The Poor Get Prison… Grenfell as a Site of Crime?

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Steve Tombs considers the differences in the treatment of powerful and less powerful groups by the criminal justice system since the fire at Grenfell Tower. Steve Tombs is Professor of Criminology at The Open University.

Justice after Grenfell?

Today, almost exactly two and a half years after the fire at Grenfell Tower which killed 72 people and irrevocably devastated the lives of hundreds if not thousands, the criminal justice system is nowhere near fulfilling its dominant promise – that it might deliver justice to the victims, bereaved and the wider affected community.

Yet talk of ‘crime’ and ‘justice’ had proliferated in the days and weeks following the Grenfell Tower atrocity.  For example, it did seem even in its very immediate aftermath that there was a prima facie case of corporate manslaughter in relation to the fire, as there very quickly emerged strong and mounting evidence of negligence, of cost-cutting, and of a string of warnings being dismissed and thus of a knowledge of risks at the very top of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKCC), the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants’ Management Organisation (KCTMO), and perhaps also implicating some of the private contractors involved in refurbishment and maintenance.

Indeed, in July 2017, weeks after the atrocity, the Metropolitan police sent a letter to residents saying:

After an initial assessment of that information, the officer leading the investigation has today notified Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that each organisation may have committed the offence of corporate manslaughter, under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.

This announcement did not exclude possible charges against the main contractor, Rydon, and some 60 companies who had played significant roles working on Grenfell over the years. Indeed, by September 2017, the criminal investigation had identified 336 companies and organisations linked to the construction, refurbishment and management of the tower.  At that point, charges of gross negligence manslaughter against individuals were also said to be a possibility. Then, in June 2019, on the eve of the second anniversary of the atrocity, the Met stated that 13 people had been interviewed under caution in relation to “individual gross negligence manslaughter offences, corporate manslaughter offences and health and safety offences committed by organisations and individuals.”

Image courtesy of Gerry Popplestone (Creative Commons)

The Long Haul towards Prosecuting the Powerful?

At that point, in June 2019, the Met’s criminal investigation had already gathered 45 million documents in digital form as well as 14,500 physical exhibits. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the Met have warned that any charges will not be determined  until at least 2021. Personally, I would be amazed if any corporate or individual manslaughter charges would be laid as soon as that; past experience tells us to expect such charges to emerge later. Of course, past experience also tells us that in the vast majority of cases where such charges may be laid, they are not – or, where they are, prove to be unsuccessful, such are the inabilities of criminal law to deal effectively with large corporate bodies or the powerful individuals who occupy senior positions within them.

Finally, it should be acknowledged that, also in June 2019, US lawyers representing some of the Grenfell survivors and bereaved filed a class action in Philadelphia under product liability law. The civil suit names three US based companies: Arconic and Celtotex, who between them manufactured and supplied the cladding which had been disastrously fitted to the exterior of the tower in 2016, during its refurbishment prior to the fire; and Whirlpool, the manufacturer of the plastic-backed fridge-freezer which was believed the likely trigger for the fire. Indeed, despite the company’s unsupported and frankly egregious evidence to Phase 1 of the Inquiry that it believed a lit cigarette had mysteriously entered the window of the fourth floor flat to start the fire, the report on  Phase 1 of the Inquiry has concluded that, “Although some questions remain unanswered, the evidence, viewed as a whole, leaves me in no doubt that the fire originated in the large fridge-freezer”. Within months of the civil case being announced and with disgusting irony, it was calculated that one of the companies, Arconic, had already spent “£30m on lawyers and advisers defending its role in the disaster in an outlay that dwarfs the amount spent on the panels a public inquiry has determined were the main cause of fire spread”. At the time the lawsuit was opened, it was reported that “the legal process is expected to take several years”.

Image courtesy of Justice4Grenfell

Convicting the Poor

Yet it is not the case that all parts of the criminal justice system have been so slow to crank into decisively punitive action. In fact, it was within a couple of weeks of the fire that the first conviction related to it was recorded – Omega Mwaikambo had inexplicably posted photos of a Grenfell victim on social media, and was jailed for 12 weeks. This was the first of a steady stream of Grenfell-related convictions which, at the time of writing, total 22 successful prosecutions involving 21 separate defendants.

It is worth looking in a bit more detail at these cases, cases which have proceeded virtually entirely below the radar of any public or academic scrutiny (the latter with one notable exception). Almost all were forms of fraud – effectively, people securing being housed in  emergency accommodation and/or receiving financial assistance on the basis of falsely claiming that they had been resident in the tower at the time of the fire. The sums of money at issue in the frauds – for accommodation, food, travel and other emergency costs – are reported as ranging from a few thousand pounds to a couple who claimed up to £125,000. All received custodial sentences, ranging from 18 months to six years – sentences which, taken together, totalled in excess of 70 years jail time.

Most of those convicted fit a pattern: they are poor, marginalised individuals,  overwhelmingly non-white, many of whom were born outside the UK – places of birth appearing in media reports include Bangladesh, Grenada, the Ivory Coast, Jamaica, Portugal, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.  They are also often referred to in the media reporting of the cases as “unemployed”, “squatters”, “homeless”, and, most pejoratively of all, as “illegal immigrants”.  

There are exceptions. One of those convicted for fraud was quite different to other defendants – Jenny McDonagh had been a finance manager at the RBKCC, in which capacity she stole nearly £62,000 in pre-paid credit cards intended for victims. She was tried for this and a previous offence – she’d stolen £35,000 from the NHS in her previous job – and was sentenced to five-and-a-half years for these two offences in September 2018.

There were also three people convicted for non-fraud offences, including Omega Mwaikambo (above). The second, Reiss Morris, has been convicted for two separate offences. First, Morris, bereaved by the fire and a local campaigner in relation to it, was attending a vigil to mark 100 days since the fire when he threatened the deputy leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council; in October 2017, he was convicted for using threatening words or behaviour with intent to cause fear of or provoke unlawful violence, receiving a 12-month community order involving 100 hours unpaid work, ordered not to contact Cllr Taylor-Smith for a year, and to pay him £100 compensation, as well as £85 costs. Then, in May 2019, he was jailed for 8 weeks having threatened a firefighter, putting his hands around his neck . Fellow campaigners failed in their attempt to have him released to mark the second anniversary of the fire on 14 June, 2019. The only other non-fraud conviction was of Eamon Zada. In March 2018, police searching the burnt out tower block had found cannabis cuttings, butane gas canisters and an oven in his flat, reported as a ‘cannabis oil factory’ in the media. Zada received a 12 week prison sentence suspended for 18 months, was forced to do 200 hours unpaid work, 40 days of rehabilitation activity, and had to pay a £115 victim surcharge and £85 costs.

‘Crime’, Power and the Capitalist State

Image courtesy of Steve Tombs

Let us enter some caveats to this rather bald analysis of the different speed and intensity with which the criminal justice system has moved against the relatively powerless compared to the powerful in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire. It certainly isthe case that potential manslaughter and other charges that might be levelled at the powerful may be complex and require significant evidence trawling and “Grenfell would represent, by a very large margin, the biggest and most complex corporate manslaughter case ever brought in the UK”. So it remains that these investigations may ultimately lead to prosecutions, even convictions, even if the history of such cases hardly gives cause for optimism. So, too, while defrauding funds collected for Grenfell victims might appear to be particularly deplorable, and none of this is to excuse this fraud, there is hardly a moral equivalence between the dispossessed – those consistently at the sharp end of state violence and coercion – seeking to secure somewhere to live or cash for food when compared with the life and death decision made by the richest council in England seeking to make what for them was a tiny saving in switching from less to more flammable cladding. Thesepoints made, the rapidity and punitiveness with which the criminal justice system has targeted marginalised offenders in the wake of the atrocity also provide a crucial context for understanding why the fire happened where and when it did in the first place.

Thus, as Davis and Moore put it in their analysis of three post-Grenfell convictions, 

Although criminal justice may claim to be blind it appears to have no trouble differentiating between the powerful and powerless. Since Grenfell it has done what it is good at – disciplining the poor. The cases described have been directed at working class people of colour. All cases have received swift ‘justice’. Determining guilt has been easy, the sentences harsh and those identified as ‘criminals’ publicly shamed.

Nineteen further convictions later, that observation can be underscored significantly. As the oft-quoted saying goes, criminal laws are like spiders’ webs: “They’ll restrain anyone weak and insignificant who gets caught in them, but they’ll be torn to shreds by people with power and wealth”. In many respects, this observation is the very essence of critical criminology. It is the obviousness which explains how the rich get richer and the poor get prison. It reveals the role of the criminal justice system, with the prison at its centre, one highlighted by abolitionists from Mathiesen to Sim as a capitalist stateinstitution which serves to punish, discipline and control, sometimes to the point of death, those deemed and cast aside as ‘unproductives’. But like everything else that is obvious, it bears recalling, repeating and documenting. It is a truism of a society characterised by searing levels of inequality that could not be illustrated more glaringly than in the state’s legal responses to Grenfell.

This blog was originally posted by Liverpool John Moores University’s Centre for Crime, Criminalisation and Social Exclusion on 6 December at:

OU’s Legal Eagles on Prison Radio

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Hugh McFaul discusses the Open Justice radio project Legal Eagles. Hugh McFaul is Director of the Open Justice Centre and Senior Lecturer in The Open University Law School.

In ‘Beyond the Gates’ Steve Tombs and Zoe Walkington highlight the important role The OU has played in opening up educational opportunities to students in prison. Of course, this longstanding commitment to providing access to higher education goes to the heart of the OU’s founding ideals of being open to people, places, methods and ideas. However, it also provides a great foundation to develop innovative ways in which OU students studying inside and outside prison can work together. An innovative example of this is the Open Justice Prison Radio Project Legal Eagles which features on this week’s Radio 4 Law in Action programme.

Hugh McFaul, Open Justice Centre and Sarah Couling, OU law student outside HMP Altcourse with BBC Radio 4 journalist Joshua Rozenberg after recording for Law in Action.

The project was established by the Open Justice Centre  in 2017 and brings OU law students into HMP Altcourse to work with prisoners to promote public legal education. Students travel to the prison in north Liverpool to agree legal topics that will be dealt with in a special Legal Eagles broadcast on the HMP Altcourse radio station. The production of the programme is a collaborative effort, with OU law students leading on researching answers to the prisoners’ legal questions and the prison radio team using their skills on the production of the broadcast. Participants in the project feature in the Law in Action programme which gives an important insight into the strength of the relationship between The OU and educators working in prisons.

Legal Eagles is one of several Open Justice prison projects which aim to provide opportunities for learners based inside and outside prison to collaborate on public legal education projects. We have been working with the St. Giles Trust since 2017 to provide support to prison-based peer advisors. The St Giles programme involves final year OU law students making up to four prison visits to work with groups of Peer Advisors, under the supervision of qualified lawyers, to identify and research areas of law that relevant and useful to the wider prison population.

Recent examples include:

  • In HMP Send, OU students developed a housing toolkit that included information about current housing legislation. This was a useful, practical and quality resource package that the Peer Advisors use to provide specific and in-depth housing advice to other prisoners. Prisoners do not have access to the Internet so a toolkit like this is especially useful.
  • In HMP Cardiff, the topic chosen by the Peer Advisors was family law, including issues around contact orders – This was particularly useful as many male prisoners are estranged from their families and need advice and support on how to re-connect on their release.
  • In HMP High Down, the project concentrated on producing resources that enabled the Peer Advisors to give advice on IPP sentences, licence conditions and the parole process, all areas of advice very much in demand in that prison.
The Open Justice Centre’s partnership work with the St Giles Trust has been shortlisted for a national pro bono award.

A key aspect of the success of the project has been the truly collaborative nature of the work undertaken by OU students and the prison-based Peer Advisors:

The Open Justice students have given our Peer Advisors in the prisons a real opportunity to develop, learn and become more professional but more than anything they have provided a forum where students and prisoners can meet as equals, learn from each other and discuss a whole range of relevant issues. The sessions I have observed have been the liveliest and most stimulating I have ever witnessed inside a prison.

(St. Giles project leader)

OU students have responded very well to the challenge of taking part in the project and have described the experience as transformative:

I didn’t anticipate, the effect that this journey that I was about to embark upon would have upon my life as both a law student and a person.  My fellow students, The Open University tutor, the inmates who we worked with and the staff at the prison, made this experience one that I will never forget, and the experience is a must for any law student.

(OU law student participant)

Programmes are planned in six prisons in England and Wales for Spring 2020 and, subject to funding, we plan to in the increase the number of prisons included in the project in 2021.

Beyond the Gates

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Steve Tombs and Zoe Walkington discuss the Open University’s role in delivering education to students in prison. Zoe Walkington is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Steve Tombs is a Professor of Criminology, both at The Open University.

The Open University is 50 years old this year, and as part of its celebrations we were keen to reflect upon and champion something that we feel has been a vital contribution of the Open University in its history – the education of students in prisons.

The OU first opened to 22 students in two prisons in 1971; and there are now close to 2,000 learners studying with the OU across 150-plus 150 prisons and some 50 Secure Hospital Units. Almost a third of these study on modules and programmes in the arts or social sciences.

While the OU is not now unique in providing education to students in prison, we are by far the largest provider in this context. This is something of which we are very proud. That is why we developed the idea for a film that would reflect the experiences of some of our students studying in prison. At the same time, Beyond the Gates raises awareness both of the obstacles faced by those studying in a prison environment and about the issues we, as a university, face in trying to provide prisoner education within the current political context.

The Virtual Campus is a secure intranet system which has been developed for use in prisons

OU students in prison are also great testimony to the benefits of learning together. In the film, we capture the voices of some of our Associate Lecturers, many of whom find the experience of working with students in prisons to be both moving and humbling. The film also captures the vital work of the OU Students in Secure Environment (SiSE) programme. SiSE works proactively with students in prison, to widen participation to all areas of our curriculum, and to try and provide the same learning experience for students in prison as for those ‘on the outside’. We’re proud to work in an institution that is open to some of the most marginalised learners in our communities, confined in places that are perhaps at best boring and monotonous, at worst degrading, violent and inhumane. Studying can, we hear in the film, take a student’s mind, for a while, metaphorically ‘beyond the gates.’ And the benefits of that study are something from which the student can benefit when they are, quite literally, beyond the gates, walking free, with choices to make and fulfilling lives to lead.

CSI: current research into the impact of bias on crime scene forensics is limited – but psychologists can help

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Lee John Curley and James Munro discuss the role of bias in crime scene forensics. Lee John Curley is a lecturer in Psychology at The Open University and James Munro is a Psychology Researcher at Edinburgh Napier University.

When a jury decides the fate of a person, they do so based on the evidence presented to them in the courtroom. Evidence obtained from forensic analysis, such as DNA analysis, is often interpreted as strong evidence by jurors.

This perception of forensic evidence is enhanced by popular TV shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, where physical evidence is used to solve murders in a “whodunit” showdown between deductive cops and crafty criminals covering their tracks. All it takes is the right evidence to piece the story together.

But recent research suggests that the reality of forensic analysis is that it can be subjective and fallible. For instance, forensic evidence can sometimes be ambiguous because of factors such as the presence of DNA on samples that originates from more than one person.

When forensic evidence is ambiguous, contextual information (such as knowledge of a confession) may influence how forensic examiners evaluate the evidence. This distortion in their evaluation is called contextual bias and has been stated to be a reason why miscarriages of justice occur.

Our research agrees with this recent research that contextual information may influence the decisions of forensic examiners. But this may not necessarily be a bad thing. We believe it is premature to remove context from forensic analysis. Contextual bias on the part of a forensic examiner does not necessarily mean that errors will be made.

It is difficult for psychologists in the UK to make recommendations about the effects of context on forensic examiners because the research to date has been fairly limited, particularly in the the way it has been conducted.

For example, some studies had a very small sample size. Some lacked a control group. In others, accuracy was not measured. This means that the researchers could not know for certain if participants would have performed differently if no contextual information had been available to them. So it has been difficult to generalise about the effects of contextual bias on forensic examiners’ decisions.

Bias does not equal error

But our study presents the idea that contextual information does not necessarily always lead to inaccurate decision making.

First, forensic evidence will be generated from both the crime scene and the suspect, meaning that the fingerprints left at a crime scene are more likely than not to match the fingerprints of the suspect. For this reason, contextual information (such as knowledge of a confession) that biases forensic examiners towards finding a match may lead to more accurate decisions being made.

Contextual information may also inform the examiner which tests to conduct. If the examiner knows which questions they must answer, then they may avoid worthless tests. But this also means they may overlook something. For example, one piece of research cited a rape-homicide case. In this case, a forensic laboratory was told by detectives to only analyse the evidence for semen samples. This meant that the forensic examiners missed blood samples that turned out to be integral to the case.

Based on this example, researchers stated that contextual ignorance may have more of a negative effect on forensic decisions than contextual bias. This view is supported by psychological studies which have shown that biased decision processes can lead to accurate decision outcomes.

Impact on jury decisions

Despite the potential positive effects, it may remain ethically and legally inappropriate for forensic examiners to use contextual information. For instance, jurors may interpret the different types of evidence, such as a confession and forensic evidence, as being independent of one another.

But if contextual information such as a confession aids the interpretation of forensic evidence, jurors may incorrectly think that each piece of evidence independently supports the other when this is not actually the case. This means that jurors could be overestimating the chances of a defendant being guilty.

Our review suggests that concerns relating to the study of contextual bias in forensic examiners – small sample size, no accuracy measure and failure to use a control group – makes it difficult for implications and recommendations to be drawn.

We suggest that future research employs the skills of both forensic examiners and cognitive psychologists. Then that both skill sets can be used to create realistic experiments. Examiners have the necessary knowledge of both lab environments and forensic evidence, but we believe that access to this knowledge will help psychologists design more rigorous experiments targeted towards the study of contextual bias in forensic examiners. Only then will we discover can proper conclusions be drawn about whether contextual bias is a help or a hindrance.

This article was originally published by The Conversation on the 29th of October 2019, at:

Illicit drug markets and the exploitation and criminalisation of young people

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this blog post, Dr Keir Irwin-Rogers discusses the harms of prohibitionist drug policies. Keir Irwin-Rogers is a lecturer in Criminology at The Open University. 

For the past five years, much of my work has focused on the harms associated with prohibitionist drug policies. In short, my concern is that our current prohibitionist approach results in far too many young people being violently victimised and criminalised as a result of their involvement in illicit drug markets.

In 2018 alone, 6,383 young people between the ages of 10 and 24 were cautioned or proceeded against in court for the production, supply and possession with intent to supply Class A, B and C drugs. While we lack sufficient data to make precise estimates of the amount of serious violence directly or indirectly linked to illicit drug markets, research suggests that street level drug dealing is playing a central role in the recent rise in knife crime.

Based on a six-month period examining content uploaded by young people to five major social media platforms, supported by interviews and focus groups with young people and a range of adult professionals, I sought to address some key questions around young people’s involvement in illicit drug markets: for example, why do young people become involved in drug distribution, and to what extent is their involvement predicated on adults’ use of threats and coercion?

Tracking the accounts of dozens of young people who self-identified as ‘gang involved’, I collated a database of hundreds of photos and videos uploaded to social media platforms in which the account users created content that displayed the fast money and the luxury consumer status symbols they had acquired through their involvement in drug distribution (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Consumer status symbols and money associated with involvement in illicit drug markets

A number of high-profile commentators, including MP Ann Coffey, have sought to highlight the role of threats and physical violence in forcing young people to participate in illicit drug markets, particularly concerning the phenomenon of county lines. While the data I collected also revealed cases involving shocking levels of violence and physical coercion, in many cases the presence of violence and coercion was unnecessary.

Indeed, the idea that adults are primarily dependent on strong-arming young people into drug distribution was refuted not only by the content on social media, but by young people’s accounts in interviews and focus groups, which highlighted that the combination of status, respect, excitement and fast money associated with drug dealing was more than adequate in ensuring a constant flow of young people into street-level drug distribution.

The narrative suggesting a pivotal role for threats and physical coercion is prone to underplaying a range of structural factors that create the conditions in which it is relatively easy for adults to attract young people into drug distribution, without needing to resort to intimidation and violence.

For example, in London alone, there are over 700,000 children growing up in poverty. Alongside these high rates of child poverty, we have concerning rates of school exclusions: in 2016-17, 7,720 pupils were permanently excluded from mainstream schools, with an additional 381,865 were subject to fixed-term exclusions.

With rates of child poverty and educational exclusion at these levels (in addition to a range of other structural challenges that blight the lives of many children), it is naïve to think we can stem the continual stream of young people into illicit drug markets by cracking down on violent and coercive gang leaders.

I often hear people arguing that another means of keeping young people away from drug dealing is to provide those involved, or ‘at-risk’, with wrap-around support – in fact, a few years ago I conducted research for a social business that was engaged directly in this line of work. Most of the time this work is incredibly resource-intensive and ultimately unsuccessful – youth workers will readily concede that the pull factors are just too great to contend with – but admittedly, sometimes a young person will be supported out of drug dealing and into a job or further education; of course, this is fantastic news for that particular young person.

We invariably ignore, however, the fact that the gap left by the young person we have just helped will almost immediately be filled by another – most likely one of the tens of thousands of young people growing up in poverty and excluded from mainstream education. In short, there is an ample supply of young people ready to become involved in street level drug distribution with only a small nudge needed from someone already involved.

Although motivated by good intentions, these care and support tactics are fundamentally flawed from the outset. If I’m being cynical, however, they do provide a continual stream of funding for public and third sector organisations, which pays the salaries of those purportedly involved in solving the problem. Similarly, the police receive huge sums of money to supposedly tackle the drug trade. Yet, despite billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money being spent on suppression and enforcement in recent decades, the size of the illicit drugs market has continued to grow (and is projected to grow in future years).

Like it or not – and many people don’t – the only feasible way of preventing young people being drawn into street-level drug distribution – and consequently of reducing the criminalization and violent victimization of thousands of young people every year – is to legalise and regulate the drug markets.

While a £5-6 billion illicit drug market continues to exist in the UK, neither an increase in the severity of criminal justice enforcement, nor enhanced levels of care and support, will prevent the flow of vulnerable young people into street level drug distribution. Pretending otherwise will prolong the suffering and misery of those embroiled in the toxic trap of illicit drug markets, vast inequalities, and a rampant culture of hyper-competitive consumer capitalism – a trap which I discuss in more detail in a forthcoming article in Critical Criminology.

This blog was originally posted as a Centre for Crime and Justice Studies Comment on 8 October 2019.

Artificial Intelligence and rationality as psychological issues

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this blog post, Dr Lee John Curley discusses the widespread fears of AI as involving the loss of ‘our special human capacity of rationality’. Lee John Curley is a lecturer in Psychology at The Open University.  

Our fear of Artificial Intelligence once related to the terminator and Skynet, but in a time of economic uncertainty and mistrust over how artificial intelligence uses human data on the internet, new fears are more related to employment and human rights. Some people see the development of AI as a process in which we recklessly hand over our special human capacity of rationality to machines, condemning ourselves to low paid jobs, or even unemployment. In this week’s blog, I explain why psychologists are interested in rationality. I present the fable of Prometheus, the great titan who was punished for passing on his godly skill of rational thought. I highlight the lessons that can be learnt from this story when considering potential implications of artificial intelligence. 

Rationality or the ability to integrate information to choose an option with the most utility, is a cognitive ability that may be at the heart of what makes us human: the very meaning of the term Homo sapien even means “wise man”. Rationality has become such as constant in human behaviour that the pillars of society (law, economics and medicine) all assume that decision makers employ rational processes when faced with an option. This blog will delve into how the ancients viewed rationality, how modern cognitive psychologists view the term and how rationality will shape the future. 

However, rationality has been studied by more than just cognitive psychologists. Mathematicians, philosophers, social psychologists and psychoanalysts have all studied rationality, each with different viewpoints on rationality and the extent to which humans participate in rational behaviour.  

In Ancient Greece, the world was explained in terms of symbolic entities (gods, deities and titans) that represented observable phenomenon. For instance, Gaia represented the earth, Poseidon the seas, and the almighty Zeus was symbolic of the heavens above. Some of these powerful beings, however, represented very human traits. Prometheus (meaning forethought) and Epimetheus (meaning afterthought) represented the rational and non-rational (or intuitive) part of the human mind, respectively. Once these titans fell out of favour with the Olympians, however, their roles of rationality and intuition fell to the gods Apollo and Dionysus. Prometheus was the champion of thinking ahead and choosing the long term right path, despite the negative short term effects for himself. This is evidenced in the story of Prometheus where he steals fire for the ancient humans, against Zeus’s instructions, and is punished until he is freed by Herakles. Despite the negative ramifications for himself, he metaphorically, and literally, ignites rationality, abstract thought and logic into the minds of Homo sapiens; thus simultaneously making humans more like the deities they worshipped, and the gods less special. The creation of the Prometheus myth shows that rationality is a key aspect of humanity, and that the ancient Greeks were aware of the power of rationality. 

During the Renaissance, there was a reawakening of rationality, with mathematical (or normative) concepts, such as probabilities, essential to modern mathematical and psychological theories of rationality being invented. With rationality and probability becoming interlinked, humans were viewed to be “Laplacean demons”. In other words, ‘we’ were viewed to be rational beings, who had unlimited cognitive capacity and were not influenced by the limitations of the mind. In association with this development in rationality and mathematics, institutions such as law, medicine and economics were all developing fields and were influenced by the perspective of the time (i.e., to be human was to be rational). 

This was the main viewpoint until the cognitive revolution in psychology and the seminal work of Tversky and Kahneman. They conducted a number of experiments in the 70 and 80’s (and even won a Nobel Prize) for highlighting that although rationality should govern our minds when making decisions, that instead, individuals sometimes deviate from rational principles and make decisions based on intuitive cognitive short-cuts called heuristics (Greek for find or discover). Their research showed that humans are flawed and that we can make biased decisions. 

This perspective has dominated the majority of the last 50 years of work in the field of decision science. Contemporary decision scientists, however, see intuitive thought and rationality as brothers (similar to the Greek myths surrounding Prometheus and Epimetheus). The dual process model of decision making suggests that two different modes of cognition (system 1 and system 2) governs our decision making. System one is an intuitive mode of cognition with a plethora of heuristics making up the components of said system. System two on the other hand is the rational part of the mind, which may be unique to humans. System two is believed to be more effortful and conscious than the primitive system one mode of cognition. The modern mind-set of rationality is that it is possible to make rational decisions, but that it is difficult and effortful, thus researchers believe that humans much prefer to default to system one. 

This flawed perspective of human rationality has led to rationality, the very essence of humanity, becoming synonymous with artificial intelligence and robotics. Normative (mathematical) models of rationality have been shown not to reflect the entirety of human behaviour, whereas artificial intelligence (AI) may be a new frontier to apply these classical models of decision making. Unlike human beings, artificial intelligence can be programmed to accord with rational principles and statistics.  Therefore, what classically was seen as something unique to humans, the thing that made ‘us’ special, may in the future become a robotic trait. This mirrors Prometheus’s gift to ancient humans which lead to deities becoming less godlike, and humans becoming more like their creators. 

Now computers are powerful enough to win against a human at chess, and it is estimated by researchers that AI will exceed human ability in a number of tasks (e.g., language translation) in the next 10 years. It is even believed that by 2053 AI could replicate the abilities of a surgeon. This speculation suggests that the expansion of artificial intelligence into the realms of rationality may cause humans to become obsolete, with more rational, consistent, and efficient computers replacing biased and flawed humans. This could cause a number of occupations traditionally employed by humans to be performed by complex AI.

Others, such as Peter Fleming, instead argue that AI will cause an increase in poorly paid jobs, as he argues that an important factor in AI being utilised in a profession is, will it be economically viable? Therefore, Fleming suggests that low skilled and low paid jobs will not be replaced. He expands on this point by suggesting that AI that partially automates a job though an app will also reduce the skill required by the employee, thus decreasing the relevant pay required for the service (e.g., Uber driver with app vs. traditional taxi driver that receives training). Furthermore, contrary to contemporary belief, the age of the AI may have a negative effect on human standards of living. Humans, like Prometheus, may suffer the negative consequences of passing on the sacred flames of rationality to an intelligence that ‘we’ created.

In summary, rationality has always been viewed by humans as a god like ability. The story of rationality is the story of humanity, the way we view rationality changes how we view ourselves, and ‘we’ are becoming increasingly closer to mirroring the story of Prometheus and igniting the flame of rationality in non-organic decision makers, and thus decreasing the specialness of humanity. By giving this special ability to AI, we may be condemning ourselves to low paid jobs; or even unemployment. Further bringing to life the story of Prometheus, as the great titan who was punished for passing on to humans his godly skill of rational thought.

Out of Area Policy as Organised Banishment

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.  

In this article Vickie Cooper examines ‘Out of Area’ policy practice as a form of banishment. Vickie Cooper is a senior lecturer in Criminology at The Open University.

Roman Army Punishment, Banishment


Banishment is a term used to describe the diverse arrangement of policy practices and techniques that, although not always visible, result in the coercive removal of destitute populations from their home communities. Banishment involves the legal requirement to leave a specified geographical area for an extended period of time. Versions of banishment have been used throughout history, as an exceptional mode of punishment and coercive organization of labour: from the Roman empire to European colonialism, relegatio and transportation were used as exceptional forms of banishment exercised over key marginalised groups.

But what if banishment is not an exceptional mode of organising marginalised groups? What if it is a normal function of the modern state, exercised by local authorities as part of their modus operandi, to banish marginalised groups out of the local vicinity?  As the government strips away crucial welfare support against the backdrop of austerity and Brexit politics, public institutions are finding ways of banishing economically marginalised groups in this hostile austerity-driven environment.

Out of area policy

A recent report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on ‘sent away children’,  revealed that approximately 60-70% of all children living in children’s homes are placed out of area by statutory authorities that have a legal duty to safeguard and protect them. ‘Out of area’ is the official policy term and practice used by statutory authorities to move people from their home communities and relocate them in a ‘host-area’. A host area is, strictly speaking, anywhere that is located outside the geographical boundaries of the statutory authority responsible for looking after them. In the case of children living in care, children can be placed more than 100 miles away from their home community.

But out of area policy practice is not unique to children living in care and drawing on two examples – community punishment (1) and housing (2) – this article explains how out of area policy is exercised over a range of economically marginalised groups, that effectively results in their banishment from the key areas.

Out of area policy in community punishment

In 2013, I conducted a research study called No Fixed Abode, which revealed the routine practice of sending convicted women out of area, to serve a community punishment away from their home communities.  Like children in care, the main reason for sending convicted women to a host area is due to the paltry and geographically patchy provision of probation hostels available for women, across England and Wales. Presently, there are only 6 probation hostels for women, compared to 94 for men. There are no probation hostels available for women in Wales or in London.

Given this paltry level of provision, it is no surprise that half of all female residents in probation hostels in England and Wales come from out-of-area. The women I interviewed as part of this study revealed that serving a community punishment out of area is supremely complex.  Women had to travel to and from their host area and home community on a fortnightly basis: to visit their children; undergo a ‘staged return’ back to their home communities; and maintain contact with the probation authorities responsible for their ‘community’ supervision. Where some women were pleased about the prospect of returning to their original home communities, others did not plan to return to their home communities at all. One woman I interviewed had to travel 200 miles between her host community and home community, just to maintain contact with her probation officer. At the same time, she was being actively supported by probation hostel staff to be permanently rehoused in the host community.  This complex arrangement not only highlights the redundant use of the term ‘community’, but further reveals that permanency of their banishment.

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Source: image from ‘Femme Maison’ by Louise Bourgeois

Until recently, sending women out of area to serve a community punishment was rarely acknowledged as a draconian or discriminatory practice. And even though Probation has conceded for some time this practice is incompatible with equalities law, it is still frequently used over women in the community. Then, in May 2017, a judicial review in the Supreme Court ruled that the uneven distribution of probation hostels unlawfully discriminates against women and the No Fixed Abode study was used by the Howard League for Penal Reform as part of their evidence to assist this Supreme Court decision. A landmark ruling, this judgment means that women who are sent out of area to serve a community punishment can now bring legal proceedings of unlawful sex discrimination to court.

Out of area policy in housing

But, as highlighted in the case of children in care, banishing people out of area is not a unique policy practice. As thousands of households free-fall into homelessness in the aftermath of the global financial crash, homeless adults and children are also routinely sent out of area; to live outside the purview of the housing authority that has a legal duty of care to them. If homeless applicants refuse the housing offer, then local authorities can, and often do, declare them ‘intentionally homeless’. From the limited evidence that is available, there has been an extraordinary rise in the numbers of homeless households sent out of area to live in temporary accommodation. In 2017, 22,050 homeless households were sent out of area, constituting a staggering 248% since 2011. In 2015, figures obtained by The Independent newspaper show that several London local authorities have displaced 50,000 homeless people to different boroughs inside and outside of London.  

A group of people standing in a room

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Source: image from film, I, Daniel Blake by Ken Loach. The family in this film are displaced from London to Hull.

Emerging evidence, testimonies and judicial reviews suggest that local authorities are failing in their basic duty to adequately support homeless families. Perhaps the most widely known case is that of Nzolameso v City of Westminster. Westminster City Council provided full-duty housing support to Ms Nzolameso when she could no longer afford her private rented property as a result of the Benefit cap (introduced as part of the Welfare Reform Act in 2012). But rather than rehouse her in Westminster or surrounding boroughs, Westminster Council offered Ms Nzolameso and her family rehousing in Bletchley, Milton Keynes. The appeal went to the Supreme Court and was upheld on the grounds that Westminster Council had not made sufficient enquiries about the impacts of rehousing the family in Milton Keynes.

Housing families out of area has produced an impossible bureaucratic scenario that can only be described as surreal.  For example, several London boroughs have rehoused their homeless applicants in Milton Keynes (as highlighted in the case above). But Milton Keynes authorities are at the same time rehousing their homeless applicants in Bedford, Northampton and Dunstable and recently purchased 110 apartments in Luton, to permanently rehouse their homeless applicants there. We seem to now be on a never ending cycle of displacement and banishment.

Out of area policy as organised banishment

Against the backdrop of austerity-driven political climate and Brexit politics,  banishment has become the modus operandi to addressing a lack of resources in local authority areas. Out of area policy variously results in the banishment of key marginalised groups and local authorities will justify these practices on the basis that it’s in the best interest of the people they send away. But judicial reviews and parliamentary inquiries show that its discriminatory and amplifies the risk and vulnerability of those affected,  especially in the case of children in care. We must therefore cast a critical lens on policy legislation that allows statutory bodies to circumvent or, at best, complicate their legal duty of care; to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and vulnerable adults.