Anaesthetising the Pain: Prison chaos and the enormous demand for drugs

David Scott, The Open University

 

1

Source: @prison.uk

 

The revelations from Panorama (BBC, 8.30pm 13th February, 2017) on HMP Northumberland have put the problems of drug taking in prisons firmly into the spotlight. The terrible harms psychoactive drugs create for both prisoners and prison officers are laid bare: secretly recorded footage shows prisoners overdosing on drugs, a prisoner threatening an officer with a weapon and a prison officer collapsing after inhaling fumes from the psychoactive drug ‘Spice’.

 

Seen through the eyes of an undercover BBC journalist who joined the Prison Service as prison officer, the chaos and harms of the privately run Sodexo jail are revealed for all to see.  Concerns around levels of safety for both prisoners and staff and the ease at which psychoactive drugs are getting into prisons (such as by prison visits, ‘drones’ and prison officer smuggling) are raised by the BBC journalist – who illustrates part of the problem himself by being able to smuggle a camera into HMP Northumberland to record conversations and events.

 

2

 

It is little surprise that the media coverage following the Panorama programme has focused on the availability of drugs in prison and the apparent inability of prison officers to control their supply and use by prisoners (and indeed their control over the prison population more broadly).  Yet the debate should not be restricted to talk of staffing, security and prisoner violence alone.  It is important that we focus on the demand for drugs in prison and the need to increase safety by reducing the harm of drug taking for all who live or work in prisons.  .

 

Drug taking in prison should be situated within two of the most painful harms of imprisonment: the conscious experience of time and the loss of personal autonomy. It is well documented that prison life is both highly regulated yet filled with emptiness. Drugs distort time and prisons are all about the wasting and loss of time.  Many prisoners attempt to suspend time and find ways to manage life on the edge of this meaningless and dehumanising penal abyss.

 

Drugs, especially cannabis, can be a means of controlling unstructured time by inducing sleep, thus making time consciousness much less evident.  Psychoactive drugs, like Spice (a synthetic version of cannabis), alter perceptions, moods and can eve induce unconsciousness.  Though the psychoactive drug Spice presents serious damage to health and impacts negatively upon behaviour this should be weighed against the way in which it eases the pains of confinement for the prisoner.

 

Taking drugs in prison can provide sanctuary and be a means of self-medication and self-help. Drugs can help mask the harsh realities of penal regimes and ease the consequences of being exposed to low levels of mental and physical stimulation. They provide a ready-made anaesthetic and prisoners often take drugs to alleviate physical or emotional pain. Drugs can become ‘chemical comforts’ to deal with loneliness, trauma, isolation or alienation rather than for hedonism. Imprisonment is highly stressful and taking drugs may become a crucial coping mechanism to get through hard times and the mundane daily monotony of prison life.

3

Source: hamptonroads.com

 

Drug taking should be considered as a direct consequence of the processes of penal confinement itself and as an important survival strategy for many prisoners.  The problem of drug taking in prison is not new but something that has been present in the reformed prisons since the 1800s, albeit at that time the concern was around alcohol and tobacco and their relationship to prisoner violence.

 

Focusing only on supply and lapses in security, misses the crucial point that prisons generate on a daily basis enormous demand for drug taking.  We need to take the harms of psychoactive drugs seriously, as evidenced in the Panorama programme, but also acknowledge that a harm reduction approach is the most sensible strategy for moving forward.  In so doing we should acknowledge that the only effective way to increase safety and reduce drug taking by prisoners is by radically reducing the size of the prison population itself.

 

A slightly longer version of this article was published as “Why there is such an enormous demand for drugs in UK prisons” in The Conversation on the 14th February 2017.

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’.

image-1

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.

image-2

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.

Naming the prison for what it is: a place of institutionally-structured violence

David Scott, The Open University

 

image-1 

Photo of prisoners on social media following HMP Birmingham Disturbances – Source: ibtimes.co.uk

 

Headline after headline in the British Press in recent months has placed a spotlight on prisoner violencePrisoner violence, especially that perpetrated by prisoners against prison officers, has been consistently portrayed as reaching epidemic proportions.  Statistics have been rolled out again and again detailing rises in assaults on staff, prisoner homicides and general levels of prisoner interpersonal violence in the last four years.  Yet much of the recent media focuses only on the physical violence perpetrated by prisoners.  Whilst such interpersonal physical violence should not be ignored or downplayed, it is only one kind of prison violence and by no means the most deadly.

 

Individual Pathology?

Violence is regarded by many people to be immoral and the perpetration of physical violence considered problematic by most people in most circumstances.  Official condemnations of prisoner physical violence, from the Justice Secretary, politicians, penal practitioners and penal reformers certainly have not been in short supply in recent times, but often explanations of prison violence have been reduced to prisoner individual pathology.  Pathologically violent prisoners have a deprived nature and inherent tendency towards violence (in other words, prisoners are dangerous, violent and irrational people who would be equally, if not more, violent on the outside). Analysis has rarely gone beyond this framework of understanding and it has been the approach of the current government, exemplified in the recent white paper on prisons. Physical violence by prisoners is being taken seriously and this is because it is not only the most visible form of violence but also because prisoner violence presents a direct threat to the state’s monopoly on the use of force.  But the problem of prisoner violence, and the problem of violence within prisons more generally, cannot be reduced to an increase in the number of violent prisoners alone, if at all.

 

The problem with the “individual pathology” argument is that ignores the brutal fact that prisons are inevitably structured according to the dictates of domination and exploitation.  Prisons are distinct moral places where normal moral conventions for daily interactions between prisoners and penal authorities can be neutralised. Physical violence in prison should not then be dislocated from the permanent and irremovable situational contexts and structures of penal confinement. Hierarchical and antagonistic relationships are naturalised in prisons and result in an ‘unequal exchange’ between people ranked differently, creating a form of structural vulnerability.  This is a key generator of conflict, antagonism and physical violence. Systemic exploitation takes many different forms in the prison place, such as through the informal prisoner code or bullying.  For prisoners, physical violence can be a way of acquiring goods and services, keeping face or fronting out problems.  In social hierarchies there are always winners and losers, with the losers open to physical (and sometimes sexual) exploitation.  Though the physical violence of prisoners is often relatively minor (with the exception of 2015 in recent times in the UK there have been only small numbers of prisoner homicides) victimisation and exploitation are routinised and part of the social organisation of the prison.  But this is not the only form of prison violence.

 

Prison Officer Violence

For a long time physical violence by prisoners against prison officers was taken for granted as a part of prison life.  With the promotion of a “zero tolerance” policy by the Prison Officer Association in 2012 this appears to have changed.  However it still seems to be regularly accepted that physical violence can and will be deployed by prison officers where and when deemed necessary.  Prison officer violence is also connected to the asymmetrical penal hierarchies.  Although staff cultures differ in their intensity across and within prisons, the hierarchical nature of the prison place exacerbates the ‘us and them’ mentality. Physical violence against prisoners is sometimes viewed by staff as not only necessary but also morally justifiable.  Violence is used for the right reasons to control the less eligible prisoner, something which has been referred to by Richard Edney in 1997 as “righteous violence”.  Prisoners are placed beyond the realm of understanding and the norms of common humanity.  They are Othered.  Using violence against prisoners has also in the past been used as a means of gaining respect and status as well as providing ‘excitement’ in the otherwise bleak and monotonous routine.

 

image-2

Prison officers control and restraint – source: videohit.tv

 

Prison officer autobiographies in recent years are a valuable source of information on the nature and extent of prison officer violence.  They inform us that for prison officers the location and timing of physical violence is often carefully chosen.  Sometimes it takes place in concealed and isolated spaces of the prison where the officer cannot be easily seen; other times officers may utilise the opportunities given to them by prisoners – such as targeting unpopular prisoners during prisoner disturbances or on the way to the segregation unit or applying greater force than necessary when applying restraints.  More indirectly, prison officers can facilitate prisoner-on-prisoner interpersonal violence by turning a blind eye, such as leaving the cell of a potential victim open; failing to patrol hot-spot areas known for prisoner assaults; or failing to intervene when physical violence erupts between two prisoners.

 

That prisons are drenched in violence does not mean, however, that physical violence is constantly exercised.  Physical violence may well be rare events in certain penal institutions, but this does not mean people live free from the shadow of violence. What is always present though is the fear of violence.  The exercise of violence can be explicit, as for example through the structured humiliations and denials of dignity within the daily role of the prison officer – strip searches; control and restraint; locking people into a cell and so on – or it can be implicit when prisoners conform because they know physical violence will follow if they do not.

 

Institutionally-Structured Violence

This is, however, a further form of violence in prison.  This silent, invisible yet potentially deadly form of violence has been named as institutionally-structured violenceInstitutionally-structured violence refers to the harmful outcomes created by the deprivations structured within penal regimes that restrict access to necessary life resources, thus negatively impacting upon health, wellbeing and intellectual, physical and spiritual development.  Operating independently of human actions, institutionally-structural violence has a permanent, continuous presence in the prison place and in the end produces suffering and death.  Rather than a perverse or pathological aberration, institutionally-structured violence is an inevitable and legal feature of prison life. Institutionally-structured violence is constructed through the operation of the daily rules, norms and procedures of penal institutions and impacts upon how prisoners and staff interact. Institutionally-structured violence exists when autonomy and choices are severely curtailed; human wellbeing, potential and development are undermined; feelings of safety and sense of security are weak; and human needs are systematically denied through the restrictive and inequitable distribution of resources.

image-3

HMP Manchester – Source: prisonuk.blogspot.co.uk

 

 

A person can never be truly free in prison – everywhere they will be restricted by invisible (and sometimes quite visible) chains that place significant limitations upon human movement. Restrictions on prisoner contact and relationships are structurally organised and whilst physical violence is relational and dependent upon a number of contingencies, institutionally-structured violence is embedded in, and socially produced by, the situational contexts of daily prison regimes.  Most obviously, we think of this in terms of prison conditions, crowding and the spatial restrictions created by the architectural dimensions of the prison place itself.  Prisons are a specifically designated coercive spatial order controlling human freedom, autonomy, choices, actions and relationships.  External physical barricades regulate the conditions of social existence through sealing the prisoner from their previous life, whilst internal control mechanisms survey constraints on the minutiae of the prison day.  Security restrictions on prisoner movements – such as access to educational and treatment programmes; religious instruction; work and leisure provision – are carefully structured and regimented around predetermined orderings of time and space.  The architecture of the prison place determines the location of events and distribution of bodies and in so doing also highly regulates relationships, and subsequently physical violence.

 

The harm generated by the general lack of privacy and intimacy; the ‘forced relationality’ between prisoners sharing a cell; insufficient living space and personal possessions; the indignity of eating and sleeping in what is in effect a lavatory; living daily and breathing in the unpleasant smells of body odour, urine and excrement; the humiliation of defecating in the presence of others are all examples of institutionally-structured violence.  Yet if these visible daily spatial constraints were all there was to institutionally-structured violence then prison reformers’ calls for improved prison designs, conditions, greater forms of autonomy and enhanced resources allowing prisoners to choose how they live their lives might be considered sufficient. But sadly they are not.

 

Prisons are places of estrangement.  They will always be places that take things away from people: they take a persons’ time, relationships, opportunities, and sometimes their life.  Prisons are places which constrain the human identity and foster feelings of fear, alienation and emotional isolation. For many prisoners, prisons are lonely, isolating and brutalising experiences.  Prisons are places of dull and monotonous living and working routines depriving prisoners of their basic human needs. Combined with saturation in time consciousness / awareness, these situational contexts can lead to a disintegration of the self and death.  For prison officers cultures of moral indifference and neglect are facilitated in such a culture where prisoner shared humanity is neutralised and the pain and suffering of fellow humans ignored.

image-4

Source: BBC News

 

Abolish Violence

The starting point is to name the prison for what it actually is – a place of institutionally-structured violence.  This entails denaturalising taken for granted deprivations structured within daily penal regime and acknowledging that prisons produce a specific moral climate that is more likely to dehumanise and dehabilitate than positively transform an individual.  Through articulating the brutal mundaneness of everyday prison life so corrosive to human flourishing and wellbeing we can facilitate a new culture that can assist in making the full extent of prison violence more visible.

 

Prisons are the enemy of the people, not their protector.  Prisons life is an unfolding human tragedy for all those caught up in exploitative and oppressive relations. Focusing on prisons as a form of institutionally-structured violence also highlights the tensions around promoting the criminal law as a means of responding to social harms such as sexual violence.  Indeed, the punishment of sexual violence has not only led to the reinforcement of state legitimacy but in the USA at least to further expansion of the penal net among poor, disadvantaged and marginalised women.   The belief that prisons can be used to ‘control’ male violence and create greater safety and public protection are today key ways of legitimating the prison place: by focusing on institutionally-structured violence it is possible to challenge this logic.  The prison cannot provide a means of increasing the safety and well-being of anyone, be they ‘victims’, ‘offenders’ or ‘bystanders’.

 

When focusing on ‘institutional structures’ though we must be careful the argument is not reduced to a crude form of social pathology.  There is also always the danger that such analysis can lead to the denial of human agency.  Human choices are constrained by social circumstances, not determined by them.  So we should acknowledge that current patterns of interactions in prison can be challenged.  Prison authorities and prison officers should be encouraged to talk openly about the harmful consequences they see on a daily basis: they, alongside prisoners, can bear witness to truth of current penal realities and should be allowed to do so without negative consequences.  Whilst it is impossible to change all the structural arrangements of the prison place, there are still everyday operational practices and cultures that can transformed.  Emancipatory humanitarian changes can be introduced to mitigate the worst excesses of institutionally-structured violence.  Some need deprivations can be removed and many daily infringements of human dignity can be greatly reduced.  Cultural changes can be made to promote a democratic culture providing first a voice to prisoners and then a commitment to listen to that voice with respect and due consideration. Finding new non-violent ways of dealing with personal conflicts and troubles in prison would also reduce the extent of physical violence and would help de-legitimate cultures of violence.

 

Yet prisons can never free themselves of violence entirely.  Prisons systematically generate suffering and death.  We must then urgently, vigorously and robustly call for a radical reduction in the use of prison.  Quite simply, violence can never be used as a weapon against violence.

Of Dangerous Nexuses and How to Survive in a Post-truth World

Giulia Zampini from the University of Greenwich presents thoughts on the Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative conference

 

The Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative (HERC) at the Open University organised a launch event on 9th November, 2016. The one day conference was free to attend, opening its doors to scholars across disciplines, students, third sector and campaigning organisations. As the name suggests, the aim of this collaborative is to establish cross disciplinary and cross field networks to investigate the harm and evidence nexus in relation to various aspects of the criminal justice system and beyond. Following the zemiology turn in criminology, replacing crime with harm is regarded as a useful way to shift the focus away from narrow definitions of crime and criminal justice towards broader engagement with the notion of harm in pursuit of social justice. In their own words,

HERC’s research can be summarised as “evidencing harm and harmful evidence” which encompasses a range of areas such as the use of evidence in the criminal justice system and the harmful practices of public and private institutions. The notion of harm is increasingly central to new initiatives in policy and practice. However, policy-makers and practitioners fail to regard their own institutional practices as harmful to health and wellbeing and fail to recognise that institutional neglect can severely impact on people’s life chances.[1]

Scholars and campaigning organisations alike hope that by ‘evidencing harm and exposing harmful evidence’ change should follow. In other words, there is an assumption that producing and exposing evidence of harmful institutionalised practices – ‘speaking truth to power’ – will eventually result in change for the better. In an ideal world, public institutions should be responsive, accountable and open to change. However, in reality, institutions are perceived as stubborn, neglectful, and blind to their own failings. Thus, state institutions are regarded as harmful, and not evidence-informed.

For someone who spent a great deal of time thinking about evidence, what it means to people, how it is constructed and how it is used, I am painfully aware of the manners in which it can be at once emancipatory and treacherous. If evidence is always granted an emancipatory role – if evidence is assumed to provide better, fairer, more neutral grounds for justifying claims in seeking change – then there is a risk that it becomes misleading. Though evidence is often portrayed in the evidence/policy nexus as the thing that will make policy fair and just, the reality is that there is a complex interplay between evidence and policy, and that evidence is neither neutral nor apolitical. Similarly, the relationship between evidence and harm should not be conceived as a linear one, but as a complex interplay; we must critically engage with both sides. A key aspect of my own work has been to understand the ways in which evidence is (mis)understood and (mis)used by institutions whose putative role is the prevention of harm. More important, I question what can and should be done when we realise, as we increasingly are, that these institutions are responsible for causing the most harm?

Professor David Nutt, keynote speaker for the day, is a classic example of a scientist who has taken on the task of producing and using evidence as political ammunition to question an institutionalised truth that has caused immense harm, namely that ‘drugs are bad, therefore they should be criminalised’. His solution to address this simplistic logic was to compare harms, not only across a variety of legal and illegal substances, but also by comparing activities as mundane as horse-riding with illegal activities such as ecstasy consumption. When confronted about this comparative choice by a politician – for whom the thought of comparing a legal activity with an illegal one was unacceptable – a painful truth became clear: the idea that harm is not tied to the legal status of an activity is simply unthinkable. Indeed, the illegal-because-harmful nexus has been sustained for decades despite being misleading and dangerous. Harm must be understood as a much more complex, multifaceted and non-linear process. The intricate design and comprehensive nature of the harm index developed by David Nutt in collaboration with other scholars – motivated by his persistent efforts to shift the debate from criminality to harm – has gone somewhere to addressing this. This work has also gained Nutt the reputation of a maverick in political circles. And yet, he has attracted the attention of portions of the public, contributing to bring this debate outside policy and science.

The modern state and its institutions have continuously positioned themselves as protectors of their people from harm, so any evidence to the contrary (of which there is plenty; i.e. that the state and its institutions cause a great deal of harm) is seldom well received. It is often when people and communities are personally affected by harms perpetrated by institutions, as the case of justice4paps made clear, that they mobilise to attempt to change the culture and practices within them. And yet, as in the case of this campaign seeking justice by exposing police brutality, communities are routinely silenced and discouraged from pursuing change. In the end, the most harm is suffered by those who are institutionally and positionally weaker in society; the marginalised, the homeless, sex workers, LGBT communities, ethnic minorities, refugees and asylum seekers. These groups were at the very heart of the discussions throughout the day, as they embody the very contradictions that exist within a democratic state. That is, a state moved by the values of inclusion and universal rights but governed through social, economic and cultural hierarchies. This discrepancy lies at the very essence of our contemporary politics; something that was felt even more acutely on the particular day of the conference as we absorbed the news that the US had elected Donald Trump as its leader.

Narrative after narrative, paper after paper, it was clear that both institutions and majorities in the nation-state go through a process of ‘explaining away’ and re-legitimising every time they are questioned and critiqued. Focusing on symptoms rather than causes, never engaging with the systemic nature of the problem, and routinely shifting the burden of responsibility away from the system and toward the individual: these are favourite tactics, which also lie at the very foundation of the modern criminal justice system. Jo Phoenix’s contribution, highlighting the struggles of legitimation involving sexual deviants, was a timely reminder of the limitations of the sociology of deviance in accounting for what happened after decades of moral and political struggles: only those who could adapt to hetero/mononormativity were mainstreamed and welcomed into the licit and moral economy, leaving the ‘sluts’ and the ‘paedos’ stuck in the landscape of immorality and criminalisation.

During the panel on gendered and racialized harms, I was reminded once again that evidence is a double-edged sword. One of the panellists noted that the World Value Survey was used to evidence British tolerance in a radio debate, which reminded me of Trevor Phillips’ argument that Britain is the least racist country in Europe (because the levels of integration – measured by mixed parenting as main indicator – are higher than anywhere else). To use evidence in this way is extremely dangerous; it panders to the belief that we are on an exponentially growing curve of progress, and that things can only get better. The World Value Survey is an invaluable tool, but it remains a data set that needs to be carefully interpreted. It is paramount that we make clear the difference between data and evidence. Data never speaks for itself. Evidence is a construct; it is built from our interpretation of data. It is our responsibility to be open and honest about this process of interpretation and construction.

In an age where every statement from policy maker and pundit alike needs to be justified as evidence-based, or at least notionally evidence-informed, our transformative efforts need to be rooted in openness and engagement; we must not fall into the trap of hiding behind the false neutrality of evidence, or else we risk further polarising debates. If both we and our political opponents are making supposedly evidence-based claims, then how can anyone judge the validity of those claims with any level of confidence (particularly considering many people do not know how evidence is constructed in science)? Perhaps, it is not incidental that we are increasingly living in this ‘post-truth’ regime. The public is saturated with contradictory truth claims. The world of science is often too complex, pessimistic, and full of caveats and uncertainty to provide people with that (false sense of) protection the state offers.

Safety and security are among the cornerstones of the modern state. They served to justify its creation and its expansionary aims, and continue to be used to justify its existence, running concurrently and in opposition with democratic liberal values of inclusion and universal rights. This paradoxical state of inclusion/exclusion is what we currently find ourselves in at every level of political engagement, and with every group that challenges our sense of stability, security, and identity. Going further in our struggle for inclusion and universal rights, we must find strategies to address the divisiveness of current politics. Else, we run the risk of alienating and excluding people who will likely turn to the state and its rising populist leaders in search of protection and the very inclusion and rights we seek to obtain.

 

[1] http://www.open.ac.uk/researchcentres/herc/events/exploring-harm-and-evidence

This post was originally published on the University of Greenwich Law and Criminology Research blog at http://blogs.gre.ac.uk/lawandcrim/2016/11/22/88/

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s own, and are not necessarily representative of the University of Greenwich or any of the organisations mentioned in this post.

Austerity as Bureaucratized and Organized Violence

Vickie Cooper, Lecturer in Criminology

In July 2014, a member of the Disability News Service sent a Freedom of Information Inquiry to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), asking it to reveal mortality statistics on those who have died while in receipt of benefits and/or while serving a benefit sanction. Typically, Ian Duncan Smith, head of the DWP refused, claiming that the DWP does not review such cases. However, after mounting pressure, including an ongoing petition and pressure from within the House of Commons itself, it was subsequently revealed that the DWP carried out 49 – 60 reviews of people who died while claiming benefits. In a separate but recent review by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, the government claims that it found “‘no particular case’ in which a ‘benefit sanction alone’ had directly led to the death of a benefit claimant”, but conceded that in 33 of those cases, the procedure could have been improved. This review makes recommendations that the DWP should conduct a system for formal death inquiries where an individual dies ‘whilst in receipt of that benefit’. This system, it is recommended, should be comparable to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, where death inquiries are made upon public request.

This particular Freedom of Information request is critical for thinking beyond the poverty implications of austerity, as it forces us to think more about the violent and harmful implications. A sharp rise in suicide mortality across those economies most impacted by austerity suggests that these post-crash economies are having particularly violent and harmful affects. Here in the UK, reports of ‘benefits-related suicides’ are being brought to our attention thick and fast. Perhaps the most familiar benefit-related suicide, one that raised much media attention, was the suicide of Stephanie Bottrill, from Solihul, near Birmingham. Following a thirty-minute assessment, the housing authority concluded that Stephanie Bottrill would have to pay an additional weekly fee for her spare bedroom. In her suicide note, Stephanie Bottrill blamed the government for causing her such stress.

Accused of failing in its duty of care towards disabled people, a death inquest led to various speculations as to why Stephanie Bottrill committed suicide. As such, Stephanie Bottrill’s history of mental health issues were called into question and were used to undermine the political significance of her death – as though the harms of austerity are any less significant or political when they impact upon those with mental health issues. A spokesperson in defence of the council responsible for making Stephanie Bottrill’s assessment claimed that she was in a ‘situation’, living in a house,  ‘that the government policy said was too big so she would have to pay a spare room subsidy’. The coroner passed a verdict that Stephanie Bottrill committed suicide due to ‘stress and anxiety’ and no local authority or government official was reviewed and/or policy implementation revised. But the biggest twist in the tale is that Stephanie Bottrill may have been exempt from paying bedroom tax. According to the pre-1996 exemption rule, any adult or family member living in the property before 1996, are exempt from paying bedroom tax. Stephanie Bottrill had been living in her accommodation since 1995.

P

Esther McVey and Chris Hayes during Parliamentary Inquiry into benefit-related suicides. Photo: screengrab, BBC Democracy Live

We know from Durkheim’s seminal study Suicide, that economic crises are often followed by a rapid rise in numbers of suicide mortality. However, the rise in suicide mortality is not as a result of encroaching poverty levels, but the extent to which economic crises disturb the ‘collective order’. And nothing quite disturbs a sense of order like citizens being evicted from their homes and further displaced from those communities they once inhabited. The psychological and physical responses to welfare policies in this post-crash period is not the fact that individuals and communities now find themselves destitute and on the margins, but the means by which it is done and the disorder that ensues.

While increasing suicide mortality is one way for us to think about austerity as harmful and violent, perhaps it is not indicative enough of the violent and harmful impacts of austerity. Durkheim reminds us that:

“those who kill themselves through automobile accidents are almost never recorded as suicides; those who sustain serious injuries during an attempt to commit suicide and die weeks or months later of these injuries or of inter-current infections are never registered as suicides; a great many genuine suicides are concealed by families; and suicidal attempts, no matter how serious, never find their way into the tables of vital statistics.”

The problem with relating suicide mortality with social injury caused by economic crises, is that many of the harmful and violent outcomes are hidden and multifarious: the suicides that are recorded are only the tip of the iceberg.

Austerity as Organized Violence

Another way to think about the harm and violence of austerity is to pay more attention to those bureaucracies and organizations challenged with the task of enforcing it. Since 2010, the welfare reforms have encompassed a whole range of assessments for determining new thresholds of eligibility, with the aim of removing people from their benefits entitlement. Benefit claimants have been forced to make the transition from old benefit entitlements, to new ones; with new rules, new measures of entitlement, new guidance frameworks and more strict sanctions for those claimants who fail to adhere to these new rules. In this transition, claimants have had to undergo new benefits assessments such as Personal Independence Payment (PIP), Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Spare-room Subsidy (bedroom tax) and Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA).

These new thresholds of entitlement and eligibility, and the volume of assessments they entail, should not be underestimated as we think about how austerity is violently enforced through bureaucracies and organizations. Putting these new measures of eligibility in motion, the government and local authorities have recruited a number of private companies to administer the new rules of eligibility. Companies such as Experian, A4e, ATOS, Maximus and Capita have all been recruited to assess and process millions of benefit claimants. Where authorities claim that these companies ‘improve the quality’ of their assessment process, individuals assessed by them would most likely claim the opposite. A government inquiry into the standard of assessments made by the company Atos, revealed that 41 per cent of face-to-face assessments ‘did not meet the required standards’. When A4e set unattainable targets to reduce the number of people claiming employment seeker’s allowance, staff members resorted to ‘numerous offences of fraud’ in order to remove people from their benefit entitlement. Such offences involved ‘tricking’ claimants into carrying out job-search activities that, as a result of learning difficulties, they could not complete and were subsequently sanctioned. Although privatisation plays a significant part in the violent enforcement of austerity, local authorities have also been reprimanded for conducting benefit assessments unlawfully.

So how we can we think of these bureaucratic practices as organized violence? Mainstream policy analyses frequently dismiss the political significance of administrators of eligibility and entitlement as technical systems that separate ‘the deserved’ poor from ‘the undeserved’. But history tells us a more compelling story about the role of bureaucracy and organizations for enforcing and legitimating a violent political order.

Systems of classification and eligibility have a long history in shaping society and political relations. At worst, repressive regimes have relied upon bureaucracies to enforce formal eligibility rules to disqualify and deny citizens access to fundamental rights  – often relegating them to ‘stateless’ and ‘non-human’ identities. The Apartheid regime in South Africa began with the classification and reclassification of race that enabled the state to organize the violent expulsion of certain racial and ethnic groups and deny citizens their most basic rights. Similarly, Hannah Arendt observed that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were not atypical monsters, but mundane bureaucrats, as demonstrated in her analysis of the Adolf Eichmann trials.

These violent histories raise two key points for thinking about austerity as bureaucratized and organized violence. First, they reveal the manner in which violent political orders are legitimated at the bureaucratic level and second, how bureaucracies are necessary for reconfiguring socio-economic relations through systems of ‘entitlement’. These relations often include: property relations, race relations, class relations, family relations, gender relations, geographical relations and state-citizen relations.

And austerity serves as something of a peculiar model in this process. Austerity and the bureaucratic means by which it comes to be enforced is about reconfiguring social relations. Here, gender-relations and new benefit rules are a good case in point. With Universal Credit (which amalgamates six benefit and tax credits) claims are made on households, not individuals. The Women’s Budget Group argues that the design of Universal Credit – with its system of joint assessment, joint ownership and joint income – reshapes gender relations as it reinforces the ‘single breadwinner model’, a model that has disadvantaged women throughout history. In reshaping gender relations, Universal Credit is positioning women in harmful positions as it allows for abusive male partners to centralise and control household finance. Financial abuse is a common source of power and violence that is exercised over women and Universal Credit simply gives the abuser more money and more opportunity to control.  This comes on top of overwhelming evidence from Women’s Aid showing that the provision of domestic violence specialist services and hostel accommodation available for women, is diminishing directly as a result of local authority cuts.

Clearly, the government is failing in its duty to promote gender equality and protect women from harm and violence.

In this post-crash period, the war on the poor has resulted in various social injuries including debt, child poverty, evictions, homelessness, self-harm and suicide. Hell-bent on the idea that removing people from their basic entitlements can restore economic order, the government is throwing people onto unknown margins in order reduce the budget deficit.  But justifying this level of harmful and violent economic policy – as a means to an end, to reduce deficit budget – does not wash. Austerity is not a means to an end, but a long-term strategy by which governments are violently and legitimately disrupting the rights of citizens. As Hannah Arendt put it, violence is rarely a means to an end, but a power structure and political order that ‘outlasts all aims’.

It is worth paying closer attention to the rising levels of psychological and physical harms affecting young people as the next round of welfare reforms will disproportionately affect young people. With the new welfare reform bill, the Conservative government looks set on excluding young people between 18-21 years old from housing benefit entitlement (who are also claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance). Despite homeless charities ferociously ringing alarm bells showing how these policies will result in homelessness, the government wants young people to ‘earn or learn’. And bureaucracies will play a key role in enforcing these new rules as it begins to assess and remove approximately 20,000 young people from this benefit entitlement.

This blog first appeared at Open Democracy on 10 August 2015, at https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/vickie-cooper/austerity-as-bureaucratized-and-organized-violence