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Institutional Violence: unfortunate disaster or crime?

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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

You’re never too old to learn

Blog MJ

Early 2017 the University of the Third Age (U3A) in Market Harborough asked me to give a talk to retired and semi-retired people on ‘The state of the prison system today’. Obviously this is a huge topic and they hoped that I’d include sentencing, courses, attitudes of people, lives and challenges faced, family connections, rehabilitation, demographics and more, in short everything I knew. Making this more of a challenge I was only given 30-40 minutes to talk, rather than a whole day which might have been more feasible. Anyway, I accepted the challenge and on 13 April 2017 I addressed a small group from a range of backgrounds. Unlike a classroom, it is difficult to predict the response you might get, I knew some would challenge my opinion on the prison system and I was not disappointed. At first the group sat quietly and simply absorbed my brief history of the prison system, nodding in places and jotting down a couple of notes. This changed dramatically when I challenged media constructed images of ‘prison being a holiday camp’ and the appropriateness of prison as punishment. Clearly some in the group had been victims so the discussion quickly turned to a punitive knee jerk reaction to all offenders. Underpinning this was a sense of fear, social unrest, and helplessness where crime was concerned. As you might expect comments like ‘in my day a bobby would have clipped you around the ear and taken you home to your parents for a good talking to’, closely followed by ‘parents of today have no control over their children’ or ‘where has the respect and discipline gone, bring back national service’. Whatever the tone, the group was clearly passionate about issues of crime and the ‘state of the prison system’, actively contributing to the discussion. When I led them towards issue of socio-economic conditions, a lack of opportunities, and the impact that prison had on these problems their empathy started to emerge. At this point I was asked the most difficult question of all ‘what is the answer, what can we do? My response was a simple one; try not to judge, put yourself in others shoes, consider carefully who you vote for, and most importantly don’t believe everything the media tells you. In essence I left them with more questions than answers but also a spark in their eye. They were hungry for more, they were hungry for action, and they wanted to be part of the solution. This led me to reflect on two things; firstly the pure joy I felt discussing prisons with a group of people who were fully engaged and curious about the topic area, and why most of our own students don’t exhibit the same level of enthusiasm. Secondly, the lack of fear I experienced in both the preparation and delivery of this talk. This made me think back to my own student years and a conversation I had with a lecturer who said that he’d put together his lecture on the train. At the time I thought this reflected his lack of interest in what he was delivery and I’m ashamed to say, a degree of laziness, however this experience has led me to reconsider my judgement.  For instance, had I been asked to do this talk a few years ago I would have probably spent days, maybe weeks agonising over what I would say, writing copious notes, and shaking all through the delivery. The reality is that I spent a couple of hours that morning putting some points together and experienced no nerves at all. In short, I realised that I know a lot more than I thought I did, and my nerves are somewhat a result of not knowing my audience. I knew this audience would be engaged rather than sitting there stone faced or playing on their phones. This leads me to surmise that while I agreed with New Labour’s idea that education should be open to everyone, I no longer believe that that should include university. Too often I’m faced with people who do not want to be at university, or those that simply see it as logical progression, rather than the eager faces of those who want to learn, who are curious and passionate about the world, and make you leave a class with a feeling of elation rather than despondency. In short, the more enthusiastic the audience, the more enthusiastic the lecturer.

Reflections from a Pilot

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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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