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“A Christmas Carol” for the twenty-first century

Christmas Carol

The build up to Christmas appears more frenetic every year, but there comes a point where you call it a day. This hiatus between preparation and the festivities lends itself to contemplation; reflection on Christmases gone by and a review of the year (both good and bad). Some of this is introspective and personal, some familiar or local and some more philosophical and global.

Following from @manosdaskalou’ recent contemplation on “The True Message of Christmas”, I thought I might follow up his fine example and explore another, familiar, depiction of the festive period. While @manosdaskalou focused on wider European and global concerns, particularly the crisis faced by many thousands of refugees, my entry takes a more domestic view, one that perhaps would be recognised by Charles Dickens (1812- 1870) despite being dead for nearly 150 years.

Grenfell_Tower_fire

One of the most distressing news stories this year was the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower where 71 people lost their lives. [1]  Whilst Dickens, might not recognise the physicality of a tower block, the narratives which followed the disaster, would be all too familiar to him. His keen eye for social injustice and inequality is reflected in many of his books; A Christmas Carol certainly contains descriptions of gut wrenching, terrifying poverty without which Scrooge’s volte-face would have little impact.

In the immediacy of the  Grenfell Tower disaster tragic updates about individuals and families believed missing or killed in the fire filled the news channels. Simultaneously, stories of bravery; such as the successful endeavours of Luca Branislav to rescue his neighbour and of course, the sheer professionalism and steadfast determination of the firefighters who battled extremely challenging conditions also began to emerge. Subsequently we read/watched examples of enormous resilience; for example,  teenager Ines Alves who sat her GCSE’s in the immediate aftermath. In the aftermath, people clamoured to do whatever they could for survivors bringing food, clothes, toys and anything else that might help to restore some normality to individual life’s. Similarly, people came together for a variety of different celebrity and grassroots events such as Game4Grenfell, A Night of Comedy and West London Stand Tall designed to raise as much money as possible for survivors. All of these different narratives are to expected in the wake of a tragedy; the juxtaposition of  tragedy, bravery and resilience help people to make sense of traumatic events.

Ultimately, what Grenfell showed us, was what we already knew, and had known for centuries. It threw a horrific spotlight on social injustice, inequality, poverty, not to mention a distinct lack of national interest In individual and collective human rights.  Whilst Scrooge was “encouraged” to see the error of his ways, in the twenty-first century society appears to be increasingly resistant to such insight. While we are prepared to stand by and watch the growth in food banks, the increase in hunger, homelessness and poverty, the decline in children and adult physical and mental health with all that entails, we are far worse than Scrooge. After all, once confronted with reality, Scrooge did his best to make amends and to make things a little better. While the Grenfell Tower Inquiry might offer some insight in due course, the terms of reference are limited and previous experiences, such as Hillsborough demonstrate that such official investigations may obfuscate rather than address concerns. It would seem that rather than wait for official reports, with all their inherent problems, we, as a society we need to start thinking, and more, importantly addressing these fundamental problems and thus create a fairer, safer and more just future for everyone.

In the words of Scrooge:

“A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world!” (Dickens, 1843/1915: 138)

[1] The final official figure of 71 includes a stillborn baby born just hours after his parents had escaped the fire.

Dickens, Charles, (1843/1915), A Christmas Carol, (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co.)

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“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).

image

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.

 

 

“Letters from America”: II

Lange-MigrantMother02

Having only visited Philadelphia once before (and even then it was strictly a visit to Eastern State Penitentiary with a quick “Philly sandwich” afterwards) the city is new to me. As with any new environment there is plenty to take in and absorb, made slightly more straightforward by the traditional grid layout so beloved of cities in the USA.

Particularly striking in Philadelphia are the many signs detailing the city’s history. These cover a wide range of topics; (for instance Mothers’ Day originates in the city, the creation of Walnut Street Gaol and  commemoration of the great and the good) and allow visitors to get a feel for the city.

Unfortunately, these signs tell only part of the city’s story. Like many great historical cities Philadelphia shares horrific historical problems, that of poverty and homelessness. Wherever you look there are people lying in the street, suffering in a state of suspension somewhere between living and dying, in essence existing. The city is already feeling the chill winds of winter and there is far worse to come. Many of these people appear unable to even ask for help, whether because they have lost the will or because there are just too many knock backs. For an onlooker/bystander there is a profound sense of helplessness; is there anything I can do?, what should I do?, can I help or do I make things even worse?

The last time I physically observed this level of homelessness was in Liverpool but the situation appeared different. People were existing (as opposed to living) on the street but passers by acknowledged them, gave money, hot drinks, bottles of water and perhaps more importantly talked to them. Of course, we need to take care, drawing parallels and conclusions across time and place is always fraught with difficulty, particularly when relying on observation alone. But here it seems starkly different; two entirely different worlds – the destitute, homeless on the one hand and the busy Thanksgiving/Christmas shopper on the other. Worse still it seems despite their proximity ne’er the twain shall meet.

This horrible juxtaposition was brought into sharp focus last night when @manosdaskalou and I went out for an evening meal. We chose a beautiful Greek restaurant and thought we might treat ourselves for a change. We ordered a starter and a main each, forgetting momentarily, that we were in the land of super sized portions. When the food arrived there was easily enough for a family of 4 to (struggle to) eat. This provides a glaringly obvious demonstration of the dichotomy of (what can only really be described as) greed versus grinding poverty and deprivation, within the space of a few yards.

I don’t know what the answer is , but I find it hard to accept that in the twenty-first century society we appear to be giving up on trying seriously to solve these traumatic social problems. Until we can address these repetitive humanitarian crisis it is hard to view society as anything other than callous and cruel and that view is equally difficult to accept.

 

 

Do you consent to read on?

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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.

 

Working-Class foundations and the ‘inner-inferiority battle’

Sam is a 2017 graduate having read BA Criminology with Sociology. His blog entry reflects on the way in which personal experience and research can sometimes collide. His dissertation is entitled Old Merseyside, New Merseyside: An investigation into the long-term relationship of the Merseyside public and the police, following the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster, 1989.

You'll_Never_Walk_Alone_(13976345652)

This little piece has been inspired by the process of writing a dissertation that, having focused on the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster of 1989, the police, government and the media, inherently highlighted issues of class and punitive attitudes. It is one of completely subjective nature that I can not possibly explain or explore in enough depth here, but it is certainly not a proclamation of superiority of one social class over another.

The 1980s Conservative Government (namely, Thatcher), football fans, violence and football hooliganism, media and police; all have their links to one another, all have links to the working-class. The Hillsborough Stadium Disaster, prior to, during and even some 28 years later was influenced by all of these. Who Suffered? The working-class. They were victims, offenders, liars and hooligans. In many respects, this was the ultimate fruition of the aforementioned elements, and could now justify further punitive action against socially constructed concepts of working-class, masculine-fuelled disorder by the Government. Step Forward, Professor Phil Scraton.

Mr Hillsborough, Phil Scraton, the working-class boy that redefined the notion of inferiority amongst a typically working-class Merseyside. He sketched new boundaries for the working-class, but not before he himself felt ‘totally estranged’ to be at University and that it was not ‘for the likes of him’ (Scraton, 2017) . This is what I term the inner-battle.

I can relate. The working-class background I classify myself as growing up in does not mean I am any better or worse than any other class members. As a child, often working-class means nothing to you apart from the occasional taunts and the disappointment of not having the top gadgets of other children, or the most expensive shoes. This kind of belittlement can embed and settle within your mind, to costly effect in later life. But it does differentiate me, I feel, in the way I am able to reflect on situations. Sunday 15th September, 2013, the day after moving into University, I felt the same. Yet I had a habit at school of proving people wrong and thriving on it. I didn’t simply succumb to the pressure of knowing people expected me to fail or simply didn’t believe I would succeed . And here we are with a substantial issue in criminology; the notion of working-class inferiority through stereotypes. Socially constructed ideas of working-class and crime and consequently the self-fulfilling prophecy, which then authenticates the original concept. This is a psychological battle. Undeniably, the working class are not strictly exclusive to psychological battles with themselves, but it is a unique battle in a way.

In this same way, the Hillsborough families could have read the headlines, acknowledged the power of the institutions they were dealing with, and accepted their fate and their injustice, especially given the numerous setbacks over the years. Yes they will say they would never give up, but they are only human, and could be forgiven for thinking of succumbing to the inner-pressure, caused by the external, institutional pressure and ultimately just lose the battle. 28 years later they are gaining more and more momentum and are overturning all the social, institutional injustice of the past 3 decades. Individual families may not have been so working-class, but the representation of them was as a working-class mob all those years ago. They fought the inferiority battle.

Professor Phil Scraton did not succumb to his inner battle of feeling out of place, like a small fish in a very large ocean. But all too often working-class people seem to give in, having accepted their early experiences as pronouncing their social inferiority. I sit here now, having failed one dissertation and coming much closer to failing the resit than I would have ever imagined in August last year. The battle was not between University and myself. It was the inner-processes that lie between myself and the end of University. Forcing yourself to do things that at times, you don’t believe you can do, and others especially do not, in order to reach the end goal.

Ultimately, meeting Professor Phil Scraton and hearing of some of the families experiences and their unrelenting desire and growing momentum in obtaining their long-awaited justice first-hand, sparked the realisation that it is simply a mental barrier, a fight within regarding inferiority that stood between them and justice. Had they have lost their inner-battle twenty years ago, they would not still be fighting so effectively, if at all. This is completely applicable to many other situations regarding working-class people in everyday life.

Undoubtedly, this is a view based on experience that is biased in some way, yet challenges the issue of stereotypes. It is also open to blogging and academic retaliation by those of other backgrounds. These socially constructed notions and stereotypes have longstanding effects on so many people, yet I would argue is overlooked and simply put down to being lazy by outsiders and “can’t-do”, inferior attitudes of those in the working-class circle. Interestingly, this debate has not even touched upon racial, ethnic, gender/sex issues, for which the idea of inferiority could often be a detrimental inner-battle, stemming from discriminatory, stereotypical views.

 

Scraton, P. (2017). Hillsborough: Resisting Injustice, Recovering Truth. [Professional presentation]. University of Liverpool. 15th February. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0K4iDgrJQo

The business of government

 

Government responsibility

A few weeks ago, the gas company started digging up the road outside my house as part of major works to replace gas pipes in the village. Days after starting the work, holes filled with water and a muddy stream gushed out across the pavement and down the street. Belatedly, the water company turned up and promptly blamed the gas company for the problem. They were unable to do any repairs owing to a submerged electrical cable fizzing away. The electricity company wouldn’t do any work until they knew who would pay for it.  Several days later following intervention of the local highways department the matter was resolved. But the mud left on mine and my neighbour’s drive, the pavement, and the street had to be cleared by me and my neighbours. Not cost effective to clean up I guess.

What rapidly became apparent is that the driving force behind the work and the argument over who pays is profit, not public service, purely finance. Friedman (1962) advocated that the only duty of a business was to maximise profits for the benefits of the company and its shareholders, it had no responsibility to the public or society. I don’t have problem with this ideology, business is about making money not providing public services. So, who has responsibility for looking after the public’s interests, well that’s government surely. After all, as Locke advocated in the 17th century, it is government that has a duty to ensure ‘the peace, safety and public good of the people’ (Locke 1689:299).

Much of what the public need, in the way of welfare, health services, social services, criminal justice, education and a myriad of other service provisions are not profitable, in fact they are in a true business sense not financially viable. It is government that needs to take the lead on these and it is government that needs to ensure that the services are run for the public good. So why then do we hear every service state that they are in financial difficulties, that they need to cut back services, that they cannot cope?  Because government has not done its job. It doesn’t really matter what flavour government you prefer, left or right, conservative or labour, socialist or capitalist, over the last half a century, government has quite simply failed to deliver. Instead it has abrogated responsibility to business, social enterprise, voluntary organisations, and the public. It blames society, the poor, the underclass, the immigrants and youth. It blames those running its own apparatus, the police the prisons, the schools, and the health service amongst others. Government has become self-serving and introspective, it has taken on a business ethos.  It sets its own agendas based on not what is good for the people but what is good for government and those that serve in it. Government congratulates itself on its own defined successes and glosses over disasters. Government has forgotten its true purpose.

The small hiccup in my road is inconsequential compared to the recent tragic events in our country but it served as a reminder, if ever I needed one, that business and the business of government are a toxic mix. Government would do well to remember ‘Salus populi suprema lex esto’, ‘Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law’, (Locke 1689: title page).

 

Friedman, M. (1962) Capitalism and Freedom: Fortieth anniversary edition, reprint, London: University of Chicago 2002.

Locke, T. (1689) Two Treatises of Government, reprint, London: Whitmore and Fenn 1821 [online] available at https://archive.org/details/twotreatisesofg00lockuoft [accessed 26/6/2017].

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. The first of my concerns, is criminology’s 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.

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

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