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A Failing Cultural or Criminal Justice System?


Sallek is a graduate from the MSc Criminology. He is currently undertaking doctoral studies at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

In this piece, I reflect on the criminal justice system in Nigeria showing how a cultural practice evoked a social problematique, one that has exposed the state of the criminal justice system of the country. While I dissociate myself from the sect, I assume the place of the first person in contextualizing this discourse.

In line with the norm, our mothers were married to them. Having paid the bride wealth, even though they have no means, no investment and had little for their upkeep, they married as many as they could satisfy. In our number, they birth as many as their strength could allow, but, little did we know the intention is to give us out to tutelage from religious teachers once we could speak. So, we grew with little or no parental care, had little or no contact, and the street was to become our home where we learnt to be tough and strong. There we learnt we are the Almajiri (homeless children), learning and following the way and teaching of a teacher while we survived on alms and the goodwill of the rich and the sympathetic public.

As we grew older, some learnt trades, others grew stronger in the streets that became our home, a place which toughened and strengthened us into becoming readily available handymen, although our speciality was undefined. We became a political tool servicing the needs of desperate politicians, but, when our greed and their greed became insatiable, they lost their grip on us. We became swayed by extremist teachings, the ideologies were appealing and to us, a worthy course, so, we joined the sect and began a movement that would later become globally infamous. We grew in strength and might, then they coerced us into violence when in cold blood, their police murdered our leader with impunity. No one was held responsible; the court did nothing, and no form of judicial remedy was provided. So, we promised full scale war and to achieve this, we withdrew, strategized, and trained to be surgical and deadly.

The havoc we created was unimaginable, so they labelled us terrorists and we lived the name, overwhelmed their police, seized control of their territories, and continued to execute full war of terror. We caused a great humanitarian crisis, displaced many, and forced a refugee crisis, but, their predicament is better than our childhood experience. So, when they sheltered these displaced people in camps promising them protection, we defiled this fortress and have continued to kill many before their eyes. The war they waged on us using their potent monster, the military continuous to be futile. They lied to their populace that they have overpowered us, but, not only did we dare them, we also gave the military a great blow that no one could have imagined we could. The politicians promised change, but we proved that it was a mere propaganda when they had to negotiate the release of their daughters for a ransom which included releasing our friends in their custody. After this, we abducted even more girls at Dapchi. Now I wonder, these monsters we have become, is it our making, the fault of our parents, a failure of the criminal justice system, or a product of society?


Out early on good behaviour

prison wing

Dr Stephen O’Brien is the Dean for the Faculty of Health and Society at the University of Northampton

The other week I had the opportunity to visit one of our local prisons with academic colleagues from our Criminology team within the Faculty of Health and Society at the University of Northampton. The prison in question is a category C closed facility and it was my very first visit to such an institution. The context for my visit was to follow up and review the work completed by students, prisoners and staff in the joint delivery of an academic module which forms part of our undergraduate Criminology course. The module entitled “Beyond Justice” explores key philosophical, social and political issues associated with the concept of justice and the journeys that individuals travel within the criminal justice system in the UK. This innovative approach to collaborative education involving the delivery of the module to students of the university and prisoners was long in its gestation. The module itself had been delivered over several weeks in the Autumn term of 2017. What was very apparent from the start of this planned visit was how successful the venture had been; ground-breaking in many respects with clear impact for all involved. Indeed, it has been way more successful than anyone could have imagined when the staff embarked on the planning process. The project is an excellent example of the University’s Changemaker agenda with its emphasis upon mobilising University assets to address real life social challenges.


My particular visit was more than a simple review and celebration of good Changemaker work well done. It was to advance the working relationship with the Prison in the signing of a memorandum of understanding which outlined further work that would be developed on the back of this successful project. This will include; future classes for university/prison students, academic advancement of prison staff, the use of prison staff expertise in the university, research and consultancy. My visit was therefore a fruitful one. In the run up to the visit I had to endure all the usual jokes one would expect. Would they let me in? More importantly would they let me out? Clearly there was an absolute need to be on my best behaviour, keep my nose clean and certainly mind my Ps and Qs especially if I was to be “released”. Despite this ribbing I approached the visit with anticipation and an open mind. To be honest I was unsure what to expect. My only previous conceptual experience of this aspect of the criminal justice system was many years ago when I was working as a mental health nurse in a traditional NHS psychiatric hospital. This was in the early 1980s with its throwback to a period of mental health care based on primarily protecting the public from the mad in society. Whilst there had been some shifts in thinking there was still a strong element of the “custodial” in the treatment and care regimen adopted. Public safety was paramount and many patients had been in the hospital for tens of years with an ensuing sense of incarceration and institutionalisation. These concepts are well described in the seminal work of Barton (1976) who described the consequences of long term incarceration as a form of neurosis; a psychiatric disorder in which a person confined for a long period in a hospital, mental hospital, or prison assumes a dependent role, passively accepts the paternalist approach of those in charge, and develops symptoms and signs associated with restricted horizons, such as increasing passivity and lack of motivation. To be fair mental health services had been transitioning slowly since the 1960s with a move from the custodial to the therapeutic. The associated strategy of rehabilitation and the decant of patients from what was an old asylum to a more community based services were well underway. In many respects the speed of this change was proving problematic with community support struggling to catch up and cope with the numbers moving out of the institutions.


My only other personal experience was when I spent a night in the cells of my local police station following an “incident” in the town centre. This was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. (I know everyone says that, but in this case it is a genuine explanation). However, this did give me a sense of what being locked up felt like albeit for a few hours one night. When being shown one of the single occupancy cells at the prison those feelings came flooding back. However, the thought of being there for several months or years would have considerably more impact. The accommodation was in fact worse than I had imagined. I reflected on this afterwards in light of what can sometimes be the prevailing narrative that prison is in some way a cushy number. The roof over your head, access to a TV and a warm bed along with three square meals a day is often dressed up as a comfortable daily life. The reality of incarceration is far from this view. A few days later I watched Trevor MacDonald report from Indiana State Prison in the USA as part of ITV’s crime and punishment season. In comparison to that you could argue the UK version is comfortable but I have no doubt either experience would be, for me, an extreme challenge.


There were further echoes of my mental health experiences as I was shown the rehabilitation facilities with opportunities for prisoners to experience real world work as part of their transition back into society. I was impressed with the community engagement and the foresight of some big high street companies to get involved in retraining and education. This aspect of the visit was much better than I imagined and there is evidence that this is working. It is a strict rehabilitation regime where any poor behaviour or departure from the planned activity results in failure and loss of the opportunity. This did make me reflect on our own project and its contribution to prisoner rehabilitation. In education, success and failure are norms and the process engenders much more tolerance of what we see as mistakes along the way. The great thing about this project is the achievement of all in terms of both the learning process and outcome. Those outcomes will be celebrated later this month when we return to the prison for a special celebration event. That will be the moment not only to celebrate success but to look to the future and the further work the University and the Prison can do together. On that occasion as on this I do expect to be released early for good behaviour.



Barton, R., (1976) Institutional Neurosis: 3rd edition, Butterworth-Heinemann, London.

Justice on Trial

Witness for the Prosecution

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to be treated to theatre tickets for Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution. The setting – London’s County Hall – was exquisite, the play sublime and the actors fabulous. An afternoon of sheer escapism, even for a die hard Christie fan like myself. Having read the short story/play many times is no replacement for seeing this on the stage. The theatre offers the opportunity to see the action from all perspectives; you can put yourself in the shoes of the defendant, the court actors and of course, the witnesses. Such a perspective vividly demonstrates the immense power of the State, not only through physical violence (although this is also evident) but through verbal dexterity.  To see the defendant – Leonard Vole – on trial; so small and defenceless against the majesty of the courtroom, is thought provoking. Furthermore, this environment is staffed by legal professionals, who unlike him, understand the world in which they operate. The cut and thrust of legalistic argument performed in the play (and in modern day courts daily) conceals the sheer ferocity of authority’s attack on the individual. Remember at the time the play was written, the death penalty was still in force, and Leonard Vole is on trial for the capital crime of murder. In essence, he is openly fighting for his very life, but subjected to the machinations and mediation of professionals who openly profess to be seeking justice. When he tries to speak, to argue, to cajole, he is silenced. There is no place for the defendant’s perspective unless it is expressed via the mandated professional who speaks on his (or her) behalf.

In the twenty-first century (and indeed, for the latter part of the twentieth century), capital punishment in the UK has not been a sentencing option. Whilst defendants may not be faced with a possible date with the hangman, the finality of sentencing and punishment is no laughing matter. Whilst there is no doubt that dramatic denouements have their place in the theatre, in the serious business of the criminal courts such antics seem out of place. If we look at the criminal court as a theatrical scene, we start to observe all manner of incongruity (cf. Carlen, 1976). For starters; the language used and the costumes worn. For anyone that has ever grappled to understand the works of Shakespeare or the Brontë’s, such reading requires patience and perseverance to understand the beauty of such writing.   In 2018, we would not request that our surgeons operate on us without the benefit of anaesthesia, neither would we want to be treated with procedures such as bloodletting or trepanning. Similarly, we don’t expect soldiers to carry muskets or form into schiltrons just because that’s how it used to be. Yet we accept and arguably, expect our courts to run as if they were stuck in time. What chance does the individual defendant have in this archaic, theatrical setting? After all, they are the star of the show, yet they have neither costume, nor the opportunity to learn their lines. It is hard to argue, that such practices are conducive to the pursuit of justice.

On the surface, going to the theatre appears to offer a pleasurable break from academia, yet the reality is it offers the opportunity to consider criminology from a novel perspective. Reading (and you all know how keen I am on reading!!) is only part of Criminology; talking, listening, thinking and exploring away from the classroom are equally important. My advice; get out, explore – the arts; theatre, cinema, literature, museums – and add this experiential knowledge to your academic studies. See things from a different perspective and unleash your Criminological Imagination (Young, 2011).


Carlen, Pat, (1976), ‘The Staging of Magistrates’ Justice,’ The British Journal of Criminology, 16, 1: 48–55

Christie, Agatha, (2018), Witness for the Prosecution, Directed by Lucy Bailey. London County Hall, [11 February 2018]

Young, Jock, (2011), The Criminological Imagination, (London: Polity)

Criminology for Children

Lego crime

Helen is an Associate Lecturer teaching on modules in years 1 and 3.

Last term, my 9-year-old son’s class topic was “Crime and Punishment”. They took a historical perspective, comparing punishments across different periods of time and they began their topic with a “creative kickstart”: a visit to the National Museum of Justice in Nottingham (albeit two weeks later than planned because the bus failed to turn up!). They had a whale of a time! They were photographed with a range of gruesome artefacts and they took part in a mock trial (a re-enactment of a genuine historical case). My son’s group acquitted the defendant, Isabella, who was accused of stealing clothes, on the basis of insufficient evidence, but the other group from his school found her guilty.

Part of the class’s enthusiasm for this topic undoubtedly stems from the fascination of 9-year-old children with blood and guts. The teacher reported that they were particularly excited to learn about criminals who had been hung, drawn and quartered (although she refrained from playing them the clips from Gunpowder which depicted what this actually looked and sounded like!!). My son drew great pleasure from thinking about what it would be like if he was actually allowed to impose mediaeval punishments on his arch enemy. However, exploration of issues of crime and punishment has value far beyond satisfying a fascination for the gory.

Thinking about crime and punishment requires critical reasoning skills. What is fair? What is reasonable? How much evidence do I need? How good is this evidence? Why do we do things differently now? And critical reasoning skills are essential for navigating a world of social media, peer pressure, advertising and fake (or at least dubious) news that these children will soon be entering. My son’s class had a debate on the death penalty. When I asked him his views later, over tea, he thought carefully and told me that the death penalty was a good thing because if someone had done something really bad, they deserved a really serious punishment. It was a very good example of level two moral reasoning (Kohlberg, 1964): what you would expect from a reasonably well-adjusted 9-year-old. But the class vote at the end of the debate was split equally for and against, demonstrating a range of views. As we ate our tea, I explained my own position on the death penalty (formulated much later, when I was a post-graduate student), that there are some things that a good society just should not do and killing its own citizens, for whatever reason, is one of those things. That argument might have been a bit abstract for my son to take on board, but it is exactly through discussion and debate and exposure to different views that we develop and improve our critical and moral reasoning skills. It’s never too early to start!


Kohlberg, L. (1964) Development of moral character and moral ideology. In M. Hoffman and L. Hoffman (Eds.) Review of Child Development Research, Vol. 1. (pp. 381-343). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.



Is education more fun than building a Lego Yellow Submarine? Discuss

yellow submarine

This week some students, independently and across the years, introduced me to the novel idea that education should be “enjoyable” and “fun”. Furthermore, if it wasn’t enjoyable, it wasn’t being done right. Given Criminology’s subject matter is often grim, dark, focusing on the worst aspects of humankind, enjoyable and fun are not descriptions that often appear in relation to the discipline. Certainly, such a perspective is not one that I personally recognise; a day at an art gallery, playing Hungry Hippos with two little people, a nice bottle of wine, lunch with friends, building a Lego Yellow Submarine etc are things that I would say are enjoyable, perhaps even fun. But education……I’m not convinced! What follows are my vague ramblings around a subject which is very close to my heart (you are warned!).

All of the enjoyable activities I have described above are ones that I spend very little of my time doing and that to me, is part of their enjoyability (if such a word exists). They are attractive because they are rare and unusual, in my life at least. But education, learning, knowledge are part and parcel of my everyday existence, and dare I say fundamental to who am I. However, does any of this preclude education from being fun? Maybe, I just take for granted my thirst for knowledge in the same way as my thirst for water, just everyday appetites that need to be fed to maintain equilibrium and optimal performance.

I love considering new ideas and new perspectives, particularly if they challenge my thinking and jolt me out of complacency, so I want to consider this concept of enjoyable education.  I’ve always been a curious person, there’s lots of questions that I want to know the answer to and they generally begin with “why”? Like all children, I expect I drove my parents mad with the constant questions; never fully satisfied with the answer. I can trace my first early, tentative steps into criminological thinking to when I was a child and regularly had to pass HMP Holloway[1] on the way to various hospital appointments. I used to wonder who lived in this huge, forbidding building, why they were there, what had they done, when would they get out and where would they go? Some decades on, I have answers to some of those questions but I’m still actively searching for the others. This, of course, is experiential learning and children’s books (at that time) offered little by way of answers to such profound criminological questions.


At school, the type of learning I liked best was when I could explore for myself. An experienced and knowledgeable teacher or lecturer explaining complex ideas could open the door so far, but I wanted to find out for myself as much as possible. For me, the best educationalists are those that gently guide and enable, not those who deliver information on demand. They also engender self-confidence and self-discipline encouraging the scholar to take control of their own intellectual journey. All of this leads me to the conclusion that learning is intrinsically neither enjoyable nor fun, although both may be by-products.  Education, knowledge, learning, all of these are painful, challenging, at times they appear almost impossible. But! The level of personal satisfaction, achievement and growth means that ‘some kind of happiness is’, not as the Beatles suggest ‘measured out in miles’, but through  intellectual endeavour (Lennon and McCartney, 1969). And to answer the essay question I set in the title, Lego has many charms but independent, self-direction is not one of them. Provided you follow the step-by-step illustrated instructions you will have your very own Yellow Submarine, but there are no surprises, whether positive or negative, which means I have no intellectual investment in the process. Furthermore, take the instructions away and I would not be able to recreate this “masterpiece”. Having said that, it does look rather lovely on my book case 🙂


Lennon, John and McCartney, Paul, (1969), Hey Bulldog, [LP]. Recorded by The Beatles in Yellow Submarine, Northern Songs: Apple


[1] HMP Holloway closed its doors for the final time in July 2016.

The true message of Christmas

Xmas Card

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”: III

imageFor those of you who follow The Criminology Team on Facebook you might have caught @manosdaskalou and I live from Eastern State Penitentiary [ESP]. In this entry, I plan to reflect on that visit in a little more depth.

We first visited ESP in 2011 when the ASC conference was held in Washington, DC. That visit has never left me for a number of reasons, not least the lengths societies are prepared to go in order to tackle crime. ESP is very much a product of its time and demonstrates extraordinarily radical thinking about crime and punishment. For those who have studied the plans for Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon there is much which is familiar, not least the radial design (see illustration below).


This is an institution designed to resolve a particular social problem; crime and indeed deter others from engaging in similar behaviour through humane and philosophically driven measures. The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons*  was  philanthropic  and guided by religious principles. This is reflected in the term penitentiary; a place for sinners to repent and In turn become truly penitent.

This philosophy was distinct and radical with a focus on reformation of character rather than brutal physical punishment. Of course, scholars such as Ignatieff and Foucault have drawn attention to the inhumanity of such a regime, whether deliberate or unintentional, but that should not detract from its groundbreaking history. What is important, as criminologists, is to recognise ESP’s place in the history of penology. That history is one of coercion, pleading, physical and mental brutality and still permeates all aspects of incarceration in the twenty-first century. ESP have tried extremely hard to demonstrate this continuum of punishment, acknowledging its place among many other institutions both home and abroad.

For me the question remains; can we make an individual change their behaviour through the pains of incarceration? I have argued previously in this blog in relation to Conscientious Objectors, that all the evidence suggests we cannot. ESP, as daunting as it may have been in its heyday, would also seem to offer the same answer. Until society recognises the harm and futility of incarceration it is unlikely that penal reform, let alone abolition, will gain traction.



*For those studying CRI1007 it is worth noting the role of Benjamin Rush in this organisation.



Do you consent to read on?



The more eagle-eyed amongst you may have spotted that @manosdaskalou and I are due to present during ‘I Heart Consent’ Week (still plenty of time to book a space!). The topic – ‘Consent in the Classroom’ is one that is close to our hearts and something we have discussed in different environments with different people. In this week’s entry I want to consider why the subject of consent is particularly  important for criminologists.

An obvious area to start is research; ethics are fundamental to all of the projects we do from undergraduate all the way through to seasoned academic. Discussions around ensuring participants are able to fully engage in the process of gaining informed consent are imperative. At times this may be viewed as procedural; simply going through the motions but given the sensitivity of much criminological research it has a primacy and an urgency necessary to avoid harm.

The last few weeks have seen a flurry of accusations directed at Hollywood’s “finest” (cf. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Ed Westwick et al.) and government ministers and MPs (cf. Michael Fallon, Stephen Crabb, Kelvin Hopkins et al.). These often, light on factual evidence and heavy on prurient judgement, throw the spotlight once more on the issue of sexual consent.  These cases are concerning on many levels and it is apparent from much of the discussion which often ensues whether on television, radio, in the newspapers or on social media, that many people are confused around the very nature of consent. Attempts have been made to counteract these lack of knowledge, often in creative ways; for example ‘Consent: It’s as simple as tea’ but looking at many of the comments, there is still a great deal of work to do. There are also wider issues in relation to consent; the absence of the victims’ consent to have their information paraded to feed the public’s desire for detail Likewise, the nature of summary justice being dispensed (e.g. expulsion from organisations, cancellation of contracts and resignations) deprives suspects of their right to defend themselves in court; there is no option for those suspected to opt for a trial by media.

Notwithstanding, the imperative to understand sexual consent, for Criminology, there is a further complication. When much, if not all crime, criminality and criminal justice, is predicated on the absence of consent, the issue becomes even more tenacious. If we consider that victims don’t consent, offenders may not consent to what ensues; certainly the criminal justice system’s [CJS] apparatus deliberately and meticulously removes consent throughout the process. Even when it comes to the professionals who work within the CJS, they may not consent, rather they are obeying guidance/policy/instructions/orders (delete as appropriate). After all, it cannot be consent if derived at the barrel of a gun, or in a police interview suite or a prison cell or when the economic situation is so bleak you are terrified of losing your job. When there is no room for manoeuvre, there can be no consent. Institutions and individuals may decide that this is a necessary price to pay in respect of crime and punishment, but that decision should never be taken without reflection.

All of the above shows the importance of consent, not only between the sheets, but in all aspects of criminology. Whatever side of criminal justice you might find yourself on, an understanding of consent is essential.


Leave my country


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.


We all saw it coming: Reflections on the Transforming Rehabilitation Agenda


The recent reforms to the probation service were examined in the BBC Panorama programme ‘Out of Jail: Free to Offend Again?’ The title of the programme struck me with a clear sense of ‘we told you so’ given the warnings and concerns raised by those working within the probation service and colleagues in criminology departments. Just look at #faillinggrayling on twitter – there you can chart the anxiety as the reforms were proposed and then implemented.

The programme began with the case of Connor Marshall who on a night out with friends was attacked by a stranger, David Braddon who had a history of violent offending, along with alcohol and drug misuse. Sadly, Connor died in hospital a few days after the attack and then, the details of David Braddon’s circumstances were revealed, during the review into Connor’s death. David was on probation, under the supervision of ‘Working Links’, a private consortium who took over running of probation for most of Wales, under the new Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) arrangements in 2015. TR promised radical reforms which would privatise the probation service for low and medium risk offenders, with high risk offenders still being managed under the National Probation Service (NPS). Ian Lawrence, General Secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO) spoke on the programme about how they warned the government about the risks, due to the extensive re-organisation, costs to the taxpayer and crucially, the impact on public safety. In addition, an internal memo from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) gave explicit warnings about the danger of the TR failing, citing that an ‘unacceptable drop in operational performance which might lead to delivery failure and reputational damage.’

Connor’s case was described in the programme as an ‘early failure.’ The phrase reminded me of the cold and calculated response when we are told the casualties of war are ‘collateral damage.’ There was a sense of acceptance of failures, given the extent of the reforms. David Braddon had a catalogue of missed appointments and non-compliance, along with becoming increasingly withdrawn, all of which should have been flagged up by those supervising him, and action taken. This reminded me of another pivotal case in probation, which highlighted the impact of over-loading probation officers and not responding properly to those offenders who are clearly at risk and not complying with their supervision. In 2008, Dano Sonnex and Robert Falmer killed two French students in south east London, in a violent attack. The Serious Case Review, focusing on Dano Sonnex, revealed a catalogue of errors, resulting in part from caseworkers in probation being overloaded and inexperienced in dealing with someone with such complex needs as Sonnex. The fact that this occurred in London was worrying when the presenter presented the views of a whistle-blower, working for MTC Novo, a company who was now delivering probation services for low and medium risk cases in London. The premise of TR was that ‘Community Rehabilitation Companies’ (CRCs) would take on expanded caseloads from widening the net for supervision to those on short term sentences, where re-offending rates are particularly high. MTC Novo and Working Links are just two examples of new CRCs now responsible for low and medium risk offenders. The programme then examined the experiences of probation, from the perspective of a service user, probation officers and those involved in inspecting the service.

Sean Grant, out of prison and living with friends reported he had very little contact with MTC Novo, his first appointment took 3 weeks to set up after his release and he had no support to get stable housing in place. He also reported his view was that the service had not improved, compared to his previous contact, and later in the programme, it transpired he was at risk of recall, due to missed appointments which he knew nothing about. This was particularly galling since he had secured work and seemed to be doing everything he needed to do to prevent re-offending, albeit with little help from the probation service.

This experience chimed with the views then given by a ‘whistle-blower’ from within MTC Novo, who reported that the company was now employing fewer fully qualified probation officers, and his caseload had risen from 50 to 76, including some vulnerable offenders who were not getting the intervention they needed. They also cited the problems associated with not having time to build a rapport, with monthly meetings of 20 minutes, asking ‘how will you open up? I don’t know them, they don’t trust me.’ It seems the long held and valued principles of the probation service to ‘advise, assist and befriend’, already eroded by risk management and efficiency drives, were now being further undermined by TR. More worryingly, the probation service as an effective means to reduce re-offending was also undermined, when the same whistle-blower referred to an ‘explosion in re-offending’, including violent offences. For others outside London, probation had become a service which staff described as a ‘mess’ and time spent with clients had fallen from 15 to 2 hours a week, and was also characterised by division and in-efficiency.

Dr Lawrence Burke, Ian Lawrence and Dame Glenys Stacey all agreed that the calls for a rethink on TR were growing louder, the service was in danger of becoming de-stabilised and of putting lives at risk. This feels very much like reform which was imposed on a service which was functioning relatively well – not perfectly – but which is now facing significant issues, all of which were meant to be addressed by TR. The harrowing cases, while still rare events, can cite the failings of probation as contributing to the serious crimes which occurred and therefore, the key aim of the service, to protect the public, is not being met. The rising prison population and especially the continued use of short term prison sentences means the service will continue to be overloaded, while CRC managers continue to cut costs to keep solvent. Therein lies a fundamental problem – making a profit through the management of offenders is not viable, sustainable, advisable or safe. The probation service, much like the NHS, the police and other public services can deliver well and do good work when it is not diverted by concerns over cost savings and trying to deal with increasing workloads.

Susie Atherton
Senior Lecturer in Criminology

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