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.


Prisons: Dangerous for Whom?

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

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Image source:


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.


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

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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.

Grenfell: Mis-Trust, Contempt and the Ongoing Struggle to be Heard

Steve Tombs, The Open University


Almost a year on from the most devastating fire in the UK for a century, the Public Inquiry began, following advocacy by INQUEST and others, with “commemoration hearings” dedicated to the memories of the 72 victims who lost their lives. It was an unremittingly painful, yet wholly just and necessary, process.

So much more is to be said and learnt about the circumstances leading up to the fire. But one thing we already know – and a fact to which anyone remotely connected to Grenfell Tower can surely never be reconciled – is that this mass killing followed a conscious decision  by the richest council in England to save £293,000. This is surely the apogee in the contempt displayed by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKCC) and the Tenants Management Organisation Grenfell residents which had “endured … for years” – what local MP Emma Dent Coad described as “a real disdain for people lower down the social order” – and must generate an enduring sense of worthlessness that the residents in and around the area will never shake off.  But what is perhaps more surprising – and disgusting – is that this contempt has persisted in the aftermath of the fire, further generating what Majid Yar has labelled harms of misrecognition– in essence, disrespect. It is with this mis-trust and contempt that this short comment is concerned, as we approach the one year anniversary of the fire.

One aspect of this contempt was the apparent in the complete lack of effective immediate response or leadership in the aftermath of the disaster – what Theresa May was to refer to, one week after the fire, as the “”failure of the state, local and national, to help people when they needed it most”. This is the context of the observation that “absence of clear strategies breeds lack of trust in authority, loss of confidence and a fear of the future that, sadly, is often well founded.” These failures on the part of authority persisted and continue to this day – as documented, for example, in the Initial and then the Second Report of the Independent Grenfell Recovery Taskforce, which have documented the continuing failings of RKCBC and the “severe trust deficit” between it and the local community. Then, more recently, the charity Muslim Aid has documented the void left by local and central Government, one filled “particularly in the first few weeks” by the community itself and a vast array of local organisations.

The continuing contempt on the part of central and local Government has also been repeatedly evidenced in the series of lies, half-truths and broken promises made to the affected households in the aftermath of the fire.



Image courtesy of  Justice4Grenfell at

One area of mis-trust was the palpable failure to meet the commitment made by the Prime Minister in the immediate aftermath of the fire – namely that “every person made homeless would receive an offer of accommodation within three weeks”. In fact, this was subsequently “clarified” as meaning temporary accommodation. In November 2017, RBKCC “promised that every survivor would have the opportunity to move into a new home before Christmas”, while weeks later the Minister for Housing and Planning estimated it would take RBKCC “up to 12 months” to rehome families. Moreover, the promise of being offered like-for-like tenancies was repeatedly broken.  As the Chair of Grenfell United noted, “For the survivors and affected families it seems like one broken promise after another.” By late May 2018, almost one year after the fire, only a third of the 210 families who had lived in the tower were in new, permanent accommodation, with another 72 neither in permanent nor temporary, but emergency,  accommodation.

A further area of mis-trust was the shifting and uncertain nature of the ‘amnesty’ offered to undocumented residents – originally stated at one year, then extended for 3 further months, followed by a policy announcement that “survivors would be able to apply for further periods of limited leave to remain, building up to five years. They could then apply for permanent residency”. A less well-documented condition of the offer set a deadline of 31 January to apply for the amnesty.

A further focus of contempt is to be found in the struggles between survivors and residents on the one hand and central government on the other around the Inquiry. First, contrary to assurances from Government, local residents were not consulted before the appointment of Judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick to lead the Public Inquiry, in the light of which Justice4Grenfell concluded that this “further compounds the survivors and residents sense of distrust in the official response to this disaster” – and had they been consulted would likely have objected to the appointment. Following this was the protracted process in which the limited initial Terms of Reference of the Inquiry were challenged and then largely confirmed, itself followed by the Inquiry’s formal December 2017 opening, at which the lack of direct or indirect representation of residents was the key point of contention. Only on the virtual eve of its opening did Teresa May confirm that there would be a Phase 2 of the Inquiry what which two panel members would be appointed. Of this partial, last-minute concession, Deborah Coles of INQUEST stated, “at every stage, bereaved and traumatised families have had to fight to be at the centre of the inquiry”.

This sense of constantly being of constant struggle to be heard, of being treated without sensitivity, being at worst lied to or at best told half-truths, must surely exacerbate feelings of mistrust, of being treated as worthless, as contemptible – exactly the same characteristics which defined many of the ways in which residents felt they were treated prior to the fire (notably by the TMO and RKBCC), and, more, exactly the ways in which their concerns about safety in the tower were dismissed.

In short, the contempt displayed towards the residents before the fire was maintained and reproduced after the fire. It was popularly recognised as a cause of the fire per se. As one resident stated outside the tower as it continued to burn, “We’re dying in there because we don’t count”. The struggle of survivors of the fire, the bereaved, and the residents of the Lancaster West estate to count – to be heard – continues.

This blog was originally posted at BRAVE NEW EUROPE, on 12 June 2018

Hostile environments and the politics of un-belonging

Anna Colom, The Open University

This article by PhD candidate Anna Colom is a personal reflection on the symposium Hostile Environments: The Politics of (Un)Belonging, co-organised by Victoria Canning, Gabi Kent (Harm & Evidence Research Collaborative) and Umut Erel for the WhoAreWe collaboration at the TATE Exchange. It was first published under the Year of #Mygration Open University series:

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This week I became a British ‘citizen’.  While waiting to affirm my allegiance in the official citizenship ceremony, and like so many times in recent months, I thought about what this new status meant for my rights and my identity. But, also like so many times before, I thought about the many people trapped in liminal spaces, existing but without being recognised, unable to move or stay, asked to fill out papers that will be rejected, pushed into bureaucratic labyrinths that can return them from where they escaped. Fellow human beings who, like me, were born in any part of the world by accident. Like me, with hopes and dreams. Where do we belong? And who decides it? For some, these are rather philosophical questions. For others, literally a matter of life and death. And, in between, a myriad of struggles, sometimes endured in the privacy of one’s silent journey through life, others through collective understandings, often invisible, or perhaps turned into social movements of resistance, claiming for the right to be – to belong.

These are the questions, the spaces, the lives, the injustice that Who Are We?, a collaboration between The Open University (OU), Counterpoints Arts and Stance Podcast, helped to make more visible through combining arts, activism and academia at the Tate Exchange. A symposium on hostile environment policies against migration and the politics of un-belonging shed light on what these policies mean for people’s lives and for democracy.

Through the presentations and lively discussion, the  members of the panel showed how the overarching headline of ‘hostile environment policies’ translates to have a varied impact. It can mean you are denied free healthcare in the middle of your cancer treatment, which happened to Mo, a member of the Migration and Asylum Seekers Forum. It means that as a woman facing domestic violence you might be denied accommodation but offered a flight ticket home (even if the law doesn’t allow it), as Sandhya Sharma from Safety 4 Sisters explained. It means the tools and support to seek legal aid are being stripped away. It means you lack voice, are disconnected and isolated from those campaigning for you whilst you are in a detention centre. It means asking doctors to become police, which Docs Not Cops is campaigning against. It means hate violence perpetrated by authorities, as Monish Bhatia from Birbeck University described. It means that the immigration policies are shown as separate from, but actually part of, systemic racism and neoliberal policies, intersecting and reinforcing patriarchy and heterosexual hegemony. It means you escape war legally but your status is then taken away, like 70% of the Syrian population in Lebanon, as explained by Syrian activist Leila Sibai and stated by Human Rights Watch (2017). As OU academic and activist Victoria Canning said, “there is a lot to be concerned about, and a lot to fight against”.

I have always wondered where I belong. I have felt both privileged and an underdog, and many spaces in between. I have learnt that migrating comes with endless longing for something, no matter how privileged in your new home. I have learnt not to take any of my rights for granted and that belonging is an endless struggle. But I have felt privileged after all. I have always had a safe, private place to stay, and warmth, and food and water. I have never been denied free access to quality healthcare, or education and, with it, the essential driving force that learning is to me. I have crossed many borders many times, comfortably, knowing well I could return.

There are millions, however, that have not had this experience – forced to make impossible choices, trapped, illegal, unwanted, dehumanised, in constant fear, too close to death. And, as I became a British citizen, this week has been a stark reminder of the injustice and systemic oppression faced by many whose worth is questioned every day. If citizenship is more than a legal status, if it is also care for your neighbour and to be part of a community, as was indicated in the citizenship ceremony, then it is also a responsibility to engage in practices of solidarity. It is to report, resist and change the policies, the laws, and the everyday racist and patriarchal practices that normalise this hostile environment.

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

Abolish rape culture


Julia Downes, Lecturer in Criminology, The Open University


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


What is the deal with the Injustice film?


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


Why complain?


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

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

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

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


Manipulation of the prison abolitionist community


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


Denial and avoidance of accountability


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


The safety of students


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

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


The Power of Recognition


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

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

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


Reflections on Complaint


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


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




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


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


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