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“Letters from America”: Why do we even bother?

tracy bed

As I sit in one of those busy hotel cafés writing these lines, worrying that someone will spill their double decaf latte with a dash of hazelnut, over my laptop, I wonder.  What is the point to a conference?  Why seemingly normal academics will spend any time in hotels next to noisy honeymooners or loud party people who like to play their tunes at 03:00?

As we finished our first session the other day, in keeping with our own tradition, we overran, we sat and had a long discussion of the key points we got out of the session. The discussion was very interesting to talk to people who may do something similar to you, but so very different.  “Comparing notes” has always been one of those processes in academia that promote understanding and enhance the way we learn.

The conference for any discipline is a mass gathering of professionals that do just that; exchange ideas and engage in discussions about the discipline and its practices away from all the other less academic endeavours of the profession.

Usually conferences carry a theme, our conference the theme this year is “Crime, Legitimacy and Reform”.  I found it interesting, considering the sessions we are presenting, focus on subverting facets of an established penal institution into providing higher education classes and altering ever so slightly some of its founding principles.  Reform?  Perhaps, but definitely an attempt to address a profound disciplinary question what are prisons for?  This is a question that considers if prison is a relevant institution for a 21st century society.  Education in prisons is not a novel idea, but introducing HE education inside a carceral environment provides a new suggestion of what prisons might be for.  Clearly this is something worth debating and this week we have been exploring some of the aspects of our work and research.

In a group discussion after one session, we identified the principle ideas of our approach to HE in prisons.  The notions of mutual respect, equity for all and educational purpose are the things we identify as the most important.  It was interesting to hear the responses from other delegates who seemed to have slightly different views about who ought to participate in such an educational initiative.  Sessions such as these allows me to reflect also on what we do.  One of the thoughts, I have had regarding the educational approach we have taken, is whether we “normalise” incarceration in a way that justifies/legitimises its hold as an established penal institution rather than challenging its authority (as Paula asks, quite graphically, is it better to be inside the tent and pissing outside than be outside the tent pissing in?!)  Leaving colourful metaphors to one side, the question of what is the obligation/duty of a modern day criminologist regarding criminal justice institutions remains. In essence, should it be different from before; what Liebling calls; a critical friend towards all those institutions of control or not?

Finally the conference is where trends and ideas come to be tested, explored and debated.  I remember being in one session back in 2000, when one colleague said; looking into the new century and predicting that the main concern for criminology will be youth crime and initiatives to control it.  A year later, 9/11 made terrorism an emerging priority and the collective discussion shifted quite dramatically.

What are conferences for? A great deal of academic discourse…and an interaction that reaffirms why we care so deeply for our discipline

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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).

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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”: I

image

This weekend @manosdaskalou and I flew from London to the USA and thus had the opportunity of experiencing two different airports. Travelling is always an insightful  – if sometimes physically draining – experience and even more so when crossing continents. It is striking that one of the very first things that you confront upon arriving at your destination (no matter whether home or abroad) is generally a very long queue. There are queues to check in, queues to drop bags, queues for security, queues to get on the plane and to get off the other end. These are followed by yet more queues to enter the country and a wait to collect your bags. All of this is par for the course and perhaps to be expected given the volume of people travelling. What is perhaps more unexpected is the overall patience demonstrated by those in the seemingly endless queues.

I find the airport an interesting no-man’s land where individuals appear to become simply part of a giant machine. Once inside the airport you become subject to the whims and vagaries of the machinery. “Take off your shoes”, “take off your coats, jackets, scarves”, “laptops here”, “bags there’ ,”show your clear plastic bag  containing approved liquids”, the list goes on and that’s before you’ve even let the country. If we want to fly we accept these rituals as a price worth paying. However, it is worth considering if many would tolerate such rituals away from this setting?

All of these processes are predicated on an ethos of security and the protection of life and limb. However, we do not insist on such protocols when we use other forms of transport; buses, trains, trams or the tube where similar conditions prevail (i.e.lots of people, baggage etc. moving from place to place. The tactics used in the airport are far more reminiscent of the police station or the prison than they are of travel yet we  simply grit our teeth and bear the incongruity and indignity of the situation.

Whilst not suggesting that security is unimportant, it is worth considering that we focus far greater attention on flying than we do on other modes of transport. Of course, for those who fly infrequently this can be absorbed as a part of their travelling experience as predictable as a trip to the duty free shop. On a daily basis, as part of the 9-5 commute, such tactics would bring the world to a grinding halt…

Do you consent to read on?

lichtenstein-alright--e1337691736814

 

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.

 

Reading is dead, long live the book

Pile_of_books

The first week of teaching is always a bit of a culture shock. The transition at the end of term from teaching to other activities and vice versa marks a change of tempo and a change of focus. For me, the summer is a time of immersion in reading, thinking and writing. All of these activities continue throughout the year but far less intensively. It’s is perhaps ironic then, that this week’s blog post has left me struggling for ideas…

Previously, I have blogged about the stresses and strains of writing, so this week I thought I might turn my attention to reading; a far more pleasurable personal experience. The first questions is why read? The simple answer is to accumulate knowledge, to find the answer to a question and to educate and entertain. Arguably, all of these purposes can be achieved far more easily by looking on the internet, getting a quick (if not always correct) answer. Why bother learning things when the internet can provide information 24 hours a day?  Furthermore, who can fail to find something to entertain and amuse on the television, in the cinema or on the internet? Perhaps the death knell for the old-fashioned art of reading books is sounding with increasing urgency and volume? I disagree!

I learnt to read at around the age of 5 and very quickly I was hooked. Throughout my childhood I was teased for my seeming inability to put a book down even with eating or walking. This never dissuaded me away from the book and even when that one was finished, there would always be another one to take its place. This reading “addiction” has never left me and has meant that I have been able to explore mythical places such as Eastasia, Erewhon, Gilead, Lilliput, Manderley, Narnia and Utopia and without even leaving my armchair. I have explored America, Australia, Botswana, Germany, India, the Netherlands and South Africa to a name a few, not to mention my home city, both over ground and underground. In my reading life, I have travelled on the Orient Express, fought in the American Civil War, WWI and WWII, hidden from Nazis, as well as served prison sentences in Reading Gaol and Robben Island. I have solved crimes with Mikael Blomkvist, Scout Finch, the Famous Five and Hercule Poirot. I have felt the pains of Lady MacBeth, Jane Eyre and the second Mrs de Winter, been left unmoved by Flora Poste and Jay Gatsby and felt terrorised with Joanna Eberhart, Offred and Gregor Samsa.

Whilst the above may illustrate my love of reading, it does not really explain why it is so important to me and my career. For one, it is the only activity that really holds my concentration, particularly for extended periods of time. In the twenty-first century, where life seems so fast-paced and we jump from screen to screen, triggered by notifications as if we are one of Pavlov’s dogs, such a skill requires protection and cultivation. Second, it is intensely independent and personal; I can share stories with others, I can even discuss books in detail, but my reading is my own. Thirdly, and probably the most important for criminology is the opportunity to try someone else’s life for size. The famous line from Harper Lee; that ; ‘[y]ou never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it’ sums this up beautifully (1960/2006: 30). By reading accounts of crime, criminality, victimisation and criminal justice; even if fictionalised, we have an opportunity to test out ideas, to find out how comfortable we are with responses, actions and penalties. In particular, dystopic novels offer the unique potential to imagine the world differently. Whilst on the surface such texts, as with criminology, are presented as negative; dealing with uncomfortable, frightening and disturbing behaviours and responses, they are ultimately full of hope. The potential for change is both explicit and implicit in dystopic fiction and criminology; all is never lost, hope remains no matter what.

If you still need to be persuaded by my argument for reading everything and anything that can get your hands on, perhaps Beccaria’s words of wisdom will help ‘I should have everything to fear, if tyrants were to read my book, but tyrants never read’ (1872: 18).

And after all, who wants to be a tyrant? Not me!

 

Beccaria, Cesare, (1872), An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, (Albany: W. C. Little Co.), [online]. Available from: http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=2193&Itemid=27 [Last accessed 24 March 2012]

Lee, Harper, (1960/2006), To Kill A Mockingbird, (London: Arrow Books)

The Criminology of the Future

metropolis

As we are gleefully coming towards the start of yet another academic year, we tend to go through a number of perpetual motions; reflect on the year past, prepare material for the upcoming year and make adjustments on current educational expectations.  Academics can be creatures of habit, even if their habit is to change things over.  Nonetheless, there are always milestones that we all observe no matter the institution or discipline.  The graduation, for example brings to an end the degree aspirations of a cohort, whilst Clearing and Welcome Week offer an opportunity of a new group of applicants to join a cohort and begin the process again.  Academia like a pendulum swings constantly, replenishing itself with new generations of learners who carry with them the imprint of their social circumstance.

It was in the hectic days at Clearing that my mind began to wonder about the future of education and more importantly about criminology.  A discipline that emerged at an unsettled time when urban life and modernity began to dominate the Western landscape.  Young people (both in age and/or in spirit) began to question traditional notions about the establishment and its significance.  The boundaries that protect the individual from the whim of the authorities was one of those fundamental concerns on criminological discourses.  A 19th century colleague questions the notion of policing as an established institution, thus challenging its authority and necessity.  An end of 20th century colleague may be involved in the training of those involved in policing.  Changing times, arguably.  Quite; but what is the implications for the discipline?

My random example can be challenged on many different fronts; the contested nature of a colleague as a singular entity that sees the world in a singular gaze; or the ability to diversify on the perspectives each discipline observes.  It does nonetheless, raises a key question: what expectations can we place on the discipline for the 21st century.

If we and our students are the participants of social change as it happens in our society then our impressions and experiences can help us formulate a projective perspective of the future.  Our knowledge of the past is key to supplying an understanding of what we have done before, so that we can comprehend the reality in a way that will allow us to give it the vocabulary it deserves.  A colleague recently posted on twitter her agony about “vehicles being the new terrorist weapon,” asking what is the answer.  The answer to violence is exactly the same; whether a person gets in a van, or goes home and uses a bread knife to harm their partner.  Everyday objects that can be utilised to harm.  A projection in the future could assert that this phenomenon is likely to continue.  The Romans called it Alea iacta est and it was the moment you decide to act.  In my heart this is precisely the debate about the future of criminology; is it crime with or without free will?

Sex Offender Treatment: A Waste of Time and Effort?

SOTP

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

Earlier this year, the Prison Service announced that the Core Sex Offender Treatment Programme and the Extended Sex Offender Treatment Programme would be withdrawn with immediate effect. Offenders in the middle of programmes would be able to complete, but no new programmes would start. No explanation was given. A new suite of programmes, focussed on building strengths for the future rather than analysing past offending, had already been developed but a gradual roll-out had been planned rather than a sudden switch. There were many murmurings among Parole Board members. Why the sudden withdrawal? How would sex offenders now be able to demonstrate that they had reduced their risk? Where was the evidence that the new programmes were any better? We suspected that there had been an unfavourable evaluation, but no one had seen the research.

The truth came to light via The Mail on Sunday on 25th June. There had, indeed, been an unfavourable evaluation of the Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP). When compared to matched offenders who had not completed treatment, those who had done so were more likely to re-offend. The Ministry of Justice had withdrawn the programme but had not published the research. They finally did so on 30th June.

The decision to sit on the research was not helpful. The first information we received about it was filtered through the eyes  of The Mail on Sunday. They claimed that “Prisoners who take the rehabilitation courses are at least 25% more likely to be convicted of further sex crimes that those who do not.” This is not true. Of the 2,562 treated sex offenders included in the study, 10% went on to commit another sexual offence. The figure for the matched untreated offenders was 8%. 90% of sex offenders, treated or untreated, did not reoffend within the follow-up period (average 8.2 years). But it is true that treatment made people worse. Two percentage points is a small difference, but with such a large sample size it is significant. The research is robust and well-designed. A randomised control trial would have been more robust, but the matched comparisons in this study were done thoroughly and every attempt was made to take account of possible confounding variables. You can read the study for yourself here:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/impact-evaluation-of-the-prison-based-core-sex-offender-treatment-programme

and the Mail‘s interpretation of it here:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4635876/amp/Scandal-100million-sex-crime-cure-hubs.html

So why did treatment make offenders more likely to reoffend? At this stage we really don’t know. The authors of the research make some suggestions but they are only speculating. Perhaps talking about sex offending in a group setting “normalises” offending. Perhaps groupwork provides offenders with opportunities to network. Perhaps these programmes promoted shame  in offenders which ultimately reduced self-esteem and self-efficacy and reduced the chances of building a positive and fulfilling future. The new programmes draw more from the desistance literature. They include much less offence analysis and are more focussed on building strengths for a positive future. They may be more likely to succeed but we will not know for several years until we have had the chance to evaluate them.

So where does that leave the offenders and staff who have worked hard on these programmes over the years? Sex offender treatment is expensive, tiring and takes a psychological toll on those delivering it. A prison officer once told me that delivering SOTP was the best and most fulfilling thing he had ever done, but also the most damaging. A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a former colleague who used to run SOTP and we reflected, “Was all of that effort for nothing?” We have to take the research seriously, learn the lessons and move on. There is no denying the findings. But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. SOTP was based on the best research available at the time. It was modified and developed over the years in the light of emerging research. It might have “worked” for some participants, even if it made others worse. We assessed and came to understand a large number of sex offenders. As a result of that work and this evaluation, we now have a better understanding of what might work to reduce reoffending in the future. Of course, there is an argument that all attempts at rehabilitation are futile, that people choose to behave as they wish and we should not try to manipulate them to change. But perhaps that’s a subject for another blog!

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.

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”?

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