Britain’s dark history of criminalising homeless people in public spaces

Victoria Cooper and Daniel McCulloch, The Open University

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Image source: özge çağla aktaş/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

 

Since the onset of austerity in 2010, the estimated number of people sleeping rough in England has more than doubled, from 1,768 in 2010, to 4,134 in 2016. As the number of homeless people increases, while support services and hostels are diminishing, rough sleepers are becoming ever more visible in British cities.

But rather than finding ways to accommodate the homeless, the UK government has sought to criminalise them. From archaic vagrancy laws, to the more recent Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs), governments have been passing new laws and reviving old ones which result in the punishment of people with no fixed abode.

People without access to land or property are denied the freedom to roam, sit, eat, wash or sleep in public spaces. Or, where local authorities do lawfully permit street homeless people to access and use public spaces (for homeless camps, homeless shelters or day centres), these sites are routinely monitored by criminal justice agencies, bringing the homeless under direct surveillance and control.

Modern day vagrants

The criminalisation of the homeless can be traced back to 1824 and beyond, when vagrancy laws were implemented to control the spread of “urban poverty” at the height of the industrial revolution. During this time, land privatisation was being rolled out on a mass scale, and hundreds of thousands of people who lacked the means to purchase property were displaced from their homes and prohibited from accessing the land they once lived on.

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Sleeping outlawed. Image source: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums/Flickr, CC BY

 

Vagrancy laws criminalised access to land in cases where there was no contractual relationship, which gave police the power to arrest people who were not legally bound to property or land. These individuals were characterised as “incorrigible rogues” and “mobile anomalies” by the law, and punished with flogging, incarceration and even transportation to penal colonies such as Australia.

Fast forward almost two centuries, and these antiquated laws – and imperious attitudes – are still very much with us. In the period from 2006 to 2014, the number of court cases for “vagrancy-related offences” in England increased by 70% – from 1,510 prosecutions to 2,365. The most noteworthy cases involved three men who were very nearly prosecuted for taking food waste from a supermarket refuse bin, and an operation in Sussex involving undercover police, which led to the arrest of 60 rough sleepers for accepting money from the public.

Hostile streets

This is the work of successive governments. Civil orders introduced under Tony Blair to target “street-crime” effectively led to a clampdown on begging, which sanctioned homeless communities en masse. When the coalition government came to power in 2010, these civil orders were amended to give local authorities even greater powers over what people do in public spaces.

In particular, Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs), brought in under the 2014 Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, allowed local authorities to enforce on-the-spot fines for certain activities. Predictably, local authorities are applying these new powers to target homeless people by sanctioning what they do in public spaces: street drinking, begging, camping in parks, defecating and urinating and in some cases even sleeping.

Not only do PSPOs criminalise the homeless, they also make these tactics appear as a local response to a perceived problem and avoids the exposure and opposition which national measures usually invoke. Yet PSPOs are not a local response: their use is widespread across England, and it’s increasing, with one in 10 local authorities now using PSPOs to criminalise homeless people.

To make matters worse, private owners of commercial land are boarding-up shop doorways, erecting spikes and using possession laws to forcibly remove the homeless from commercial spaces.

The fight for the right to exist

Yet there have been moments of resistance against these anti-homeless measures. Both campaigns by organisations such as Liberty, and individuals like the family who placed cushions over anti-homeless spikes in Manchester, are challenging the punitive measures adopted by local authorities. In some areas this has led to the successful withdrawal of PSPO proposals.

In austerity Britain, these movements are gathering momentum and stirring up indignation about the uneven distribution of wealth, property and land. Some resistance movements are even occupying empty properties to make space for homeless people and homeless communities themselves are documenting their own daily struggle as they fight for the right to exist in public spaces.

Homelessness itself is not yet a crime, but anti-homeless laws and strategies are restricting homeless people’s freedom, and turning everyday activities into punishable offences. Yet survival defines the daily lives of homeless people, and in the face of oppression they will find new ways to expose the violence and prejudice they encounter in the every day.

 

This article was originally published in The Conversation, at: https://theconversation.com/britains-dark-history-of-criminalising-homeless-people-in-public-spaces-74097

Prison deaths: a case of corporate manslaughter?

Steve Tombs, The Open University

 

Attention has finally fallen on the crisis of safety in British prisons. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Some argue that prison has always inherently been, and remains, a place of degradation which is systematically generating suffering and death. A place where the victims are overwhelmingly prisoners – a fact that might be obscured by the loud voices of the Prison Officers’ Association.

On the other hand, there is something peculiar in this present crisis. It feels like a perfect storm of rising prisoner numbers, cuts in staffing, widespread demoralisation among prisoners and staff, all combining to deliver evidence of a record year for killing and self-inflicted deaths.

In this context, but specifically following the news of the fatal stabbing of Jamal Mahmoud at HMP Pentonville in November 2016, Emily Thornberry, the local MP, called for an investigation into whether an appropriate “duty of care” had been extended to the deceased during his time at the jail. Indeed, one commentator noted that Mahmoud’s death had come “as little surprise given the substantial rise in violence at the troubled local prison over recent years”, violence which had been documented in “report after report”.

Caught in the Act

Such a call seems appropriate and timely. In 2011, the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 (CMCHAct) was extended to the prison service, so that a prison itself, through the actions or inactions of its senior management, can be held to account for deaths within its walls.

A prosecution under the Act requires a failure in the way in which the organisation is managed or organised which amounts to a gross breach of its duty of care. This in turn requires evidence that the failure fell “far below what can reasonably be expected”. That may include consideration of the “attitudes, policies, and systems of accepted practices” of the organisation, while a substantial element of the failure must be at senior management level.

Now there is no doubt that the Act was introduced ostensibly and primarily to deal with the failure of common law manslaughter to hold large, complex, profit-making companies to account for multiple fatality disasters. In this respect, it has hardly been a success. Thus, at the time of writing, over eight years after the CMCHAct came into force, there have been 19 successful prosecutions under the Act – none, arguably, against a company of the size and complexity that could not have been prosecuted under the pre-existing common law.

But is there a case for testing the Act in the context of deaths in prison? I would argue that there is, on at least two counts.

Sharp practice? Alex G./Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Danger zone

First, prisons are especially dangerous places. According to HSE data released last month, fatal injuries (as opposed to fatal illnesses) to workers in 2015/16 totalled 144. Almost a third of these (43) occurred in construction, with the other most dangerous sectors being agriculture and manufacturing (each with 27 recorded fatalities). Notwithstanding the significant limitations of HSE data, such figures pale into comparison when compared with the numbers of killings and self-inflicted deaths in British jails.

In 2011, the year the Act was extended to cover prisons, there were 190 deaths in prison; this year, there have been over 300. All in all, since 2011, there has been a consistent, year-on-year increase in the numbers of such deaths, which total nearly 1,400 for the period. It seems almost inconceivable that none of these 1,400 deaths involved at least sufficient evidence for a prosecution to be taken under the CMCHAct.

Second, we know, and have long known, that it is precisely “attitudes, policies, and systems of accepted practices” which generate deaths and violence in prison. Just as we also know that some institutions are more poorly managed than others.

It is, sadly, also too easy to identify clusters of deaths in specific jails. For example, there have been 17 self-inflicted deaths at HMP Woodhill near Milton Keynes since 2013 – the latest, 41-year-old artist David Rayner, was found in his cell on August 25.

Bleak outcomes. sean hobson/Flickr, CC BY

Ignored recommendations

More generally, a constant stream of inquest findings, inspectorate, investigation and monitoring reports, and inquiries into prisons from Baroness Corston to Lord Harris, reveal consistent failings and are able to produce rigorous, evidence-based recommendations to protect the health and safety of prisoners and staff in British jails.

The vast majority of these have been systematically ignored. But the fact remains that this volume of evidence would strongly indicate that in the case of many deaths in prison, management was likely aware of risks to which they failed to respond, a key element of the senior management failure test under the law.

Many deaths in prison are the result of gross breaches in the duty of care through attitudes, policies and practices woven into the fabric of the prison service. The time is overdue for the CMCHAct to be tested there. This is not to imply that effective reform of prisons can come through the law. In fact, the best way to reduce prison violence is through an explicit policy decision to make prison the last resort of sentencing policy in an effort to massively reduce the prison population. It now stands at a near-record level of 85,000, and England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe.

However, a successful prosecution under the Act would provide a powerful, symbolic message that the routine, systematic deaths of those to whom the state and the prison service has a duty of care cannot continue without legal accountability.

 

This article originally appeared in the Conversation on the 1st of December at: https://theconversation.com/prison-deaths-a-case-of-corporate-manslaughter-69729