Pride and Anti-Gender Harm

Dr Avi Boukli, The Open University

Athens 2016Photo credit: Avi Boukli, Athens 2016

 

Is ‘Straight Pride’ a celebration of anti-gender politics? This blogpost poses an alternative critical approach in which the orienting concept is anti-gender harm. To do so it uses the example of Greek Straight Pride that took place on the same day as the LGBT Athens Pride in the summer of 2018 to highlight three brief points about the connection between Straight Pride and anti-gender politics.

On 9th June 2018, the LGBT Athens Pride took place. The parade was extremely successful this year. An estimated 60,000 people attended, which is in stark contrast to only 500 attendees in 2005 when the first Athens Pride took place. This year, the main slogan of Athens Pride involved the word ‘Present’ (Parousa). This slogan translates as “I am present” in this struggle, in this celebration, in this shared experience, and voice. But ‘present’ was used in the feminine form, as if the person stating ‘present’ was a woman. This was meant to celebrate femininity or femininities and subvert the ways in which hegemonic masculinity has colonised the way we speak and the ways in which using masculine pronouns has been considered neutral, dominant, and inclusive in Greek.

For Greece during a time of austerity, the 2018 Athens Pride took on diplomatic dimensions, as it was highlighted that diplomats from 32 countries attended in addition to the usual revellers. In many ways Pride was understood to be a positive political achievement. Symbolically, it signalled Greece’s capacity to protect minority rights and washed away past failures and human rights violations amidst the so-called ‘refugee crisis’. It also fitted in with a wider progressive narrative: we were told that the summer of 2018 was the ‘jumping out of the frying pan’ moment for Greece, since it was time for Greece to exit the memorandum (bailout) and follow the road to recovery. This is not to be dismissed, considering that since 2007 the Greek state has been through consecutive phases of brutal restructuring after plunging steeply into recession. However, while Athens Pride was celebrated as a success, a second pride was also taking off. This is no other than ‘Straight Pride’.

While one may dismiss Straight Pride as a retro-nostalgic idiosyncrasy, the endeavour of only a handful of people, and even a genuine celebration of straight orientations, I would like us to consider what ‘Straight Pride’ does. Straight Pride was driven by straight people who felt that LGBT Pride erases straight experiences as well as ‘real’ Greek experiences, and effectively used ‘straightness’ as the litmus test of Greek citizenship. This is evident in the main banner at the forefront of the Straight Pride Parade, which read as ‘The Parade of Greeks’ (Ellinon Parelasi).

Firstly, Straight Pride is not a politically neutral endeavour endemic to Greece alone. Gradually since the 1970s instances of both administrative and social discrimination have culminated in Straight Pride campaigns around the world and in recent years reenergised calls around the concept of Straight Pride, such as the call for the inaugural celebration of SPAM (Straight Pride American Month) by the vice mayor of Dixon, California, in July 2018. These are not politically neutral strategies, but rather are the result of the coalescence of conservative forces. In the Greek Straight Pride example, the architect of the operation is the far-right, ‘patriotic movement’, Anakatalipsi (repossession), whose leader was a 2014 candidate with ‘Golden Dawn’, a political party often described as fascist and neo-Nazi. Anakatalipsi’s Facebook page portrays queer identities as a direct attack against traditional national order and, hence, a legitimate target for elimination. This confluence of Straight Pride and far-right politics, while not surprising, should nevertheless concern us.

Secondly, Straight Pride is not weak. Just on Facebook alone at the time of writing this blogpost there were at least 50 Facebook groups dedicated to Straight Pride and its underlying principles. Most of these groups seem to be characterised by a frenzied fixation on the existence (real or imagined) of leftwing queer propaganda that represents an attack on traditional values, an assault on the heterosexual nuclear family – distinctly comprised of ‘born’ women and men, on religion, on property rights, and on laissez-faire markets. In these representations women and men need to ‘be born female or born male’, a statement that erases any processes involved in sexing and gendering bodies. This is connected to a wider contemporary resurgence of right and far-right politics, which has led to a renewed backlash against women’s rights and LGBT rights globally, as is evident in the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh who seems committed to rolling back Roe v. Wade on abortion rights, the Romanian referendum against same-sex marriage, the unravelling of a rather slow investigation of the violent death of Greek queer activist Zak Kostopoulos, and repeated attacks on trans people in national newspapers in the UK all taking place in the same week.

Thirdly, the reemergence of Straight Pride should be a call to action. It is important for us to utilise a critical lens in order to question what Straight Pride may mean, what it does, what symbolic spaces it occupies, what histories it colonises, and what struggles it aims to obliterate. At the same time, it is a call for a deeper exploration of the connections between sexuality, race, gender, nation, class, disability, religion, and ethnicity in relation to the tactics that make us governable. In the example of the Greek Straight Pride, the attachments to a nationalist agenda have implications for the boundaries that determine who is a Greek citizen and who is abjected. As such the available options for all people are framed strictly as either Greek Straight Pride or LGBT Athens Pride. Consequently, strategies such as homonormativity, homonationalism, and co-optation are presented as the only way of advancing LGBT acceptance and inclusion, while at the same time concealing the neocolonialist and neoliberal assumptions that underpin these strategies.

Therefore, while challenging Straight Pride and the politics inherent to it, we should not be complacent about critically interrogating strategies for recognition and inclusion. Further, even if Straight Pride does not explicitly target gender studies as a discipline, it ties into wider current attacks against the legitimacy of knowledge about gender and sexuality. If the crumbling walls of Pride shock some us into thinking more critically about the power of anti-gender politics, then Straight Pride may also inadvertently open up an interdisciplinary critical space of collective resistance and struggle against anti-gender harm.

This post was originally published on the LSE Engenderings blog at: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/gender/2018/10/23/pride-and-anti-gender-harm/

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Prisons and Matters of Life and Death

Dr Deborah H. Drake, The Open University

 

On 27 September, 2018 Safe Ground held their annual Symposium.  For those who don’t know, Safe Ground is a charity that designs and delivers therapeutic arts programmes in prisons and the community. Their annual symposiums are always amazing events – lively and interesting and aimed at having hard conversations about prisons and punishment.  This year, the programme included performances and panel discussions.  The format and tone of the day invited a wide range of perspectives, ideas and experiences that stimulated all manner of discussion, emotion, inspiration and reflection.


Safe Ground’s symposium title this year was: ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and, as might be expected, many of the discussions focused on deaths in custody.  One of the key issues that kept emerging again and again from the panels, performers and presenters was the voluminous recommendations that have emerged out the inquiries that have followed deaths in custody over the last twenty-five or so years and the fact that many of the recommendations have failed to be implemented.  This is interesting…and scandalous.  It calls to mind questions on what prison policy makers, prison managers and senior-level prison officials must really value and what they don’t.

After every death in custody, there is a coroner’s inquest (for some compelling research that explores this, see: Deaths After Police Contact, by David Baker).  Often it is also the case that the charity Inquest will become involved to help bereaved families and friends to investigate the circumstances of their loved one’s death.  In addition, there have been individual cases of deaths in prison custody where a special investigation was launched.  For example, after the murder of Zahid Mubarek in 2000, his family and others pressurised the Home and Justice Secretaries to launch an inquiry and the House of Lords finally launched a Public Inquiry; the report on which, was published in 2006.

So why is it that so many recommendations after deaths in custody are ever fully implemented or that attempts at implementation are not universal across the whole of the prison estate? The most charitable of possible explanations of why this might be the case, could be that prisons are just hopeless at implementing change quickly and that they are working hard to address their operational shortcomings so that it is very difficult to get every establishment to comply with detailed changes of practice at the ground level.  However, is that really what is behind the failure to address the practices that seem to lead to deaths in custody?

Could it be the case that the reason inquiry recommendations that follow deaths in custody are rarely fully implemented across the prison estate is simply that the prison system has an underlying indifference and disregard for the lives of those it holds in custody?  Of course, the official statement of purpose of the Prison Service says that it has a duty to look after people in custody with humanity.  However, their track record demonstrates that prisons pose a serious threat to human life and that they do not take this duty as seriously as they take other aspects of their work, such as security and control.  It seems to me that, on the basis of the evidence, no matter how high the death count rises, no matter how many recommendations come out of death in custody inquiries, no serious change is likely to follow.  The reason for this is, quite simply, that the changes that would be required to reduce the death count are just not seen as important, necessary or vital enough to the order, control and security of prisons.  It is also probably true that a death or even numerous deaths in custody are not perceived as embarrassing enough to the Prison Service.  Whichever way you look at it, though, there is a repeated lack of due care and attention given to the recommendations that follow a death in custody inquiry by the Prison Service and, as a result, this must surely mean that these lives do not matter enough for the Prison Service to make significant changes to their working practices.   This is a bold claim.  But looking at the Prison Service’s relatively recent history, it becomes clear that the Prison Service just does not value the lives it has in its care as much as it values other aspects of prison practice.

On Friday 9 September 1994, six prisoners in Whitemoor’s Special Security Unit escaped.  All six prisoners were immediately recaptured.  On Tuesday 3 January 1995 three prisoners escaped from Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight.  They were all recaptured five days later, still on the Isle of Wight.  Two inquiries were immediately launched to examine the events that led up to the escapes.  The swiftness with which these inquiries were launched is, in itself, worth noting because it demonstrates an immediate willingness for responsibility-taking on the part of prisons officials.  No matter where the chips fell (and fall they did, but that’s another story), there was an immediate and widespread understanding throughout government and the Prison Service that something needed to be done and that practices needed to change (see this article for example).

Together the Woodcock and the Learmont inquiries produced 191 recommendations.  A substantial number of these recommendations related to security and control measures.  Almost all of these recommendations were implemented – not just in maximum-security prisons (from which the two escapes occurred), but across all parts of the prison estate.  The implemented recommendations resulted, within a few short years, in a huge range of new practices, policies and procedures that significantly altered the working and lived experiences of staff and prisoners and they remain much of the basis for security and control measures in practice in prisons to this very day.

Of course, security and control matter in prisons.  If you’re going to go to all the trouble of having a prison system, then prisons should, at the very least, be secure and controlled.  No argument there.  However, what is important to take from the Woodcock and Learmont inquiries is just how efficient, swift and complete the Prison Service can be in implementing recommendations when it really wants to.

So, why might the Prison Service have been so proficient in implementing these recommendations and yet so woefully inadequate at successfully implementing the many recommendations that follow deaths in custody or, even, just creating prison practices that result in less frequent losses of life?  The answer seems obvious.  The lives of prisoners just don’t matter as much as an embarrassing high-profile escape and, by association, as much as security and control measures.  That’s really what it comes down to.  Someone from the Prison Service might argue back at me and say: ‘yes, but these were escapes from maximum-security prisons and no one would want dangerous people out on the loose, posing a threat to the general public.  These escapes caused a real depth of fear in the communities where these prisons are located and the shock waves reverberated around the whole of the country.’  All of this is true.  However, what about the threat that prisons themselves pose to the general public – to those men and women who find themselves behind bars (i.e. they’re members of the general public too) and who subsequently wind up dead? Let’s try and look at this from the perspective of the threat to human life that escapes pose versus the threat to human life that prisons themselves pose.

Since the Woodcock and Learmont recommendations have been implemented – to the best of our knowledge – no one has been killed by an escaped prisoner.  In fact, I found no recorded evidence of an escaped prisoner in the UK having killed someone.  However, between 1994 (when the Whitemoor escape took place) to 2018, there have been 4,278 deaths in custody.  These can be broken down as follows: 1898 self-inflicted deaths; 2290 non-self-inflicted deaths; 82 other, non-natural causes; 8 restraints (source: https://www.inquest.org.uk/deaths-in-prison).

The danger and risk to human life that prisons pose, certainly seems to warrant a significant re-thinking of the way prisons are organised and managed.  The question, however, remains whether the Prison Service can begin to value the lives it has in its care at the very least as much as it values security and control.

The punitive shift towards the criminalisation of homelessness

Sharon Hartles is an MA student (MA Crime and Justice) with the Open University.

The number of people living in poverty in the UK dramatically increased as a consequence of the government’s shift towards market-based capitalism, underpinned by the social-economic reforms endorsed in the 1980s. This situation was further exacerbated by the financial global crisis of 2007 – 2008, which led to the UK government bailing out the British banks to prevent a collapse of the British banking system. Unsurprisingly, the ramification of the government’s decision to bail out the banks initially took the form of a stimulus programme which was superseded in 2010 by austerity measures. The government’s spending cuts, as part of these measures, led to a reduction in the budget deficit which has had far reaching impacts on the poorest and most vulnerable/marginalised people in the UK, including those affected by homelessness.

Since the onset of austerity in 2010, the estimated number of people sleeping rough in England has increased year on year from 2010 – 2017. Approximately, 4,751 people bedded down outside overnight on a snapshot night in autumn 2017 compared to 1,768 people on a snapshot night in autumn 2010. Rough sleeping has therefore more than doubled over these seven years. However, the reason why rough sleepers are becoming more visible in British cities and public open spaces is because support services and hostel availability are diminishing, as a direct result of the government cuts and reform to areas such as welfare.

In July 2014, the Home Office published its reform of anti-social behaviour powers to support the effective use of new powers to tackle anti-social behaviour which takes place in public and open spaces. According to the Home Office reform information, “where the actions of a selfish few ruin these spaces, through public drunkenness, aggressive begging, irresponsible dog ownership or general anti-social behaviour, these places can be lost to the communities who use them”. This powerful form of labelling stigmatises homelessness as othering, the act by which groups of individuals become represented as an outsider and not one of us. Such stigmatisation associated with homelessness limits exposure, opposition, active resistance and the publics’ outrage, enabling the government to punitively criminalise homelessness and enforce this through the criminal justice system.

police arrest.png

Image Source: Michael Donne/Science Photo Library / Universal Images Group

In England, between 2015 – 2016, 2,365 people were prosecuted for committing vagrancy-related offences including begging. Prior to the financial crisis and the introduction of austerity measures, 1,510 people were prosecuted during 2006 – 2007. Vagrancy-related offences have increased by more than 70% in one decade.  In 2014, three men were nearly prosecuted for taking discarded food (cheese, tomatoes and mushrooms) from a refuse bin. In 2015, sixty-two rough sleepers were arrested by the Sussex Police for accepting money from the public. On the other hand, no members of the public were arrested for offering and donating money to rough sleepers. The resurrection of the Dickensian vagrancy law together with the new Public Space Protection Orders which have been enacted in over 50 local authorities has resulted in a growing number of vulnerable homeless people being fined, given criminal convictions and even imprisoned for street drinking, defecating, urinating, begging and rough sleeping in public spaces.

In a bid to save money the UK government implemented a crime control approach to homelessness, concerned with promoting security and controlling crime, in favour of a social welfare approach, concerned with promoting equality, inclusion and well-being. Such a decision to shift to an enforcement-based approach was underpinned by the following political and economic factors: the financial global crisis of 2007 – 2008, coupled with the government’s choices to bail the banks out and introduce austerity measures to reduce government spending.  This causal relationship between the government’s policy to shift towards a crime control approach to homelessness resulted in the punitive shift towards the criminalisation of homelessness. In contrast, only 28 people were charged and only 5 people were convicted in the UK for their part in the financial crisis (bankers – guilty of white-collar crimes), which was considered by economists to be the worst and most significant crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The tax-payers in the UK have borne the financial brunt of the bankers’ crimes since 2010 and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.  However, there are others such as those affected by homelessness who are fighting for their right to exist, not to be criminalised and not to lose or have their liberty restricted.

While homelessness in the UK has increased by 134% since 2010 in line with the imposed austerity measures, homelessness in Finland has fallen by 35% over the same period of time. In contrast to the UK government ushering in its crime control approach that punitively criminalises homelessness, the Finnish government is promoting a social welfare approach and is committed to abolishing homelessness altogether. It is clear that the UK government has scapegoated homelessness to whitewash the financial deficit resulting from the bankers’ white-collar crimes (repackaging loans and playing roulette games with the stability of global markets). As is common practice through the exercise of ‘smoke and mirrors’, the government has orchestrated the punitive shift towards the criminalisation of homelessness in order to divert the publics’ gaze away from the real crimes and the real criminals who are responsible for causing the worst financial crisis in global history.

This blog was originally posted at https://thebscblog.wordpress.com/2018/10/22/the-punitive-shift-towards-the-criminalisation-of-homelessness/ (The BSC Blog) on 22 October 2018, and is republished here with the permission of the author.

Sharon Hartles can be contacted at sh28739@my.open.ac.uk

Do participatory visual methods give voice?

Dr Daniel McCulloch, The Open University

Logo 1

Participatory visual methods are those in which research participants are active in shaping the project as co-producers of visual knowledge. They can be traced back to two main sorts of approaches: use of visual data as stimulus in research (for example photo-elicitation) and visual data as the product of research (e.g. visual ethnography) (Pauwels, 2015).

These have become a popular research and social activism tool across various disciplines, with many researchers employing them to increase the presence of the ‘voices’ of participants in research, particularly where so-called marginalised groups are said to have had their ‘voices’ silenced in mainstream cultural and political decision-making processes (Fairey, 2017; Luttrell and Chalfen, 2010).

Although there is no universal conceptualisation of ‘voice’, it 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, and particularly ‘voice that matters’ (Couldry, 2010).

The notion of ‘voice that matters’ refers to both expressing one’s own voice, and to the right to be heard by others (Dreher, 2012; Thomson, 2009), and as such, can be understood to be linked to the idea of ‘listening’ (Fairey, 2017).

Commentators on participatory visual methods have highlighted the need for critical assessment of the relationship between participatory visual methods and voice due to the influences at play throughout the process. These influences include:
• ‘intrusive presences’ such as close relatives and friends of participants during data production (Mannay, 2013);
• the impact of researcher authority, particularly where voices do not fit the researcher’s desired narrative (Fairey, 2017), and
• ways in which cultural, social, and political norms and values can influence participant voices (Couldry, 2010).

Questions also persist around whether voice is ‘given’, ‘negotiated’, ‘constructed’, ‘co-created’, or a combination of these and others (Luttrell and Chalfen, 2010). Such questions concern our understandings of ‘voice’, our views on the relationship between researchers and participants, and our judgements of the methodological capabilities of participatory visual methods.

But how do we know whether these methods actually ‘give voice’ to participants? The project entitled Do participatory visual methods give voice? is exploring the evidence. Such evidence will be important for both academic researchers, and for advocacy groups and practitioners who make use of these methods in their work. To assess of the relationship between participatory visual methods and voice, the project includes researcher understandings of this relationship, participant assessments of participatory visual methods, and audience understandings of visual outputs.

The project was funded by NCRM in September 2017 and runs until the end of February 2019. So far, the project team have engaged in a review of the literature, as well as carrying out two workshops with experienced researchers. In addition to highlighting different conceptualisations of voice, preliminary findings show variations in what researchers count as participation. Furthermore, questions remain about whether methods are ever participatory in and of themselves, or whether these are part of a wider participatory approach to research. Workshops with researchers have shown an appetite for ongoing discussion, so an online forum is being established to facilitate this. Anyone wishing to join the conversation should get in contact using any of the means at the end of this article.

The project team is currently facilitating participatory visual research with a so-called marginalised community about their experiences of living in a stigmatised area associated with poverty. Participant feedback will assess both the methods and the voice offered through them – prior to, during, and after data generation. The team will also ask audiences about their understandings of the participant voices evident within visual outputs.

Initial findings from the early part of the project were presented at the British Sociological Association (BSA) conference in April 2018, and at the ESRC Research Methods Festival in July 2018. Check the project website, the HERC blog site and the Daniel McCulloch’s ORO page as further findings from the study emerge.

Website: http://methods-and-voice.org
Twitter: @methodsandvoice
Instagram: methodsandvoice
Email: daniel.mcculloch@open.ac.uk

 

This post was originally published on the NCRM website at: https://www.ncrm.ac.uk/news/show.php?article=5540.
The project logo was created by Emil Allard.

Prisons: Dangerous for Whom?

Dr. David Scott, The Open University and Professor Joe Sim, Liverpool John Moores University

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Image source: https://www.canva.com/photos/misc/MACZiQ4q0iU-freedom-will-prison-barbed-wire-fencing-run/?query=prison

 

Prison officers have been in dispute with successive governments since 1972 when the Prison Officers Association (POA) threatened a national strike unless staffing levels at HMP Gartree were increased. Two inter-related themes have dominated these disputes since then: the control of prisons and staff safety. In terms of the first theme, the issue for the POA, contrary to their public pronouncements, has not been about prisoners controlling prisons. This is a myth. In the vast majority of prisons, prison officers remain firmly in control. Rather, the POA has always been concerned with outsiders – probation officers, social workers, academics, managers, and ‘bean counters’ – coming into prisons, exposing the authoritarian use of their discretion and calling them to account.

Alternative Explanations

In terms of the dangers prison staff face, the picture is much more complex than the POA and the media suggest. First, eight prison officers have been murdered since 1850.  It is 53 years since the last prison officer in England and Wales was killed by a prisoner. In contrast, according to the charity INQUEST, 4,640 prisoners have died in prison since 1990, 2,075 of these deaths were self-inflicted. Ministry of Justice figures show that up to March 2018, there were 467 incidents of self-harm per 1,000 male prisoners, a rise of 14% over the year. In women’s prisons, the rate was 2,244 incidents per 1000 prisoners, a rise of 24%. So whose safety counts in prison?

Second, the cuts have been blamed for the rise in violence. Clearly they are an issue. However, the pre-cuts prison was also a place of danger for prisoners. Between 1990 and 2010, according to INQUEST’s data, there were nearly 2,500 deaths, 1,404 of them self-inflicted. Furthermore, the focus on the cuts does not explain the lack of safety for prisoners, and the appalling regime, in prisons such as Liverpool which was well-staffed. The POA has highlighted the lack of staff safety for decades when prisons were full of experienced staff, so their argument about the cuts to these staff also does not add up. The cuts might have intensified the crisis, they have not caused it.

Third, what about the dangers prison staff face compared with other occupations? In 1923, there were similar claims about violence against them after an officer was murdered. However, a committee of inquiry concluded that prison work was less dangerous than the work done by railway workers, miners, quarry workers, police officers and factory workers. In 1919, another official inquiry into the conditions of service for prison officers, observed that ‘the life of a warder is more dreary than that of a policeman, but not so dangerous’. Historically, compared with other occupations, prison work has been relatively safe and this remains true today.  According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)in 2017-18, 144 workers were killed in Great Britain in different occupations including construction, agriculture and manufacturing. The dangers prison officers face compared with other occupations becomes even more problematic when considered against the fact that the data from the HSE seriously underestimates the actual number of workplace fatalities in the country.

Fourth, the recording of prison assaults has changed. Like the recording of crime, such changes can have an impact on what appears to be an increase in assaults or crime. In April 2017, there was a change which simplified how incidents involving staff were recorded. According to the Ministry of Justice, this, in turn, ‘simplified how incidents involving staff are identified, however, it is possible this has increased the recording of incidents’. There have also been incidents in the past when claims by prison officers about the rate of prisoner violence have been questioned. A prison officer had claims published in both The Times and the Civil Service Gazette in 1882 that prison staff at Chatham Prison were victims of assaults with ‘fists, stones and bricks’ virtually on a daily basis.  Yet, when these claims were investigated by the Prison Directors, they found that there had been two serious assaults in the year and twelve trivial cases, consisting merely in physically resisting the officer’.

Fifth, the health and safety of prison officers can also be compromised by factors totally unrelated to assaults by prisoners. Musculoskeletal problems, sickness, stress, bullying by managers, anxiety and depression have also been found to contribute to days lost at work. Indeed, the National Audit Office (NAO) pointed out in 1999 that sickness arising from accidents at 5% and assaults at 2% ‘represented a small proportion’ of absences from work among prison officers. In 2004, the NAO also noted the number of days lost as a result of depression, anxiety, stress and nervous debility rose by 53% from 116,744 days lost in 1999-00 to 178,625 days lost in 2002-03. The number of days lost as a result of accidents rose from 824 to 1201 while the number of days lost as a result of assaults increased from 397 to 693.

This issue also has a long history.  A report in 1919 observed that prison officer retirements ‘on the grounds of ill-health are abnormally numerous’. For all of the POA’s well-publicised concerns about the health and safety of its members, these issues, on the few occasions they are mentioned, come a long way behind the endless focus on assaults on staff. This is not an argument for saying assaults are unimportant. However, it is to say that assaults need to be put into a broader perspective in relation to what the prison does. It is the dehumanizing prison environment, rather than pathologically violent prisoners, which presents the greatest threat to the physical, psychological and emotional well-being of prison staff.

Finally, there is the question of staff on prisoner violence.  Official reports and inquiries have consistently denied the extent of prison officer violence. The famous Gladstone Report of 1895 recognised that there could be under-reporting of prison officer assaults, noting that ‘there may be many individual cases of hardship in which the prisoners, for obviously possible reasons, are afraid or unwilling to complain’. Yet the same report repeated the claims made in a number of official reports and commissions before and since, namely that if there is a problem, there cannot be ‘any ground for the charge other than the general à priori argument that in a large body of men there must be some black sheep’.  However, accounts by prisoners, and prison officers themselves, dispute the idea that prison officer violence is caused by individual ‘bad apples’ working in state institutions which are essentially benevolent, caring and humane.

Insider Accounts

Prisoners’ accounts of life inside have consistently testified to their often-brutal treatment at the hands of state servants since these accounts emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. However, they have also been consistently dismissed, their credibility tarnished by the authors’ ascribed status as convicted criminals. And yet, prisoners’ accounts have proved to be true when initially dismissed, for example, in the beatings experienced by prisoners after the demonstration at Hull prison in 1976, particularly black and Irish prisoners. Even if the state’s ‘truth’ about prisoners’ accounts was correct, the accounts by prison officers themselves, provide clear evidence that violence against prisoners, and their endless degradation, is more common and widespread than is officially recognized.

The autobiographies of prison officers reveal not only the authoritarian nature of the staff culture but also a number of other systemic issues, such as the lack of concern for the health and safety of prisoners and the derogatory language used to dehumanise them. One officer described having to ‘deal with a staggering array of crackheads, smackheads, drug dealers, arse-kickers, pimps, nonces, time-wasters and toe-rags’.  As for violence against prisoners, he noted  that ‘the general understanding is that if a con pisses off a screw, then the officer will give him a good kicking’.

Then there are the systemic issues of prison officers generating violent confrontations and / or  using ‘Control and Restraint’ techniques ‘to inflict as much pain as possible to inmates’; sanctioning prisoner on prisoner violence; ferociously abusing prisoners after disturbances; and blaming prisoners for violence:

We then overheard them discussing with a senior officer which one would claim on their report that the inmate had attacked them first and therefore had to be restrained. I stood there and could not believe what I had just heard, especially as I knew how calculated the attack was. … I am ashamed to admit it, whilst I never physically assaulted an inmate in such a way I did provide backup stories to help cover other officers.  This was not out of choice but rather through peer pressure, and it was the pressure to perpetrate such lies that contributed to my reasons for resigning from the service.

Finally, there is the largely hidden but systemic issue of legitimating violence against prisoners, where according to one account ‘some of the most unruly women would purposely pick a quarrel with an officer and force her to call for assistance. She would then struggle, kick and scratch, and eventually an officer from the men’s prison would be called in to assist her to the punishment cell’.

The Media

None of these systemic issues were discussed in the media during the most recent prison crisis. Rather, television and radio presenters uncritically disseminated the POA’s arguments. Their spokespersons, and serving and ex-prison officers, led the broadcasts, abetted by abject, ill-informed and extraordinarily leading questions by presenters who simply repeated the POA line on safety. The nadir was reached on Channel Four News in August. When asked ‘Do you feel safe, do your colleagues feel safe?’ a serving prison officer from Birmingham prison replied that ex-military personnel working in British prisons said they felt safer in Afghanistan and Iraq. The BBC proved no better on this occasion. Balance was totally compromised especially on the short, news items broadcast on the hour on Radio 4 where the only voices heard belonged to prison officers or their representatives.

Conclusion

The contemporary crisis in prisons is profound. However, it is not the first. There was a similar crisis 40 years ago where the same themes were prominent. Successive Conservative governments, in thrall to the POA, and hypocritical law and order crusades, did nothing. The result? The Strangeways (HMP Manchester) disturbance in 1990, the longest in British prison history. In government, the Labour Party was no better. Nor are their contemporary spokespersons on justice who are also in thrall to the POA, and to commonsensical, law and order discourses, while engaging in sheer political opportunism. The fact is that the crisis is too serious for such appalling posturing. If a future disaster is to be averted, politicians need to implement policies which will radically transform prisons and the wider criminal justice system. Given the puerile state of contemporary British politics, that seems to be too much to hope for in the current climate.

Thanks to Kym Atkinson, Keir Irwin-Rogers and Katie Tucker for their support with this blog.

Podcasting through the prison wall: Ear Hustle Season 3

James Mehigan, The Open University

San Quentin Prison

Image source: Jitze Couperus/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

 

San Quentin is probably California’s most famous prison. Johnny Cash recorded his second prison album there in 1969 and it even gets a mention in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Fans of Louis Theroux will remember his visit to the prison for his 2008 documentary Louis Theroux: Behind Bars. Though the reach of San Quentin’s reputation may stretch from Nobel Laureate to the BBC, it is unusual to hear a prisoner’s perspective on life as one of the 4,000 or so residents of California’s oldest prison. That is why the podcast Ear Hustle is essential listening for anybody interested in prisons, criminology or the justice system.

The name ‘Ear Hustle’ comes from the prison slang for over-hearing or listening in. The show is a collaboration between a visual artist who volunteers at the prison, Nigel Poor, and Earlonne Woods, a prisoner serving a sentence of 31 years to life for attempted second degree robbery. Poor began volunteering at the prison in 2011 and established a radio project with prisoners in 2013. She and Woods work together to tell the stories of the prisoners incarcerated in a way that is unusual, sensitive and thought provoking. In comparison with Theroux’s documentary which treated the prisoners with something of a lurid fascination, Ear Hustle treats each of its contributors with empathy and understanding.

Previous seasons have covered a variety of topics including the politics of sharing a space of 4.5*10.8 foot (137*329 cms) with cell mates, known by the slang term ‘cellies’. They have looked at the challenges of being both a parent and a prisoner as well as how prisoners keep pets. A slightly recurring theme relates to sexuality, the prison taboo which the podcast tackles head on. There is an episode on LGBTQ life in an institution where nobody is openly gay, and an episode discussing the way in which prisoners access formal and informal conjugal visits. There is also an interview with a prisoner given a long sentence as a teenager who is due to be released and is thinking through how the dating scene will deal with questions of incarceration and virginity.

On the more serious end of the spectrum is the saddening discussion of death row. San Quentin serves as California’s death row for men and houses some 700 men sentenced to die. This death row is bigger than the entire death rows of Texas (243) and Florida (374) and it may be the largest death row in the world. Although nobody has been executed at San Quentin since 2006, these prisoners live inside a ‘prison within a prison’. The Ear Hustle producers reached out to death row inmates through the prison paper and managed to interview some. The whole episode is touching and saddening and brings out the inherent barbarity involved when the state decides to take human life.

There is a risk when empathetically collecting first-hand accounts, that the narrative is one which over-romanticises the prison and the prisoner. So it is worth saying that Ear Hustle is not particularly guilty of this. It is clear throughout that the presenters are concerned about the plight of the victims of those interviewed as they choose their interviewees and their topics. In one memorable episode a trafficking victim confronts a trafficker about the nature of his crimes in a restorative justice symposium. It’s tough listening, but it is fantastic to hear a victim use the discussion so effectively.

Listeners can take what they want from the show but for me it is hard not to view it as a cautionary verse about the value of the European Convention of Human Rights (‘ECHR’). The abolition of the death penalty in Protocol 13 means that there would be no death row episode. On the other hand, the weakness of Article 8’s protection of private and family life means that there would be no conjugal visit episode for Ireland or the UK. So, for at least sex and death the ECHR has changed the lives of UK prisoners compared to their American cousins.

This impact can also be seen in the insights the show provides on how parole operates in California. In the UK the parole process has been shaped by Article 5 of the ECHR. Getting released on parole, known to prisoners of San Quentin as ‘getting a date’ is not subject to the same hard-won protections. For example you can hear the prisoners discussing whether the Governor of California will accept the release decision of the parole board. Such a refusal would be a breach of a UK prisoner’s human rights today.

Season 3 started on 12 September 2018. It promises to expand on the insights and stories presented in the first 2 series and I’ll certainly be listening. Though it’s not just a podcast. There is an Ear Hustle website, which includes the transcripts of each episode (some prisoners without access to the podcast on prison radio have the transcripts posted in by family members) and a Twitter account. Perhaps more interestingly, an Instagram account with pictures from inside the prison helps bring a face to the voices that you come to know on the podcast.

This entire online platform, with its music, pictures and sounds helps bring the human voices out through the wall of the prison. It is hard to imagine a UK prison allowing such an innovative use of technology, but it would help to reach across the divide between the prison and the community it serves. We can only hope that it could be replicated here soon.

Gangs and serious youth violence: Is the Centre for Social Justice using statistics responsibly?

Keir Irwin-Rogers, The Open University

fake news

In the 12 months to March 2017, 61 young people aged 16-24 died as a result of knife crime in England and Wales. Violence between young people in the UK is a problem that I think merits serious attention, which is why I have been supporting the cross-party Youth Violence Commission as an academic advisor for the past two years.

During many meetings, roundtables and conferences on youth violence, I have been struck by people’s fixation on gangs whenever the issue of youth violence arises. Admittedly, I myself focused closely on ‘youth gangs’ for a number of years while I conducted research for the Dawes Unit – a specialist team within the social business, Catch22. During this time, I became increasingly concerned by what I considered to be significant limitations in the empirical evidence base on gangs.

As part of my own research, I recently contacted the Metropolitan Police Service to request their most up-to-date data on violent crime in London. In particular, I wanted to find out the proportion of violent offences that were being flagged as gang-related. Given the prominent place of gangs in government policy initiatives and the media, the results were not what I was expecting:

In 2016, just 3.8% of knife crime with injury (fatal, serious, moderate and minor) had been flagged by the MET as gang-related.

In light of the FOI statistics, I was taken aback by some of the claims made in the Centre for Social Justice’s recently published report, It Can Be Stopped: A proven blueprint to stop violence and tackle gang and related offending in London and beyond. Developing a clear agenda and narrative in its opening paragraphs, Iain Duncan Smith’s Think Tank state:

“It is estimated that gangs are responsible for as much as half of all knife crime with injury…”

I was keen to find out the reason for the discrepancy between the figures I had received from the Met and the claim being made by the CSJ in their report. The source provided to support their claim was the Metropolitan Police Service’s 62 page Business Plan 2017-18. With no page number provided by the CSJ (alas!), I proceeded to hunt through chapters on the Met’s vision, finances and performance frameworks. Upon reaching the end of this document, I had failed to find any reference to such a high proportion of knife crime being attributed to gangs.

This begged the question: why were the CSJ misdirecting their readers to a reference that did not support their claims?

I emailed the CSJ to bring this ‘mistake’ to their attention, and asked if they could point me in the direction of the real source on which they based their claims. While waiting for a response (which I have still not received), BBC Reality Check came to the rescue.

According to the BBC, the CSJ based this particular claim on data from the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC). This indicated that in the year to March 2017 there had been 4,446 reported offences of knife crime with injury. If you remove the cases in which the victim was over 24, and then exclude incidents of domestic violence, this leaves 2,028, which represents 45% of the total.

In a stunning leap of faith, the CSJ have assumed that all of the remaining 2,028 cases were consequently gang-related. To be clear, the claim being made is that knife crime with injury offences involving victims 24 years of age and under, which are not incidents of domestic violence, can all be assumed to be gang-related.

This is utterly implausible. The proximate reasons for knife crime with injury offences involving young people are numerous and varied. Many incidents are triggered by isolated episodes of disrespect that have nothing to do with street gangs. The CSJ may well consider this reality an inconvenience to the gang narrative they attempt to conjure throughout their report (which contains a whopping 478 references to the term ‘gang’).

The claim that gangs are responsible for as much as half of all knife crime with injury not only flies in the face of the Met’s own statistics (discussed above), but of other recent publications, because it is patently absurd. Certainly, it is possible that police statistics are to some extent unreliable, based upon shaky assumptions and/or limited intelligence. If the CSJ believes this is the case, then calls for better data on gang-related violence ought to be accompanied by measured statements about the existing evidence base – not wild claims that lack serious foundation.

Finally, the maxim about ‘people who live in glass houses’ sprung to mind when I saw the CSJ demand in this very report (see recommendation 39 on p.120) that people ‘desist’ from using ‘flawed…statistics’ to fuel ‘false narratives’.

While there is some sound research and analysis in It Can Be Stopped, it will continue to be overshadowed by the CSJ’s refusal to acknowledge their error and be honest with the public about the available (and limited) evidence on the scale of gang-related violence in London and the rest of the UK.

Knife crime, we can all agree, needs to be treated seriously. But doing so requires a rigorous evidence base, accurately and faithfully represented, if we are to avoid counter-productive, knee-jerk policy responses.