The Injustice of Injustice: Making a feminist complaint and resisting abuses of power within Higher Education institutions

Abolish rape culture


Julia Downes, Lecturer in Criminology, The Open University


This has been a difficult piece to write. Making complaints about abuses of power within institutions as a survivor and resident feminist killjoy who writes about gendered violence in social justice movements is risky. So… I complained about the screening of the film Injustice that is being organised by Students in Secure Environments at The Open University on Thursday 24 May 2018. I am advocating for the screening to be cancelled or, alternatively, for another film to be used as a platform for important discussions about experiences of imprisonment. In this piece, I want to outline my case and explore what the experience of making a feminist complaint (drawing on the work of Sara Ahmed on diversity and complaint as feminist work within Higher Education) can tell us about how power works within and across institutions to silence survivors and protect abusers. How an inability to respond to survivors of gendered violence exposes a tension between prison abolitionist and feminist anti-violence praxis within criminology. Survivors remain at the centre of my work. So, I have written this blog, to use a term from one of Sara Ahmed’s interviewees, as an ‘unexpected little gift’ for us. I am here. I believe you. If the screening does go ahead then this blog post can leave a trace of resistance to it. To create a document of feminist memory as a counter-institutional project, that this happened here. It is an invitation to build collective alliances across academic, practitioner and activist spaces to deal with the complexities of gendered violence within and across our everyday spaces and interactions.


What is the deal with the Injustice film?


The film Injustice was created by ‘Unsound Robin, convicted criminal’ who from his experience of being convicted (he received a suspended sentence) decided to make a documentary film to investigate the world of prisons, crime and the judicial system. The film features interviews with ex-prisoners, activists, prison staff and criminologists, including Dr. David Scott and Prof. Joe Sim. It has been screened across the UK in many cities and Universities including Oxford, Liverpool John Moore, Leicester, Sheffield Hallam, Middlesex, Chester, Central Lancashire, and Birmingham. Reviews have been positive and the film has been praised for its engaging depiction of the ways in which prison does not work. However, important omissions have been highlighted such as the absence of victims, prisoners of colour and women’s experiences of imprisonment.


Why complain?


I occupy an anti-carceral queer feminist place within critical criminology/zemiology here in the Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative at The Open University. I am an activist-scholar who critically questions the utility of the criminal legal system to end gendered violence. I oppose the expansion of the prison industrial complex and am interested in social justice responses developed and used by communities to challenge gendered violence often without recourse to the criminal legal system. So, given my prison abolitionist perspective, you may wonder why I would oppose a film that is critical about prisons, crime and justice and highlights the harmful impacts of imprisonment? Why would I challenge Students in Secure Environments when making education accessible to people placed in prison and discussions about prison led by those most affected is something I am passionate about? However, when the real identity of the film maker became publicly known, the motivations behind the film as a tool for the film-maker to continue to avoid accountability for his violence and abuse, further harm a domestic abuse survivor and abuse his power within institutional spaces were revealed.

Punishment, as a served sentence, does not necessarily constitute accountability and ‘crime’ is not always a useful categorisation for the harms of gendered violence and abuse. There is much about the criminal legal system that fails survivors and abusers. For abusers, the criminal legal system can discourage them from being honest about their actions, magnify anger and fail to offer them appropriate support to understand the harm they have caused and to help them change. The criminal legal system also reduces gendered violence to bad individuals and isolated incidents, which therefore ignores the societal structures and cultures that foster violence against women (including cisgender, transgender and non-binary women). I believe as prison abolitionists, academics, feminists and activists that we share a responsibility to nurture care and accountability within our communities, without resorting to punitive responses (such as police and prisons). In the case of this film-maker there is a need to promote opportunities for him to be accountable for the harms he has caused (and still causes) to his ex-partner. We are being called forth to, as a community, recognise and consider the survivor in this.

On 17 May 2018, it was made public that the identity of the film-maker ‘Unsound Robin’ was in fact Lee Salter, an ex-media Lecturer from the University of Sussex who was convicted for assault against his ex-partner who was his postgraduate student. It was only after the story was reported in the press in August 2016 that Salter resigned from his post. The failures of the University of Sussex to adequately respond to domestic abuse perpetrated by a staff member to a student was investigated independently by Nicole Westmarland. The survivor was made aware of the Injustice film when an attempt to organise a film screening was made at the University of Sussex. His survivor used Twitter to call on Universities to check on who they invite into their institutions, to consider the safety of students, and detailed the impact of Salter’s continued abuse on her.

This statement received a mixed response from the criminology community: a few offered solidarity with the survivor whilst more stood in solidarity with Salter and condemned his outing. However, there was a distinct silence in the UK criminology community. In this uncertainty, upcoming screenings in a number of Universities were cancelled. For Salter, these cancellations became evidence of censorship and victimisation due to his status as a ‘convict’. Discussion about the film screening has also been divided in my discipline. Students in Secure Environments have been firm in making the case for the film screening to continue. They pointed out to me that ‘the film director has independently decided that he is no longer attending any film screenings’ and the ‘the event does not provide a platform or a voice for Lee Salter and the film is not about his own offence’. They confirmed their commitment ‘to working with people with convictions’ and assured me that the panel discussion may be an ‘opportunity to air some of the issues’. A decision was eventually made by The Open University to go ahead with the screening despite concerns being raised by the survivor, students and academics. This situation raises important questions about who holds the power of recognition; how carceral experiences work against accountability; and what we can do as a community to promote healing and accountability?


Manipulation of the prison abolitionist community


The survivor questions Salter’s motivation for making a film about the criminal legal system. On Twitter, she wrote that ‘it’s really hurtful to see my abuser use the cover of prison reform […] to present himself as a victim of injustice and cast doubt on other people who have survived abuse’. In my experience, prison abolitionist communities hold a valuable ethical and moral position in which they do not ask people with convictions about their offences. However, this trust can, in some cases leave this community open to manipulation. It is evident from Salter’s ‘Why I Remained Anonymous’ blog post that his decision to remain anonymous and use the pseudonym ‘Unsound Robin, convicted criminal’ went unchallenged. He reports on how much support he got from this community: ‘The general gist of people working in the area is “you don’t need to tell me anything you don’t want to”, and then reassurances that I’m still a human being and deserve a life.’ This must have been very validating for Salter. In contrast, in an earlier blog ‘Why I am Withdrawing My Appeal’ he initially considered the criminal legal system to be fair: ‘I entered the process thinking courts were places where there are procedural requirements that enable the consideration of all relevant evidence, and that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty’. This quickly changes as he positions himself as a ‘gagged’ victim of the criminal legal system and smear campaign. He concludes that ‘I have no expectation of receiving what I’d consider to be a fair trial’. It is Salter’s anger at being convicted for assault that motivates his interest in the criminal legal system. He states: ‘Indeed I have been researching courts and the law ever since my case ended and frankly I have no faith in any trial’. His insistence that ‘the film has nothing to do with me or my case’, falls redundant in his admission of the anger and disbelief he holds towards victims and their supporters: ‘I remain angry at the effect that experience of victim groups had on my own sense of reality. I recall vividly drifting past newspaper stands, reading the headlines of the latest heinous crime and thinking “fuck you, don’t believe you”. I still resent them for that’. There is abusive logic at work here in why and how the film was created. We cannot take the film-maker out of the film or rule out that the film does not further target and harm the survivor.


Denial and avoidance of accountability


There is also little evidence that Salter understands the impact he has had on the survivor and is able to hold himself accountable. His own account of the court process demonstrates his denial of his violence towards women including domestic violence, sexual harassment and coercive control. He makes a series of denials that there is ‘no evidence of any violent or abusive behaviour in the past’, ‘I have seen no evidence that the relationship was abusive on my part’ and ‘there was no sexual harassment’. He insists that he is ‘not a violent or abusive person’. These statements contradict claims made in the Why I Remained Anonymous post, written after he has been outed, in which Salter claims: ‘I never failed to apologise – indeed the main evidence included profusely apologising for what I’d done’. He speaks about the work he has done with a counsellor, probation, social worker and an ex-inmate who has talked to him about restorative justice. In this, Salter describes himself as someone who has been ‘severely punished’ and is now the victim of a ‘vengeance-based CJS and society’. Disturbingly he considers how he has ‘discussed perhaps approaching the victim to see if there’s anything in it that might help her’. To help her. She needs help. There is nothing wrong with him. He has not done anything wrong.


The safety of students


The recent NUS report Power in the Academy, which was advised by the 1752 group, demonstrates that Higher Education is not a safe space for women. Most perpetrators of staff sexual misconduct are cisgender male academics, who wield power over students’ academic success, wellbeing and career. Sexual misconduct negatively impacts on student learning and progression (e.g. students were found to skip lectures, change supervisors, suspend studies and change institutions). These powerful men tend to be well networked, rich in social capital, they are the important men who are well protected by institutions. We as academics, even if we think of ourselves as radical or critical, are deeply complicit in continuities of power inequalities that operate within our institutions. Abuses of power show us why and how ‘critical’ spaces come to be occupied by predominantly white, cisgender, male, heterosexual, non-disabled, middle class, and educated minds. Other bodies are pushed out and violence becomes an effective means to protect and affirm the network. Who belongs. Who fits. Who leaves. The damage is held and carried by those who have been violated leaving no blemish or trace on the institution.

I know of at least one Open University student complaint that has been made against the Injustice film screening, who stated: ‘I do not at all feel comfortable attending a university that is welcoming someone who abused their student’. There may be many more. As a large distance learning institution academics are not well connected with our students and we can often feel very disconnected from discussions happening in other parts of the institution. It took me a while to find out who was even organising the film screening. As the screening is not being organised by my home discipline of Criminology and Social Policy and Salter is no longer going to be there in person it could be easy for me to ignore it. However, allowing the screening to proceed unchallenged leaves me complicit in allowing Salter to continue to have his work accessed and validated in academic spaces. Doing nothing therefore contributes to the institutional silencing of sexual misconduct and abuse of power. Allowing silence to spread outwards throughout Higher Education spaces across the country.


The Power of Recognition


As feminists, we know that criminal legal responses fail many survivors of gendered violence. Successful convictions are rare and even if successful can be experienced as an anti-climax, fail to meet survivors needs for healing and recovery, and does not stop abuse. The ‘myth of the vengeful victim’ (Herman 2005, p. 575) is still alive in our societies and this can obscure the compassion that many victims and survivors have for intimate partners and/or ex-partners who have abused them. Many victims and survivors just want their partners and/or ex-partners to get the help they need and stop being abusive. Asking the question ‘what does justice mean to survivors’ shows us that the needs of survivors frequently surpass the narrow goals of the criminal legal system. Research has shown that many survivors want recognition for the harm they have or are experiencing. In our chapter ‘Seeking Justice for Survivors of Sexual Violence’ we described recognition as:

the shared perception of something as existing or true: they have been harmed and victimised. Recognition also entails an expectation or entitlement to consideration; it is a form of acknowledgement conveying support. Recognition, therefore, is more than simply ‘being believed’. Recognition encompasses the significance of the experience being acknowledged
(McGlynn, Downes & Westmarland 2017, p. 182)

But who has the power to recognise survivors? It is not the sole power of the criminal legal system. The power of recognition is threaded through every interaction a survivor has around them. With friends and family, on social media, in workplaces and yes, in Higher Education institutions and other spaces of learning. Judith Herman taught us that an abuser demands nothing from the wider community. To look away, ignore it, just watch the film and stop complaining. This can be much easier to hear, as Herman described ‘it is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing’ (Herman 1992, p. 7). Public recognition in community is crucial for survivors. The question is what counts as community? Who has the power? Where is our power to grant recognition for survivors and hold abusers accountable?


Reflections on Complaint


In closing then, I wanted to add a few thoughts about making a feminist complaint. My own embodied experience of this as a junior colleague, a feminist, a survivor and a white middle class queer cisgender woman. I went to see Sara Ahmed talk recently about complaint. She defined complaint simply as a refusal to go along with something. It is a ‘misfit genre’. That when you raise a concern the response confirms that you are not of them. She spoke about how those of us who challenge power often become sites of negation, the cause of the problem. In the act of making a complaint power is made visible by the way it pushes back at you. Power asks you sit on the discussion panel. It tells you that you are at risk of setting a dangerous precedent. Reduces recognition to a collection for a domestic abuse charity at the screening. In how I hear that our union has been told that experts in criminology have given the screening the green light. The experience of the feminist killjoy is shattering. I couldn’t get out of bed. My mental health disintegrated. I stayed away from my workplace. I spent a lot of emotional labour and time writing this piece. I feel compelled to speak out because no one else does. But my words keep hitting a brick wall. I feel shattered but I will continue to occupy the space I have and keep saying: “No. Survivors. Matter.”


You can contact me on Twitter @juliahdownes or via my staff page




Herman, Judith Lewis (1992) Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: Basic Books


Herman, Judith Lewis (2005) Justice from the Victim’s Perspective. Violence Against Women, 11(5): 571-602


McGlynn, Clare; Julia Downes and Nicole Westmarland (2017) Seeking Justice for Survivors of Sexual Violence: recognition, voice and consequences. In, Zinsstag, Estelle and Keenan, Marie eds. Sexual Violence and Restorative Justice: Legal, social and therapeutic dimensions. London & New York: Routledge, pp. 179-191


Government policy is characterised by being petty and vindictive

Dave Middelton, The Open University


What sustains a Government in power? Having the number of MPs to win votes seems pretty important you might think (although the Tories threw away a working majority and now have a very narrow lead and need the support of the DUP). As does having support in the country (see recent YouGov poll here.) However, neither of these can quite explain the success of the current Tory Government who should be in far more electoral trouble than they are. Of course, some people will point to a divided opposition and this remains true.

But that is to assume that the Tories themselves are united which is clearly not the case. What is sustaining the Government currently is a politics that can best be described as petty and vindictive. Unfortunately this pettiness and vindictiveness has plenty of support throughout the country and can be seen in many policies introduced over the past 20 years or so.

The most recent example is the so-called Windrush scandal in which the Home Secretary has been made to resign over an overtly racist policy introduced by her predecessor with the explicit aim of “encouraging” people to leave the UK. (Here is the BBC doing their best to emphasise the personal tragedy for Amber Rudd).


The hostile environment policy introduced by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary was a policy that was racist both in its intent and application. What is so disappointing is that this policy received no real critical examination in the media (and very little in Parliament) until it emerged that black citizens, who clearly had the right to be in the UK, were affected. This came to light following an investigation by Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman.


The policy and its political fallout is largely treated as if it was an accident, an oversight, and even a personal tragedy for Amber Rudd. But, it was not an accident it was a deliberate and sustained attempt to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation toward black citizens in a somewhat vain attempt to meet targets which despite the lies to the contrary clearly existed.

It is not clear how many ‘illegal’ immigrants there are in the UK (the Office For National Statistics warns that methods of calculating the number are seriously flawed), but what is clear is that this policy and its accompanying ‘leave now’ vans were designed to intimidate a particular community. Why is tackling so-called ‘illegal immigration’ seen as so important to a Government that surely has more important things to worry about?

Theresa May in defending the policy constantly ignores the human suffering she has caused preferring to remind us that there are people in the UK illegally. It is an obfuscation that plays well with the Tory grassroots and the mass media and it completely misses the point. Although the right wing press play along. (Heres the Daily Mail’s reporting of May’s defence of the policy.)

There is no need to consistently victimise people who do not have the means to fight back. This is a policy based on a vindictive and empathy lacking political elite whose own lives are rarely, if ever, touched in a negative way by the programmes they introduce.

The “hostile environment” policy is no aberration. The disabled, single parents, unemployed, refugees, those who rely on benefits have all been treated, in one way or another, to versions of the hostile environment.

The Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake showed brilliantly how difficult it has become in the UK to claim benefits.


Rather than social security, as we used to call it, being a safety net for those in need it has become a bureaucratic means of humiliating individuals whose only crime is to have fallen on hard times.

We now know that as a result of the stress caused by the ‘hostile environment’ policy more than one person was driven to suicide.   The website Calum’s List lists 63 known cases of deaths attributable to cuts in benefit. The figures for the number of suicides attributed to austerity programmes and particularly those involving the targets to reduce benefits are difficult to ascertain as coroners rarely report “Government policy” as a cause of death, but a recent report suggested that at least 81,000 people have taken their own lives shortly after receiving suspensions to their benefits (

Perhaps this will be more shocking if we name some of these people. On November 17th 2017 the Manchester Evening News reported that 38-year old Elaine Morrall died in her freezing home after her benefits were stopped. (Manchester Evening News)


On 10thDecember 2017 The Independent reported that 32 year old singer-songwriter Daniella Obeng died in Qatar where she had gone to find work after her disability benefits were stopped. (Independent)


On June 22nd 2017 the Disability News Service reported on the case of Lawrence Bond a disabled former electrical engineer who died of a heart attack after being told that he was fit for work. (Disability News Service)


But, it is not just the suicides, though if I were a Government Minister I would not want them on my conscience (assuming, of course that Government ministers actually have consciences). The strain that ordinary people are placed under as a result of being denied benefits or being investigated by the Home Office is cruel and usually unnecessary (this blog shows the effect on some of the people who get caught in this bureaucratic trap). For the victims of these deliberately created hostile environments life becomes like living in a Kafka novel.

Socialists are often accused of pursuing a politics of envy and yet the real politics of envy is not those who seek a more equal society but those who seek to maintain a society which is structurally unequal. The vindictiveness of those who enact laws and regulations aimed at the most desperate and vulnerable members of our communities is a national scandal that the occasional ministerial resignation does nothing to change.

Whilst the papers and broadcast media were full of pity for Amber Rudd and enthusiasm for her successor, they fail to notice the number of people who are the real victims of the policies Amber Rudd, Sajid Javid and Theresa May are responsible for enacting. And, whilst it is tempting to think that a change in government would end the hostile environment for ethnic minorities, the disabled, the poor and the vulnerable in our society ultimately we need a change in our culture which will probably only occur in a completely different type of society from the one we are living in now.


This post was originally published on Dave Middleton’s blog Thinking and Doing, at:

Border Crossing Monuments

Evgenia Lliadou, The Open University


Abandoned Plastic Dinghies
Figure 1.  Abandoned Plastic Dinghies at the coasts of Lesvos, photo by Evgenia Iliadou

Lesvos Island, May 2017. From where I am standing I can see the Turkish coast. During the night one can also see the lights on the other side of the Greek-Turkish border. The other side. The other side, as well as the people of the other side, is so close but at the same time so far away. The Greek and Turkish borders touch each other at a cognitive vertical line, dividing the sea through the middle, but at a point where the eyes cannot see – some 4.1 miles away. The beach underneath me is full of waste- border crossing waste. The ruins of a grey plastic boat, half buried under the sand, are left there as monuments and reminders of the thousands of border crossings. The ruins of a grey plastic boat are left there as an evidence of a “crime”. Τhat is how ‘irregular’ migration is coldly defined according to the criminal law; as a criminal act. Clothes are lying on the beach. Large sized clothes. Small sized clothes. Adults’ clothes. Children’s clothes. A child’s lifejacket is floating in the sea. It capsizes and finally drifts away on the waves. I cannot help but feel that I have just entered a crime scene. How many people, I wonder, have lost their lives on this little piece of earth alone? How many lives have been wasted here? Wasted lives and dreams are silently lying there, underneath my feet. The macabre feeling that I will confront a dead body washed ashore by the sea has overwhelmed me.

The statue of the Asia Minor Mother – the symbol of the massive forced displacement of 1922 – holding her children is standing still behind me. It has become unnoticeable to people and looks forgotten by both people and time. Her back is turned to the sea and faces the city. Her gaze cries out, “Forget me not!” connoting the unequal game between collective memory and oblivion. I look at her and wonder; has she just arrived? Has she just fled and been washed ashore in one of the ruined plastic dinghies underneath my feet? As I stare at the lifejackets floating in the sea and at the Asia Minor Mother statue holding her children, I cannot help but think that I am standing between two different border crossing monuments in time and space; the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922 and the refugee crisis of 2015. Both border crossings monuments connote and manifest refugee journeys, massive deaths, forced displacements, unrecognised genocides, suffering and trauma; a continuum of violence in time and space.

As Walter Benjamin argues, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

This blog was originally posted at on 8 February 2018

The own-race bias in eyewitness identification

Catriona Havard, The Open University



The own race bias is the phenomenon whereby individuals are better at recognising and differentiating between faces that are the same race as they are, and much poorer with faces of another race.

The issue of the own-race bias has serious ramifications when it comes to eyewitness identification and when a witness is faced with the situation where they have to identify a culprit from a lineup who is of a different race. The innocent project organisation aims to reform the criminal justice system to prevent injustice has exonerated 315 people through the use of DNA evidence. 71% of cases involved eyewitness misidentification, the majority of which also involved a witness identifying a suspect from another race.

There are a number of theories as to why people are better at recognising a face from their own race. One theory, the contact hypothesis, argues that through the high level of contact that individuals have with own race faces, they become experts at recognising such faces (Brigham & Malpass, 1985; Slone, Brigham & Meissner, 2000). On the other hand, the comparatively lower amount of contact with other-race faces, leads them to be relatively inexpert at differentiating between other race faces (Hugenberg, Miller, & Claypool, 2007). According to the contact hypothesis, the more experience that one has with a different racial group the more accurate they should be at identifying members of that particular group (Brigham, et al., 2007).

In our latest research we wanted to see if the amount of contact children had with children of another race would influence how accurately they could identify a culprit of another race from a lineup (Havard, Memon & Humphries, 2017). In our study, we showed a group of Caucasian and a group of Asian children 2 mock crimes, one with a Caucasian thief and one with an Asian thief. After a delay of 1 or 2 days the children were shown 2 video lineups, one for each thief and asked if they could identify the culprits they had seen before.  Each child saw one line-up that contained one of the culprits that had been previously seen (culprit present) and one lineup that didn’t contain the culprit, but someone of a similar appearance (culprit absent). With culprit present line-ups, we were interested in whether the children could correctly identify a person from the line-up and if they were accurate with their own race. Whilst culprit absent line-ups,  were used to simulate the situation that the police have arrested the wrong person, and to investigate whether the children would still pick someone,  and make a false identification, even though the person they have seen previously is not there. We were also interested in whether children would make more false identifications for the culprit that was of another race. A measure of interracial contact was also taken, where children were asked about their contact and relationships with children of another race.

Our findings revealed an own race bias for the Caucasian children, this resulted in more correct identifications for the own race culprit from culprit present lineups, and more false identifications of the other race culprit for the target absent lineups. The Asian children from both age groups showed no own race bias and performed equally accurately for culprits of both races. The measures of interracial contact revealed that the majority of Caucasian children in our study had very little contact with Asian children, whereas the majority of Asian children had high levels of contact with Caucasian children. The more contact children had with children of a different race, the more likely they were to make a correct response when trying to identify someone of another race.

This article was originally posted on the OU Psychology blog at: To find out more about this research you can access the full article here or contact


Grenfell: unfolding dimensions of harm

Steve Tombs, Professor of Criminology, The Open University


Exactly six months ago, a fire broke out in Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey tower block on the Lancaster West estate in North Kensington, west London. Grenfell was and is many things: a tragedy, an outrage, a testimony to the violence of austerity, the biggest fire in Britain for generations, and perhaps a crime of corporate manslaughter. But it is also the site of a whole series of harms, generated both by the fire and its aftermath – albeit some are much more immediately apparent than others.

Physical Harms

The most manifest harms associated with the fire are, of course, the immediate deaths which it caused – some 71, so it is officially claimed, although intense controversy about the actual numbers has raged. Moreover, a week after the fire, the clinical director of the major trauma centre at King’s College Hospital, said that : “Many of the people who have survived will go on to make a good recovery, but how many will have life-changing injuries remains to be seen. It may take weeks and months for some patients to recover physically.”

There are other possible physical health effects of the fire which are perhaps less identifiable. It is not fully known what airborne toxins might have been emitted as a result of the fire, and what long-term effects exposures to these might be felt by residents and those in the living in the vicinity. However, we do know that asbestos was present in the building, while hydrogen cyanide was emitted from the burning insulation.

In addition to causing death, injury and illness, various aspects of the aftermath of the fire are likely to have caused detrimental health effects. First, it is likely that anyone with existing problems of alcohol and/or drug dependency at the time of the fire would have experienced heightened dependency as a result of the trauma of the fire. Second, many illnesses associated with deprivation – the residents of Grenfell were amongst the 10% most deprived in England – such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol  are likely exacerbated by their having to live in hotel or B&B accommodation where control over diet is more difficult to exercise.

Psychological and Emotional Harms

Surviving the fire in Grenfell Tower is most obviously likely to have produced a whole gamut of searing psychological and emotional problems with which victims will live  for years to come. These are likely to be associated with grief at the loss of loved ones, loss, too, of possessions which cannot be replaced, of pets, the recall of the horrors of exiting the building (and of seeing others unable to do so), guilt at survival, as well as horrors and guilt for bystanders and members of the emergency. These have all variously been reported in the aftermath of the fire. None are surprising. None are easily imaginable. None are, one suspects, easily remediable, not least given the parlous state of socially provided mental health services in the UK. In this context, within a month or so of the fire, reports began to circulate about suicide attempts and other manifestations of long term mental health problems, including PTSD, stress, depression and anxiety.


Image courtesy of Gerry Popplestone (Creative Commons)

Financial and Economic Harms

There is no way of knowing what financial costs were, and continue to be, incurred by former residents of the Tower, as well as those living in the vicinity (but they would include extra travel costs to work or school, the costs of eating out, of time off to attend meetings, funerals, medical appointments, and so on).  Moreover these costs are dwarfed by those to local, regional and national economies which are likely to follow the fire. At the local level, the Council faces heavy financial costs following the fire. Costs to central Government will be significant.  The costs of the inquiry itself are likely to run into millions. None of this is to mention the fallout costs for other councils across the country. Numerous councils have tested cladding on high rise tower bloc and other public buildings, notably hospitals, and many are seeking central Government funding for major cladding-replacement programmes.

Thus, these economic effects of Grenfell Tower are not confined to residents, the local community or even the borough – there are ripple effects that are flowing and will continue to flow through communities across the UK. This in turn means that those who are most dependent upon central or local services and facilities – those with the least financial independence – will be hardest hit. The poor, the disabled and the sick, those on various forms of benefits, children in the mainstream school system, and, with no little irony, those in social housing or who lack access to adequate or any accommodation at all, all will be impacted upon. The least hardest-hit will be the most financially independent – the wealthiest.

Cultural and Relational Harms

A further, discrete category of harms I label here as cultural and relational. In terms of cultural harms, it is clear that in their physical relocation from the Tower and area – their  dispersal –  that many of both the routines and the networks which constitute social life – at school, the local shops, around the flats and so on – have been rent asunder.  They have lost their social networks and social supports when they need them most; dispersal does not just mean loss of community, it can mean isolation, desperation or, at best, a state of painful limbo.

More than this, there are relational harms that follow from mis-trust of central and local Government, each of which were absent in the immediate aftermath of the fire, and for which PM May apologised. In terms of central Government, the uncertain nature of the ‘amnesty’ offered to so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ (a harmful term in itself) was one such source of anxiety. Another was the palpable failure to meet the commitment made by the Prime Minister in the immediate aftermath of the fire – namely that “every person made homeless would receive an offer of accommodation within three weeks”. In fact, this was subsequently “clarified” as meaning temporary accommodation. Exactly six months after the fire, four of out five of the households requiring accommodation have not been permanently rehoused. Also, contrary to assurances from Government, local residents were not consulted before the appointment of Judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick to lead the Public Inquiry in the light of which Justice4Grenfell concluded that this “further compounds the survivors and residents sense of distrust in the official response to this disaster”.

In many senses, there has been a contempt displayed towards the residents after the fire – one which entirely reproduced the attitudes displayed towards local residents prior to it. In fact, some recognised this contempt as a cause of the fire per se: as one resident stated outside the tower as it continued to burn, “We’re dying in there because we don’t count.” As the Inquiry opens this week, the demands that the voices of the residents must be heard and must count seem ever more pressing in the light of the unfolding, complexly interacting and layered harms which many of them continue to endure.

When Prison Means Life: Child Lifers and the Pains of Imprisonment*

David Scott, The Open University



Source: Medway Secure Training Centre, BBC / ‘The Justice Gap’


Why No Scandal?

The experiences of children in prison have failed to create the kind of scandal which might be expected in a modern, progressive and civilised society. Children are some of the most vulnerable members of our society, yet there seems to be both public and political acceptance of their incarceration, despite mounting evidence of its terribly harmful effects.  Although the number of children in prison has fallen enormously since 2007, there are still more than 800 children in prison, of which 42 are under the age of 14.  We also need to situate this also within the context of social backgrounds of the children we imprison.  43% of children in prison are from BAME backgrounds (which is a significant rise in BAME child prisoners in 2007 when it was 24%) and significant numbers of children in custody have drug problems, learning difficulties, mental health problems and have witnessed or experienced physical or sexual violence.  Although only 1% of children and young people are in care, more than 35% boys and 61% of girls in custody have previously been in care.  Indeed, children in care are much more likely to be sent to prison than to go to University (where the figure is about 10%).


Child Life Sentences

A child prisoner includes children who are held in Secure Children Homes; Secure Training Centres and Young Offender Institutions (the later hold around 70% of all children in custody)When talking about when prison means life for children I mean two things: 

  • First, any sentence which authorises the detention of a child potentially encompassing the rest of their natural life (including sentences of “detention for public protection” and “detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure”)
  • Second, when a child loses their life after being given a prison sentence. Here sentence length is irrelevant as the point is that their imprisonment has actually brought an end to their natural life.


According to the most recent MoJ statistics the following life sentences have been handed down to people under the age of 18 by year in England and Wales:

Table 1: Child Life Sentences

Year Child Life Sentences
2006 19
2007 26
2008 25
2009 23
2010 19
2011 15
2012 14
2013 13
2014 21
2015 14
2016 8


From 2006 – 2016 197 child life sentences were handed down.  The average age of the person at the time of sentencing is 16 years, but life sentences have been handed down in this period to children as young as 13.


The main life sentence for children is “detention during Her Majesty’s pleasure” (DHMP) but from 2004-2012 290 children were also sentenced to “detention for public protection” (which were sentences for “dangerous offenders”, Criminal Justice Act 2003 Ch. 5). Although this sentence was effectively abolished in 2012 with The Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 a number of those sentenced are still in prison Although the government is not at that time able to identify the exact number of child lifers, the  Children Rights International Network (CRIN, 2015) estimate that the figure serving at Her Majesty’s pleasure or other sentence over 14 years in duration is around 400.


Despite the fall in the number of children in custody England and Wales still has the highest incarceration rate for children in Western Europe.  It also stands virtually alone in the use of child life sentences.  Of the 28 different countries in the European Union, life imprisonment for children has been abolished in 22. Two children have been sentenced to life imprisonment in France in the last 25 years and one In Ireland.  There are currently two children serving life imprisonment outside of the United Kingdom in the EU today.



Source: Hiaki Deck Educational Resources


Reducing Culpability

The original meaning of detention at ‘Her Majesty’s Pleasure’ was first introduced with the Trial of Lunatics Act of 1800.  Yet at the time detention “Her Majesty’s Pleasure” was not to be a place of punishment but intended as a place of safety for those considered ‘insane’.  With the Children’ Act of 1908 – which abolished capital punishment for children – detention at “Her Majesty’s Pleasure” was introduced for children aged 10-16.  The term was adopted to imply that children had a reduced degree of culpability for murder and that they should not bear full responsibility for their actions.  It indicated that it would not be appropriate to impose a life sentence on children. It was only in 1983 that the then Home Secretary explicitly linked detention at Her Majesty’s Pleasure with the mandatory sentence of adult life imprisonment.


Further, in most of the countries within the European Union the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) is 14.  The MACR for children in England and Wales is 10. Yet whereas on the one hand children are held legally responsible for their actions from the age of 10, bizarrely, under the Pet Animals Act 1951, children under 12 are not deemed legally entitled to buy a pet.  Indeed, in most instances we as a society recognise we should treat children very differently to adults.


Without doubt, we should like our historical forbearers and many of European neighbours and consider life sentence for children as a form of ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’ and totally unsuitable for a civilised society.  Life sentences for children cannot be justified


When Prison Takes Life

The regimes experienced by child prisoners as one of deliberate harm which leads to thousands of children being physically, psychologically and emotionally damaged every year.

Indeed, child prisons are places of suffering, violence and death.


According to data from INQUEST 78 people under 21 took their own lives in child prisons from 2007-2017 and in total 318 young people under the age of 21 have died in penal custody between 1990-2017.



Source: BBC / Open Democracy


Coping with prison life a tenuous, relative and fluid concept that ebbs and flows over time. The real pains of imprisonment are to be found in the denial of personal autonomy, feelings of time consciousness, and the lack of an effective vocabulary to express the hardship of watching life waste away. It is also clear that custody is experienced differently by young people. Young people are emotionally vulnerable and more likely to find the loss of personal relationships on the outside harder to cope with than adults. It has long been noted how suicidal ideation is heavily influenced by the nature of responses by significant others and the ‘end of hope’. Young people also have less life experience on which to rely to help to deal with problems associated with prison life, or to manage a suicidal impulse when things are looking bleak and hopeless.


Where do we go from here?

I would therefore like to make the following three brief conclusions:

  • Immediately abolish life imprisonment for children and look to house children who do series wrongs in places of genuine care and safety
  • Raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility immediately to 14 so that we match most other European Union Countries and call for an independent review to explore the possibility of raising this to 16 as soon as possible
  • Recognise that the pains of imprisonment are potentially deadly for children, and therefore we need to think again about what we mean by child prison as a ‘last resort’.



* This paper was originally delivered in the House of Commons, London, England
15th November 2017




Build communities, not prisons

Deborah H. Drake and David Scott, The Open University

buildcommunities.JPGImage source:


The prison industrial complex is large and growing. Prison building and expansion projects generate trade exhibitions, mail-order/Internet catalogues, and direct advertising campaigns that seek to engage architects, construction firms, investors, food, landscaping and plumbing supply companies, and other firms that specialise in fixtures and fittings for large industrial building. There is no doubt that the building of prisons creates a market of both temporary and permanent employment opportunities and can appear to increase the economic potential of the lucky local community that agrees to house a prison in their area.

If we look more carefully, however, at what the prison industry is, does and costs, prison building programmes become less attractive.

Economic benefits?

In 2003, researchers King, Mauer and Huling carried out the first study to use statistical controls to measure the effect of a prison on the local community, including its impact on the local economy and on employment and per capita income trends.  The study examined 25 years of economic data for rural counties in New York and looked at 38 prisons located in upstate counties.  The full report can be found here: Big Prisons, Small Towns: Prison Economics in Rural America, but some of their key findings indicated that:

  • In 25 years, there was no significant difference or discernible pattern of economic trends between the seven rural counties that hosted a prison and the seven rural counties that did not;
  • Residents of rural counties with one or more prisons did not gain significant employment advantages compared to rural counties without prisons;
  • Unemployment rates moved in the same direction for both groups of counties and were consistent with the overall employment rates for the state as a whole;
  • During the period from 1982 to 2001, these findings are consistent for the three distinct economic periods in the United States, and in fact, the non-prison counties performed marginally better in two of the timeframes;
  • Counties that hosted new prisons received no economic advantage as measured by per capita income;
  • From the inception of the prison building boom in 1982 until 2000, per capita income rose 141% in counties without a prison and 132% in counties that hosted a prison.

When comparing new prison towns across the USA with other towns of a similar size, Besser and Hanson also found that there was no discernable differences between unemployment rates between 1990 and 2000 between the towns.  Like King et al., they concluded that building a new prison did not create jobs for local unemployed people.

At a similar time to the above studies there was a further comprehensive analysis of prison towns in the USA which explored the impact of prison building and job growth in the USA from 1976-1994.  In a follow up study, expanding the period to 2004, the evidence shows that rather than promoting economic prosperity and creating new jobs, in both urban and struggling rural communities, prisons may actually impede employment growth.  Hooks et al. (2010) conclude that ‘our research into employment growth suggests that prisons are doing more harm than good among vulnerable counties’.  The reasons why prisons failed to provide economic stimulus to the local economy included:

  • There were not necessarily new jobs as prison officers moved from other prisons to fill the new jobs;
  • There was the possibility of adverse local impacts of prison labour through prison industries and low cost prisoner labour;
  • There may be a paucity of local skills and direct connections to the services required by the new prison.

Despite the initial promises of economic prosperity that it is assumed can be made from opening a prison, these promises are not borne out in practice.  Moreover, no prison can generate income or be ‘cost efficient’. Prisons cost a lot to run and they drain resources from other areas of social life, such as hospitals, schools, housing or social services.  Investing, instead, in local services, programmes, health and education sectors or other community-focused initiatives would be a far better use of resources and, incidentally, are more effective than prisons at PREVENTING crime, as opposed to responding to it after the fact, as prisons do.  That is, the idea that increased funding for police and a larger prison estate will solve and economic problems is a myth.

Human costs

Setting the obvious economic shortcomings to prison building aside, let’s think for a minute about the human and social costs of prisons.  Firstly, there is no evidence that prisons effectively do very many of the things they claim to do.  This has been repeatedly demonstrated through society’s years of experimentation with the prison and in numerous academic considerations (see Mathiesen, 2000 for example).  Prisons do not deter crime, they do not ‘rehabilitate’ prisoners, they do not prepare people well for law-abiding lives in the community.  The only functions that prisons serve well relate to pain and suffering: they deliver punishment and incapacitation and, symbolically: they are a demonstration that ‘justice’ is being done and that the ‘system works’.

Prisons are places that cast out, ostracize and de-socialise members of our communities and society.  They are places that take things away from people: they take a persons’ time, relationships, opportunities, and sometimes their life.  Prisons constrain the human identity and foster feelings of fear, anger, alienation and social and emotional isolation. For many prisoners, prisons offer only a lonely, isolating and brutalising experience.  At best, prison environments are dull and monotonous living and working routines depriving prisoners of basic human needs. At worst, they are places of violence, suffering and physical and psychological pain.  Combined with saturation in time consciousness/awareness, these situational contexts can lead to a disintegration of the self and death (Scott, 2016).

For prison officers and other prison staff prisons are toxic environments.  Stress, illness and sometimes also death are perils of prison work.  Prisons do not encourage health, education, renewal, care, compassion, decency or any of the other values that most societies and individuals cherish.  Instead, they stimulate humiliation, illness, anger, hatred and punishment.  They are places that encourage moral indifference between staff and prisoners, where the shared humanity of prisoners and staff is neutralised and where the pain and suffering of one another is ignored.

Rather than investing in criminal justice and building more prisons in a time of economic austerity, we should be demanding investment in our communities, in our social lives and in programmes that centralise the importance of social justice – for everyone.


This article first appeared on the Reclaim Justice Network site, at: