Do techniques for generating suspects contaminate procedures for identifying perpetrators?

Graham Pike and Jim Turner, The Open University

Français : Gouvernement Fédéral des Etats-Unis English: U.S. Federal Government [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There is considerable evidence that mistaken identification by an eyewitness is the leading cause of miscarriages of justice. For example, research done by The Innocence Project, has found that eyewitness misidentification plays a role in more than 70% of overturned convictions and is the single greatest contributing factor in wrongful convictions. So, what should we do? Abandon eyewitness evidence because it is too unreliable? As tempting as that might be, think of all the victims who you then also abandon by refusing them access to justice. Rely solely on forensic evidence maybe? Nice idea, but in reality, forensic science is not like it is in CSI TV shows. For one thing, it is used in only a small percentage of cases and estimates suggest that in only about 2% of criminal cases does forensic science link a suspect to the crime scene or victim (Peterson, Sommers, Baskin & Johnson, 2010). For another thing, The Innocence Project estimates that the misapplication of forensic science is itself a major contributing factor to miscarriages of justice (indeed is second only to eyewitness misidentification), and features in about 45% of cases involving a later exoneration.

Some crimes are captured on camera, and in those cases investigators may have an accurate and reliable record of what happened (e.g. car dash-cams may show evidence of dangerous driving, public CCTV cameras may be used to track the movements of terrorist suspects when preparing for an attack). However, unless advances in technology bring us into a world of total surveillance (and assuming we, as citizens, would accept such a world), the criminal justice system will always need to make use of eyewitness evidence to provide access to justice for victims of crime. Obviously, we can try to improve the situation by making sure law enforcement agencies are aware of the risks involved in obtaining evidence from eyewitnesses and use the most appropriate, evidence-based techniques. For example, in the UK, Code D of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 sets out evidence-based practice guidance for identifying suspects, which is periodically updated in light of new research.

A key issue is that we know from psychological research that human memory is not like computer memory, which perfectly stores whatever is put into it until it is later needed. Instead, human memory is a dynamic and changeable construct that is based on extracting meaning from the world around us, which means our memories are subjective and dependent on who we are. Importantly, this means that our memory for an event (such as a crime) is likely to change if we are later exposed to information about that event (known as ‘post-event information’), which is why it is common practice to separate witnesses so that they cannot share accounts.

Post-event information can come in many forms, including the questions posed by law enforcement officials, who can change a witness’s memory by asking a leading question (for example, asking ‘what colour coat was he wearing?’ may cause a witness to form a false memory of the suspect wearing a coat when in fact they were not). Showing a witness images of possible suspects (in a mugshot album for instance) is a particularly problematic form of post-event information because it is possible that the witness will ‘unconsciously transfer’ one of the images into their memory of the perpetrator – meaning they may then pick that person out at a line-up. You can find out more about unconscious transference in week 6 of our free online forensic psychology course (or click here to access the whole course from the beginning and explore a wide range of issues in forensic psychology).

One solution to the problem of post-event information could be for law enforcement to limit exposure to it by limiting their interaction with the witness, perhaps only involving them in the investigation to provide key evidence such as a statement and to attend a line-up or other identification procedure. Although that might be feasible in some cases, what about if the police do not have a suspect? In some cases, it could be that the only way the investigation could progress would be to ask the witness to create a facial composite (e.g. Photofit or E-FIT) that can be used to seek help from the public. However, these techniques involve showing the witness faces or computerised face-images during the composite process. Could this introduce post-event information which might contaminate the memory of the witness and therefore the evidence they could provide (i.e. identifying the suspect later on, once an arrest is made)? In essence, the question is whether the methods used by law enforcement to generate a suspect might then contaminate the evidence needed to prove in court that the suspect is indeed the perpetrator of the offence.

This was a question we sought to answer using the ‘mock investigation’ paradigm, in which participant-witnesses are shown a staged crime and then asked to provide evidence by researchers (who take the place of law enforcement officers) in the form of statements and through identification procedures. We were particularly interested in whether creating a facial composite image would interfere with the witness’s memory and make their decision at a subsequent identification procedure less accurate. Previous research in this area had tended to produce equivocal results, with some studies showing a detrimental effect and some not. However, the prior research had typically used quite an artificial approach in which undergraduate students (often psychology students taking part in experiments for course credit) were first shown a video of a crime, created a facial composite either by themselves or with a researcher and then, often immediately or after a short delay, attempted to identify the perpetrator in a photo line-up. Although such procedures are very useful, as they explore the underlying human cognition and performance in a very controlled setting, there are some obvious differences with the experiences of a real witness. In other words, existing research largely lacked ecological validity.

Given how high the potential stakes are in evaluating criminal investigation procedures, our research attempted to be as ‘real’ as possible. To this end we (1) used ‘live’ staged crimes (not a video), which were (2) seen by witnesses from a much more diverse range of backgrounds than typical undergraduate students, who then (3) worked with a police officer (in our Experiment 1) or a researcher who was an experienced composite operator (in our Experiment 2) to create a facial composite using the software and procedures that would be used in a real case, before (4) being shown an identification procedure 4-6 weeks later (the average time taken in reality). We also employed both photo line-ups (as used in the USA) and video identification parades (as used in the UK). Our results showed that, compared to a control group that did not create facial composites, creating a facial composite did not appear to adversely affect the decision made at a subsequent identification procedure. If you would like to read the full details of our study, you can access a copy of the paper from the Open University’s Open Research Online repository here: Pike, Brace, Turner and Vredeveldt, 2018.

As noted earlier, the results of prior research were equivocal – although, anecdotally, many researchers and legal practitioners seem (perhaps understandably) inclined towards a principle of caution, favouring the research that there is a detrimental effect of composite construction on subsequent identification. Our results support the existing body of research that suggests composite creation does not necessarily contaminate the memory of a witness, though obviously given the high stakes here great care needs to be taken in applying research results to practice. It is also important to note that research tends to deal with trends and averages, which can be problematic for operational practice which has to make decisions about a single witness.

However, and in conclusion, we think there is a useful take home message here about the importance of balancing the needs of the victim and the needs of the suspect. We have to realise that a human criminal justice system will never be perfect and, as unpleasant as it sounds, that means balancing the need for access to justice for victims with the need to avoid wrongful convictions. Attempts to address one of these problems may concomitantly, albeit inadvertently, increase the other. We do not, of course, claim to have solved this problem. However, the potential risk that creating facial composites will contaminate the witness’s memory does not seem to be a concern under realistic experimental conditions. We therefore think that this is a risk it might be worth taking if there is no other way to progress the investigation.


What is Crime?

David Scott, The Open University

Crime is an essentially contested concept.  There is no universally agreed definition of what a crime is.  However, the most straightforward way of thinking about crime is to look at it in terms of a legalistic perspective – from this approach a crime is an act which is illegal.  It’s against the law.  Specifically it is against the criminal law.  In so doing the act will have certain aspects to it – it will have an aspect of criminal harm and it will have an aspect of criminal blame. 

 Interestingly though, many people have questioned this legalistic definition.  First of all this is because it’s always going to be partial and determined within a very specific and limited set of criteria about what is crime.  If a given act  isn’t illegal, then whilst we might see it as wrong, or problematic or harmful, it’s not going to be something which will be defined as a crime.  Many criminologists  have argued  that it is important to unpack the legal definition, and have questioned the very notions of what is and what isn’t criminal harm.  Criminologists have also questioned notions around criminal blame and both the strengths and weaknesses of a backward looking approach grounded in individual culpability.

Watch Dr. David Scott discussing the question, What Is Crime?

A number of criminologists have even gone as far to say that a crime is a statist category, i.e. that it’s defined by the state and it’s infused with certain interests, ideas and power relations which reflect the interests of the powerful.  For these critics, the state defined categories of crime reflects the interests of those who have something to lose in society, where as at the same time it does not necessarily reflect the interests of those who are powerless or those at the bottom end of society.

Hence, the crime logic is seen as imposed and perhaps even a reconstruction of reality in legalistic and statist classifications.  A crime something which is placed as a specific legal category, as a way of generating meanings and understandings and some criminologists (sometimes referred to as abolitionists)  have argued that this  is a problem in itself and that we shouldn’t necessarily even think about the logic of crime because using the language and logic of crime will lead those who are responding to it down certain pathways which may be considered solutions, such as punishment.

Where’s the harm in educating distracted drivers?

Gemma Briggs, The Open University


This week is Road Safety Week, organised by the charity, Brake. The week is aimed at raising awareness and educating all road users about aspects of road safety.  Across the UK, people will be raising awareness in a range of activities from school children wearing brightly coloured clothing to explain how cyclists can best be seen on the roads, to workplace training promoting safer driving practice. This annual event takes great, effective steps in making our roads safer and it does so largely through educating the general public.

It may appear obvious that teaching the public about specific road safety issues could save lives. Indeed, alongside Brake’s work, successful campaigns run by Think! have been used to educate the public on key road safety messages. These campaigns attempt to deter drivers from ignoring laws relating to driver safety, such as speeding, drink driving, or using a phone while driving. Campaigns are used to support and explain the legislation they apply to. For example, the recent Think! campaign on distracted driving implored the public to ‘make the glove compartment the phone compartment’, with the advert ending with a reminder that those caught using their phone while driving face a £200 fine and 6 penalty points.

Think gov image

Image source:

These kind of campaigns appear to be relatively successful in terms of changing public attitudes. In the latest British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS 35, 2017), 70% of drivers agreed that using a hand-held phone while driving was unacceptable, demonstrating a marked shift in attitudes compared with the previous 10 years. While this is a promising change, it is likely that recent increases to fines and penalty points of drivers caught using phones contributed to this shift. Nevertheless, there is of course a difference between what an individual says is unacceptable and what they actually choose to do while driving.

Statistics show that a high number of road accidents continue to be attributed to driver inattention (Atchley, Tran & Salehinejad, 2017). One research project (Dingus, Guo, Lee, Antin, Perez, Buchanan-King & Hankey, 2016) which recorded drivers’ behaviour over a three year period found that drivers were engaging in distracting activities for more than half of the time they were driving, which doubled their risk of crashing compared to when they were driving undistracted. The effect on driving varied as a result of the type of distracting behaviour engaged in, such that using a touchscreen, for example, increased the risk of a crash approximately five-fold, while using a hand-held mobile phone was associated with a four-fold increased crash risk.

It’s not just hand-held devices that are problematic though. Decades of research has demonstrated that hands-free phone use is as distracting as hand-held phone use, due to the demands it imposes on a driver’s attention. Phone-using drivers are more likely to miss hazards, even when they occur directly in front of them (Briggs, Hole & Land, 2016); will take significantly longer to react to any hazards they do see, leading to greatly increased stopping distances (Briggs, Hole & Turner, 2018); and are four times more likely to crash than undistracted drivers (Redelmeier & Tibshirani, 1997). While various theoretical explanations have been put forward to explain the cognitive distraction caused by phone use, the negative effects on driving performance have been widely replicated and verified. Why then do safety campaigns only focus on the dangers of hand-held phone use?

The answer is simple: hand-held phone use is illegal, and the Government therefore wish to deter people from this type of offending. Hands-free phone use is not directly legislated against and is, in many areas, promoted as the safe alternative to hand-held phones. Many car manufacturers promote the idea of ‘connected vehicles’ which allow drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road – a message which ignores research findings demonstrating that hands-free offers no safety benefit to drivers (Ishigami and Klein, 2009). Unless refuted by the advertising standards agency, no rules prevent car manufacturers making such ‘safety’ claims about the technology in their vehicles.

In 2017, when mobile phone legislation was updated, the Government chose to remove the option for first time offenders to attend an educational course aimed at changing behaviour. This was because they felt the option of a course diluted the severity of the offence and considered that increased fines and points would be more of a deterrent than education. This decision came after the tabloid media published articles claiming that the police favoured offering courses over increased fines, and that education courses allowed offenders to ‘dodge bans….rather than being hit with penalty points’. This move ignored the role that education can have in changing behaviour, and preventing further offending, as well as evidence highlighting the effectiveness of the courses that had been offered up to that point. Education courses are also commonly offered across the UK for drivers who have committed speeding offences, and research has shown them to be very effective in terms of altering driver behaviour in the long term, above and beyond penalty points and fines.

By removing the opportunity for educators to explain to offenders why their behaviour was unsafe, the Government has removed a crucial element in the drive to reduce re-offending. The RAC’s response supports this view, suggesting that ‘…concerted action by the Government, police forces, road safety groups and motoring organisations working together..’ is required to address the ‘…handheld phone epidemic that has gripped the UK’. Given the issues of enforcing the current laws, despite some promising technological advancements, it appears that education has a key role to play in changing behaviour. What seems to have been missed in this strategy is an understanding that a balance of approaches to tackle this problem is needed. Namely, campaigns can attempt to deter offending in the first place, the police can enforce the law when necessary, and education can be offered to both prevent re-offending (when offered after enforcement) and to deter others from offending (when proactively offered via campaigns).

Recently, a new Think! campaign – the very imaginative pink kittens film – went further than simply attempting to deter drivers from using their phones with the threat of fines and penalty points. Instead, the ad neatly demonstrated what a driver can miss when looking at their phone, providing a concrete example to the public of why laws are in place. While this campaign was clearly focused on hand-held phone use, it could have gone a lot further to act as a deterrent to all phone use while driving. Instead, while this campaign is a great deterrent for hand-held phone use, it implicitly suggests that the main danger of phone use is not having your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel (potentially advocating the use of hands-free systems). While these are of course dangers, research has shown that drivers using a hands-free phone can look directly at a hazard yet still fail to see it (Strayer, Drews and Johnston, 2003; Briggs et al. 2016). The key issue, which needs to be represented in safety campaigns, is that a phone-using driver does not have their mind on the road.

I’ve previously asked if the laws on mobile phone use while driving fully reflect scientific knowledge. Until there is a ban on all phone use while driving, the law will fail to adequately reflect research findings. However, that doesn’t negate the responsibility of the Government to make the public aware of this research, via safety campaigns which are informed by scientific findings. These need to be carefully crafted to ensure they reflect current law, to act as a deterrent, yet don’t by implication promote hands-free phone use as a safe activity.

A strategy of both educating offenders, as well as the wider public, could reduce offending and literally save lives. Our current project in collaboration with the Centre for Policing Research and Learning is aimed at addressing these issues, with a view to creating educational resources, informed by current research, which will be freely available to everyone.


Pride and Anti-Gender Harm

Dr Avi Boukli, The Open University

athens-2016 (2)Photo 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:

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:

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 (The BSC Blog) on 22 October 2018, and is republished here with the permission of the author.

Sharon Hartles can be contacted at

Do participatory visual methods give voice?

Dr Daniel McCulloch, The Open University

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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.

Twitter: @methodsandvoice
Instagram: methodsandvoice


This post was originally published on the NCRM website at:
The project logo was created by Emil Allard.