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The roots of criminology; the past in the service of the future;

SessionsHouse

In a number of blog posts colleagues and myself (New Beginnings, Modern University or New University? Waterside: What an exciting time to be a student, Park Life, The ever rolling stream rolls on), we talked about the move to a new campus and the pedagogies it will develop for staff and students.  Despite being in one of the newest campuses in the country, we also deliver some of our course content in the Sessions House.  This is one of the oldest and most historic buildings in town.  Sometimes with students we leave the modern to take a plunge in history in a matter of hours.  Traditionally the court has been used in education primarily for mooting in the study of law or for reenactment for humanities.  On this occasion, criminology occupies the space for learning enhancement that shall go beyond these roles.

The Sessions House is the old court in the centre of Northampton, built 1676 following the great fire of Northampton in 1675.  The building was the seat of justice for the town, where the public heard unspeakable crimes from matricide to witchcraft.  Justice in the 17th century appear as a drama to be played in public, where all could hear the details of those wicked people, to be judged.  Once condemned, their execution at the gallows at the back of the court completed the spectacle of justice.  In criminology discourse, at the time this building was founded, Locke was writing about toleration and the constrains of earthy judges.  The building for the town became the embodiment of justice and the representation of fairness.  How can criminology not be part of this legacy?

There were some of the reasons why we have made this connection with the past but sometimes these connections may not be so apparent or clear.  It was in one of those sessions that I began to think of the importance of what we do.  This is not just a space; it is a connection to the past that contains part of the history of what we now recognise as criminology.  The witch trials of Northampton, among other lessons they can demonstrate, show a society suspicious of those women who are visible.  Something that four centuries after we still struggle with, if we were to observe for example the #metoo movement.  Furthermore, from the historic trials on those who murdered their partners we can now gain a new understanding, in a room full of students, instead of judges debating the merits of punishment and the boundaries of sentencing.

These are some of the reasons that will take this historic building forward and project it forward reclaiming it for what it was intended to be.  A courthouse is a place of arbitration and debate.  In the world of pedagogy knowledge is constant and ever evolving but knowing one’s roots  allows the exploration of the subject to be anchored in a way that one can identify how debates and issues evolve in the discipline.  Academic work can be solitary work, long hours of reading and assignment preparation, but it can also be demonstrative.  In this case we a group (or maybe a gang) of criminologists explore how justice and penal policy changes so sitting at the green leather seats of courtroom, whilst tapping notes on a tablet.  We are delighted to reclaim this space so that the criminologists of the future to figure out many ethical dilemmas some of whom  once may have occupied the mind of the bench and formed legal precedent.  History has a lot to teach us and we can project this into the future as new theoretical conventions are to emerge.

Locke J, (1689), A letter Concerning Toleration, assessed 01/11/18 https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/A_Letter_Concerning_Toleration

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Halloween Prison Tourism

Haley 2

 

Haley Read is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first and third years.

Yes, that spooky time of the year is upon us! Excited at the prospect of being free to do something at Halloween but deterred by the considerable amount of effort required to create an average-looking carved pumpkin face, I Google, ‘Things to do for Halloween in the Midlands’.

I find that ‘prison (and cell) ghost tours’ are being advertised for tourists who can spend the night where (in)famous offenders once resided and the ‘condemned souls’ of unusual and dangerous inmates still ‘haunt’ the prison walls today. I do a bit more searching and find that more reputable prison museums are also advertising similar events, which promise a ‘fun’ and ‘action packed’ family days out where gift shops and restaurants are available for all to enjoy.

Of course, the lives of inmates who suffered from harsh and brutal prison regimes are commodified in all prison museums, and not just at Halloween related events. What appears concerning is that these commercial and profit-based events seem to attract visitors through promotional techniques which promise to entertain, reinforce common sensical, and at times fabricated (see Barton and Brown, 2015 for examples) understandings of history, crime and punishment. These also present sensationalistic a-political accounts of the past in order to appeal to popular  fascinations with prison-related gore and horror; all of which aim to attract customers.

The fascination with attending places of punishment is nothing new. Barton and Brown (2015) illustrates this with historical accounts of visitors engaging in the theatrics of public executions and of others who would visit punishment-based institutions out of curiosity or to amuse themselves. And I suppose modern commercial prison tourism could be viewed as an updated way to satisfy morbid curiosities surrounding punishment and the prison.

The reason that this concerns me is that despite having the potential to educate others and challenge prison stereotypes that are reinforced through the media and True Crime books, commercialised prison events aim to entertain as well as inform. This then has the danger of cementing popular and at times fictional views on the prison that could be seen as being historically inaccurate. Barton and Brown (2015) exemplify this idea by noting that prison museums present inmates as being unusual, harsh historical punishments as being necessary and the contemporary prison system as being progressive and less punitive. However, opposing views suggest that offenders are more ordinary than unusual, that historical punishments are brutal rather than necessary and that many contemporary prisons are viewed as being newer versions of punitive discipline rather than progressive.

Perhaps it could be that presenting a simplified, uncritical and stereotyped version of the past as entertainment prevents prison tourists from understanding the true pains experienced by those who have been incarcerated within the prison (see Barton and Brown, 2015, Sim, 2009). Truer prison museum promotions could inform visitors of staff corruption, the detrimental social and psychological effects of the prison, and that inmates (throughout history) are more likely to be those who are poor, disempowered, previously victimised and at risk of violence and self-harm upon entering prison. But perhaps this would attract less visitors/profit…And so for another year I will stick to carving pumpkins.

 

Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

Barton, A and Brown, A. (2015) Show me the Prison! The Development of Prison Tourism in the UK. Crime Media and Culture. 11(3), pp.237-258. Doi: 10.1177/1741659015592455.

Sim, J. (2009) Punishment and Prisons: Power and the Carceral State. London: Sage.

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