Grenfell: unfolding dimensions of harm

Steve Tombs, Professor of Criminology, The Open University


Exactly six months ago, a fire broke out in Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey tower block on the Lancaster West estate in North Kensington, west London. Grenfell was and is many things: a tragedy, an outrage, a testimony to the violence of austerity, the biggest fire in Britain for generations, and perhaps a crime of corporate manslaughter. But it is also the site of a whole series of harms, generated both by the fire and its aftermath – albeit some are much more immediately apparent than others.

Physical Harms

The most manifest harms associated with the fire are, of course, the immediate deaths which it caused – some 71, so it is officially claimed, although intense controversy about the actual numbers has raged. Moreover, a week after the fire, the clinical director of the major trauma centre at King’s College Hospital, said that : “Many of the people who have survived will go on to make a good recovery, but how many will have life-changing injuries remains to be seen. It may take weeks and months for some patients to recover physically.”

There are other possible physical health effects of the fire which are perhaps less identifiable. It is not fully known what airborne toxins might have been emitted as a result of the fire, and what long-term effects exposures to these might be felt by residents and those in the living in the vicinity. However, we do know that asbestos was present in the building, while hydrogen cyanide was emitted from the burning insulation.

In addition to causing death, injury and illness, various aspects of the aftermath of the fire are likely to have caused detrimental health effects. First, it is likely that anyone with existing problems of alcohol and/or drug dependency at the time of the fire would have experienced heightened dependency as a result of the trauma of the fire. Second, many illnesses associated with deprivation – the residents of Grenfell were amongst the 10% most deprived in England – such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol  are likely exacerbated by their having to live in hotel or B&B accommodation where control over diet is more difficult to exercise.

Psychological and Emotional Harms

Surviving the fire in Grenfell Tower is most obviously likely to have produced a whole gamut of searing psychological and emotional problems with which victims will live  for years to come. These are likely to be associated with grief at the loss of loved ones, loss, too, of possessions which cannot be replaced, of pets, the recall of the horrors of exiting the building (and of seeing others unable to do so), guilt at survival, as well as horrors and guilt for bystanders and members of the emergency. These have all variously been reported in the aftermath of the fire. None are surprising. None are easily imaginable. None are, one suspects, easily remediable, not least given the parlous state of socially provided mental health services in the UK. In this context, within a month or so of the fire, reports began to circulate about suicide attempts and other manifestations of long term mental health problems, including PTSD, stress, depression and anxiety.


Image courtesy of Gerry Popplestone (Creative Commons)

Financial and Economic Harms

There is no way of knowing what financial costs were, and continue to be, incurred by former residents of the Tower, as well as those living in the vicinity (but they would include extra travel costs to work or school, the costs of eating out, of time off to attend meetings, funerals, medical appointments, and so on).  Moreover these costs are dwarfed by those to local, regional and national economies which are likely to follow the fire. At the local level, the Council faces heavy financial costs following the fire. Costs to central Government will be significant.  The costs of the inquiry itself are likely to run into millions. None of this is to mention the fallout costs for other councils across the country. Numerous councils have tested cladding on high rise tower bloc and other public buildings, notably hospitals, and many are seeking central Government funding for major cladding-replacement programmes.

Thus, these economic effects of Grenfell Tower are not confined to residents, the local community or even the borough – there are ripple effects that are flowing and will continue to flow through communities across the UK. This in turn means that those who are most dependent upon central or local services and facilities – those with the least financial independence – will be hardest hit. The poor, the disabled and the sick, those on various forms of benefits, children in the mainstream school system, and, with no little irony, those in social housing or who lack access to adequate or any accommodation at all, all will be impacted upon. The least hardest-hit will be the most financially independent – the wealthiest.

Cultural and Relational Harms

A further, discrete category of harms I label here as cultural and relational. In terms of cultural harms, it is clear that in their physical relocation from the Tower and area – their  dispersal –  that many of both the routines and the networks which constitute social life – at school, the local shops, around the flats and so on – have been rent asunder.  They have lost their social networks and social supports when they need them most; dispersal does not just mean loss of community, it can mean isolation, desperation or, at best, a state of painful limbo.

More than this, there are relational harms that follow from mis-trust of central and local Government, each of which were absent in the immediate aftermath of the fire, and for which PM May apologised. In terms of central Government, the uncertain nature of the ‘amnesty’ offered to so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ (a harmful term in itself) was one such source of anxiety. Another was the palpable failure to meet the commitment made by the Prime Minister in the immediate aftermath of the fire – namely that “every person made homeless would receive an offer of accommodation within three weeks”. In fact, this was subsequently “clarified” as meaning temporary accommodation. Exactly six months after the fire, four of out five of the households requiring accommodation have not been permanently rehoused. Also, contrary to assurances from Government, local residents were not consulted before the appointment of Judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick to lead the Public Inquiry in the light of which Justice4Grenfell concluded that this “further compounds the survivors and residents sense of distrust in the official response to this disaster”.

In many senses, there has been a contempt displayed towards the residents after the fire – one which entirely reproduced the attitudes displayed towards local residents prior to it. In fact, some recognised this contempt as a cause of the fire per se: as one resident stated outside the tower as it continued to burn, “We’re dying in there because we don’t count.” As the Inquiry opens this week, the demands that the voices of the residents must be heard and must count seem ever more pressing in the light of the unfolding, complexly interacting and layered harms which many of them continue to endure.


What is Convict criminology?

 Rod Earle, Senior Lecturer in Youth Justice, The Open University

‘In order to explain a cultural product it is necessary to know it. And to know it, in matters of thought and emotion, is to have experienced it.’ Bronislaw Malinowski, Anthropologist, 1884-1942

Rod Earle

Imprisonment is much studied by criminologists, but rarely experienced directly. As the study of crime has grown in recent years, prison officers, police officers, probation staff and social workers have contributed positively to the discipline of criminology, and helped to swell its ranks. Many people from these professional backgrounds have successfully made the transition to careers in criminology. You might say that they have taken to it like ducks to water. More recently, there are signs that something else is possible, something new: ex-convicts are making their way into criminology.

How does an ex-convict study crime and punishment and make sense of their personal experience? What research questions does an ex-convict have about prisons, punishment and rehabilitation? Do they teach criminology differently? Do they understand prison life better or have special insights into issues of crime and punishment by virtue of their experience? These are the questions that drive something that has come to be known as convict criminology: the study of criminology by those who have first-hand experience of imprisonment.

Convict criminology perspectives are currently dominated by US experience and publications. These emerged from the United States in the late 1990s through a group of academics, and an organisation, Convict Criminology, that supports and encourages prisoners and ex-prisoners who are interested in studying criminology. Academics without experiences of imprisonment helped to get the US Convict Criminology group started and remain welcome because they help those with prison experience and less conventional academic backgrounds to develop their academic skills and analysis, complete their studies and secure academic positions.

Part of what fueled the growth of US convict criminology was the enormous expansion of the US prison population from the 1970s onwards. The reasons for this growth are complex, and patterns of growth vary from state to state but the overall upward trend has been relentless. Moreover, if you are a black person in the USA you are seven times more likely to be sent to prison than if you are a white person. In the UK there are three young African Caribbean men in prison for every one at a Russell Group university and the rate of disproportionality in prison populations is actually greater than in the USA, though the scale is much smaller.

The fact that most convict criminologists are white men is not a random accident, and the way the two institutions, prison and university, operate at the bottom and top of the social hierarchy are open questions ripe for analysis. This analysis needs to be explicitly gendered and focus on the intersectional dynamics of masculinity, class, race and ethnicity. Women’s routes into, out of, and through prison vary significantly from men’s. When more than 90% of prison populations are composed of men, the available population of formerly imprisoned women is inevitably considerably smaller. As a result their opportunities to contribute to convict criminology are fewer and further between. While convict criminology is composed mostly of white men, it can benefit from an engagement with critical race theory to examine how ‘whiteness’ intersects with other aspects of biography, criminology and prison experience. This will help it to avoid ‘speaking for others’ and generalising experiences that are specifically conditioned by gender, ethnicity and class. In doing so, convict criminology can fashion distinctive critical contributions to criminology that unsettle and expose the ways in which universities reproduce privilege and hierarchy while prisons foster disadvantage and marginality.

Convict criminologists draw inspiration from C Wright Mills classic text The Sociological Imagination. Mills argued that linking aspects of personal biography to social structures and history was the core business of social science. For Mills the special craft of sociology rested on the insight that ‘personal troubles cannot be solved as mere troubles, but must be understood in terms of public issues’. By bringing together people with direct experience of imprisonment and criminological expertise, convict criminology tries to expand the criminological imagination. We may not know best, but we know prison well, and in ways other criminologists do not, and cannot know it – from experience. In the UK these experiences and expertise have not yet been brought together in any systematic way to examine if and how they can help to re-conceptualise various aspects of penal policy and how they can contribute to criminological theorisation. My forthcoming book, Convict Criminology – Inside and Out (Policy Press 2016) makes a start and develops my own case and perspectives, but the potential for convict criminologists to contribute more collaborative and distinctive insider perspectives is under-developed.

My experience is restricted to three months incarceration and 16 months of research fieldwork, spread over three English prisons, two of them separated from the first by over 100 miles and more than 30 years. For as long as I have worked around the criminal justice system and criminology, having personal experience of imprisonment has troubled me, albeit in a low-key kind of way. I didn’t realise how much I would appreciate working through these private troubles by connecting them to the public issues that I have found so compelling in criminology: issues of social justice, ideas about freedom, the problem of men, the role of law, the possibilities of social order and the significance of history. I am still troubled that I risk claiming too much for my very brief experience of imprisonment.  I’ve now spent more hours in prison as a researcher or a guest than I have as a prisoner. But there are two kinds of time inside and they do, I think, in the end, make a difference to anyone approaching the prison again as a scholar, and particularly as a criminologist.

Something of this difference resides in a remark I recall reading from a former Chief Inspector of Prisons in the UK. Reflecting, in a newspaper article, on his work revealing and reforming the way prisons operate, he noted that for all the good reform does, it was ever the case that prison ‘sits on a road that leads ultimately to the concentration camp.’ ‘Society’, he said, ‘neglects this awkward fact at its peril’. It is something, an immanent truth rather than an awkward fact, that prisoners sense more intuitively than most. As a result, convict criminologists, ex-prisoners writing sociologically about their experience, the institution of prison and the way society works around crime and punishment, may have something to enrich criminology. In anthropology Malinowski found a craft for more fully appreciating our ways of being human.  I think convict criminology develops this anthropological potential. It can provide evidence that prisons demonstrate the ways we fail.

For more information about convict criminology see the website: