason for going through the “pains” of delivering a plenary is clear to me: welcome week is the first week of the next three years of academic study.  The start of a wider conversation that allows lay people to embrace those skills that will allow them to understand, evaluate, critique and argue with evidence and knowledge.  Unfortunately there is no wristband for that, only a certificate at the end of the road, that will just about quell the thirst for knowledge.  For many, this thirst will grow further and whilst the wristband may fade and the band attended may break-up, the knowledge that our students will acquire will be with them forever.  This is the tool we offer and this is the beginning of how we do it.  

To all of our new students, Welcome!

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