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Institutional Violence: unfortunate disaster or crime?

Banksy_-_Sweep_at_Hoxton

Despite my love of criminology, there are also aspects which I find deeply troubling. One of the earliest things that an undergraduate student learns to parrot is that “crime is a social construct”. Unfortunately, for much criminological research whilst this may be acknowledged it is largely ignored, with the focus firmly on those actions which are defined by law to be criminal. First, its potential to do harm all in the name of making contributions to solving the “crime problem”. All this measuring, trying to find out what works, always seems to involve finding innovative ways in which humans can be forced coerced to do another’s bidding.  It seems to me that this project is inherently designed to hurt individuals, supposedly in the name of justice.

Another concern is criminology’s seeming inability to address bigger issues, which are often dismissed as some other unspecified form of harm, rather than crime.Those of you who have studied with me are likely to know that my academic interests revolve around institutions and violence. I’m not interested in what they do and how we measure their supposed efficacy and “improve” them – administrative criminology leaves me cold – but the impact of these institutions on individual lives.

Much criminological research focuses on individual motivations for criminality (as reflected in some of our earlier blog entries on cyber crime, murder and manslaughter) and these explanations can offer extraordinary insight. Such individualised explanations often follow the classical tenets of freewill and choice, leading to discussions around punishment, and particularly deterrence. Whilst these offer the promise of understanding crime and criminality they run the risk of decontexualising crime; removing the criminal(s), the victim(s) and the criminal justice system from the environments in which both operate. If we consider events such as the Aberfan (21.10.1966) and Hillsborough (15.04.1989) disasters and more recently the catastrophe of Grenfell Tower; (14.06.2017) individualised criminological explanations make little sense, instead we are faced with complex arguments as to whether or not these are actually crimes. However, the sheer number of deaths and injuries involved in these tragic events cannot simply be dismissed as if they are somehow natural disasters. Furthermore, the violence inherent in all of these events is far bigger than any one individual, making traditional criminological theories appear inadequate.

Those of you who have studied with me are likely to know that my academic interests revolve around institutions and violence. I’m not interested in what they do and how we measure their supposed efficacy and “improve” them – administrative criminology leaves me cold – but the impact of these powerful  institutions on individual lives. It would seem that perhaps the concept of institutional violence, although contested, can offer a gateway to a more nuanced understanding of crime and harm. One of my starting points for understanding institutional violence is Steven Lee’s question ‘Is poverty violence?’ (1999: 5). He makes his standpoint explicit and argues that ‘[p]overty results in a whole range of serious physical and psychological harms: higher risks of disease, shortened life spans, stunted mental and emotional development, and inadequate opportunity to lead a meaningful life’ (Lee, 1999: 9).

Such a perspective widens our view of what might be understood as violence, taking it away from the overt (two chaps squaring up after a night out) to something less obvious and arguably more damaging. It also recognises that events such as the fire at Grenfell Tower do not happen in a vacuum but are predicated on historical, social and political factors. Justice for the victims of Grenfell Tower cannot be achieved through blaming individuals and rationalising their actions (important as that may be). What is required is a great deal of soul-searching and an exploration of the wider institutional harms, including poverty. Only then can we really begin to understand the impact of institutional violence on the everyday lives of the residents of Grenfell Tower which ultimately led to such devastation on the night of 14 June 2017.  

Lee,  Steven, (1999), ‘Is Poverty Violence’ in Deane Curtin and Robert Litke, Institutional Violence, (Amsterdam: Rodopi): 5-12

Terrorism? No thank you

 

gmm

Recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and the capital, like others that happened in Europe in recent years, made the public focus again on commonly posed questions about the rationale and objectives of such seemingly senseless acts.  From some of the earliest texts on Criminology, terrorism has been viewed as one of the most challenging areas to address, including defining it.

There is no denial that acts, such as those seen across the world, often aimed at civilian populations, are highly irrational.  It is partly because of the nature of the act that we become quite emotional.  We tend question the motive and, most importantly, the people who are willing to commit such heinous acts.  Some time ago, Edwin Sutherland, warned about the development of harsh laws as a countermeasure for those we see as repulsive criminals.  In his time it was the sexual deviants; whilst now we have a similar feeling for those who commit acts of terror. We could try to apply his theory of differential association to explain some terrorist behaviours. however it cannot explain why these acts keep happening again and again.  

At this point, it is rather significant to mention that terrorism (and whatever we currently consider acts of terror) is a fairly old phenomenon that dates back to many early organised and expansionist societies.  We are not the first, and unfortunately not the last, to live in an age of terror. Reiner, a decade ago, identified terrorism as a vehicle to declare crime as “public enemy number 1 and a major threat to society” (2007: 124).  In fact, the focus on individualised characteristics of the perpetrator detract from any social responsibility leading to harsher penalties and sacrifices of civil liberties almost completely unopposed.    As White and Haines write, “the concern for the preservation of human rights is replaced by an emphasis on terrorism […] and the necessity to fight them by any means necessary” (1996: 139).

For many old criminologists who forged established concepts in the discipline, to simply and totally condemn terrorism, is not so straightforward.  Consider for example Leon Radzinowicz (1906-1999) who saw the suppression of terror as the State’s attempt to maintain a state of persecution.  After all, many of those who come from countries that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries probably owe their nationhood to groups of people originally described as terrorists.  This of course is the age old debate among criminologists “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”.  Many, of course, question the validity of such a statement at a time when the world has seen an unprecedented number of states make a firm declaration to self-determination.  That is definitely a fair point to make, but at the same time we see age-old phenomena like slavery, exploitation and suppression of individual rights to remain prevalent issues now.  People’s movements away from hotbeds of conflict remain a real problem and Engels’ (1820- 1895) observation about large cities becoming a place of social warfare still relevant.     

Reiner R (2007), Law and Order, an honest citizen’s guide to crime and control, Cambridge, Polity Press

White R and Haines F (1996), Crime and Criminology, Oxford, Oxford University Press  

 

A walk in the past

Kirsty is a current undergraduate student. She has just completed her second year of study reading Criminology and Sociology.

KG1The inspiration of this blog has developed from a recent trip to Riga, Latvia. Whilst the city itself is surrounded by cobbled streets, creative buildings and various water attractions; it is merely inevitable to miss Latvia’s criminological past. Many of the city’s museums’ and prominent statues are dedicated to war and occupation, with a particular focus towards the Soviet and Nazi regimes. The two historical landmarks of interest for the discussion of this blog will focus on the KGB Building and Riga Ghetto Holocaust museum.

Firstly, I would like to briefly discuss the concepts of ‘knowledge’ and ‘experience’ as I think they are important to this text. It is easy to read of the happenings of the past; yet, sometimes it is experience that can enable an individual to truly grasp an understanding of how a society once operated. Upon entering a place whereby masses of people endured acts of repeated interrogation, violence and execution; events from the past become very surreal and complex.

To provide a brief history, the KGB was a secretive and secluded state- security organisation, involved in all aspects of life of everyday people in the Soviet Union. The organisation enforced Soviet morals and ideologies with various mechanisms such propaganda, which in turn, politically oppressed all citizens of Latvia. After the War, the KGB selected the Corner House for its headquarters, as its construction made it convenient for secretly transporting individual prisoners. The KGB Building has preserved its original layout, design and furniture from the Soviet times which allows for a genuine feel of its previous context. Interestingly, the tour guide that showed us round the prison was a former Russian prison officer, whereby we were shown various cells and rooms of importance. One aspect that really stood out to myself was a small cell that we were informed to enter, in which we were told roughly 30 prisoners at a time would be held inside singular cells like these. During the day time, lights were kept off and the heating was set to high- as you can imagine, this would have been extremely unpleasant in these conditions. The tour guide then told us to lightly cover our eyes, as he turned on several piercing bright lights, that even after a few minutes started to make myself feel dizzy. It was then explained that prisoners were prevented from sleeping with these lights being on each night; if caught covering their eyes by a prison guard, they would be beaten. Standing in the exact room of where individuals endured this kind of treatment allowed me to reflectively engage, both mentally and physically, of the complex issues of this dark historical time.

It could be argued that the KGB period hits close to home with the case of Alexander Litvinenko: a former officer of the Russian FSB who resided to Britain in escape of arrest by the Secret Service he had once been a part of. Litvinenko was allegedly poisoned to death by two Russian assassins, reinforcing the Soviet Union’s traditions of effectively ‘destroying the enemy’.

Another point of criminological interest was the Riga Ghetto and Holocaust museum; opened with the aim to preserve memories of the Jewish community in Latvia. On arrival, you are met with a memorial wall and informative stand that show the history of WW2 and the Holocaust- more than 70,000 names of Latvian Jews are recorded. Next, I approached a transportation waggon which were simply used to deport Jewish members to concentrations camps. However, oddly to myself, there were several tree branches inside the waggon itself. I then discovered that this represented those who were deemed ‘unfit’ for labour were taken to the Bikernieki forest- Latvia’s largest mass murder cite during the Holocaust period. As previously mentioned, it was the presence of being in a place whereby those same people lived in a society with arguably no humanity that is so difficult to fully digest.

As a Criminology student, visiting these institutions made real some of the key issues that emerge in class discussions, providing valuable, historical and international development of criminological debates. From an academic perspective; it is widely accepted that accounts should remain objective and avoid journalistic traits, yet the mass suffering of these events is inevitable to ignore.

How do you punish the incorrigible?

Banksy dove of peae

This week saw the (very low key) commemoration of International Conscientious Objectors Day (15 May) which got me thinking about a number of different contemporary issues. Although the events which I describe happened a century ago, the criminalisation, and indeed, punishment of conscience has never truly been resolved.

Conscientious objection in the UK first came to the attention for most after the passing of the Military Services Act 1916. This legislation allowed for the conscription of certain categories of men into the military. The enactment of this law enabled men to be forcibly coerced into military service regardless of their personal and individual aspirations. Subsequent to this, further legislation was passed (Military Training Act 1939, National Service (Armed Forces) Act 1939, National Service Act 1948) continuing this system of coercive enlistment into the military. By default, such legislation also laid the foundations for conscientious objection; after all, without such coercion there is no need to register dissent, simply don’t enlist in the military.

During WWI (and for some considerable time after) Conscientious Objectors [COs] were bullied, cajoled, ridiculed and stigmatised, not to mention, incarcerated, multiple times. In one horrific incident it was alleged that COs were driven to the trenches of France and threatened with a firing squad if they did not comply. Despite this type of treatment the vast majority of COs continued to resist, strongly suggesting that their conscience, moral compass or faith was far stronger than anything the state could throw at them.

In the UK the individual and collective dilemma of the conscientious objector has largely faded into history; although the same cannot be said internationally (for instance; Greece, Israel and the USA). However, their very existence and that of other non-conformists (at different times and places) raises questions around the purpose and supposed effectiveness of incarceration.  In essence; what do we do when the “deviant” refuses to conform, how far are we prepared to go, as a society to punish the incorrigible and persistent offender and what do we do when nothing seems to work?

We could attempt the practices used with the WWI COs and keep convicting whilst ratcheting up the tariff of their sentence each. However, we know from their experiences that this appeared to consolidate their objections and harden their resolve. We can try and talk to individuals in order to help them see the “errors of their ways” but given the conviction held by COs, that the war was fundamentally at odds with their belief system, this is also likely to fail. We could try punishment in the community, but for many of the COs anything which they felt compromised their standpoint was equally resisted, making any such approach also likely to be unsuccessful.

Although the “problem” of the COs no longer exists in 21st century Britain, other individuals and groups have filled the space they have vacated. We could replace the COs with the Black civil rights movement (think Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King) or other protests (think “Tank Man” in  Tiananmen Square or Ieshia Evans in Baton Rouge) or those deemed traitors by many (as were the COs) , such as Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. The question remains: is it possible to rehabilitate the heart and mind of someone who is so clear as to their moral standpoint and committed to doing what they perceive to be “the right thing”?

Plagiarism on trial

Plagiarism

For many students, I suspect it is difficult to imagine what an academic does aside from lectures, seminars and marking. The answer can range across several different activities including module or programme development, research, reading, university/faculty committee meetings, working groups and so on. Alongside my responsibilities within Criminology, I am also an Academic Integrity and Misconduct Officer (or AIMO for short). I have undertaken this role for the past few years and thought it might be interesting to share some of my thoughts.

The process involved in suspected academic misconduct is relatively straightforward. The marking tutor spots an issue, either through their subject knowledge, or increasingly with the help of originality reports such as those provided by Turnitin. They then make a referral, complete with the evidence they have compiled and hand it over to be dealt with by an AIMO. The AIMO reviews the evidence and decides whether to interview the student. After this they write a report and the student is informed as to the outcome. All of the above sounds extremely procedural but plagiarism and academic misconduct more generally are far more complex than this would suggest.

As a criminologist, I am used to studying theories around offending, rehabilitation, punishment, recidivism and so on. Perhaps that is why it seems obvious to me to conceptualise academic misconduct along the same lines. For instance; the referral process is undertaken by the university police (that is the referring tutor) who gathers together the evidence for submission to the CPS. In the case of suspected academic misconduct this referral comes to an AIMO who makes the decision as to whether or not there is a case worth answering. If the evidence appears compelling, the AIMO will explore the issue further, in essence, taking the place of the Magistrates’ Court in the CJS. If the offence is deemed to be relatively minor or a first time offence, sentence can be passed by the AIMO. Alternatively, the case can be passed to the Crown Court an Academic Misconduct Panel where the evidence will be heard by three AIMOs. These panels have far greater sanctions available to them (including termination of studies) and they can also hear appeals.

So far the analogy works, but what about the other, more human, aspects. When considering criminal motivation, it is clear the reasons for committing academic misconduct are as wide-ranging as those detailed in court. As with crime, some admit to their wrongdoings at the first opportunity whilst others do not accept that they have done anything wrong. Likewise, in terms of mitigation both types of “suspect” cite family problems, mental health issues, financial problems, as well as, ignorance of the rules and regulations.

But in the case of academic misconduct; who is the victim? Arguably, the answer to that is academia as a whole. If there is an absence of  integrity in any, or all of our studies, academia is impoverished and ultimately the academy and its pursuit of knowledge could fall. As with crime, the impact on individuals is immeasurable and hugely detrimental to wider society.

As would be expected in an entry about academic misconduct, the image used is copyright free. It is available for use and modification from wikimedia

A licence to kill?


Soldiers-Painting-Peace-by-Banksy

The recent news around “Marine A’s” (Alexander Blackman) successful appeal to have his conviction changed from murder to manslaughter made headlines. The act which led to Blackman’s conviction took place in Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2011. On the day in question, Blackman was filmed shooting dead an injured man on the ground. During the killing, Blackman can be heard clearly citing Shakespeare, followed by an acknowledgement that ‘I just broke the Geneva Convention’.  Furthermore, he announced, after the killing, that ‘It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us’. All of which seemed to suggest that this was an open and shut case, but such a conclusion would ignore both the military context and apparent public feeling.

For many, this appeal judgement appeared to vindicate Blackman and excuse his behaviour on the grounds of mental health. The media circus, which surrounded both the original conviction and the later appeals (the first reduced the tariff on his life sentence from 10 to 8 years), almost seemed to imply that he had been acquitted rather than his conviction amended. Indeed, for those who supported Blackman, many of which were military personnel, the fact that he had even been charged was seen as an affront to the dignity of both the soldier and the Marines.

It is interesting to consider why the case has caused so much furor. Blackman was the first British soldier to be convicted of murder, the crime itself was recorded (inadvertently) for posterity but the case raises much wider questions. For a criminal justice system which is based primarily on Classicism’s understanding of crime and punishment there seemed to be very little focus on Blackman as an individual responsible for his own behaviour. After all, Blackman made clear his rationale for the killing, even going so far as to cite the Geneva Convention and remind his colleagues that they could never talk about these events. However, the continual focus appears to have been on his chosen occupation as a military man, representative of all those soldiers who went before and those who would follow the same career path. Rather than individual agency and motivation, it would appear that the focus has been on conditions of war and the nature of soldiering as well as, his supposed mental state on the day.

Outside the Royal Courts of Justice, on verdict day, Blackman’s wife claimed that the downgrading of her husband’s offence was a better reflection of “the circumstances that [he] found himself in during that terrible tour of Afghanistan”. Whilst civilian courts have long paid heed to evidence of mental health conditions, it is worth considering whether they would go to such lengths for a civilian, regardless of past trauma or the circumstances of their crime. Likewise, we need to acknowledge that the modern servicemen (unlike his conscripted WWI/WWII/National Service forefathers) does not find himself on the battleground but has chosen to enlist in the military with all that such a career entails, in the twenty first century. 

 

Reflections from a Pilot

mrs-_fry_reading_to_the_prisoners_in_newgate_john_johnson

Firstly, I would like to apologise for the use of the first person. I have made an entire career of telling my students to use the third person. However, writing a blog is generally informal and a bit more personal.
Throughout my years in academia there are a number of things I continue to find incredibly edifying; transferring research interests into teaching is one of them, even better when that is done outside of the traditional educational environment. The idea of education in prison is definitely not new, with roots in the old reformers (notably in the UK; Elizabeth Fry), with a clear focus on combating illiteracy. This was a product of penal policy that reflected a different social reality. In the 21st century, we  have to re-imagine penal policy, alongside education, which can cater for the changed nature of our world.
Our recent pilot, was designed to explore some new approaches to education in both the prison and the university* . The idea was to bring university students and prisoners together and teach them the same topics encouraging them to engage with each other in discussions. This was envisaged as a process whereby all participants would be equal learners; leaving all other identities behind. The main thinking behind the approach taken was predicated on universal notions; the respect for humanity and the opportunity to express oneself uninhibited among equals. With this in mind, teaching in prisons should not be any different to teaching at University, provided that all learners feel safe and they are ready to engage. In the planning stages, my concerns were primarily on the way equality could be maintained. In addition, the levels of engagement and the material covered were also issues that created some trepidation. The knowledge that this pilot would be the blueprint for the design of a new level 6 module made the undertaking even more exciting.
The pilot involved 9 hours of teaching in prison with additional sessions before and after in order to familiarise all learners with each other, the environment and the learning process. Through the three teaching sessions, we all observed the transformative effect of education. From early suspicion and reluctance among learners  to the confident elaboration of complex arguments. It took one simple statement to get the learning process going. This is when the pilot became a new lens through which I saw education, in prison with all my students, as a thriving learning environment.

 

*Some years ago I told a prison governor of a young offenders’ institution that the commonalities of our institutions were greater than the differences.  Before, you protest at the analogy, consider the points of reference: the age group in a young offenders is 18-21, they are living away from home, have to learn to live with others and are trying, in the process, to better themselves.  The obvious and significant difference is incarceration; the loss of freedom and the criminal identity that sticks onto them like the mark of Cain.
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