Homelessness beyond criminalisation: Surviving in a global pandemic

Sharon Hartles critically reflects on the year 2020 and explores the shifting approach towards rough sleepers within an unprecedented global pandemic. Sharon Hartles was awarded an MA in Crime and Justice (with distinction) from The Open University and is a member of the Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative (HERC). 

The year 2020 may be regarded as a year which many would rather forget, or remembered as an unprecedented year in which approximately 1.82 million+ people lost their lives to a global pandemic. Few remain untouched by the loss of loved ones, neighbours or members of their wider communities. During 2020 the initial voluntary compliance and the ‘stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’ message was replaced with the introduction of compulsory government tier lockdown restrictions which have ushered in 2021. Yet within this turbulent year the homeless have again found themselves the target of callous and ineffective policy measures.

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

No one should be punished for being homeless or sleeping rough yet the past actions of government and local authorities made available into the public domain verify that punished they are. These vulnerable and marginalised people within society have already been targeted and ousted due to shifts in shared ideology, policy and practice. Such changing trends were executed in the wake of the 2007 – 2008 financial global crisis. Against this backdrop, the consequences of austerity policy shone a light on the punitive shift towards the criminalisation of homelessness. This accumulated through a number of harmful actions including: diminishing availability of services and hostels; welfare cuts and reforms; public space orders; stigmatising homelessness and resurrecting and implementing Dickensian vagrancy law. Then came the pandemic.

Nationally, the number of prosecution cases for begging under the Vagrancy Act 1824 over the past decade have generally steadily declined. However, even during a pandemic, which re-prioritised focus to one of social welfare; in England and Wales the action of begging still managed to be prosecuted and therefore criminalised on 1,422 occasions. The worst offenders with 311 prosecutions and representing 22% of the tally was West Yorkshire. They were closely followed by Merseyside who prosecuted 275 cases, equating to 19% for the period 2019/2020.   

Criminalising rough sleepers for begging by using a law which is nearly 200 years old needlessly exacerbates the vicious cycle of poverty. The only way to guarantee that the Vagrancy Act is not used in the future to target ‘at risk’ members of society, is to have it repealed. To this end, the second reading of the Vagrancy (Repeal) Bill 2019-21, is scheduled to go before Parliament in March 2021. In light of the global pandemic, focus should be directed away from punishing homelessness and instead be steered towards tackling the root causes and problems of the homeless epidemic.

The raw and devastating effects of Covid-19 are all too apparent, yet alongside the roller-coaster of emotions of fear, grief and thankfulness; for a while, there was a national sense of us all being in it together. In the spirit of togetherness, in March 2020 the Everyone In scheme was introduced. This scheme was initiated in response to the mounting concerns for the need to get the homeless off the streets and into self-contained accommodation. For this reason the ‘Everyone In’ provision provided local authorities with additional funding to cover the cost of accommodation arrangements. In practise this scheme had two-folding benefits because it protected the homeless from the virus and it also protected their wider communities. 

Image source: ITV News

In March 2020 the government announced it would be committing £643 million (over four years) in funding to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. This may seem like a substantial amount but when it is compared to the billions of pounds of public money which parliamentary members unlawfully handed out to inexperienced associates of ministers and advisers  through a secretive V.I.P Lane for Covid-19 contracts; maybe more could have been allocated to tackle the homeless crisis?

Despite this commitment, in an October 2020, press release from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government it was announced that 3,300 units of accommodation would be made available for rough sleepers. On the surface it seems like a considerable amount of units, however, when there are approximately 15,000 people in emergency accommodation there is a clear disparity between this inadequate supply gesture and the real-world demand needs.

In response to the Covid-19 crisis lessons could have been learnt from the Everyone In initiative. This response to dealing with rough sleeping, which all but ended rough sleeping overnight, in turn should have informed future policy and more importantly its implementation into practice. With little irony this has not been the case, instead ministers made the decision to stop the funding and “quietly pulled the plug“. Although demands were made to revive it in the form of the Everyone In 2.0, it was instead replaced in November 2020 by the Protect Programme. It was quickly brought to light that this programme was inadequate favouring some local authorities whilst leaving others short.

In a press release on 8th January 2021, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick announced that an additional £10 million in funding would be made available to councils in England. This extra support has been given to enable councils to redouble their efforts to accommodate rough sleepers and ensure they are registered with a GP. The government’s latest announcement merely reveals that the Protect Programme is not fit for purpose. Furthermore, this was not a proactive act on behalf of the government, instead it was a reactionary response to growing concerns from homeless charities including St Mungo’s who called upon the government to take action to support rough sleepers who were in real need. 

Even with this additional funding, under the Protect Programme some local authorities do not have surplus reserve funding to cover the deficit. Thus local authorities will bear the brunt for removing a provision which they had previously provided. In actual fact it is the government who should be held responsible and therefore held to account because the continuous reduction of funding as noted by the Local Government Association has had detrimental impacts at the local level:

‘By 2020, local authorities will have faced a reduction to core funding

from the Government of nearly £16 billion over the preceding decade.

That means that councils will have lost 60p out of every £1 the Government

had provided to spend on local services in the last 8 years.’

Notwithstanding the withdrawal of funding, the government’s official data in no way reflects the reality of the rough sleeping crisis. According to the government’s official count 4,266 people bedded down outside overnight on a snapshot night in autumn 2019. Yet, in February 2020, a BBC report claimed that this count was significantly underestimated and the actual number of rough sleepers was closer to 28,000, which is five times higher than the official data. Here we can see how the official snapshot of 4,266 which was deemed to be a “good estimate” was at best misleading and at worst deplorable.

By its own admission, in a government press release in November 2020, it stated ‘by September it had supported over 29,000 vulnerable people, with two-thirds now moved into settled accommodation.’ In this sense the term ‘vulnerable people’ has been favoured instead of the term ‘rough sleepers’. What is interesting is that only 19,333 people have managed to be settled, thus leaving a total of 9,667 still rough sleeping. This amount is a 127% increase on the government’s official count of 4,266 as published in February 2020 by the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government.

By the end of 2020, the ‘all in it together’ rhetoric was a distant memory and calls on Government to Bring Everyone In again to ensure rough sleepers could stay safe during the new national lockdown fell on deaf ears. As a direct result, instead of rough sleepers being provided with self-contained accommodation, they now have to choose between the risk of contracting covid through sheltering in unsafe communal spaces or facing freezing temperatures whilst returning back to their roofless and homeless state.

2020 was the year which brought an end to rough sleeping, albeit not permanently. It saw rough sleepers’ allocated emergency accommodation including: hotels, bed and breakfasts and other temporary accommodation. Although more than a roof can be alleged to be needed to tackle the social and structural harms/violence suffered by homeless people, accommodation in the first instance for the vast majority can make a significant difference.

Indeed such an immediate and radical approach to this crisis raises the obvious question of why the government would remove a scheme which was working at the local level and replace it with one that does not work as effectively. Looking to the future, 2021 must be a year which focuses on challenging the reasons behind why the homeless have been left out in the cold, and why the homeless problem exists at all. With this in mind, the Protect Programme together with the government’s latest funding scheme are not fit replacements for the Everyone In scheme which was underpinned by an inclusive approach. Given the new strain of the coronavirus; re-instatement of national lockdowns and death rates on the rise again, it is essential now more than ever that vulnerable members of our society are not left to fall through the safety net.

To find out more about understanding homelessness or any of the wider key issues listed below visit: OpenLearn

  • The Homeless Problem
  • Being homeless
  • Impact of legislation
  • Lack of coordinated support
  • Criminalisation of homelessness
  • Homelessness and Incarceration
  • Slipping through the net
  • Getting off the streets


Primodos: The next steps towards Justice

In this article, Sharon Hartles critically examines the journey so far towards the implementation of the remaining eight recommendations set out in the landmark publication of the Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review First Do No Harm report in July 2020. Furthermore, she explores the wider impacts this publication has set into motion. Sharon Hartles was awarded an MA in Crime and Justice (with distinction) from The Open University in December 2019 and is a member of HERC. 

Wednesday 8th July 2020, marked the publication of the final report by the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review, which was commissioned to examine the harmful effects of three treatments: Primodos, an oral hormone pregnancy test that caused birth defects;  sodium valproate, an epilepsy drug that also causes birth defects, and surgical mesh, a treatment for incontinence that causes chronic debilitating pain. Primodos was the most widely prescribed ‘hormone pregnancy test’ in the UK (and around the world) in the 1960s and 1970s until it was taken off the market in 1978.  First Do No Harm found that avoidable harm was caused because the UK Government and the Healthcare system failed in their duty to protect patients and regulate Primodos.Primodos, Sodium valproate and Pelvic mesh implants banner

Primodos, Sodium valproate and Pelvic mesh implants banner. Photo Credit: Review Tweets (@IMMDSReview Twitter Page) Posted: 31 Aug 2018

For the Primodos-affected members of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests, a lobby group, the findings and recommendations offered recognition ‘that hundreds of families have been wronged.’ Recommendation 1 of First Do No Harm was fulfilled when Matt Hancock apologised for the avoidable harm caused to those who suffered. However, after this welcomed and prompt first step towards justice, the next steps – the implementation of the remaining eight recommendations – have been fraught with resistance. 

Baroness Julia Cumberlege, a life peer who chaired the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review, explicitly championed the need for the recommendations set out in First Do No Harm to be implemented with determination and urgency. Despite this, it has now been more than three months since the report was published, which may not seem like much time within the political agenda, and given the preoccupations with Covid and Brexit, but England is lagging behind Scotland. At a 9th July 2020, press conference, Julia Cumberlege raised concerns about the importance of implementing the report’s recommendations and the significance of not leaving it to “sit on a shelf and gather dust”. 

Julia Cumberledge calling for justice (screenshot) in the House of LordsJulia Cumberledge calling for justice (screenshot). Photo Credit: APPG Horomone Pregnancy Tests (@APPGHPTs Twitter) Posted: 2 Sept 2020

Yet, two months later, amid rumours the report was going to be buried, during a Parliamentary debate which took place on 2nd September 2020, the Baroness requested assurances from Ministers that the recommendations would be implemented. On the same date, MP and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hormone Pregnancy Tests, Yasmin Qureshi, took a different approach. Namely, she accused Government Ministers of hiding behind irrelevant “legal action, which has no bearing on this reports findings” to ignore their duty to implement First Do No Harm recommendations a point which she had previously voiced in a letter to Matt Hancock on 15th July 2020.

To its credit the Scottish Government has led the way; and on 1st September 2020, First Scottish Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed that Holyrood had accepted, in full, the recommendations of Baroness Cumberlege and would be appointing a Scottish Patient Safety Commissioner, “the emphasis of this new role is on the patient voice within the safety system.”  Moreover, on 13th September 2020, Andrew Davies, Shadow Minister for Health announced that a Welsh Conservative-led government would appoint ‘an independent patient safety commissioner in Wales.’ Currently, First Minister of Wales and the Welsh Labour-led government Mark Drakeford has not made any announcements regarding intentions towards the appointment of an Independent Patient Safety Commissioner.  

The Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review findings have had wider reaching ramifications. Primodos, a drug marketed by the West German pharmaceutical company Schering AG, was marketed in West Germany until 1981 as Duogynon. On 16th September 2020 the German Federal Ministry of Health announced it would be launching a review into whether or not the relationship between the regulator then the Federal Health Office today known as the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices  and the manufacturer then Schering AG, now Bayer AG led to ‘the drug remaining on the market despite concerns about its safety.’ 

In an article by Jason Farrell, Home Editor at Sky News, published on 19th September 2020, he noted ‘The German government has been reluctant to look into the issue and campaigners in Germany were relying on a breakthrough in the UK. That came after an independent review in Britain found in July that government health regulators had failed patients and that Primodos was responsible for “avoidable harm”.’ Although Jens Spahn German Federal Minster for Health, confirmed a research project into possible collusions between the German regulatory authority and the manufacturer; he also made it clear that “all the known findings and the scientific evidence do not currently support a causal link” between the hormone pregnancy test and birth defects.

Marie Lyon, chair of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests, met with the German Health Committee and MPs in March 2019 to present analyses from Oxford University scientists Carl Heneghan and Jeffrey Aronson. Based on the research conclusions she discussed a possible review of Primodos and Duogynon and its association with ‘increased risks of congenital malformations.’ The subsequent pressure from German politicians calling for a review, together with First Do No Harm findings played an instrumental part in sparking the German investigation into the Duogynon scandal. For Marie Lyon, who has been working with the Duogynon Network, an association for members affected by Duogynon, since 2012, the announcement came as “a huge step forward for the German campaign group and one we thought we would never see happen”.  

MPs supporting calls for the implementation of First do No Harm - (From left to right - Sir Ed Davey, Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ian Blackford, Westminster Leader of the SNP, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Leader of DUP Party in Westminster, Caroline Lucas, co-Leader of the Green Party, Liz Saville-Roberts, Plaid Cymru, Westminster Leader, Colum Eastwood,  Leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Sir Keir Starmer Leader of the Labour Party).Image source: Courtesy of Sharon Hartles (adaption/remix of  I , II ,  III ,  IV , V,  VIVII ) MPs supporting calls for the implementation of First Do No Harm recommendations.

Back in the UK, in a bid to ensure that First Do No Harm is not ignored on 16th October 2020, six leaders of political parties: Sir Ed Davey, Ian Blackford, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Caroline Lucas, Liz Saville-Roberts and Colum Eastwood signed a joint letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson urging him to ‘instruct the Department of Health to implement the findings of the Cumberlege Review’. According to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hormone Pregnancy Tests on 28th October 2020, Sir Keir Starmer added his signature of support, a notable action, because all seven opposition party leaders have presented a united front in calling on Boris Johnson to implement the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review recommendations “in full and without delay.”

The UK government failed in its duty to regulate Primodos. The health care system failed in its duty to protect patients.  These failures resulted in avoidable harms spanning decades. For Primodos survivors these alleged life changing harms include: cardiac malformations, musculoskeletal, neurological, neurogenetical malformations, miscarriage and stillbirth. However, it was not the role of the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review to determine whether or not there was ‘a causal association between HPT use and physical malformations’. Therefore the review findings have not laid to rest scientific debate around the contested harmful nature of this synthetic sex hormone. And so there are still open questions regarding claims about the effects caused.

What is significant, is that Recommendation 4 of First Do No Harm states ‘The state and manufacturers have a moral responsibility to provide ex gratia payments to those who have experienced avoidable damage from the interventions we have reviewed.’  First Do No Harm may not have determined a causal association but recommendation 4 suggests that the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review findings are a long way from establishing harmlessness.

Tablet user

Image source: First Do No Harm

Now is not the time for the Government to unnecessarily prolong further suffering. It is time for these survivors of Primodos (and of sodium valproate and surgical mesh) to get the recognition and justice they so rightly deserve. In line with Recommendation 2, the appointment of an Independent Patient Safety Commissioner who will champion the patients’ voices and perspectives is long overdue. Furthermore, in accordance with Recommendation 9, action must be taken immediately to set up a task force in order to schedule a timetable for the implementation of the remaining recommendations as set out on 8th July 2020 by First Do No Harm.

To find out more about the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests (ACDHPT) campaign and keep up to date with news, visit primodos.org. In addition, there are a number of ways you can support the campaign:

Follow ACDHPT on Twitter

Follow ACDHPT on Facebook

Sign ACDHPT’s petition Protect patients and make our healthcare system safer for your children to Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling for him to implement the recommendations set out in the Cumberlege Review.

Encourage your MP to join the APPG for hormone pregnancy tests.

Make a donation to help ACDHPT continue their campaign

Get in touch with Marie Lyon

Lessons from Covid-19: It’s time for a radical approach to homelessness and housing policies

Daniel McCulloch and Dr Victoria Cooper explore the current situation regarding homelessness and housing policy. The Government has shown they can tackle homelessness during Covid-19, so what will they do next?

Governments are at a critical juncture in how they respond to the issue of homelessness and evictions. The policy initiatives rolled out in response to the Covid-19 pandemic provide local and central government with an opportunity to rethink the statutory safety net for people who are homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless. The ramifications of the economic fallout of Covid-19 are slowly becoming apparent and it’s crucial that we avoid the same crippling austerity measures that led to the sharp increase in homelessness and an unprecedented wave of evictions between 2010 and this year. To prevent a repeat of that scenario, radical and meaningful policy initiatives must to be developed now, to secure the housing future for thousands of adults and children.

Traditionally, homeless people have been subject to social and political processes that seek to organise them into one of two demoralising categories: ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’. The statutory homeless assessment framework in the UK functions in ways that seek to divide homeless people into categories of ‘priority need’, and ‘intentionally’ or ‘unintentionally’ homeless. It’s a highly technical and bureaucratic approach that begins with an ‘eligibility’ test, to determine who is offered so-called ‘full duty’ housing support, and who is not.

Applicants must prove that they have done everything in their power to prevent them from becoming homeless – to show that they are ‘unintentionally’ homeless. In order to be entitled to full duty housing support, they must further demonstrate that they are ‘vulnerable’ enough to be deemed a ‘priority’ – with Scotland being the exception, having abolished ‘priority need’ categories in 2012. In Scotland, where ‘priority need’ has been abolished, around 80% of all homelessness applications are offered support (see graph 1 below); whereas in England, only around 50% are offered full duty housing support (see graph 2 below). To put it simply, it is not easy for a homeless person to prove that they are entitled to full duty housing support from the state, especially when deservingness is the key instrument for determining eligibility.

Local authority statutory homelessness applications and assessment outcomes in Scotland, 2004/05 – 2014-15
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Graph 1: Local authority statutory homelessness applications and assessment outcomes in Scotland, 2004/05 – 2014-15.

Breakdown of accepted and not accepted applications for homelessness support in England, 2012-2017
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Graph 2: Breakdown of accepted and not accepted applications for homelessness support in England, 2012-2017.

Statistics Don’t reveal the whole picture

While government statistics tell us something about the size and scale of the homeless problem, they are partial and do not reveal the whole picture. Not everyone who is homeless makes an application to their local authority. This group of homeless people are broadly defined as ‘hidden homeless’. There is no agreed definition of hidden homelessness, but the term is often used to describe people living in precarious accommodation, whose housing struggle is invisible to official state authorities and national data. Experiences of hidden homelessness  can include, for example, people living on friends’ couches (‘sofa surfers’), squatting, living in derelict buildings, as well as rough sleeping.

“The Everyone In initiative led to some 15,000 rough sleepers being accommodated in hotels (organised at local level). Rough sleepers didn’t need to divulge their personal and traumatic histories to prove their deservedness.”

Being homeless in any form can be a traumatic experience and may lead to other injustices and harms. The stigma attached with being homeless is profound and can be experienced on many deep-seated levels, affecting people in both psychological and physical ways. Stigma describes the feeling of shame of humiliation and of being excluded from mainstream society. However, stigma is not simply a naturally occurring phenomenon; it is constructed and engineered at a much wider political level. The sociologist, Imogen Tyler , argues that stigma is crafted as a strategy of government, where ‘stigma power’ is exercised in multiple ways to exclude and control targeted populations. Drawing on those ideas, it can be argued that the statutory safety net is a stigmatising process that seeks to blame deserving and undeserving applicants for a failed housing system.

Then came the pandemic 

Governments were quick to realise that the statutory assessment framework was too cumbersome and not inclusive enough to adequately respond to the homeless problem at the height of the pandemic. Consequently, this framework was suspended and the Everyone In initiative came into force. The Everyone In initiative  led to some 15,000 rough sleepers being accommodated in hotels (organised at local level). Rough sleepers didn’t need to divulge their personal and traumatic histories to prove their deservedness and, moreover, the arbitrary power of local authorities for determining eligibility, was suspended. This inclusive approach was extended to include housed people, with the government instituting a temporary delay on evictions from mortgaged and rented properties. ‘Unprecedented’ some would say, but these measures are only temporary.

Imperfect, but better

The key message to take from this time is clear: we need a radically different approach to solving the homelessness problem, and this pandemic shows that one is possible. For years, politicians have claimed that there is not enough housing to accommodate everyone, hence the proclaimed need for an assessment framework that limits housing provision to people who are in ‘priority need’ and are ‘unintentionally’ homeless (those deemed in policy terms to be ‘deserving’).

For years, we’ve been told that a significant proportion of people sleeping rough are too chaotic and complex to house. Governments have been too complacent for too long, satisfied with the stringent provision of accommodation to rough sleepers only when temperatures fall below zero, for three consecutive days !  The inclusive policy approach rolled out under Covid-19 shows that legislative intervention can prevent thousands of households from free falling into homelessness and can save lives – so why stop now?

Dr Daniel McCulloch is a lecturer in Criminology and Social Policy at the Open University.

Dr Victoria Cooper is a lecturer in Criminology and Social Policy at the Open University. 

This blog first appeared on the Open Learn site: https://www.open.edu/openlearn/society-politics-law/criminology/lessons-covid-19-its-time-radical-approach-homelessness-and-housing-policies?in_menu=1575722

No place like home: Prisons and homelessness

By Dr David Scott

The homeless and especially those who are rough sleepers, comprise a disproportionate number of people in prison in England and Wales. Dr David Scott looks at why prisons and the streets are not a replacement for a true home.

In 2018 The Chain Reports found that 15% of newly sentenced people in prison had reported being homeless before entering custody. They also found that a third people sleeping on the streets in London in 2018 had served some time in prison. Further, in 2018 of the 7,745 women sent to prison in England and Wales, 3,262 were recorded as ‘being of no fixed abode’ when arriving in custody, which is approximately 42% of the prison intake for women prisoners in that year.

It has long been documented that people living on the streets are largely without work, privacy, decent food, or shelter and are often without good health. For many homeless people, life in prison is likely to exacerbates already existing personal troubles and health problems and does very little to address the existential crises generated by being without a home in wider society.

Home is a place of intimacy, familiarity and meaning. It is a place of openness and is essential to the foundation, development and stabilisation of human identities, and the creating a sense of ‘rootedness’. Home is about a sense of ‘belonging’ and feeling part of a wider community. A home is safe, familiar and comfortable. Home is a place of rest, recuperation, care and respite, something essential for the well-being of all humans.

A homeless man sleeping in a parkAn image of a homeless person sleeping in a park in Canada. Source: https://www.123rf.com/photo_31129604_14-may-2014-montreal-canada-homeless-person-sleeping-at-downtown-park-during-the-day-the-financial-c.html

The prison is not an environment that can deliver the beneficial place characteristics of a home. Through inherent violations of human dignity and the fear, or actual presence, of violence, the prison place blocks the ability to be emotionally vulnerable or open when encountering other people. The prison cannot be a sustained place of habitation and dwelling, nor are prisons environments conducive to delivering care and the generation of a sense of ‘belonging’ and inclusiveness. Instead, the prison is characterised by sadness, melancholia, insecurity and a sense of loss. 

Prisoners long for a secure dwelling place where they can relax and be themselves, but the place characteristics of prisons prevent this. A prison, whatever the physical conditions, will always be a pale imitation of a natural home. It cannot reproduce, at least for any significant time, the love, joy, safety and stability of a home that generate human life and vitality. The prison place is characterised instead by discomfort, fear and a lack of security and safety. Prisons may then be best described as dead places that overwhelmingly lead to endings and the breaking of ties and bonds, as well as being haunted by the pains and sufferings of their past generated by institutionally structured violence and hostility.

Prisons are institutions of legitimate abandonment. Abandonment, which is when someone is banished from society or forcefully separated from previous human connectedness, can dislodge a person from their attachments to a previous sense of place and time.

For prisoners who have previously experienced a sense of ‘home’, the abandonment, loneliness, dehumanisation of prisons may now be felt as something akin to being homeless. Like homeless people living on the streets, prisons can destroy lives and leave people struggling for survivalism and existing as a ‘bare life’ rather than truly living. Whereas it does provide shelter and some basic necessities, the prison ‘zone of abandonment’ can also lead to rootlessness, the breakdown human intactness and a penal abyss of hopelessness and sometimes self-harm, suicidal ideation and death. 

Uprooted from their social milieu and former lifeworld, the prisoner is turned into a stranger who is likely to experience social death – that is, the ‘death’ of human relationships, status and moral standing and in its extreme the non-recognition of a persons shared humanity. It also means to be ‘out of place’ – to be estranged and Othered. Estrangement entails removing someone from their previous life. It is to be shifted from familiarity to strangeness and to be re-assigned to a new devalued status. Estrangement is premised on the process of being forcefully made stranger from that which was previously inhabited as home.

Prisons are institutions of legitimate abandonment. Abandonment, which is when someone is banished from society or forcefully separated from previous human connectedness, can dislodge a person from their attachments to a previous sense of place and time. The prisoner – an estranged Other – inevitably experiences abandonment as they are no longer part of their former lifeworld and have apparently lost any previous claims on the wider community for help or assistance. Prisoners are often neither seen nor heard. Abandonment results in detachment, loss and desolation and the prisoner as de-socialised and depersonalised enforced stranger.

To conclude, there are undoubtedly certain similarities between the problem of homelessness and the failure of the prison to engender the necessary place characteristics for it be a habitable dwelling generating security, love and care. Human wellbeing and growth for everyone require our lifeworld to be situated in a place of safety – what we call home. Like living on the streets, a prison is no place like home.

Dr David Scott is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at The Open University

This blog first appeared on the Open Learn site: https://www.open.edu/openlearn/society-politics-law/criminology/no-place-home-prisons-and-homelessness?in_menu=1575722.

Remembering and forgetting the Woolf Report

By David Scott

Lord Justice Woolf’s Prison Disturbances April 1990: Report of An Inquiry (1991) is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and progressive reports in the history of prisons in England and Wales.

The Woolf Report (1991) was commissioned in the aftermath of the disturbances at HMP Strangeways between 1 – 25 April 1990. The Strangeways disturbances were the longest in UK penal history and sparked riots in twenty-five further institutions, including Glen Parva, Dartmoor, Cardiff, Bristol and Pucklechurch. On publication the Woolf Report was acclaimed as the blueprint for prison policy for the next three decades. So, should those of us looking to end the barbaric penal regimes pertaining in prisons in England and Wales today, still be looking to Woolf for inspiration nearly 30 years on?

Prisoners on the roof at Strangeways Prison in 1990. Photo Credit: Rex https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/11489148/Prison-conditions-as-bad-as-Strangeways-25-years-ago-Lord-Woolf-says.html

First of all, the proposals of the Woolf Report were not really that innovative. Many of the assumptions of the Woolf Report are based on the ideas of penal realism and the concept of “humane containment”, first articulated in the 1969 Home Office white paper People in Prison. Recognising that prisons are expensive ways of making people worse, penal realism calls for a minimum use of custody; minimum use of security with greater links between the community and the prison. Prisons should contain prisoners in safe custody and daily conditions and practices grounded in universally agreed basic standards.

Yet although the report went beyond merely a focus on ‘security and control’ and also advocated ‘justice’ as the third of his key themes, he tied this commitment to the Prison Service to follow its own Statement of Purpose. Prison authorities are under an obligation to look after prisoners with humanity and to help to encourage their charges to live a law-abiding life both whilst in custody and after release.

Second, the proposals of the report were not really that progressive. Although Woolf made 12 central recommendations and a further 204 supporting recommendations, his proposals were largely policy signposts that were not very specific in terms of their application and he largely restricted his analysis to administrative questions, offering minor adjustments and revisions to the aims, policies, and procedures of the prison.

Further, his apparently liberal reforms were often justified on a consequentialist basis which were predicated on prisoner responsibilities and, in the long run, reducing re-offending. This included his promotion of ‘justice’ (which meant procedural fairness and decent living conditions). Prisoners had a legitimate expectation, not an absolute legal right, to be treated humanely. The commitment to decent prison conditions was predicated upon prisoners acting with responsibility. Lord Justice Woolf was:

… not seeking to achieve more comfortable surroundings, greater luxuries or increased privileges for prisoners for their own sakes. To think that would be to fundamentally misconceive the argument. We are seeking to ensure that a prisoner serves his sentence in a way which is consistent with the purpose behind the courts decision to take away his liberty and his freedom of movement, while ensuring he is treated with humanity and justice.

Prisoners were conceived to have privileges that could be earned by good behaviour, rather than inalienable rights. Further, the main aims of the report were undoubtedly to restore the authority, legitimacy and stability of the prison service and ultimately to create an environment that would reduce the likelihood or prevent a re-occurrence of the events of April 1990.

The liberal line adopted limited the report and failed to evaluate the deeply problematic nature of punishment or examine those intractable and inherent problems reflecting the deep malaise in the prison estate. Rather than open up the agenda to questions regarding the actual legitimacy of imprisonment, the aim of the report was to silence such radical critique. The parameters of legitimated knowledge remained relatively unchanged by the report, as did any progress towards a genuine commitment to assess the role of prisons from a human rights perspective.

Given its historical significance, it is important that those lobbying for penal change remember the Woolf Report, but this should be as an illustration of how official discourse co-opts progressive ideas. As a blueprint for the future of how we deal with human wrongdoing though, we should forget the Woolf Report. The consensus on prisons that must emerge in our historical conjuncture has to go beyond penal realism and embrace the genuinely innovative and progressive ideas of penal abolitionism.

Contra Woolf, this means focusing on the responsibilities of the powerful rather than prisoners; prioritising the accountability of the state and its agents rather than emphasising that of its subjects; conceiving justice in terms of social justice and the promotion of human wellbeing and the meeting of need for all; and questioning the very moral and political legitimacy of the penal apparatus of the capitalist state.

For those wishing to bring an end to the penal barbarism of the present, inspiration should not come from Woolf, but rather from the grassroots abolitionist movements and all those struggling elsewhere around the globe for the defunding of the police and its replacement by peace officers who are committed to safety and protection. It is only by situating progressive penal change within the context of tackling existing social divisions and the development of social policies that can deliver better housing, education, welfare services and jobs that we will find solutions to the problems that have haunted penal regimes since their inception.

This blog was originally posted on the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies website: https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/resources/remembering-and-forgetting-woolf-report

Further Reading:


Dr David Scott is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at The Open University.

Critical reflections on participatory visual methods and voice

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, Dan McCulloch critically explores claims of a relationship between participatory visual research methods and ‘voice’. Dan McCulloch is a Lecturer in Criminology and Social Policy at The Open University.

Social research sometimes makes commendable, but at times under-evidenced, claims to raise the ‘voices’ of ‘marginal’ groups or individuals. However, it often remains unclear what is meant by voice in such assertions, with voice having numerous possible meanings, as this article explores. Related to this, recent years have seen an explosion in the use of participatory visual methods. One of the reasons for employing such methods is their supposed benefit for the voices of those involved as participants.  The proclaimed advantages of participatory visual methods include (but are not limited to):

  • the proclaimed communicative power of the visual to go beyond the written word;
  • the possibilities for collaboration and co-creation between those who might normally be called researchers (or facilitators) and participants (or co-creators);
  • the potential for challenging power imbalances between researchers and participants;
  • the possibilities and opportunities for self-reflection for participants;
  • the potential for visual ‘outputs’ to generate dialogue and influence others (for example with policy makers or different community groups as ‘audiences’).

However, like claims about voice, the evidence base for such assertions is sometimes ambiguous.

Between September 2017 and March 2019, the participatory visual methods and voice project (on which I was the Principle Investigator) aimed to critically explore the relationship between participatory visual methods and voice. I hosted workshops with researchers and facilitators to explore our perspectives on participatory visual methods and voice; in addition to exploring the viewpoints of those involved in a participatory visual project as participants and as audiences.  

A key starting point was that far from being universally accepted, the meaning of voice is vastly contested and can be conceptualised in various ways. For example, dictionary definitions of voice show that this can be understood as either a noun or a verb (to voice). Moving beyond this basic conception, Wendy Luttrell and Richard Chalfen highlight in their introduction to a special issue of the journal Visual Studies on participatory visual research and voice, that a definition of voice might include “a capacity for reflection, commentary, perspicacity, creativity and reflexivity about oneself in relation to one’s social context. Still, the concept of voice spans different terrains” (2010, p. 199 [emphasis added]).

In his book about why voice matters, Nick Couldry (2010) suggests that voice can be understood as both a process (of giving an account of one’s life and the world in which we act); and a value – through giving weight to ways of structuring society that allow for voice as a process, particularly ‘voice that matters’. The notion of ‘voice that matters’ refers to both expressing one’s own voice, and to the right to be heard or listed to by others. In this sense, voice might be understood as being linked to the politics of representation (Thomson, 2009; Dreher, 2012; Fairey, 2017). Furthermore, questions persist in the literature around whether voice is ‘given’, ‘negotiated’, ‘constructed’, ‘co-created’, or a combination of these things and others. While these formulations each imply slightly different things, they share a sense that it may belong to individuals or groups, but that voice can also affected by researchers, as well as situational factors such as the context of production.

Findings from workshops with researchers also showed a number of meanings of voice, including suggestions that voice relates to a person’s or group’s beliefs, experiences, perspectives, opinions and understandings. Thus, this might be thought of as broadly relating to the expression of oneself, and being able to tell something about one’s story or perspective. In this way, these definitions have similarities to Luttrell and Chalfen’s definition, but just as those authors propose, the concept of voice can also have different focal points.

In exploring meanings of voice with participants and audiences, it also became clear that voice can be a jargonistic term – with its meaning sometimes being thought of in relation to a much more literal sense of speaking. As such, it’s important to remain aware that our own conceptions of voice may differ from those who are involved in research projects. Even in thinking beyond this literal definition, voice had very different meanings (and was linked to different motives for being involved) for participants, such as leaving a legacy beyond one’s own death; voicing one’s concerns; a way to share a person’s own opinion; and a means to share one’s sense of injustice. As such, voice can be multi-dimensional and have different meanings for those involved within a single project.

It was also made clear within workshops with researchers that voice is social, requiring an understanding and ability to communicate using the tools of recognised languages in order to connect with others. However, researchers also suggested that there are questions about when voice is valid, as the narratives and stories we tell are constructions – meaning that there are questions about where, when, and for whom they are valid. This is perhaps particularly important in thinking about the relationship between participatory visual methods and voice, because visual communication also has normative ‘good’ languages and cultures, particularly in relation to ‘visual voices’ (Luttrell, 2010; Fairey, 2017). Thus, there are problems with presuming that all people are able to communicate in normatively ‘good’ visual ways. As such, there may be a call for participants to be versed in visual literacy and norms, as well as norms around voice and narrative. However, briefing participants in this way couldmean that researchers care unduly influencing the research.

The responsibility that researchers or facilitators bear for the voices of others was also discussed with researchers, including the role they can play in influencing the parameters of power relationships in research projects. One such example is the way in which those who facilitate such projects can amplify some voices and silence others – especially in our editorial role. For example, we might edit out those voices which appear incoherent, which do not fit our overall narrative, or which may not maximise external influence or impact – to fit either our own or other people’s sense of ‘good voices’.

“Visual Tag” by cogdogblog is licensed under CC BY 2.0

These issues trouble conceptualisations of participatory visual methods. Whilst the boundary of what counts as a visual method is contested, the extent to which a piece of research can be considered participatory is particularly contentious. Practices of participation can vary between and within projects, and can refer to (among other things) self-determination and agency; challenging traditional roles within research; the power imbalance that results; ‘ownership’ of stories told; and respect for everyday experiences and practices of participants.

Reflections from participants and audiences drew attention to a range of considerations for researchers in working with participatory visual methods. For example, adopting a single and uniform approach to participation can mean that projects work well for some participants, but not so well for others. Such issues are particularly pertinent in thinking about whose voices become more (and less) raised within projects.

These reflections also made clear that motives for becoming (and remaining) involved in a project can differ, with each person having their own intentions and goals, as well as the potential for some shared priorities. Furthermore, these motives and goals can also differ to those of the researcher. As such, participation is as a negotiated and ongoing process throughout projects, and may need to be tailored and personalised in order for projects to be worthwhile for everyone involved.

Further, participants and audiences did speak positively about the visual as being able to go beyond the spoken word, with audiences particularly talking about the impact of visual representations. However, they also highlighted that as visual representations are constructed narratives, there is a need to remain critical about what is presented.

Most fundamentally, researchers, participants and audiences all highlighted that they felt there was no guaranteed relationship between participatory visual methods and voice – and that there was a need for researchers not to presume such a relationship, nor to overstate its significance for those involved in projects.

Thus, whilst participatory visual methods can offer value as a research approach, it’s also important for researchers to remain aware of the trade-offs and tensions involved in any participatory visual project. Some of those have been discussed here, but there are many further considerations in carrying out any participatory visual project. Importantly, these often manifest in different ways for each project – and as such, it’s important for those of us utilising participatory visual methods to continually critically reflect on the claims and assumptions we make about the meaning of voice, the value of the visual, and what we consider to be participatory about participatory visual methods.

Further details about the participatory visual methods and voice project can be found at: http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/projects/methods-and-voice.

This article was originally posted on The Sociological Review blog on the 26th of May 2020 at https://www.thesociologicalreview.com/critical-reflections-on-participatory-visual-methods-and-voice/

What would a world without prisons be like?

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.

We take prisons for granted – but how effective are they? Are there better alternatives? In a new BBC ideas video, David Scott and Deborah H. Drake ask what a world without prisons would be like. The video is available to view at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/ideas/videos/viewpoint-what-would-a-world-without-prisons-be-li/p08nbj02?playlist=made-in-partnership-with-the-open-university

The video is accompanied by Scott and Drake’s Abolition in Questions: Part One, a previous HERC blog post, which is available to view at: https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/oucriminology.wordpress.com/593.

Why educate prisoners?

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, Stephen Akpabio-Klementowski considers the arguments for educating prisoners. Stephen Akpabio-Klementowski is a PhD candidate in Criminology, Associate Lecturer, and Regional Manager in the Students in Secure Environments team, at The Open University.

‘Why educate prisoners’ is a question that is always implicit in UK penal policy but, rarely ever explicitly addressed. For instance, the most recent government review of education in prisons which was conducted by Dame Sally Coates in 2016 failed to address this question directly. Admittedly, the review focused on prisoners’ access to education and the quality of education provided. However, it was a missed opportunity to state or restate the reasons and benefits of educating prisoners to their full potential. This blog addresses this question head on.

Prison education historically

Although widely known for their brutality, the Victorians were the first to recognise the futility of simply locking people up in the pursuit of punishment without doing something to address the underlying issues that brought them to prison. Their solution was to give prisoners access to learning and instructional activities (another term for education). Indeed, this has become one enduring feature of the UK’s criminal justice system. However, when it comes to Higher Education in prison, the approach is currently somewhat chaotic, which means that for many prisoners, access to Higher Education can be a lottery, depending on the particular prison that they find themselves in.

For example, structural barriers such as the so-called ‘six-year rule’ has the effect of restricting and discouraging engagement with the limited Higher Education opportunities available to prisoners. The six-year rule requires prisoners to be within six years of their earliest release date, in order to secure a student loan to fund their undergraduate degrees. This clearly restricts the number of prisoners who are eligible for loans and blocks some students from accessing HE. Indeed, no other cohort of potential Higher Education student is subject to any such condition.

Education as a human right

According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Vernor Muñoz, “learning in prison through educational programmes is generally considered to have an impact on recidivism, reintegration and, more specifically, employment outcomes upon release. Education is however much more than a tool for change; it is an imperative in its own right.” (Munoz, 2009). However, like other civil, political, economic and social rights denied to prisoners, the right to education is inequitable to what is available to their peers in the community.

Education as a public good

According to the Ministry of Justice, “research evidence strongly suggests that education in prison can help people desist (move away) from offending”. The UK has one of the highest rates of reoffending in the Western world and this comes at huge costs to both taxpayers and victims. Encouraging engagement with education in prisons should be a priority as it has been shown to work in reducing reoffending.

According to official sources, 42% of adult prisoners report having been permanently excluded from school. Out of 101,600 learners, under the previous OLASS (Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service) contracts for prison education, only 100 prisoners participated in a full Level 3 course (equivalent to ‘A’ level) in 2014/15, with none participating at Level 4 which is equivalent to first year undergraduate or above (MoJ, Unlocking Potential, 2016). Recognition of the importance of education in prisons appears to have been lost (Coates, 2016). Considering that most prisoners will eventually be released back into the community at some point, there is a need to ensure that they develop the right skills and gain useful qualifications whilst in custody, to help facilitate their successful reintegration back into society. Thus, they may be better able to avoid the ‘revolving door’ that prison can be for many people.

A safer working environment

Many people would agree that the prison presents a difficult and challenging environment for both prisoners and staff, especially those working on the Wings. For instance, the threat and use of violence is a constant feature of daily prison life and it has been noted that “There is no evidence punishment works under any circumstances but much evidence that punishment (especially severe punishment) encourages violent or otherwise undesirable behaviour.  Thus, the idea that the particular punishments that prisons deliver will transform people and encourage (or force) them to lead better lives upon release is fundamentally flawed.” (Drake and Scott, 2017). Conversely, a prison full of people engaged in purposeful learning activities which can help improve their well-being and is likely to generate a different, more positive atmosphere.

Academic research conducted by the Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA), a network of academics with an interest in prison education suggests that education in prison serves many purposes and significantly improves prisoners’ sense of well-being, an antidote to what Sykes (1958) describes as the ‘pains of imprisonment’. Other benefits include increasing human and social capital, knowledge, skills and employability.

A practitioner’s perspective

As someone who has been involved in education in prisons for almost two decades now, my experience has provided me with unique insights and knowledge about the value of educating those in custody.

As a student in prison, I found a culture where learning was disincentivised, almost frowned upon. The idea that you could put your time to better use than education was ever present and that can have a draining effect on a student.

As a regional manager for a university with students in prison, my role involves working with the prison authorities to facilitate higher education (HE) study in their establishments. My experience in this role has helped to highlight the many difficulties faced by both prisoners who wish to engage in higher level study and prison staff who are tasked with supporting them.

I also lecture Year 1 criminology students and have a number of prisoners in my student group. In my experience, these students are amongst the most dedicated and committed you can come across. This is magnified when you consider the conditions under which prisoners are forced to learn and study.

In summary

The benefits of educating prisoners are numerous. For example, education can aid prisoners’ personal development and improve their sense of well-being, thereby contributing to an improved prison environment for prisoners and staff alike. In addition, it can help to reduce the financial cost of reoffending and the number of victims of crime, thus helping prisoners with their successful reintegration back into society. This, I believe, is a key objective for the prison service.

This blog was originally posted at OpenLearn – https://www.open.edu/openlearn/society-politics-law/society-matters/should-we-educate-prisoners – and is accompanied by a short film at BBC Ideashttps://www.bbc.co.uk/ideas/videos/how-i-went-from-prisoner-to-phd/p08mpxt.

Alternative Perspectives to nature

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.

Dr. Eleni Dimou looks at how we have lost our relationality to nature and considers alternative indigenous perspectives that view human beings in connection and complementarity with Mother Earth.

The origin of the recent pandemic of COVID-19 that has affected significantly everybody’s life around the world, has been traced to be most likely Wuhan’s live wildlife market in China. A market, which is used from a minority of rich and powerful individuals in China. What happens in this and similar markets around the world is that alive non-human animals are being stacked for human consumption one on top of the other, which increases the possibility for viruses to pass from one species to another. This was allegedly the case with COVID-19, which passed from a bat to a pangolin before infecting humans.

What is important to understand through Wuhan’s example, however, is that not only in China but around the world’s global capitalist economy, non-human animals and nature in its entirety, are considered simply as ‘resources’ to be used, consumed, exploited and destroyed for profit (Escobar, 1995; White, 2013; Acuña, 2015; Blum, 2018; Brisman et al., 2018). Perceiving the Earth and non-human entities as resources is a result of the dominance of Western frameworks of knowledge over the rest of the world due to colonialism and neo-colonialism; among these frameworks is the economic system of capitalism, which prioritises profit over life (Quijano, 2000; Mignolo, 2011; Vázquez, 2017; Escobar, 2020). Some of the consequences of the dominance of Western ways of thought is not only COVID-19 but also climate change that threatens life on the planet as a whole.

Myanmar Illicit Endangered Wildlife Market. Photograph by Dan Bennett / Wikimedia Commons

So how did we come to this? You may have heard of ‘cogito ergo sum’ (I think therefore I am). This quote by Descartes is one of the most important Western philosophical quotes and a key pillar of the Enlightenment, which dawned during the 17th century (Mignolo, 2018). Also called as the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, was associated with European conceptions of science, reason, progress, free-will, order and control (Grosfoguel, 2011; Blum, 2018).   Descartes by privileging the mind came to construct binaries that constituted what it means to be human: human versus nature, reason versus nature (Escobar, 2020). As such, if humankind was distinct from the natural world, then we could in fact treat it as our servant, as a resource to be exploited, as our slave (Blum, 2018). Descartes quote non only marked the beginning of what we term as the modern world in the West but also the start of the Age of the Anthropocene or Anthropocentrism, whereby human life is considered to be the most important form of life; it is superior to nature and other non-human animals, and as such it is seen to be the centre of the world (Klages, 1913; Vázquez, 2017; Mignolo, 2018; Escobar, 2020). The Earth though is not anthropocentric and if we carry on treating it as we have done for the past centuries, it will continue to exist without us, as it has done for billions of years. So could we do something differently?

The Earth is not only pieces of dust from which we were born. The Earth is history. The Earth is Mother. The Earth is Eternal Father. That is why we are all brothers and sisters: the humans, the animals and things. The Earth is dignity. The Earth is the Spirit of our people and our ancestors. The Earth is Life itself from the indigenous point of view. The Earth is history.

Berito Cobaria: Spiritual Leader of the U’wa tribe Colombia [(Cidemos, 2016) translation from Spanish by the author]

Cobaria’s quote provides the essence of how many indigenous cultures around the world have viewed the relationship of humans with the Earth: as one of coexistence, connection and complementarity (Kusch, 1970; Mignolo, 2018; Escobar, 2020). Mother Earth is a living spirit to which humans are only one part of its interconnected whole (Klages, 1913). That is why for many of these civilizations the Western binary distinction between humans and nature makes no sense, as everything is interconnected (Kusch, 1970; Escobar, 2020). Even though indigenous knowledges have been actively suppressed, silenced, discredited and almost erased in some cases from colonial and neo-colonial power relations over the past centuries’ and the subsequent dominance of Western frameworks of knowledge (Quijano, 2000; Klages, 1913; Mignolo, 2011; Vázquez, 2017; Escobar, 2018); in recent years some positive developments of resurfacing indigenous knowledges have been taking place. Bolivia and Ecuador for example have passed into their constitution laws which grant all nature equal rights to humans. Perhaps then a more global paradigm shift that draws in indigenous ‘nature wisdom’ is needed if we are to reverse the destructive consequences of our practices over the past centuries.

This blog was originally posted at OpenLearnhttps://www.open.edu/openlearn/nature-environment/creative-climate/alternative-perspectives-nature – and is accompanied by a short film at BBC Ideas, https://www.bbc.co.uk/ideas/videos/is-it-time-to-reassess-our-relationship-with-natur/p08l2xcb


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