One law for the poor at Grenfell Tower

Steve Tombs, Open University and David Whyte, University of Liverpool

 

In austerity Britain, can justice and accountability be served for the victims of the Grenfell fire? Or are our laws already too much shaped to the needs of the business class?

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Image source: ChiralJon/FlickrCC BY 2.0

 

Days after the Grenfell Tower disaster, London Mayor Sadiq Khan expressed the sentiments of many, not least the bereaved, the survivors and the local community at large, when he stated that, “if negligence or other wrongdoing by individuals or companies played any role whatsoever, I will fight for the full force of the law to be brought to bear.” But what exactly is the full force of the law in this case?

One demand has been that those who had the knowledge and ability to prevent what has happened should be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter. And the fire at Grenfell seems exactly the kind of disaster which the Corporate Manslaughter and Homicide Act was introduced in 2007 to deal with. Yet in almost 10 years since it was introduced, the law has only been used successfully 21 times – and in no cases has a large organization been convicted following a multi-fatality disaster. In fact, following the deaths of six people at the Lakenal tower block in 2009, the CPS eventually decided against pursuing a case of corporate manslaughter against Southwark council despite the fact that the council “knew the building posed a fire risk but did not act and had not carried out a fire risk assessment.”

In any case, the scope of this relatively new law was carefully shaped to the needs of the business class rather than ordinary people. Champagne and Pimms glasses would no doubt have been chinking in some parts of Kensington and Chelsea when the Blair government announced in 2006 that the new law would grant a blanket exemption to directors and senior individuals in organizations. This means that the most likely result of any such prosecution is a fine against the organization (and in this case the costs of a fine against the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) would ultimately fall on local taxpayers). It is a prime example of what happens so often in our legal system: even the laws that appear to be holding the wealthy to account tend to do nothing of the sort.

Some senior experts have noted that there may be evidence to support a different approach, a prosecution of individuals for the common law offence of manslaughter. We already know unequivocally from the testimonies of the Grenfell Tower Residents Association, that the RBKC was told about the fire risks, and were warned of specific risks on multiple occasions. Yet apparently there was no adequate fire safety assessment.

Here we confront a much deeper problem with the law designed to regulate organizations and businesses. Regulation has been on the back-foot in the UK for some 30 years. Successive governments have virtually mandated a withdrawal from law enforcement in health and safety and in local authority regulation.

When David Cameron pledged to kill off health and safety for good, he followed a long line of governments desperate to prove their pro-business credentials by cutting inspection and prosecution, and stripping back regulations. In most recent years, austerity cuts have taken us to the point that the average workplace can now expect an inspector to call once every 50 years.

Fire protection has been similarly compromised by the cuts. A report by the National Audit Office shows that between 2010 and 2015 funding for stand-alone fire and rescue authorities fell by 28% on average in real terms. Savings came predominantly from reducing staff costs and reducing audits, inspections and fire risk checks. The result: fire safety checks in tower blocks fell 25% in the most recent 5 years. Perhaps most alarmingly in light of Grenfell, the report noted that the government had “reduced funding most to fire and rescue authorities with the highest levels of need….as defined by the social and demographic factors.” In other words, the cuts to fire and rescue services have fallen hardest on the poorest – just like all austerity cuts.

More generally, at local authority level, since the cuts began to bite, campaigns to enforce regulation against business have become almost extinct. This is because most councils, unlike RBKC, have reached rock bottom in terms of their ability to maintain services. As an Environmental Health Officer in Merseyside put it to one of us recently: “it’s going to come to the point where it’s going to affect the residents, the local population, in many ways we are at that point now, public health and protection is being eroded.” Even more galling is that RBKC, the richest borough in London and one of the few councils that remains cash-rich, is choosing law enforcement on behalf of the rich over enforcing the law in the general interest.

We know this by looking closely at what building enforcement officers in Kensington and Chelsea have been doing in recent years. In 2015 RBKC embarked on a major campaign to stop construction companies displaying unlawful and ugly advertisements and messages on the side of the buildings. At the time, RBKC planning policy head Cllr Timothy Coleridge said:

“Unfortunately, some developers ignore the rules and turn their hoardings and scaffolding covers into huge adverts, sometimes in the heart of historic and sensitive residential areas. This is unfair on our residents and it is unfair on those developers that follow the rules and we will prosecute when required.”

In other words, this was a law enforcement campaign aimed at enhancing the aesthetic appeal of the area, and maintaining the successful gentrification of the area, rather than ensuring high standards of building renovation for working class residents.

The public inquiry and inquests will seek to learn how we can prevent another Grenfell Tower happening again. If the police and the CPS are serious about using the full force of the law, it may well be possible to prosecute for corporate manslaughter and for common law manslaughter. Individuals in charge of key decisions can be held accountable for this latter offense if they have acted with gross negligence and have breached a particular duty of care. It is very possible those conditions will be met in the case of Grenfell Tower.

By contrast, a lack of prosecution will send a clear and powerful message: that justice and accountability cannot be served in austerity Britain. But the solution to what happened at Grenfell will not be found in the courts. If there is one resounding lesson that must be learned, it is that any future government must reverse 30 years of attacks on regulation and law enforcement and cease this war against the poor.

This post was first published by Open Democracy on the 21st of June 2017, at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/steve-tombs-and-david-whyte/on-grenfell-one-law-for-rich-one-poor

Defining Zemia

Avi Boukli, The Open University

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of CONTINUOUS STRIP IMAGERY.
What is fascism?

A student asked me

and can you believe
I couldn’t remember
the definition?

 — Solmaz Sharif, from “Force Visibility”, Look: Poems, published by Graywolf Press 2016.

 

Zemiology, since its emergence at the start of the 21st century, has an ambiguous relationship with criminology. Whilst the tensions are often overstated, recent attempts to reconcile and harmonise these two perspectives are also problematic. In this brief blog spot, I focus on “zemia”, the central concept around which zemiology has been organised. While this is the first attempt to define “zemia” based on its historical and linguistic past in the context of zemiology, this current work is part of a larger project (Boukli 2019; Boukli and Kotzé in print).

Briefly, zemia can be approached in four different ways:

  • It can be taken to denote a communicative idea, thought, feeling or emotion.
  • Its meaning may be understood in relation to performative speech acts conveying wear, decay, attrition, wastage, lack, loss, disadvantage, bodily harm, damage, disaster, spoiling and debt.
  • It may be seen as being directly connected to criminal jurisprudence.
  • It may be seen as being directly connected to the practice or institution of punishment of a) crimes; and b) deviant transgressions, as well as to informal “punishment” in a less literal sense.

Current zemiological work fits most closely with the second category of the list above. Indeed, within this growing body of work copious references are made to various forms of financial, physical, psychological and environmental harms which impinge upon basic human needs and rights as well as earth’s well-being. This includes, but is not limited to, poverty, debt, malnutrition, inadequate housing, the proliferation of preventable illness and disease, pollution, destruction, accelerated animal extinction, resource depletion, genocide and numerous other deleterious events or absences that emanate from either too little or too much state intervention (Hillyard and Tombs 2007; Muncie 2000). Similarly, Tifft and Sullivan (2001:198) define social harms as “actions or arrangements that physically and spiritually injure and/or thwart the needs, development, potentiality, health, and dignity of others”. In other words, the perpetuation of social conditions that facilitate the proliferation of what Arendt (1958:134) has called the “waste economy” and of what Bauman (2004) subsequently refers to as the mass production of “human waste”.

While much of the social harm literature acknowledges the intellectual debt owed to early pioneers such as Sutherland (1945) and more recently Mathiesen (1986) and de Haan (1990), the intellectual debt evidently runs much deeper. Indeed, Plato follows the Socratic paradox, according to which no one causes harm out of their own will (οὐδεὶς ἑκὼν κακός). Rather, any form of harmful injustice emanates from ignorance, or by omitting to act or intervene (Plato 2000 Republic Book IX, 589c; Pemberton 2004). From this, it becomes obvious that the English word “harm” is not as conspicuously ambiguous as the Greek word “zemia”. Yet even with this ambiguity a few points of clarity can be teased out. Zemia is sometimes (quite commonly in Ancient Greek) used to mean (a) “make worse”. However, it is also sometimes used to denote (b) “hurt”. For instance, we may hurt someone without necessarily making them worse. We may “hurt” someone by thwarting them, by interfering with their interests, by making life somehow more unpleasant for them (e.g. by fining, by depriving them of drugs and cigarettes, by preventing them from drunk driving), but we do not thereby necessarily make them worse than before. For example, punishment could take the remedial form of treatment, which may actually do some good. That is, if zemia is used in this latter sense it is inflicted upon someone in order to make them better (Cross and Woozley, 1994:21-21).

Very much aligned with the speech acts outlined above in approach two, zemia, according to the Greek Neohellenic Lexicon by Aulos, denotes not only damage, but financial loss or deficit due to a “wearing down or decline” of some kind. Similarly, Aristotle distinguishes between kerdos (gain) and zemia (loss) and in doing so identifies the mean between these two poles as dikaion (just). Any deviation from the mean is to transgress an external standard of distributive fairness and therefore constitutes injustice. In this context, then, Aristotle asserts that gaining (kerdainein) more than one’s own share while causing another to suffer a loss (zemiousthai) is to commit an injustice (Balot 2001). As a result, at the very core logic of free-market competition lies zemia, animated by unrestrained competition and unlimited gaining with no social obligation.

Zemia is then linked to relational justice. For Aristotle, “justice is something in relation to some people” by which he means that it is not a characteristic of an individual but rather a characteristic of a good divided up by individuals, who stand in a certain relationship to one another (Balot 2001:27). This is particularly interesting considering our current socioeconomic immersion within an inherently exploitative capitalist system and its attendant dominant ideology of capitalist cruelty. Another reading of zemia makes this link between capitalist exploitation and harm a little more explicit. According to Allen (2000:69), zemia primarily meant “harmful loss” or “payment” and understood outside the context of punishment the word “linked the process of punitive exchange to the process of monetary exchange and to the status of citizens as economic actors”.

However, as intimated here, and articulated in approach three above, zemia can also be understood in the context of punishment. Indeed, Allen (2000) identifies a number of punitive words used in fourth century Greece to signify punishment, among which she notes the word zemia as denoting penalty. In this context, zemia and its cognate zemioo (verb, meaning to cause zemia) refer to the effect or consequence punishment has on the wrongdoer rather than a “set of relations between people or their roles in punishment” (Allen 2000:69). Allen (2000:174) further demonstrates the punitive tones zemia possesses by referring to Demosthenes’ (21.42) explicit description of laws as a codified delineation of how much anger should be ascribed to various wrongdoings: “Observe that the laws treat the wilful and hubristic wrongdoer as worthy of greater anger (orge) and punishment (zemia)”. Moreover, in Kata Agoratou, Lysias uses the term zemia in several places to denote punishment in either the form of fines or the death penalty. Similarly Xenophon, in Apomnemoneumata (3.9.10-3.9.13), uses the terms “imminent zemia” and “death is the zemia” to signify zemia as punishment in the legal sense. Crucially, in Protagoras Plato argues for the utilitarian efficacy of zemia/punishment by highlighting its seemingly reformative and preventative utility. The word zemia therefore means both penalty and punishment and refers to disparate sentencing practices from fines to death. Furthermore, the cognate word zemiotis (ζημιωτής) refers to the person who sets a penalty.

From this brief historical excavation of zemia’s deep roots we can see that zemia is the word missing from today’s puzzle. In a world of snap decisions, elections, connections and separations, zemia can encapsulate a wider range of meanings linking structural and interpersonal harms.

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Photos © Avi Boukli

Forthcoming relevant publications:

Boukli, A. (2019) Zemiology and Human Trafficking, London & NY: Routledge.

Boukli, A. and Kotzé, J. (eds.) (In Print) Zemiology: Reconnecting Crime and Social Harm. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Anti-racist criminology? A recall

Rod Earle, The Open University

In November 2016 the Youth Justice Board announced that 47% of the custodial population of young men in England and Wales was composed of men and boys from black and minority ethnic groups. The reductions in the level of youth incarceration, from over 3,000 in 2006 to less than 900 in 2016, have been very unevenly distributed. It leaves a custodial population almost half of which is non-white, and which has barely reduced at all if you are from a black or minority ethnic group. In the United States, racial disproportionality is subject to sharp critical scrutiny partly because of the phenomenal scale of US imprisonment rates, but the disproportionality here is worse. Even worse is that this is neither new or news and largely escapes critical attention. Coretta Phillips’ book, The Multicultural Prison, reports as much and notes that clear racial disparities in British prisons date back to the 1990s. Why is race so obscure to criminology and criminologists and yet so blatant in criminal justice?

In both the USA and the UK there are stark racial disparities in policing and imprisonment. In both countries 2016 was heavily marked by racial politics and few people would deny that race was a dominant feature of the 2016 US presidential election. A White challenger to a Black incumbent was itself unprecedented, but the background was provided by the Black Lives Matter campaign protesting at the fatal neglect of black communities in the US and the lethal violence of their policing. Donald Trump emerged triumphant on the back of what some commentators referred to as a ‘whitelash’.

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Image source: RISE

 

In the UK, the successful Brexit campaign took a leaf out Enoch Powell’s 1970s racial rhetoric which, according to Stuart Hall and colleagues in Policing the Crisis, “spoke straight… to the fears, anxieties, and frustrations [of the white] national collective unconscious, to its hopes and fears”. The referendum result shocked many, and revitalised concerns about how racism circulates under the surface, only to emerge to fuller public view during periods of particular political turbulence. In Policing the Crisis, Stuart Hall and colleagues analysed how in the 1970s crime, race and policing were implicated in the configuration of a seminal political crisis.  Since then crime has risen to, and receded from, the political frontline and race has almost evaporated from mainstream political discourse. So, where’s the bad news?

The political consensus among white elites is that race is irrelevant. Because race does not exist at the biological level, and is thus ‘unscientific’, it is logically inconsistent to attribute harmful effects to it. The continuing, all-to-real, empirically unequivocal, distribution of harmful effects according to race are thus relegated from social, economic and historical processes to the personal realm of sentiments, such as fear, guilt and anxiety. Racism is understood as a residual problem of atavistic, ignorant individuals failing to sufficiently modernise themselves; a personal defect to be exposed and condemned rather than a structural feature of society to be dismantled.

In the rush to do away with the term ‘race’, a variety of competing terminologies, such as ‘implicit bias’ and xenophobia, focusing on fear of ‘foreigners’ or migrants, have drawn from concepts of ‘difference’, ‘culture’ and ‘alterity’. They often do so as if such fears were a natural human propensity, an evolutionary and thus innate predisposition to be wary of ‘strangers’ that is hard-wired into us. This euphemistic strategy proceeds innocently enough without acknowledging that concepts such as ‘difference’ and alterity, posit a normative (white, Eurocentric) state of being against which the “other” or the “different” stand out, usually with far from innocent or benign implications.

White disavowal of race, race-blindness, is frequently accompanied by a strategy of deflection that situates any residual symptoms in the ‘passions of the popular classes’. Where racism does manifest, according to this perspective, is among the fragmented white underclass; ‘chavs’ in the UK, ‘white-trash’ and ‘rednecks’ in the USA, ‘petits blancs’ in France. Among these sections of society, cut adrift from the relentless march of progress and ill-equipped to adopt the omnivorous, cosmopolitan appetites of the middle class, racism is conceded to be a problem: an irrational reaction based on the atavistic fantasies of the unsophisticated masses. Within this elitist perspective, the role of the state, the most powerful structuring force in society, and other powerful collectivities, are erased from the picture.

The value of insisting on race is that it connects the subject matter of human division to history and ideology, to theorising and to struggles for emancipation and egalitarianism. Retrieving race from the hostile post-racial miasma swirling around Muslims for example, or refugees and migrant populations can help to situate people in particular contexts that foster more active resistance and greater resilience. It can reanimate anti-racism.

Criminology is a discipline heavily implicated in racial projects. There is thus an urgent need to revisit race and re-present arguments that can challenge its enduring corrosive effects. One way of doing this is to ‘recall’ the concept of anti-racism.  The procedure of ‘recalling’ refers both to the process of memory as recollecting the past, but also to the procedures of commerce in which a manufacturing company might recall a product that has been identified as having a defect or being deficient in a way that can be remedied. The recall demonstrates a commitment to fixing the problem and returning it to its proper functioning. For some criminologists familiar with sentencing procedure, ‘recall’ will also be familiar as the process by which a prisoner released from custody is returned to their former state of incarceration because they may be at risk of disappearing while they continue to pose a risk of causing further harm. Perhaps this meaning is also appropriate, bringing ‘race’ back into view, and preventing its disappearance while there is so much work still to be done proving that it is has ceased to exist as a threat.

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Source: Socialist Worker

Recalling anti-racism is an urgent critical task because the neo-liberal reconfigurations of racism have become exceptionally vigorous. Post-racial delusions, white privilege, indifference and impunity conspire against an effective anti-racism. There is a lot of work being accomplished that has pushed anti-racism to the margins and reduced race to an individual moral failure or a fantasy from bogie wonderland. Criminologist cannot turn away from race, particularly while there is so much mounting evidence of its corrosive presence in criminal justice, and so little understanding of how racisms produce race. The sporadic or ambivalent attention to race within criminology relegates the issue to the supplemental sidelines when it needs to be recognised as central and constitutive. Anti-racism in criminology can produce the wished-for non-racism, but non-racism cannot produce anti-racism. For criminologists recalling anti-racism, going back to the drawing board, can involve creating new and public spaces for questioning the relationship between race, prison and punishment. The evidence is out there.

Criminalise or ‘disappear’ the young? No path to a ‘Great Meritocracy’

Ross Fergusson considers the stark choices that the policy swings of successive governments now present to many 16-17-year-olds

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(Image source: http://discoversociety.org/2016/11/01/great-meritocracies-dont-disappear-their-youngest-casualties-mrs-may/)

Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative Party conference elaborated her plans to ‘transform Britain into a Great Meritocracy’.  She stressed the unfair division between ‘a more prosperous older generation and a struggling younger generation’.  A major study has just shown that the 1980s generation are already half as wealthy as their 1970s peers.

A faltering recovery

One of the factors most damaging to young people’s income prospects is an early period of prolonged unemployment. The recessions that followed the Global Financial Crash of 2008 brought unprecedented unemployment levels amongst 16-24 year-olds in the UK. The latest Office of National Statistics (ONS) data show that the subsequent slow recovery in youth employment may be faltering. About 30 per cent of 16-17-year-olds who are not in education, employment or training (NEETs) have been recorded as unemployed over the last two years, and last month’s figures show a new high of 35 per cent  (which is likely to have risen further since the summer).

But if the law was being adhered to, no-one aged 16-17 should be unemployed or NEET. The Education and Skills Act 2008 requires every 16 and 17-year-old to be in full-time education or training, or in full-time or part-time work that includes release for regular training. The one part of the parliamentary debate about the Act that triggered objections concerned the sanctions that apply to those who contravene its requirements – especially sanctions which would place them in detention centres for persistently refusing to comply. The Labour government rejected these concerns and forced the legislation through, but in 2011 the coalition government suspended the clauses which required Local Authorities and employers to monitor attendance and punish refusal. Participation remains compulsory, but it has never been enforced.

Why? Conservative and Liberal-Democrat MPs had raised high-minded objections to the Act. They argued that 16 and 17-year-olds, who are legally deemed mature enough to marry, bring up children and serve in the armed forces, should enjoy freedom of choice not to participate in any form of education or training (or work). But the coalition’s reassertion of these principles coincided conveniently with its ‘austerity’ policies: monitoring and enforcement would have been far beyond the capacities of shrunken Local Authority budgets.

The unknown status

The effects of non-enforcement have been predictable. Department for Education figures for 2015 in England show that the numbers of 17-year-olds who were known to be NEET were exceeded by the numbers of ‘not knowns’ who had in effect ‘disappeared’ from Local Authority records. Last year the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee estimated that the ‘participation’ statuses of more than 100,000 16-18-year-olds were unknown.

Prioritising 16 and 17-year-olds’ supposed ‘freedom of choice’ releases the state from some long-established commitments to their welfare. This is troubling when their limited chances of getting a job, earning a genuine living wage and being able to afford somewhere to live are left to ‘the market’: the Low Pay Commission has shown that the real earnings of 16-17-year-olds fell by 17% between 2009 and 2013, and their median hourly pay fell by more than £1 to £5.03.

All in all, the youngest adults’ freedom of choice means that many of those who have gained least by way of skills and qualifications from 11 years of compulsory schooling face stark choices between unemployment, poverty-level wages and extending an unproductive school career. At this point, ‘disappearing from ‘officialdom’s’ view’ is the most rational and appealing option for many of them – one that is lent apparent legitimacy by the government’s indifference to enforcing the law that requires them to ‘participate’.

Tackling inequality justly and fairly

This version of freedom of choice is self-evidently one with tangible consequences for future financial (in)security and prospective poverty.  If the current government is serious about the Prime Minister’s commitment to tackling intergenerational inequality, it must break the silent consensus which the coalition allowed to evolve between young people who believe their best option is to ‘disappear’ themselves, government departments that are content to accept their invisibility in official data, and Local Authorities that are forced to ignore it for lack of funding. Policies that veer between the ill-advised and socially unjust extremes of criminalising young people for ‘being NEET’ and colluding with it are no path to any kind meritocracy – least of all a great one.

Ross Fergusson is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at The Open University

An extended version of this article first appeared in the on-line not-for-profit publication Discover Society, with the title: ‘Great Meritocracies Don’t “Disappear” Their Youngest Casualties, Mrs May!’

A number of the themes of the article are developed in: Fergusson, R. (2016), Young people, welfare and crime: governing non-participation, Bristol: Policy Press.

Bloodbaths and prison staff: Considering the actual state of our prisons

David Scott, Open University

hm-manchester-at-night-noise-demo-october-2016

[HMP Manchester. Photo source: David Scott]

On the 3rd November 2016 the government published Prison Safety and Reform, its vision of the future of the Prison Service in England and Wales.  Claimed to be the “the biggest overhaul of prisons in a generation”, at the start of her foreword, Justice Secretary Liz Truss approvingly cites the words of nineteenth penal reformer Elizabeth Fry:

The better the actual state of our prisons is known and understood, the more clearly will all men [sic] see the necessity of these arrangements by which they may be rendered schools of industry and virtue.

Liz Truss clearly places great weight on “evidence” and “data”, yet the portrayal of the ‘actual state of our prisons’ in the media in the days preceding and following the white paper (including The Guardian editorial on the 3rd November) has mystified and mislead rather than generated knowledge or understanding.

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[Elizabeth Fry. Source: anglotopia.net]

Prisoner violence and rehabilitation

One of the key goals of Prison Safety and Reform is to remove obstacles preventing the rehabilitation of prisoners.   The reason given for the failure of prisons to rehabilitate is prisoner violence.  The white paper notes that since 2012 there have been significant rises in recorded incidents of prisoner violence and that in 2016 there are 65 assaults in prisons every day.  As “reform can only take hold in a safe and disciplined prison environment” it is essential, the white paper informs us, to dramatically reduce prisoner violence so we can achieve “a more stable estate, in which staff and prisoners have the time and headspace to address the causes of re-offending”.   Whilst Prison Safety and Reform  provides a number of alleged reasons for the increases in violence, the one placed most prominently in public spotlight is the decline in numbers of prison officers.

The day before the publication of Prison Safety and Reform, Steve Gillan, General Secretary of the Prison Office Association [POA], received enormous publicity when he claimed that as a consequence of a 25% reduction in the number of prison officers in the last six years, prisons were now places of “carnage and bloodbaths”.  His claims were evidenced with a mixed set of data pointing to the high levels of recorded prisoner violence, self-inflicted deaths and recorded assaults on prison officers.  These apparently intimate connections have been taken as ‘common sense’, by politicians and media commentators alike.  No-one in the media has highlighted the limitations of the statistical evidence presented in the white paper or by the POA.   Yet a number of their assumptions do not stand up to scrutiny. Let us consider three:

(1) decline in prison officer staffing levels;

(2) the rise in recorded assaults on prison officers;

(3) staffing levels and self-inflicted deaths of prisoners.

Our dedicated and brave staff

Prison Safety and Reform draws upon statistics showing:

The number of Band 2 to 5 frontline operational staff reduced from 29,660 on 31 March 2012 to 23,080 on 31 March 2016. As violence has increased it has become harder to retain existing staff, thus creating a vicious cycle of staff pressure and violence.

The white paper states that recent reductions in prison staff levels have led to increased prisoner violence and placed intolerable “operational strains on the dedicated and brave staff that work in our prisons”.  Consequently there is to be an immediate increase in prison officer numbers (in total 2,500) and new reforms aiming to facilitate prison officers who are not just “security guards and minders but also mentors” with a dedicated case load of six prisoners.  In so doing “frontline staff will be given the time and the tools they need to supervise and support offenders so they can turn our prisons into places of safety and reform”.

When studying numbers of prison officers through an historical lens we can see they have risen in recent decades to their highest ever levels.  The real problem is that the prisoner population has doubled from around 40,000 in 1990 to nearly 85,000 in 2016.  Prisons have never had high numbers of paid staff.  In the eighteenth century some prisons only had 1 paid turnkey (prison officer) for every 100 prisons.  Even by the mid-nineteenth century the vast majority of prisons still had less than 10 staff, largely because prisons at this time were run by ‘prisoner warders’, who undertook nearly all of the key functions of the prisons, including locking and unlocking other prisoners.

From the 1870s with the professionalisation of paid prison staff, official data on frontline staff- prisoner ratios began to stabilise at around 1 member of staff for every 6 prisoners.  Yet evidence from prison officers, such as H.U. Triston in the 1930s, indicate that at the start of the twentieth century the ratio was more like 1 prison officer to between 20-50 prisoners.  From the 1950s the official staff-prisoner ratio fell for four consecutive decades, so that by 1990 the prison officer-prisoner ratio was 1 prison officer to every 2.3 prisoners.   Because prisoner populations doubled, the prison officer-prisoner ratio increased to 2.8 prisoners by 2010 in public sector prisons.  Following the recent staff cuts, by March 2016 the ratio had increased to 1 prison officer to every 3.6 prisoners, which brought public sector staff ratios largely in line with private sector prisons.  If the proposed new 2,500 officers are factored in, the ratio of prison officers will fall to 3.3 prisoners in public sector prisons.

birmingham-prison-2011

[HMP Birmingham, 2011. Source: Newsrt.co.uk]

But things are not quite as simple as the sound.  This data only tells us so much.  Important considerations missing include the amount of hours officers work in the prison in a given week, the quality interactions between prison officers and prisoners, and the security classification of a particular prison. Over the twentieth century the amount hours worked in prisons by prison officers reduced dramatically, falling from as high as 72 hours a week to as low as 39 hours and since the late 1960s prisoners have been separated across the penal estate based on security risk.  Prison officer-prisoner ratios have been as low as 1 prison officer to every 1 prisoner in dispersal / high security prisons but as high as 1 prison officer for every 8 prisoners in lower security prisons.   Significantly, and despite a new emphasis on prison officers performing a rehabilitative role from the 1920s onwards, no comparative decrease in prisoner reoffending rates can be mapped onto changes in staff-prisoner ratios.

Punch bags and crying wolf

In the recent media coverage of prison reform POA General Secretary Steve Gillan highlighted the remarkable increase in the number of recorded assaults against prison officers.  He noted the POA “will not stand by and watch our members become punch bags on a daily basis”.  These sentiments are reproduced in the white paper Prison Safety and Reform.

Prison safety has declined since 2012. Levels of total assaults across the prison estate and assaults on staff are the highest on record, and are continuing to rise. Comparing the 12 months to June 2016 with the calendar year 2012:

  • total assaults in prisons increased by 64%;
  • assaults on staff rose by 99%;
  • the number of self-harm incidents increased by 57%

The white paper calls for “a robust and swift response” to the rise in assaults.  It also highlighted that killing a prison officer would result in a life sentence.  Yet any talk about violence against prison officers and their likelihood of being murdered by a prisoner should be considered in historical context.   Since 1850 only eight members of staff (and not all of these prison officers) have been killed in prisons in England and Wales.  The last prison officer to be murdered at work was Derek Lambert, who was killed at Portland borstal by a prisoner in 1965.   It was the first murder of a prison officer for some 30 years in England and Wales and proved to be an isolated incident.  Not only is serious physical violence against officer by prisoners rare, but there are also many examples of prisoners going to their aid in dangerous situations, such as during prison disturbances.

On the 6th November, following disturbances at HMP Bedford, the POA were once again reasserting claims regarding prison staff numbers and prisoner violence.  The media accepted their claims without question. During the HMP Bedford disturbance no prison officers were injured, but almost immediately the POA made claims to the BBC and The Guardian that the disturbance was directly linked to the lack of frontline staff and provided further evidence that prisoners are starting to take control of prisons.  In so doing the POA ignored the fact that the largest prison disturbance in UK history in April 1990, which involved 25 different prisons, occurred at a time when staff-prison ratios were at an all-time historical low.  Prison disturbances are generated by people living in inhuman and degrading living conditions, denial of voice, prison officer brutality and being treated like animals.  They certainly cannot be reduced to staffing levels alone.

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[Prison Officers Association. Source: http://www.poauk.org.uk]

The current focus of the media and white paper on prisoner violence and assaults on prison officers has only utilised data from the last 4 to 6 years.    In the period from 2000-2009, however, there was also a 61% increase in prisoner violence.  This rise was not at the time tied together with prisoner deaths or data about reported assaults on prison officers, the latter of which were actually declining. The POA noted in 2011 that on average, one prison officer each week required hospital treatment following an assault by prisoners, indicating that there were 52 serious assaults a year on prison officers.   Concerned in particular about the failure of the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute prisoners (a punitive approach rather than one focused on safety), on the 17th April 2012 POA General Secretary, Steve Gillan, called on all prison officers to “always report assaults”.  Crucially, the data on assaults on prison officers cited in the white paper Prison Safety and Reform is detailed only from 2012 onwards.

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[Steve Gillan, Prison Officer Association. Source: tuc.org.uk]

What the POA has not called for is for prisoners to always report assaults by prison officers.  That prison staff violence continues to be a problem was evidenced earlier this year at Medway Secure Training Centre when BBC Panorama, 11th January 2016 caught staff brutalising and assaulting child prisoners on camera.

Carnage and bloodbaths

Ironically, there is evidence indicating that prisons really can be deadly for prison officers.  This data, however, refers to the life expectancy of prison officers following retirement.  At only 18 months this is one of the shortest life expectancy rates of all occupations.  The toxic and deadly fumes that prison creates are not just restricted to prison officers, but to those whose voice is generally not heard in the white paper Prison Safety and Reform: prisoners.

Prison Safety and Reform reveals that there were 107 self-inflicted deaths [SIDs] in prisons in the 12 months to September 2016.  Whilst data on prisoner SIDS over the last four years appears to support the claims of Prison Safety and Reform, when placed in historical context the connection between prisoner deaths and prison staffing levels is much less clear.  Research by Professor Joe Sim has uncovered detailed historical evidence indicating that prisons have always been places characterised by violence and death.  Whilst historical data is inconsistent, and there are significant difficulties with making comparisons regarding terminological differences between SID’s and suicides, the data indicates there is no obvious correlation between a decline in rates of self-inflicted deaths and rises in prison staffing levels.  Officially recorded SIDs in the last four decades have risen substantially.  In 1986 there were 21 recorded suicides in prison but in 1998, for the first time, more than 80 people to their own lives.  Even high levels of SIDs pertained in the 1990s and early 2000s, predating data cited in Prison Safety and Reform by a number of years. Thus, when looking at trends over the last four decades we actually find record high rates of recorded self-inflicted deaths at the same time as record low levels of prison officer – prisoner ratios.

The evidence cited above should be read carefully and with great caution, but given the strong commitment of Liz Truss to deliver ‘evidence led penal policy’ recognition of the narrow focus and restrictive timeframe placed around statistical evidence in the white paper is undoubtedly important.  As is media scrutiny, for the currently uncontested POA data presents an account of current prison realities that inevitably directs us towards a specific set of solutions: more prison officers and more prisons.  Such an uncritical adoption in the media of the POA informed explanatory framework not only closes down opportunities for a more informed debate in a time when we have record numbers of prisoners, but it also rules out alternative policy solutions, such as those that would reduce the number of prisoners and close our degrading and inhuman prisons rather than build new ones.

How much ‘Better’ can ‘Better Regulation’ get?

Steve Tombs, Professor of Criminology, The Open University

This week, the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee published an evaluation of the Better Regulation initiative. The Government, it stated, “has set a target to reduce the cost to business of regulation by £10 billion between 2015 and 2020. So far it has achieved less than £1 billion”. In other words, ‘Better Regulation’ must do better.

Indeed, who could object to ‘Better Regulation’? In a sense, no-one. But the question that has to be asked is what is meant by the term or, indeed, for whom should regulation be better?

A 2005 report – Reducing Administrative Burdens: Effective Inspection and Enforcement – proved to be a turning point in the trajectory of business regulation and enforcement across Britain. It marked the consolidation of the establishment of what had already been termed ‘Better Regulation’, a formal policy shift from enforcement to advice and education, a concentration of formal enforcement resources away from the majority of businesses onto so-called high risk areas, and consistent efforts to do more with less. The Report was the work of Sir Phillip Hampton who was appointed, in 2004, by Chancellor Gordon Brown to oversee a review of a Remit encompassing 63 major regulatory bodies – including the Environment Agency, the Food Standards Agency, the Health and Safety Executive, and the Financial Services Authority – as well as 468 local authorities.

Focusing on three areas of social protection – environmental, food and worker protection – my research indicates clear trends in enforcement practices over the ten-year period since Better Regulation was rolled out. Thus, summarising inspection and enforcement data between 2003/04 and 2014/15, across three regulatory functions overseen by five sets of regulators, I found some stark data.

If we look at food safety and hygiene law, enforced by Local Environmental Health Officers, we see, during this period, that: food hygiene inspections fell by 15%; food standards inspections fell by 35%; food prosecutions fell by 35% .

Turning to pollution control, a function split between the national regulator, the Environment Agency, and local Environmental Health Officers, we find that Environment Agency officers undertook 52% fewer inspections* and 54% fewer successful prosecutions, while issuing 42% fewer cautions. Meanwhile, local Environmental Health Officers enforcing local pollution control law undertook 55% fewer Inspection Visits, while notices issued fell by 30%**.

Finally, examining health and safety law enforcement, inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive, the national health and safety regulator, undertook 69% fewer inspections (on the part of Field Operations Directorate, the body within HSE which undertakes by far the vast majority of inspections) and 35% fewer prosecutions of offences. Local Environmental Health Officers enforcing health and safety law undertook 69% fewer inspections, 96% fewer preventative inspections and 60% fewer prosecutions.

Taken in isolation, perhaps none of this data as it relates to specific enforcement activity on the part of any one regulator is particularly surprising. What is remarkable, certainly for a set of social scientific data, is that each set of data reveals precisely the same trend: that is, notwithstanding variations across regulators, the form of law being enforced, and indeed within regulators and specific forms of enforcement activity by year, each set of data unequivocally indicates a long-term downwards trend in every form of enforcement activity.

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Sonae Chipboard plant, Kirkby, Merseyside; after years of controversy over worker health and safety and pollution of the local area, the plant closed in 2012; photograph courtesy of David Jacques

Of course, this period, from 2003/04, is also marked by the 2007 financial crisis which was used, by the Coalition Government from 2010 onwards, to justify austerity – so it is likely that within this data there is evidence of both politics and economics at play. And, indeed, ‘austerity effects’ are confirmed if we drill down to local authority level. Thus a case study of five local authorities’ regulatory efforts in these three areas of social protection reveals:

  • Considerable reductions in staffing in these regulatory functions
  • Declining enforcement activity
  • An increasing reluctance to prosecute
  • A widespread perception that enforcement capacity has been dangerously undermined.

On the last point, the following quotations, drawn from interviews with EHOs, were typical:

“at present, we can’t meet our statutory duties”

“to be honest we’re now doing statutory stuff only”

“there’s nothing left to cut now”

“there is no padding left, we’re below the statutory minimum … there are no areas of discretion left”

“there’s nothing else to be cut”

“Where we are now, we’re at the point where worker safety is being jeopardized”

“It’s going to come to the point where it going to affect the residents, the local population, in many ways we are at that point now, public health and protection is being eroded”

“We’re at the point where there is no flesh left, this is starting to get dangerous, a danger to public health”

A further, worrying finding from the qualitative research reveals significant push factors towards contracting out or even wholesale privatisation of regulatory services – something which a handful of Local Authorities have now embraced. Taken together, these changes may mark the beginning of the end of the state’s commitment to, and ability to deliver, social protection. Yet this process continues apace, virtually without political, popular nor indeed academic comment. Meanwhile, the Government wants this ‘better regulation’ to get even better. That translates into businesses being freer to flout the law, with workers, consumers and the natural environment less protected than ever.

* This figure refers to the period 1999/00-2008/09; the Environment Agency claimed it could not separate data for inspections to businesses from 2009/10 onwards.

** Notices rather than prosecutions are used, since the latter are so few as to render data almost meaningless.

This blog was originally posted by the Institute of Employment Rights on 14 October 2016 at http://www.ier.org.uk/blog/how-much-better-can-better-regulation-get

Prisons: Places of Harm and Dehabilitation

David Scott, The Open University

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HMP Manchester [Strangeways] – Photo by David Scott, 2016

Prisons: Places of Harm and Dehabilitation

On the 4th October UK Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, delivered her speech Prisons: places of safety and reform to the 2016 Conservative Party Conference.  For Truss the UK ‘justice system’ is “incorruptible” and “the best in the world”.  If we follow the principles of meritocracy, it will become a “justice system of all talents” that “works for everyone” providing “justice for all”.  Although Truss digresses away from prisons (to talk about the courts and a new Bill of British Rights) her central arguments focus on how the Conservative government is “going to make prisons work”.  Sadly her speech is nothing but the same old story, harking back to the “making prisons work” rhetoric employed by Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw in 1997, as well as regurgitating an idea with a 200 year record of abject failure.

Truss starts her speech by talking about a prison governor who was assaulted by a prisoner but still came into work the following day. She later highlights the “abuse, intimidation and violence” experienced by prison officers, citing data claiming to show that last year prison officers were attacked on average 15 times a day [5,423 recorded attacks in 2015].  In a key message directed to our “brave” and “dedicated” prison officers she states: “I promise you this – I will do everything in my power to protect you”.  Prisoner assaults are from now on to be treated as “serious crimes”.  Further protection will come via more intensive drug testing and greater prison officer numbers and authority.

Harmful Evidence used for Political Legitimacy

Before we go any further let us consider some of these points in more detail.  First the official data.  Over the last few years the Prison Officers Association [POA] has called for a “zero tolerance” approach to prisoner violence and encouraged members to report every single incident that could be considered an assault.  As a result, the recorded number of “attacks” on prison officers has dramatically increased.  Prison officers have also allegedly been encouraged by the POA to seek medical assistance irrespective of obvious injury, the end result being that such incidents appear in recorded medical data sets.  What we do not know – what is not actually indicated such data – is the seriousness and harm of the recorded incidents.  The apparent deliberate manipulation of data therefore means we should treat such claims of evidence with considerable caution – as indeed should the UK ‘Justice Secretary’.  Further, drug testing has been a tried and tested failure in terms of measuring or deterring substance usage in prisons for more than 20 years.  More rigorous testing will not solve the problem of Spice or any other ‘drug’ in prison: substance usage is systematically generated by the pain, isolation and difficulties in building and sustaining relationships in prisons.  Drug testing does not change this.  Nor does it alter the wasting of life, boredom and loneliness of the prison place.  But what about the increases in prison officer numbers? Truss in her speech makes a commitment to employ 400 new prison officers.  Yet what this fails to take into account is the recent decline in prison officer numbers in the Prison Service of England and Wales and the deep underlying structural problems confronting prisons.  More prison staff will not address the daily inhumanities, harms and degradations characterising prison life.   Further, the introduction of the 400 new staff is only a remedial measure to address the most obvious problems associated with the recent staff cuts, for new prison officers will only be employed in “prisons that have seen sharp rises in violence in recent years”.

A Distorted Picture of Violence in Prisons

For Truss, the priorities of reform are on identifying prison officers as victims of prisoner violence and protecting prison officer safety, but there is no mention in her speech of prison officer violence or prisoner safety, or the truly terrible reality that in the last year we have seen the highest rate of self-inflicted deaths in prison ever recorded in England and Wales.  At best, the account of violence by Truss is partial.  At worst, it gives a distorted picture mystifying the true reality of violence in prison. We know that the data of violence against prisoners by prison officers is much more difficult to record than violence perpetrated by prisoners.  This is because of the nature of officer violence (it could involve violence during restraint procedures) and that prisoners may fear repercussions if they report violence by officers. There is also problems regarding whether the prisoners account will be believed by other prison staff charged to investigate such incidents.  That violence against prisoners by prison staff occurs, however, is evidenced in prisoner and prison officer autobiographies as well as other official accounts, both historical and contemporary.  Further, the hidden ‘institutionally-structured violence’ and the harmful outcomes generated by the prison place are also neglected in the speech by Truss.   As of the 29th September 2016 there were 84 Self-Inflicted Deaths [SIDS] in prisons (and 43 awaiting classification).  Sadly this number is only going to rise in the final three months of this year.   A prisoner is recorded as attempting to take their own life every five hours and a prisoner is recorded as self-harming once every 20 minutes.  The seriousness of such events cannot be questioned.

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Liz Truss, Justice Secretary – Source: www.pressandjournal.co.uk, 2016

Wanted: Obedient, Disciplined and Reliable Staff

A further, and quite significant proposal from Truss in her speech is a commitment to employ more prison officers who are from the armed forces.  In her words “Who better to instil the virtues of discipline? Who better to show what you can achieve in life with courage and integrity? [Personnel from our armed forces] will help our prison officers lead the change.”  This policy commitment is revealing for a number of obvious reasons.  When the ‘reformed prisons’ of England and Wales were being introduced in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, prison reformers felt that ex-servicemen would be ideal to run prisons, both as governors and prison officers.  The prison reformers wanted obedient, disciplined and reliable staff to replace the old ‘turnkeys’ and prisoners who had ran the prisons and jails in the UK before that time.  The emphasis of ex-service men (and women) as prison officers reflects a particular penal ideology – one not just of reform but also of authoritarianism.     The infamous ideas of ‘hard fare, hard bed and hard labour’ that underscored the Victorian prison regimes overseen by Sir Edmund Du Cane were built on such punitive assumptions.  Questioned in terms of efficacy and morality, the implementation of Du Cane’s harsh regimes were often associated with ex-servicemen prison officers.  Whilst this proved largely mythical – prison officers have never been exclusively from the army, air-force or navy and so on – it led the Gladstone Report of 1895, which itself arose due to public outrage against the Du Cane regime, to undertake a detailed survey of the number of ex-service men in the prison system in the 1890s.  The call by Truss for greater discipline clearly indicates a vision of more punitive times to come.  Truss also blatantly disregards the fact that currently there are a large number of ex-servicemen prisoners.  The disastrous failure of current policies regarding the care and re-entry of ex-service personnel into society will not be addressed by increasing their employment as prison officers.

The Human Costs of Prisons

Truss also leads us to consider the  ‘the human costs of prisons’ beyond merely those of prison staff, but her focus here is primarily in terms of victims of ‘crime’.  Yes, there is some recognition in the talk that prisoners have problems.  Contradicting her point on meritocracy, she shows awareness that prisoners are some of the most “damaged” people in society.  Truss notes problems around literacy, mental health and sexually-violent victimisation.  But her concern is not with prisoners because we as a society fail to meet their needs before, during or after prison. Instead of prisoners squandering their time in prison Truss would rather have them undertaking “purposeful activity” in an endeavour reduce recidivism rates.  The key beliefs of her position though are crystal clear – prisoners should be made better people in prison in the interests of law abiding others.  Prison reforms are for those on the outside rather than those we house behind the prison walls.

Truss talks of her “optimism” and the need to join her as a “champions of change”, whilst at the same time recognising that most ex-prisoners re-offend, more than half within one year of release.   Her assumption is that prisons are places of potential reform if managed correctly.  The grand solution, as discussed above, is to give prison governors and prison officers more powers and to spend £1.3 billion to “sweep away our decaying Victorian jails and putting in place new modern prisons”.  What is missing though is any reflection on two important factors driving this change.  First, a number of the Victorian prisons are built on land which is highly attractive to property investment.  Either through pulling down the prisons or transforming the existing buildings into gated communities for exclusive accommodation, the selling off of such Victorian prisons could generate sizeable capital.  Second the proposed new prisons are to be ‘supersized’.  Such large new prisons, housing between 1,000 – 2,000 prisoners, are cheaper to run, are less staff intensive and could swell the volume of private prisons in the UK.  Such reforms are evidence of placing profits over people and looking to solve social problems through penal confinement.  What Truss misses is that prisons always have been places of harm and dehabilitation rather than safety and reform.

Throughout her talk – which actually offers little new – there is no mention of the vast evidence from 200 and more years that ‘reformed prisons’ have never achieved the goals that she aspires to.  The vision presented by Liz Truss is one of discipline and policies which only exacerbate despair. It is one which must be challenged.