Bad Moon Rising : Criminal Justice after the Election

Joe Sim is Professor of Criminology, Liverpool John Moores University

On November 29th, two weeks before the general election, Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones were horrifically murdered by Usman Khan. In the immediate aftermath of Jack and Saskia’s appalling deaths, Boris Johnson, appearing in nearly every news outlet, made it clear that there would be changes to the criminal justice system including tougher sentences and restrictions on early release. The poignant interventions from Jack’s father, Dave, who pointed out that his murdered child would have had no truck with such retributive policies, and who passionately believed in the redeeming spirit of rehabilitation and reform, were ignored by Johnson in the rush to invoke a grotesque spirit of revenge and punishment. On December 9th, three days before the election, Joseph McCann received 33 life sentences. He had committed 37 rapes against 11 women and children aged between 11 and 71. And while none of the victims had physically died, the account below from one of the survivors of McCann’s misogynist terror, spoke eloquently about the psychological death she had experienced:

This is a significant and limiting change in my lifestyle. I used to be very independent with no fear of going out and doing things alone. I am now much more dependent on other people. My life looks very different from how it once did. It has been a huge loss for me. My aspirations, both small and big, and my vision of a positive future, have been violently taken from me. My partner and I both exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and my sleep remains disturbed by nightmares and physical pain. I often feel like I’m hiding a terrible secret and I can’t connect with people like I used to as a result. To replace a life thriving with one of surviving is deeply demoralising and difficult. I only hope that this process will take us one step closer to building a society in which rape and sexual assault are never excused, in which the voices of victims and survivors are heard and respected, and in which this can never happen to anyone else.

In contrast to his intervention after Jack and Saskia’s murders, McCann’s crimes provoked little response from the soon-to-be Prime Minister, nor indeed from any of the other political parties. (Nor did any of them see the desperate irony in the fact that those who confronted Khan, and who could also have lost their lives, came from two of the most vilified groups in an increasingly pitiless society: a Polish immigrant and serving and ex-prisoners). On December 12th, Johnson was re-elected as Prime Minister.

Johnson’s reaction to Jack and Saskia’s deaths, and his non-reaction to the crimes committed by McCann, was not unique. Over the last forty years, both major parties have hypocritically capitalised on specific crimes in order to legitimate hard-line, authoritarian policies. The horrific murder of James Bulger in Liverpool was mobilised by Tony Blair to justify New Labour’s infantile law and order mantra, ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. New Labour politicians had plenty to say about this appalling murder but had much less to say when Anthony Walker was brutally murdered by racists on Merseyside. Why was this? Because Anthony’s mother did not utilise the language of revenge and retribution but pleaded for understanding and forgiveness. However, like Dave Merritt, her views were ignored. Her language did not suit the retributive law and order policies favoured by politicians. So the idea that victims are centre stage in the thoughts of politicians is false. Only some victims’ voices are heard, the ones that suit those in power, or, in Johnson’s case, those seeking and winning power.

Over the decades, it is has become clear that the main political parties, having no answers to the complexities around conventional crimes, and the lamentable failure of their law and order policies in dealing with these crimes, have responded to any criticisms of their policies by labelling their critics as pro-crime and anti-victim. This offensive caricature, and the morally vacuous sloganeering that underpins it, has mystified the fact that, in practice, it has been successive governments which have been pro-crime, for example, in terms of their attitudes towards, and lack of response to, white collar and corporate crime. And it is they who have been anti-victim, for example, in their deplorable response to domestic and sexual violence in England and Wales. In Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit world that is likely to remain the case.

Other Issues

There are a number of other issues to consider. First, implicitly and explicitly, Johnson’s view is that the criminal justice system in general, and sentencing in particular, have become too liberal. Not so. Sentences have been getting longer while England and Wales imprisons more people per 100,000 of its population than any other country in Western Europe.

Second, there is his view that a prison-driven, hard-line approach to conventional crime (not, of course, to corporate, white collar or state crime) will protect the wider society and prevent more people becoming victims of crime. Given this fairy-tale logic, America, the country with the highest rate of imprisonment in the world, should also be the safest country in the world. Again, not so. Speaking on the 39th anniversary of John Lennon’s murder in 1980, – a ‘hollowing experience’ – Yoko Ono pointed out that there are 100 gun-related deaths each day in America while over 1,400,000 people have been killed by guns since John’s death in December 1980. Additionally, between 1968 and December 2015, more Americans were killed by gun violence than the combined number of Americans killed in all of the wars pursued by the USA in that country’s history.

Third, like his Conservative and New Labour predecessors, Johnson was, and is, concerned with crime in the world of the public. Of course, deaths such as those resulting from knife crime have a terrible, traumatic impact on families, friends and communities. However, there are other crimes in the public which do not receive the same attention. For example, the number of hate crimes increased from 42,255 in 2012/13 to 103,379, in 2018/19. There is still little debate, nor concern, about the impact of these crimes on the families, friends and communities of these victims. Then there is the question of crimes in the world of the private. In the year ending June 2019, over one-third of offences involving violence against the person were domestic-abuse related. What about sexual violence? There were over 163,000 sexual offences recorded by the police in the year up to June 2019, including nearly 59,000 rapes. Police recorded sexual offences were at their highest volume since the introduction of the National Crime Recording Standard in 2002. Grassroots women’s organisations and survivors, continue to point to the lack of empathy, sympathy and support from criminal justice personnel towards them and the traumas they continue to experience when, and if, these crimes get to court. A highly masculinised criminal justice system reflects and helps to reproduce, a highly masculinised political and popular culture in these particular cases.

Fourth, as ever, there is the marginalisation of the social harms, including death, generated by white collar, corporate and state crime which have had, and continue to have, a profound impact on the wider society. Johnson’s post-Brexit state is unlikely to address:

income tax avoidance and evasion, which even on the Government’s own “laughable” estimate now stands at a record £35 billion per annum, nor the 36,000 deaths each year which the Government links to air pollution in the UK in its recently revised downwards estimate, nor the 50,000 work related deaths which occur year in, year out in one of the wealthiest economies in the world. The cultures of immunity and impunity which allows the rich and powerful to engage in routine criminal activity will continue to be encouraged: programmes of deregulation and non-enforcement of law against businesses have been institutionalised since 2010 to the point where, for example, there are no officers to enforce law in some local authority areas, where some regulation has been privatised, and where prosecution in some areas are now non-existent.

Fifth, and more broadly, there is the question of the democratic accountability of state servants. Peter Clarke, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, and former Assistant Commissioner for Special Operations in the Metropolitan Police – therefore he is hardly a paid up member of the revolutionary Marxist clique which is central to the caricatures articulated by politicians towards their critics – has consistently pointed out that his recommendations for improving prison safety have been systematically ignored by prison managers and staff. Between 2009 and mid-December 2019, 2713 prisoners died in England and Wales, 854 of which were self-inflicted. Up to mid-December 2019, there were 271 deaths in prison, 75 of which were self-inflicted. Johnson has had nothing to say either about the institutional chaos and dehumanising regimes which provide the traumatising context for many of these deaths, or about the lack of implementation of official recommendations from Peter Clarke which could have prevented many of them or about the culture of immunity and impunity in which these deaths occur.

Finally, there is the question of access to justice. The cuts to the criminal justice system which have been implemented since 2008 have been devastating in terms of reducing access to civil and criminal justice, and legal representation, particularly for the poorest and most impoverished members of this society, especially women. Will these cuts be restored? Allied to this is the question of miscarriages of justice. Will this issue be taken seriously or will those who claim to be innocent continue to be dismissed as dissembling liars which is ironic given what passes for ‘truth’ from the political class in this country. In 2017/18, despite an increase in its workload, the Criminal Cases Review Commission’s (CCRC) budget for investigating miscarriages was cut to £5.6 million, down from £7 million in 2003/04.

Expenditure on the CCRC represented a fraction of the criminal justice budget for the year. In fact, the annual budget for investigating miscarriages was below the average salary of the Chief Executives of the Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 companies which stood at £5.7 million. Altogether, the top five executives earned £148.1 million over the year, more than 25 times the budget for the CCRC. The cost of the CCRC was also less than the cost of the relocation expenses for some Chief Executives – over £6 million – in recent years. This included £497,000 for the Chief Executive of the National Grid to relocate 97 miles from Warwick to London.

In focussing on crime and insecurity in the world of the public, including knife crime, Johnson was, and is, consciously and uncritically following the dominant discourses articulated by successive governments for decades, discourses which have relentlessly been reinforced by the mass media and state servants and their representative organisations such as the Police Federation and the Prison Officers Association. This corrosive network of power has been crucial in socially constructing what crime is, where it takes place, who is responsible for it and how it should be responded to. In the rush towards the further intensification in the process of punishment, revenge and retribution for conventional crime, the systemic inequalities in the delivery of criminal justice, or rather criminal injustice, will continue to be marginalised and are unlikely to make it onto the punitive radar of the Prime Minister, or his hard-line Home Secretary.

The Brexit State

On the Saturday after the election, the Daily Mail, which devoted 25 hagiographic, triumphalist pages to Johnson’s election victory, indicated that he would start with a‘100-day whirlwind’. This will involve employing 20,000 police officers, 6000 of whom will start next year. Additionally, ‘the law will be changed to allow more stop and search. He will end early release at the halfway point of sentences for paedophiles, terrorists and other serious criminals, who will have to serve at least two-thirds of their prison terms’. Chillingly, in terms of the constitution, the newspaper also noted that there would be ‘restrictions on judicial review’ and asked [c]ould there also be a look at how Supreme Court judges are selected?’ Writing in the Sunday Telegraph three days after the election, Simon Heffer, demanded ‘radical constitutional reform.’ The government, he said, should ‘fix the scandal of our broken constitution’. In saying this, Heffer did not mean changing the anti-democratic and unfair nature of the voting system through introducing proportional representation thereby democratising and modernising how politicians are elected. Rather, his proposals would involve boundary changes to Parliamentary constituencies (which will overwhelmingly benefit the Conservatives), reforming the House of Lords (which often has been the main bulwark against Conservative policies) and reviewing the work of the Supreme Court whose members, according to Heffer, ‘must be subject to confirmatory hearings in which they declare their political allegiances’.

Not surprisingly, he had nothing to say about the appalling role of the mainstream media and social media in demonising the Labour leadership and in reducing political debate to superficial, echo-chamber sound bites. Even his own paper pointed to the ‘grievous falsehoods’ mobilised at the election including: the false claims that a Tory party member had been ‘whacked’ by a Labour activist; temporarily disguising an official, Conservative party Twitter account as a fact- checking service; and the fact that ‘[m]any voters were fooled by a tweet supposedly written by Jeremy Corbyn, which depicted him as sympathetic to the London Bridge attacker- and which was supposedly cited on doorsteps’. Additionally, of nearly 7000 Facebook ads posted by the Conservative, ‘88% were “misleading”’.

Generating hostility towards the Human Rights Act through the media has been another dimension in the Conservative Party’s drive towards deconstructing and repealing the Act as a bulwark against the untrammelled power of the state. Their 2019 manifesto indicated that the government would ‘update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government’. The manifesto also indicated that within a year of being elected, the government would establish a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission to make proposals in this area. Essentially, ‘the basis of their argument seems to be that if human rights are universal to all then we may have now gone too far – as they also apply to “bad people”’.

After its defeat, the Labour Party is engaging in a period of reflection including attempting to reconnect with its traditional heartlands. This sounds ominously like a recipe for perpetuating the narrow definition of politics based on an idealised vision of family, community and country on which so much of its actions are based. In other words, politics as usual. Given this, it is arguable if Labour will critically examine its demonstrable role in facilitating the new government’s threats to the constitution and its retributive stance towards conventional crime. There are two reasons for this.

First, and most obviously, Tony Blair’s three governments, through their infantile mantra of ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ also followed a retributive path which led to the over-policing and over-criminalisation of working class communities and black and minority ethnic communities, in particular, and the under-criminalisation of corporate, white collar and state crime, Even introducing the Human Rights Act failed to curb the coercive, punitive and non-accountable interventions by the state into the lives of the powerless while simultaneously refusing to take seriously the criminal activities of the rich and powerful. A better and more truthful slogan might have been: tough on working class crime, not too tough on the causes of white collar and corporate crime.

Second, there is Labour’s definition of what constitutes politics and what is deserving of political action. The party might want to consider that its focus has become so myopic and narrow to the point where issues like the constitution, the voting system, prisoners’ rights, the environment have not been classified as ’real’ politics by it or the trade union movement. Blair’s governments had the ideal opportunity to introduce a system of proportional representation, which, done properly and with principle, could have revolutionised and democratised the society in ways which would have been historically unprecedented.

In Gramscian terms, the Conservatives are now beginning a ‘war of manoeuvre’ – ‘a swift, full-frontal assault, capable of winning a knock-out blow especially in the wake of successful positional campaign’. What does this mean in terms of the immediate future? For Tim Bale:

Johnson’s victory this week constitutes the first battle won.  His splash-the-cash policy platform – “more bobbies on the beat”, sorting social care, and almost everything else on the agenda of the Daily Mail and Telegraph readership – is the second.  And his appointment of Brexiteer ultras to the cabinet, and members of Vote Leave’s campaign machine as government advisors, is the third.

Conclusion: An Apocalyptic but Contestable Future

In November 1968, the former head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover remarked that justice was ‘merely incidental to law and order.’ Although articulated at a different historical and cultural moment, Hoover’s comment captured something fundamental about the atavistic attitude of the powerful, and many state servants, towards delivering justice in England and Wales today. However, as Stuart Hall argued in the wake of the Thatcher-inspired, and what appeared to be irrevocable shift to the right in the 1980s, ‘history is never closed but maintains an open horizon towards the future.’ For Hall, ideologies are fluid, and through contestation they are open to more utopian outcomes where alternative possibilities can be turned into radical, political probabilities.

In the bleakest of times, Hall’s point remains a key lodestar in guiding political interventions and actions. It was reflected in Roger Cohen’s argument in the New York Times in the aftermath of the election: ‘[t]he fight for freedom, pluralism, the rule of law, human rights, a free press, independent judiciaries, breathable air, peace, decency and humanity continues – and has only become more critical now that Britain has marginalized itself irreversibly in a fit of nationalist delusion’.

This comment stands in marked contrast to the highly militarized, heavily masculinized state, (and, indeed, the wider highly militarized, heavily masculinized, political culture of which Johnson was a clear beneficiary), which is likely to confront the population in England and Wales as the apocalyptic reality of the post-Brexit settlement begins to materialize. Despite this, Cohen’s argument is something to hold onto for the future as nothing is irremovably fixed in a political sense forever, not even Conservative Party majorities.

Part of the title is taken from the song title of the same name by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Thanks to Kym Atkinson and Helen Monk for discussing different aspects of this blog with me.

The Poor Get Prison… Grenfell as a Site of Crime?

Steve Tombs, The Open University

Justice after Grenfell?

Today, almost exactly two and a half years after the fire at Grenfell Tower which killed 72 people and irrevocably devastated the lives of hundreds if not thousands, the criminal justice system is nowhere near fulfilling its dominant promise – that it might deliver justice to the victims, bereaved and the wider affected community.

Yet talk of ‘crime’ and ‘justice’ had proliferated in the days and weeks following the Grenfell Tower atrocity. For example, it did seem even in its very immediate aftermath that there was a prima facie case of corporate manslaughter in relation to the fire, as there very quickly emerged strong and mounting evidence of negligence, of cost-cutting, and of a string of warnings being dismissed and thus of a knowledge of risks at the very top of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKCC), the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants’ Management Organisation (KCTMO), and perhaps also implicating some of the private contractors involved in refurbishment and maintenance.

Indeed, in July 2017, weeks after the atrocity, the Metropolitan police sent a letter to residents saying:

After an initial assessment of that information, the officer leading the investigation has today notified Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that each organisation may have committed the offence of corporate manslaughter, under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.

This announcement did not exclude possible charges against the main contractor, Rydon, and some 60 companies who had played significant roles working on Grenfell over the years. Indeed, by September 2017, the criminal investigation had identified 336 companies and organisations linked to the construction, refurbishment and management of the tower. At that point, charges of gross negligence manslaughter against individuals were also said to be a possibility. Then, in June 2019, on the eve of the second anniversary of the atrocity, the Met stated that 13 people had been interviewed under caution in relation to “individual gross negligence manslaughter offences, corporate manslaughter offences and health and safety offences committed by organisations and individuals.”

The Long Haul towards Prosecuting the Powerful?

At that point, in June 2019, the Met’s criminal investigation had already gathered 45 million documents in digital form as well as 14,500 physical exhibits. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the Met have warned that any charges will not be determined until at least 2021. Personally, I would be amazed if any corporate or individual manslaughter charges would be laid as soon as that; past experience tells us to expect such charges to emerge later. Of course, past experience also tells us that in the vast majority of cases where such charges may be laid, they are not – or, where they are, prove to be unsuccessful, such are the inabilities of criminal law to deal effectively with large corporate bodies or the powerful individuals who occupy senior positions within them.

Finally, it should be acknowledged that, also in June 2019, US lawyers representing some of the Grenfell survivors and bereaved filed a class action in Philadelphia under product liability law. The civil suit names three US based companies: Arconic and Celtotex, who between them manufactured and supplied the cladding which had been disastrously fitted to the exterior of the tower in 2016, during its refurbishment prior to the fire; and Whirlpool, the manufacturer of the plastic-backed fridge-freezer which was believed the likely trigger for the fire. Indeed, despite the company’s unsupported and frankly egregious evidence to Phase 1 of the Inquiry that it believed a lit cigarette had mysteriously entered the window of the fourth floor flat to start the fire, the report on Phase 1 of the Inquiry has concluded that, “Although some questions remain unanswered, the evidence, viewed as a whole, leaves me in no doubt that the fire originated in the large fridge-freezer”. (Grenfell Tower Inquiry, 2019: 514), Within months of the civil case being announced and with disgusting irony, it was calculated that one of the companies, Arconic, had already spent “£30m on lawyers and advisers defending its role in the disaster in an outlay that dwarfs the amount spent on the panels a public inquiry has determined were the main cause of fire spread”. At the time the lawsuit was opened, it was reported that “the legal process is expected to take several years”.

Convicting the Poor

Yet it is not the case that all parts of the criminal justice system have been so slow to crank into decisively punitive action. In fact, it was within a couple of weeks of the fire that the first conviction related to it was recorded – Omega Mwaikambo had inexplicably posted photos of a Grenfell victim on social media, and was jailed for 12 weeks. This was the first of a steady stream of Grenfell-related convictions which, at the time of writing, total 22 successful prosecutions involving 21 separate defendants.

It is worth looking in a bit more detail at these cases, cases which have proceeded virtually entirely below the radar of any public or academic scrutiny (the latter with one notable exception). Almost all were forms of fraud – effectively, people securing being housed in emergency accommodation and/or receiving financial assistance on the basis of falsely claiming that they had been resident in the tower at the time of the fire. The sums of money at issue in the frauds – for accommodation, food, travel and other emergency costs – are reported as ranging from a few thousand pounds to a couple who claimed up to £125,000. All received custodial sentences, ranging from 18 months to six years – sentences which, taken together, totalled in excess of 70 years jail time.

Most of those convicted fit a pattern: they are poor, marginalised individuals, overwhelmingly non-white, many of whom were born outside the UK – places of birth appearing in media reports include Bangladesh, Grenada, the Ivory Coast, Jamaica, Portugal, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Vietnam and Zimbabwe. They are also often referred to in the media reporting of the cases as “unemployed”, “squatters”, “homeless”, and, most pejoratively of all, as “illegal immigrants”.

There are exceptions. One of those convicted for fraud was quite different to other defendants – Jenny McDonagh had been a finance manager at the RBKCC, in which capacity she stole nearly £62,000 in pre-paid credit cards intended for victims. She was tried for this and a previous offence – she’d stolen £35,000 from the NHS in her previous job – and was sentenced to five-and-a-half years for these two offences in September 2018.

There were also three people convicted for non-fraud offences, including Omega Mwaikambo (above). The second, Reiss Morris, has been convicted for two separate offences. First, Morris, bereaved by the fire and a local campaigner in relation to it, was attending a vigil to mark 100 days since the fire when he threatened the deputy leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council; in October 2017, he was convicted for using threatening words or behaviour with intent to cause fear of or provoke unlawful violence, receiving a 12-month community order involving 100 hours unpaid work, ordered not to contact Cllr Taylor-Smith for a year, and to pay him £100 compensation, as well as £85 costs. Then, in May 2019, he was jailed for 8 weeks having threatened a firefighter, putting his hands around his neck . Fellow campaigners failed in their attempt to have him released to mark the second anniversary of the fire on 14 June, 2019. The only other non-fraud conviction was of Eamon Zada. In March 2018, police searching the burnt out tower block had found cannabis cuttings, butane gas canisters and an oven in his flat, reported as a‘cannabis oil factory’ in the media. Zada received a 12 week prison sentence suspended for 18 months, was forced to do 200 hours unpaid work, 40 days of rehabilitation activity, and had to pay a £115 victim surcharge and £85 costs.

‘Crime’, Power and the Capitalist State

Let us enter some caveats to this rather bald analysis of the different speed and intensity with which the criminal justice system has moved against the relatively powerless compared to the powerful in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire. It certainly is the case that potential manslaughter and other charges that might be levelled at the powerful may be complex and require significant evidence trawling and“Grenfell would represent, by a very large margin, the biggest and most complex corporate manslaughter case ever brought in the UK”. So it remains that these investigations may ultimately lead to prosecutions, even convictions, even if the history of such cases hardly gives cause for optimism. So, too, while defrauding funds collected for Grenfell victims might appear to be particularly deplorable, and none of this is to excuse this fraud, there is hardly a moral equivalence between the dispossessed – those consistently at the sharp end of state violence and coercion – seeking to secure somewhere to live or cash for food when compared with the life and death decision made by the richest council in England seeking to make what for them was a tiny saving in switching from less to more flammable cladding. These points made, the rapidity and punitiveness with which the criminal justice system has targeted marginalised offenders in the wake of the atrocity also provide a crucial context for understanding why the fire happened where and when it did in the first place.

Thus, as Davis and Moore put it in their analysis of three post-Grenfell convictions,

Although criminal justice may claim to be blind it appears to have no trouble differentiating between the powerful and powerless. Since Grenfell it has done what it is good at – disciplining the poor. The cases described have been directed at working class people of colour. All cases have received swift ‘justice’. Determining guilt has been easy, the sentences harsh and those identified as ‘criminals’ publicly shamed.

Nineteen further convictions later, that observation can be underscored significantly. As the oft-quoted saying goes, criminal laws are like spiders’ webs: “They’ll restrain anyone weak and insignificant who gets caught in them, but they’ll be torn to shreds by people with power and wealth”. In many respects, this observation is the very essence of critical criminology. It is the obviousness which explains how the rich get richer and the poor get prison. It reveals the role of the criminal justice system, with the prison at its centre, one highlighted by abolitionists from Mathiesen to Sim as a capitalist state institution which serves to punish, discipline and control, sometimes to the point of death, those deemed and cast aside as ‘unproductives’. But like everything else that is obvious, it bears recalling, repeating and documenting. It is a truism of a society characterised by searing levels of inequality that could not be illustrated more glaringly than in the state’s legal responses to Grenfell.

The Johnson Government: Working for the Brexit Clampdown

Joe Sim, Professor of Criminology, Liverpool John Moores University and Steve Tombs, Professor of Criminology, The Open University

As the country teeters on the brink of the chaos of an impending no-deal Brexit, Boris Johnson’s administration has entered electioneering mode. The administration is following a familiar path that has a history of at least 40 years in the Tory party: first, that attitudes and actions towards the EU are not at all about any ‘national’ interest but are about party interests and, specifically, keeping a Tory Government in power at all and any costs; and, second, invoking a tough on crime, law and order discourse to capitalise on popular anxieties to offer false certainties around security and a sense of protection.

Mobilising Fear

On the latter – the subject of this short piece – virtually the first act of the incoming Prime Minister Johnson was to announce the recruitment of 20,000 police officers in order “to make our streets safer”. This was followed by a concerted set of announcements by the Prime Minister and his capital-punishment flirting Home Secretary Priti Patel; their Government would, they trumpeted, “shift the balance of fear” and fill criminals with terror, as they announced alongside the increase in police numbers a ramping up in sentences, stopping early release, and extending the right to stop and search – no doubt, Johnson added, prompting the “Left-wing criminologists” to “howl”. Priti Patel used the Sun on Sunday, the newspaper that emerged phoenix-like from the ashes of the crime-ridden News of The World, to cynically exploit the “attack on brave police officer Stuart Outten” which had taken place in London days earlier, an attack which she claimed “was a reminder that the police put their lives on the line to keep us safe”. Clearly, police officers are injured and killed during the course of their work, as the most recent death of PC Andrew Harper has shown, and their victimisation should not be denied. However, Patel’s comments somewhat obscure the fact that, compared with other occupations, policing is a relatively safe occupation. Deaths in these other occupations deserve to be treated with the same respect and consideration when lives are lost and families are irreparably damaged.

Joe and Steve blog picture 1

These are well-trodden, and therefore highly cynically chosen, paths. In 1979, the Thatcher government’s first major policy initiative was to implement the Edmund-Davies pay review leading to a spike in police numbers. The result? A spike in the recorded crime rate. Home Office research concluded at the time that ‘whatever the benefits in terms of public reassurance or confidence, increasing visible police presence through extra foot or car patrols is by itself unlikely to reduce crime; nor does there seem much scope for a general improvement in detection rates’. Sir Robert Mark, the Met’s Commissioner, noted that police numbers had little effect on crime rates and ‘seen objectively against the background and problems of 50 million people it [crime] is not even amongst the more serious of our difficulties’. The idea that the present government’s prison building programme and tougher sentencing will reduce victimisation and increase public protection is also a fallacy. In 1983, Leon Brittan instigated the biggest prison building programme of the twentieth century, alongside a tougher sentencing regime. It failed. In 1995, Michael Howard declared that ‘prison works’. He was wrong. There are no demonstrable relationships between prison numbers and recorded crime rates.

Cutting Social Support

By contrast, and to take the example of the offence category exploited by Priti Patel as she lauded the bravery of the police, knife crime may be a significant social problem but neither it, nor the conventional crime problem in general, will be solved by the blitzkrieg of criminalisation, punishment and pain rolled out in recent weeks. It is widely accepted that funding for early intervention services can prevent the numbers of young people finding themselves at risk of victimisation and offending. However, as Action for Children, the Children’s Society and National Children’s Bureau recently revealed, “between 2010-11 and 2015-16, spending on early intervention fell in real terms by 40%”, while Sure Start centres had their budgets halved in the 8 years to 2016. Meanwhile, Tim Bateman has highlighted “a massive contraction in youth service provision, leading to a sharp decline in the availability of constructive activities for young people, resulting in many of them spending more time on the street where risks may be higher”. Johnson and Patel have said nothing about reversing any of these spending cuts.

Crimes of the Rich and Powerful

Nor will the blitz on crime deal with rampant state-corporate criminality. It will not address income tax avoidance and evasion, which even on the Government’s own “laughable” estimate now stands at a record £35 billion per annum, nor the 36,000 deaths each year which the Government links to air pollution in the UK in its recently revised downwards estimate, nor the 50,000 work related deaths which occur year in, year in out in one of the wealthiest economies in the world. The cultures of immunity and impunity which allows the rich and powerful to engage in routine criminal activity will continue to be encouraged: programmes of deregulation and non-enforcement of law against businesses have been institutionalised since 2010 to the point where, for example, there are no officers to enforce law in some local authority areas, where some regulation has been privatised, and where prosecution in some areas are now non-existent. The changes will do little, if anything, to reduce the rampant levels of domestic and sexual violence against women, nor far-right extremism and racist attacks, nor homophobic violence, nor will they introduce desperately needed structures of democratic accountability into the criminal justice system.

What they will do, if these policy turns really do end up meeting the stated aim of putting 10,000 more people in prison, is exacerbate the dramatic levels of violence in British prisons. Therein, as the charity INQUEST recently noted on the basis of the Ministry of Justice’s own data, the 12 months to July 2019 showed: 86 self-inflicted deaths, up 6% from 81 in the previous year – that is, one every four days – of 309 deaths in prison in total. This is not to mention, in a 12 month period, that self-harm levels had “increased by 24% from the previous year, once again reaching record highs … In the child and youth prison estate, there was a 30% increase in self-harm incidents.”

Joe and Steve blog picture 2

Labour’s Political Opportunism

And what has the Labour Party had to say about this law and order noise, and the grim threat it poses to the already-restricted rights and liberties of those powerless communities and groups it purports to represent? Not surprisingly, the answer is very little. Labour’s response has been based on political opportunism. And so while Diane Abbott has pointed to some of the problems in the “Draconian approach” to the use of stop and search, Labour has failed to seriously contest the government’s announcements. There has been no informed critique of the prison building programme or of tougher sentencing or of the increase in police numbers. There has been no obvious strategy to curtail the brutal exercise of state power and to hold to account those state servants who routinely abuse this power through the capricious discretion they have on the streets and behind prison walls. In fact, Labour’s policy has been to restore police numbers to their pre-cuts level, ignoring the criminological research which, as noted above, shows the negligible impact the police have on conventional crime. What the party has demanded is an inquiry into the welfare and morale of police officers despite the fact that, compared with other jobs, policing is a relatively safe occupation. Again, as noted above, the systemic lack of health and safety is a key factor in the shameful levels of self-harm and deaths in custody. On this, there is silence. Labour has allowed the government to articulate, effectively unchallenged, its toxic, punitive agenda. Such timidity should not be surprising; Labour has an abysmal track record on law and order when in government, reproducing the Tories’ relentless focus on working class crime and turning a blind eye to the systemic abuses of the state and the institutionalised criminality of the rich and powerful.


In the world-view of Johnson and his media and political acolytes, ramping up the crime, law and order rhetoric is vote-winner, a distraction from the Tories’ disastrous handling of Brexit, and the tooling-up of the state for post-Brexit disorder. In general terms, the Johnson government’s strategy can be understood as consolidating still further, in Stuart Hall’s words, the ‘[p]hilisitne barbarism’ begun under the first Thatcher government. It is an ideological strategy, a form of ‘regressive modernisation’, designed to ‘”educate” and discipline the society into a particularly regressive form of modernity, by paradoxically, dragging it backwards through an equally regressive version of the past‘. This regression will have dire consequences for communities and groups already stricken by the pitiless social and economic policies pursued in the last decade, and indeed, before. In 1972, the great American writer James Baldwin pointed out that ‘ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have’. Fifty years on, Baldwin’s eloquent statement provides a fitting testimony to the cynicism, hypocrisy and naked self-interest inexorably driving the government’s law and order bandwagon. Inevitably, this will be followed by the ruthless rolling out of state power in order to maximise and maintain the corrosively exploitative, immoral and amoral neoliberal social order. However, for all its material and ideological power, it is contradictory and, just like the Prime Minister and his government, remains open to contestation and resistance. In these bleakest of times, it is important to remember and reflect on this point.


This article has been simultaneously published by the Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative at The Open University

Part of the title of this article is from the title of the track by The Clash, ‘Clampdown’, on their 1979 London Calling album.


Reforming Probation: Protecting the Private, Failing the Public

Lol Burke, Liverpool John Moores University and Steve Collett, former Cheshire Probation Chief Officer and Honorary Fellow Liverpool John Moores University

At a critical research seminar for the Centre for the Study of Crime, Criminalisation and Social Exclusion in February 2019, we discussed the damage done by the outsourcing of probation services under the Government’s Transforming Rehabilitation initiative. In our book, Delivering Rehabilitation, we predicted its failure, not out of any great intellectual insights or skills of prophesy but because it simply did not make practical or organisational sense. The announcement then in May of the Government’s response to the Strengthen Probation, Building Confidence consultation therefore seemed an encouraging step in the right direction. It was widely reported in the media as marking the renationalisation of the probation service. The return to an integrated model of probation supervision was viewed by many as the death knell for Chris Grayling’s ideologically-driven transforming Rehabilitation strategy published in 2012, which has been laid bare by the evidence-based criticism not only of partners and stakeholders involved in delivering criminal justice rehabilitation but by the combined onslaught of the Public Accounts Committee, the Justice Select Committee, the National Audit Office and the Her Majesty’s Chief Inspectorate of Probation. In her final annual report as HM Inspector of Probation, Glenys Stacey went as far as to describe the current arrangements as being ‘irredeemably flawed‘.

Government Duplicity

In our view, there is a level of duplicity in the Government’s response to the Strengthening Probation, Building Confidence Consultation document as was outlined in the Guardian’s excellent leader ‘Payment by unmeasurable results is a privatisation beyond satire’ (The Guardian, 17 May 2019). Whilst the current Justice Secretary, David Gauke, accepts that the allocation of those under supervision (based on measures of risk) between the public sector National Probation Service and private sector Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) has been disastrous, leading to bureaucratic inefficiency, loss of sentencer confidence and ineffectiveness in protecting the public from serious crime, his vision for the future retains a public/private separation of key elements of supervision. In effect, the private sector will be handed, on our estimation, about 35% of the total resources available for the delivery of accredited programme interventions and unpaid work. The Government’s response claims that ‘[p]rivate and voluntary sector organisations have demonstrated their strength in delivering interventions’. However, HM Inspectorate of Probation’s analysis of the availability and delivery of interventions found that sufficient interventions had been delivered in less than half of the cases in which it was deemed a priority and that the support provided by contracted providers was less likely to be judged sufficient for supporting the desistance of service users and the safety of other people compared to arrangements that were partnership based.

Gauke’s Plans

The new regional structure for probation services will do nothing to improve sentencer confidence, it will maintain bureaucratic duplication and inefficiencies and, most importantly, it will frustrate cooperation and partnership at the local level that is essential to effective rehabilitative endeavours with those who offend. We can also be sure that those small, local voluntary and community sector organisations who can offer so much in the way of innovative help to individuals in trouble, will be squeezed out by the large private sector Innovation Partners unless they can contribute to the profits of these global players. As the Guardian leader so aptly remarked, ‘It looks as if ministers are trying to recycle the ideology in a new form while pretending to be doing something more strategic’.

Gauke’s plans are, in reality, a return to the vision outlined in New Labour’s Carter Report which began in earnest the desire to split probation between the public and private sectors through a process of contestability whereby the Probation Service would have to compete with the private sector for contracts. Since then, probation has been ill served by a succession of Labour, Coalition and Tory administrations. Grayling was simply the worst of a long line of ministers who failed to understand the complexity of helping those who offend whilst protecting the public from serious, conventional crime.

A Different Future

Instead of listening to the siren voices of the global service industry, the Justice Secretary would be better served by listening to those front-line staff, those subject to their supervisory oversight, and informed stakeholders, all of whom have been ill-served by the on-going debacle of probation ‘reform’. There is currently a national shortage of professional probation staff, especially those mainly responsible for more complex and demanding casework (probation officers) and many of those leaving the service have left the profession itself. High workloads and the overriding need to meet transaction-based performance targets have led to professional standards being compromised and in what has been a series of damning reports, HMI Probation reported that professional ethics had been compromised, and ‘immutable lines crossed because of commercial pressures’.

In addition, there is some evidence that deepening cuts, precarious working environments, and increasingly unmanageable caseloads amount to ‘a pervasive form of systemic workplace harm, resulting in mental health issues, stress, and professional dissatisfaction’. Moreover, the authors go on to claim that this ‘is symptomatic and reflective of a deeper underlying cause: namely, the profit motive that underpins the privatisation of public service work’. In this respect, Strengthening Probation: Building Confidence can be viewed as yet another example of the neoliberal mindset as applied to the criminal justice system which has been reinforced by the wider politics of austerity. Taken together, they have further reduced the capacity of the criminal justice system to protect the public, undermined trust in sentencing, fundamentally weakened supportive elements of civil society and diminished professional occupational cultures to make positive interventions into the lives of those sentenced by the courts (Burke and Collett, forthcoming).


Burke , L. and Collett, S. (forthcoming) ‘The Gift Relationship: What we lose when rehabilitation is privatised’ in Bean, P. (ed) Privatisation and Criminal Justice. Abingdon: Routledge.
The Guardian (2019) Payment by unmeasurable results is a privatisation beyond satire. Published 17 May.



Safety Last! Deaths and Self-Harm in Prisons

Joe Sim is Professor of Criminology, Liverpool John Moores University

Every four days, a person in prison takes their own life. Levels of distress have never been higher with more than 152 recorded incidents of self-harm in prison every day. The Government have long been on notice about the perilous state of our prisons. Yet, life-saving recommendations from inquests and oversight bodies are systematically ignored. That the historically high numbers of deaths are allowed to continue is a national scandal. Prison safety cannot be resolved by framing it as a drugs problem or weaponising staff with PAVA spray. Punitive responses have not worked and will not work. Bold and decisive action is needed to tackle sentencing policy; reducing prison numbers; and redirecting resources to community services. Deborah Coles, Director, INQUEST. 

This quote is taken from a press release distributed by the charity INQUEST. It was written in response to the latest Ministry of Justice (MoJ) statistics on prison safety. The statistics revealed appalling and offensive levels of deaths and self-harm in prison. In the 12 months up to March 2019, 317 prisoners died inside, an increase of 18 on the previous year. Eighty seven deaths were self-inflicted, up from 73 in the same period. There were a record number of incidents of self-harm – 55,598 – a rise of 25% from 2017. Self-harm was highly gendered. In male prisons, there were 570 incidents per 1000 prisoners. In women’s prisons, the rate was an astonishing 2675 per 1000 women.

There were 164 deaths from ‘natural causes’. However, as INQUEST has noted, the idea that a death in prison can be ‘natural’ is highly debatable:

“natural cause” deaths (as defined by the Ministry of Justice) are the leading cause of mortality in prisons. In 2017, the “natural cause” death rate was 2.15 deaths per 1,000 prisoners. This is often attributed to the ageing prison population….INQUEST’s monitoring, casework and evidence from inquests and official reports, suggests that many people are dying prematurely and unnecessarily due to inadequate healthcare provision.

The MoJ’s publication also contained data on prison assaults. In 2018, there were 34,223 assaults by prisoners on prisoners and by prisoners on staff. Just under 4000 (11%) were classified as serious. It is worth noting that the institutional processes involved in the reporting, recording and collation of prison assault statistics have changed over time. As with the crime statistics, more generally, they should be approached with caution with respect to making definitive claims about upward or downward trends.  It is also worth noting that no mention was made of assaults on prisoners by staff.

Coincidently – or not – on the day the safety statistics were published, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published its analysis of the latest crime statistics. According to the ONS, homicides were at a 10 year high and knife crime was rising. Crucially, it was the debate about violent crime which dominated the news when both sets of statistics were released. The degradation, despair and deaths of prisoners, and the state’s lamentable failure to fulfill its duty of care towards them, were missing from the news coverage.

A Statistical Sleight of Hand

There were significant problems with how the statistics were presented. First, the MoJ subsumed different forms of behaviour – self-inflicted death, self-harm and assaults – under the general heading of ‘safety’. However, the roots, context and motivation involved in a prisoner choosing to kill, or self-harm him or herself, is clearly different from a prisoner who engages in assault. That nuanced understanding of the complexities, fragilities, despair and emotions of human behaviour, operating in the often-desperate context of the power networks of the modern prison, was missing. Instead, it was the cold, calculated ‘science’ of the quantitative statistics around violent crime which dominated the news.

Second, presenting the statistics on safety in one publication inevitably meant that the media uncritically concentrated on the wider crime statistics, and/or the statistics involving prisoner on prisoner and prisoner on staff assaults. This, in turn, meant that the safety of prisoners, and their experiences of state violence, and the everyday brutal harms generated by the prison environment and culture, were ignored. Even so-called liberal media outlets were culpable. The safety statistics were ignored by Channel 4 News on the night they were published. The following day’s hard copy of the Guardian contained stories about a number of key social issues: cladding, extinction rebellion and the gender pay gap. However, there were also a number of depressingly frivolous stories:  the athlete Mo Farah’s puerile dispute with another athlete; a discussion about who was to star in the new, anachronistic James Bond film; and an indescribably boring interview with the musician Pete Doherty. There was nothing about prisoners’ deaths or self-harm.

The report by the ONS was covered by the Guardian and in the early evening news summary on BBC Radio 4. Knife crime and homicides were highlighted, but, again, there was no discussion about prison deaths and self-harm. This pattern was repeated on the BBC’s main broadcast at 10.00pm. The Times reported the story under the banner headline Violence in Prisons at a Record High[i]. The short article devoted nearly 150 words to assaults in prison and 50 to self-inflicted deaths and self-harm.

Clearly, the examples above are neither a complete nor a random sample of all of the media outlets in the immediate hours and days after the statistics were published. However, they do provide a snapshot of a penal reality which was constructed in very precise terms built around what was and what was not considered newsworthy and what constituted, and what did not constitute, a human life that was worthy of empathy, sympathy and respect. In uncritically concentrating on the statistics around violent crime, the media reproduced a distorted picture about the nature and extent of violence and reinforced the narrow, legalistic, political and commonsense narratives, around how violence and dangerousness are defined and understood both inside and outside of prisons.

Finally, the statistics sanctified the work of prison officers and highlighted the dangers they faced daily. So while there are assaults against some staff, the collation of the statistics is complicated. As the MoJ pointed out in the latest safety bulletin: ‘[there] was a change in how staff assaults have been recorded. This has simplified how incidents involving staff are identified, however it is possible this has increased the recording of incidents’ (emphasis added). This warning about the validity of the statistics was ignored by the media.

It is also worth repeating that occupational danger is much more complex than the surface statistics indicate. For example, as David Scott has noted, eight prison officers have died in the course of their duties since 1850. Additionally, the number of days lost through prison staff being absent from work as a result of assaults is minute compared with the number of days lost through a range of other health and safety issues such as musculoskeletal problems, sickness, stress, bullying by managers, anxiety and depression. And while prison staff sometimes might find themselves in dangerous situations, the dangers to health and safety confronting other occupational groups, including dying at work, is higher compared with the dangers facing prison staff. Again, these issues were ignored.


The MoJ statistics illustrate three things. First, prisons are dangerous, demoralising and harmful to prisoners. Second, the state has lamentably failed in its duty of care towards them. Third, the response of successive governments – Coalition, Conservative and Labour – to self-inflicted deaths and self-harm has been abject. Political parties have neither the desire, utopian vision nor the policies to address these issues. At the same time, state servants remain unaccountable. Scandalously and shamefully, recommendations made by official bodies such as the Chief Inspector of Prisons, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and coroners, designed to prevent future deaths, have simply been ignored.

The abject response from the political parties means that profound questions about prison safety, and the shuddering failure of penal policy more generally, are never asked with the result that prisoners will continue to die needlessly or damage themselves through self-harm. Why is there little or no discussion about these issues? Why is there a cluelessness, an obliviousness and, above all, an ignorance about the crushing harms prisons engender which arise from insidious, systemic processes of dehumanisation which, like pliers, bend the minds, and shape the consciousness of the confined, in profoundly negative and detrimental ways? Who benefits, materially and ideologically, from socially constructing the prison as a perennially dangerous place for staff?  Why are recommendations from official inquiries systematically ignored? Why are alternative, radical policies designed to prevent deaths, such as those proposed by INQUEST, also ignored, particularly by those politicians responsible for prisons? Are careers more important than lives?

At this point in time, the political/state/media complex stands indicted for its moral and political failure to ask these questions. Yet they need to be asked and answered, if the offensive rates of self-harm are to be reduced, lives saved and future deaths prevented.

[i] Thanks to Rebecca Roberts of INQUEST for pointing this article out to me.

Thanks also to Kym Atkinson and David Scott for their comments on this blog.


Shredding Human Beings: Death and Self-Harm in Prisons

Joe Sim is Professor of Criminology, Liverpool John Moores University

The latest figures from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), concerning deaths and self-harm in prison, indicate that the institution remains lethal for those to whom the state supposedly owes a duty of care. The figures are scandalous and are a scathing indictment of the abject failure of penal policy in England and Wales, particularly around the health and safety of prisoners.

Between December 2017 and December 2018, there were 325 deaths, a rise of 10%. Ninety two of these deaths were self-inflicted, up from 70. Three involved women, up from 2. There were 162 deaths from ‘natural causes’, compared with 191 the previous year. The figures are incomplete. In 2018, 67 deaths were recorded as ‘other’, 54 of which were ‘awaiting further classification’. This means that the number of deaths in particular categories may increase, including ‘natural deaths’.  

In the toxic context of the prison environment, the idea of a ‘natural death’ is highly questionable. For the charity INQUEST, ‘no death in prison is natural’ as the ‘failure to treat prisoners with decency, humanity and compassion is a “consistent feature” of deaths [inside]’, a point supported by the Parliamentary Health and Social Care Committee in a report published at the end of 2018 .

Between September 2017 and September 2018, there were a record number of incidents of self-harm – 52,814, or approximately 145 each day – an increase of 23%. Self-harm is highly gendered. The rate for male prisoners was 540 incidents per 1000 men, also up by 23%. In women’s prisons, the rate was an astonishing 2,465 incidents per 1000 women, a rise of 20%

The Official Response: Abject and Complacent

The government has no answer to the deaths and self-harm occurring in prisons except to introduce new, repressive measures such as arming staff with pepper spray, at a cost of 2 million pounds. It is an insidious development which will only further militarize prisons. According to a former prison governor, it will not work, and could make the problems inside worse.  

INQUEST’s casework reveals that many deaths are eminently preventable. However, endlessly repeated institutionalized failures – the management of self-harm and suicide, drug prescribing processes, poor communications and record keeping, inadequate healthcare and systemic, procedural failures and delays[i] ensure that the death rates remain high.

For the state, the deplorable number of deaths is easily explained: it is about the pathology of the individuals involved, the risk they pose to themselves or bureaucratic inefficiency. These stock phrases are uncritically and endlessly rolled out. However, they are too simplistic and distract attention away from the pathological and harm-inducing nature of the prison regime itself which makes all prisoners vulnerable, a point made by Lord Harris in his review of deaths in custody involving 18-24 year olds.

This bleak, and entirely avoidable, situation is compounded by the systemic indifference towards prisoners, particularly towards those who might be in distress. Basic, humane procedures such as answering cell bells are not followed. In 2018, this was highlighted by the Prison Inspectorate in a devastating report on Liverpool prison. Liverpool was not understaffed. Therefore, low staffing levels, contrary to the line propagated by the Prison Officers Association, and an uncritical, ill-informed mass media, had nothing to do with officers not attending to the prisoners. Rather, the report was an indictment of this prison’s immoral treatment, and systemic, uncaring attitude towards those to whom they owed a duty of care.

The MoJ figures illustrate, in the starkest possible terms, the government’s lamentable failure to fulfil this duty of care towards the health, safety and welfare of prisoners[ii]. Additionally, the ongoing failure to implement recommendations from the Prison Inspectorate, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and coroners, designed to ensure prisoner safety, and some measure of accountability, has intensified the problem still further and has engendered a culture of immunity and impunity which leaves state servants, and the institutions themselves, effectively beyond reproach. If prisoners are supposed to be responsible for their actions, and are to be held accountable for them, why is the same criterion not used when state servants fail in their duty of care towards prisoners and ignore the majority of official recommendations designed to ensure that prisoners are protected?

Ministers have simply ignored these points. The ‘imminent and foreseeable harm’[iii] the prison generates on a daily basis has been marginalised. Instead, the government has steadfastly focused on the issue of drugs and violence inside, particularly the alleged rise in violence towards prison staff which has also dominated the media debate. However, this is a highly complex issue which the MoJ itself has recognized in noting that the process of recording assaults on staff changed in April 2017, meaning that it was ‘possible this has increased the reporting of incidents’. 

Even if assaults on staff were increasing, the numbers of days lost at work through violence is miniscule compared with the number of days lost through other health and safety issues such as musculoskeletal problems, depression, sickness, stress, bullying by managers, anxiety and nervous debility. If the government is serious about violence towards staff, ministers should consider the overall harms the prison regime generates for staff, of which violence is one aspect. They might also consider the issue of violence by staff against prisoners which both groups have identified as an issue which has a long history.

Additionally, Rory Stewart, the Prisons Minister, has said that he will resign if the levels of drug use and violence do not improve in 10 prisons targeted by the government. This ‘politically irrelevant’ stunt will make no difference. His ‘threat will only distort the issue further’[iv]. It reduces the complex problems in prisons to a superficial discussion about the actions and personality of the individual who holds political office while leaving in place, undisturbed and unaccountable, the corrosive structures of penal power and the discretionary exercise of this power by prison officers on the landings. It is a power structure which induces feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, terror and trauma in the lives of prisoners, with often-catastrophic results for them and their families. That is the issue the minister should be addressing.

A Deeply Embedded Crisis

The MoJ statistics provide a stark and brutal illustration of a system in deep crisis. Death and self-harm are at the sharp end of a continuum of penal violence which labels and relegates prisoners to an animalistic status and legitimates an uncaring, often-unforgiving, punitive response towards them.

The statistics were published in the same week it was announced that a prisoner in Wormwood Scrubs, (who was serving a short sentence for a benefits offence for which he insisted he was wrongly convicted), was suing the prison service for post-traumatic stress disorder due to the constant presence of rats in his cell which ran across his body and which induced nightmares, depression and a skin rash. In 2015, this was identified by the Inspectorate as a significant problem. By 2019, nothing had changed, the rodents were not only in the cells but also in the servery area where prisoners received their meals.

At the same time, the Inspectorate, following the publication of devastating reports on the desperate state of Liverpool, Nottingham, Exeter and Birmingham prisons, published another damning report, this time on Bedford. Here too there was a rodent problem. During the inspection, a prisoner in segregation ‘caught and killed a number of rats in his cell…’.

In their previous inspection, the Inspectorate made 68 recommendations for improving Bedford. In the latest report, they noted that nineteen recommendations were achieved, five were partially achieved and 44 – 68% – were not achieved. Astonishingly, out of 10 recommendations they made about purposeful activity, where prisoners ‘are expected to engage in activity that is likely to benefit them’ one was achieved while nine – 90% – were not achieved. In other words, the mechanisms designed to ensure some form of accountability, and to improve the lives of prisoners, were simply ignored by prison managers and staff, a situation not unique to Bedford but which is intrinsic to how many prisons are operating.

According to the Inspectorate, one of the four tests of a healthy prison is to ensure that ‘prisoners, particularly the most vulnerable, are held safely’. However, out of the 19 recommendations made about safety after their previous inspection, 5 were achieved, 2 were partially achieved while 12 – 63% – were not achieved. The Inspectorate noted that there had been five self-inflicted deaths since 2016 while the rate of self-harm incidents ‘had increased substantially’. In the previous six months, there were 163 incidents which was higher than comparable prisons. The report noted that ‘most prisoners in crisis said that they did not feel well cared for. They faced living in grimy conditions with little time unlocked and hardly anything to do’. 

The lack of safety was compounded by poor living conditions. One prisoner was found in a cell with a bed, a broken window and no other furniture. There was a huge backlog of repairs, some stretching back to 2017. Towels and sheets were changed every four weeks. Poignantly, and contrary to political and popular perceptions that those inside selfishly and violently look after themselves, disabled prisoners:

….relied on the goodwill and friendship of other prisoners to get their basic needs met. Two prisoners who were amputees were unable to shower regularly as they didn’t have the necessary adaptations. One said he had only five showers this year [2018] and to wash himself he had to sit on the floor of his cell and try to splash water on himself from the sink.


The modern prison is a warehousing wasteland. Prisoners are transformed into abstract statistics where the poverty and pain involved in daily survival undermines hope for the future, a point brilliantly made in Lisa Stevenson’s study of self-inflicted deaths amongst the Inuit people. Her insights can be applied to the system-induced degradation experienced by prisoners and the ‘dissolution of the self’ the prison generates.  

Politicians from both the major parties should be deeply ashamed of the latest safety statistics and the existence of corrosive institutions like Bedford. However, whether they are willing to listen to those who advocate radical alternatives, rather than simply hear the repetitive echoes of their own, tired voices, is a moot point. Freeing themselves from the tribal shackles of political opportunism, and the unprincipled, law and order race to the bottom which they have evangelically pursued for decades, would be a good place to start.  Radical action – stopping building prisons, changing the harsh sentencing culture that currently prevails, developing well-funded alternatives to custody operated by well-trained staff, visualizing a prison system based on an ethics of care, social justice and democratic accountability, placing questions of social harm, protection and safety at the centre of criminal justice policy and doing something meaningful about the rampant criminality of the powerful – needs to be taken if the mistakes of the past are not to be endlessly and mindlessly repeated. Anything less, and prisons will continue to be places of ‘punishment for misery’. As the safety statistics indicated, this means living with the dire consequences that flow from this brutal state of affairs. 

Thanks to Katie Tucker for her comments on an earlier draft of this blog.

i.These points are taken from a letter to the Guardian co-written with Deborah Coles from INQUEST and Steve Tombs from the Open University.
ii. See point 1 above.
iii. This was a phrase used by Tessa Kahn on Channel 4 News on 7th August 2018 which seemed highly applicable to prisons.
iv. Thanks to Steve Tombs and Katie Tucker for strengthening the argument here.

Offending Girls and Restorative Justice: The Relevance and Rationale of Gender-Specific Provision

Jodie Hodgson is Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Liverpool

The formative experiences of girls who come into contact with the youth justice service are often characterised by inequalities, social injustice and disadvantage. Furthermore, empirical research has revealed the ‘importance of victimisation in the aetiology of young women’s offending’ and the prevalent role gendered violence and victimisation plays in shaping the backgrounds of girls in the youth justice system. Therefore, based upon the extent to which the individual narratives of girls who enter the system are impacted by such issues, it becomes evident that they are subject to risks and vulnerabilities which determine the need to adopt a ‘distinctive gender-sensitive approach’ to working with girls who offend.

However, the relevance and rationale of gender-specific approaches to working with girls has continued to remain at the periphery of restorative justice discourse. When considering the development of restorative justice policy and practice, it is apparent that restorative justice interventions, used within the youth justice system continue to operate outside of a gender-specific or gender-sensitive framework. Subsequently, they fail to recognise the ways in which the social construction of gender shapes the lives of girls and is implicated within their offending behaviour and experiences of criminalisation.

Since its implementation as a mainstream response to youth offending, restorative justice has gained momentum as an alternative approach to delivering justice. Whilst an evidence base has emerged which reveals the positive impact restorative interventions can have on recidivism and victim satisfaction, critical perspectives and empirical research which, articulate the more problematic side to restorative justice practices used with young offenders, have also developed.

Although there is now a substantial body of literature concerning youth offending and restorative justice, it is suggested that ‘scant attention has been paid to gender-based variation’ and almost all feminist discussions relating to the role of gender in restorative justice ‘address the ways in which it may help or hinder female victims . . . [and] few have ventured to consider how it may help or hinder female offenders’. Official policy discourse has remained, predominantly, silent on issues of gender and at present there is ‘no evaluation of the ‘’effectiveness’’ of restorative justice as a response to young female offenders’. As such, the extent to which restorative justice policy and practice is able to effectively respond to the gender-specific needs of girls has been alarmingly neglected.

Having undertaken qualitative research with girls who have participated in restorative justice, victim-offender conferencing, and restorative justice practitioners working within the youth offending service, my own research has identified a number of salient issues to consider when responding to girls’ offending behaviour through restorative justice interventions.


My research found that girls participating in restorative justice conferencing are likely to be stigmatised for their offending behaviour as it is viewed as a transgression of gender norms and expectations in relation to the ideals of femininity. It was suggested, by the practitioners interviewed, that the presence of such stigma could impact on their self-esteem whilst also affecting the way they are responded to by others participating in the conference. The findings also indicated that experiences of stigma may have implications for girls’ feelings of shame around their offending behaviour, evoked during the restorative justice conference, and how these feelings are experienced and internalised.


The emotion of shame is considered to be an integral element underpinning restorative justice conferencing. This is primarily because the theoretical premise upon which restorative justice is based has become closely associated with Braithwaite’s (1989) Reintegrative Shaming Theory (RIST) (Marshall, 1999). The theory suggests that, coming face to face with the victim of their offence, and learning about the harm caused by their behaviour, will evoke shame within those charged with an offence. Braithwaite suggests this experience of shame will not only prevent the individual from re-offending but will also provide the opportunity for them to repair the harm caused by their offending thereby reintegrating them back into the community.

The majority of the girls interviewed described experiencing feelings of shame during the restorative justice conference. This research suggests that there is the potential for these experiences of shame to be affected by the girls’ experiences of stigma following their offending behaviour. This is because the stigma attached to their identity, as a result of transgressing gender norms, is inextricably linked to their offending behaviour.

As these transgressions of femininity are not the focus of the restorative justice conference, the opportunity for these transgressions to be contested by girls in order for them to reject the stigma attached to their identity is not provided. Therefore, their experience of shame during the restorative justice conference could potentially exacerbate their stigmatised identity. This argument highlights a clear distinction with regards to girls’ experiences of shame in a restorative justice conference as opposed to boys.

The negative implications of shame

The empirical data, provided by practitioners participating in this research study, suggested that girls internalise shame differently compared to young males, which exacerbates feelings of self-blame for their offending behaviour. Furthermore, practitioners suggested that girls’ feelings of shame, expressed within a restorative justice conference, could be associated with previous negative experiences such as abuse or victimisation in their formative years.

It was further articulated that the association of shame with previous negative experiences could, in turn, instigate strategies to cope with these feelings, such as self-harming and self-destructive behaviours. Practitioners suggested that such behaviours could be used as a means to manage the emotional pain associated with feelings of shame, inducing negative implications for girls’ emotional and physical wellbeing.

Furthermore, the association of shame with previous negative experiences could, in turn, instigate strategies to cope with these feelings, such as self-harming and self-destructive behaviours. Practitioners suggested that such behaviours could be used as a means to manage the emotional pain associated with feelings of shame, inducing negative implications for girls’ emotional and physical wellbeing.

The empirical findings from this research study suggest that we need to reconsider the appropriateness of restorative justice conferencing for girls and young women within the youth justice system. The issues raised are cross-cutting and relevant to the youth justice service and determine the need to incorporate gender-specific provision into restorative justice policy and practice, as a matter of urgency, if this approach to delivering justice is to be of benefit to those involved.