Saturday, 25 July 2009

One thousand deaths too many

Siddique Abdullah Hasan is one of the Lucasville Five--a group of men railroaded onto death row in Ohio after a 1993 prison rebellion in which inmates at the Lucasville prison rose up against the abuses and arbitrary rules of prison guards and officials. In the article below, published originally on Below, he writes about the July 21 execution of Marvallous Kenne--the 1,000th prisoner to be executed by lethal injection in the U.S. since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

IN SPITE of the milestone we have made with the election of the first African American president, it is sad that we have to witness, in the 21st century, in such an industrialized nation, that we've come to the point that we have executed the 1,000th person by way of lethal injection.

Is it really just a coincidence that Marvallous Keene in Ohio, the victim of this 1000th lethal injection, was a Black man?

As if lethal injection is a sanitized way of killing someone! The reality is that regardless of how the execution is being carried out, it still amounts to murder. Another murder that this society doesn't need to make society safe.

There are too many injustices and too much unfairness to support lethal injection or any other form of execution in this country. Too many minorities are being victimized by it. And you have veterinarians not willing to use some of the elements of the lethal injection on animals, yet this government is willing to use it on human beings. They are saying that animal life is more important to them than human life.

But it's hard to tell Ohio authorities, considering that they just killed two people last week--and that, between now and February 4, they have seven more executions scheduled.

What has really touched a nerve with me is that one of these people scheduled for execution on January 7 is a very good friend and dear Muslim brother of mine. Not only is he a dear friend of mine, but I'm also trying to see to it that he gets a proper Islamic burial.

What we need is for concerned citizens in Ohio and elsewhere to show some collective responsibility. We need a national movement to put this issue on the table so that Barack Obama's administration must turn their attention toward the criminal injustice system.

Should we wait on them? No! We should unify our efforts in the anti-death penalty movement and demand that Barack Obama's administration do something about it. We must come with an agenda and submit this agenda to Barack Obama and the Justice Department.

It is my hope and prayer that the soldiers in the abolitionist movement will step up to the plate and use every resource available at our disposal to not only fight the injustice of capital punishment in Texas, Georgia and Ohio, but work toward abolishing it on a national scale.

Imam Siddique Abdullah Hasan, from Ohio's Death Row
You can write to him at Siddique Abdullah Hasan, R130-559, Ohio State Penitentiary, 878 Coitsville-Hubbard Road, Youngstown, OH 44505.
His Web site is at

Staughton Lynd's definitive account Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising is one of the best accounts I have read of the dynamics of prison and provides both a good account of the uprising and equally important how the criminal justice system's response was itself a perversion of justice. I really recommend it as a must read of prison literature. The Introduction can be downloaded for free from here.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Tomato crime, the hurt of women inside and white collar prisoners buying an easier time.

One of classic texts on crime and punishment is Jeffrey Reiman’s The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison. Now in its 8th edition the book sets out how the criminal justice system is distorted by power and as a result fails to address the offending of the rich and powerful and instead focuses on the often petty offending of the poor and powerless.

The evidence for this thesis is overwhelming and we see it everyday. Whilst the financial crisis, corporate killings and MPs “expenses” do not result in criminalisation the forces of law and order have moved swiftly to deal with Mrs Linda Ware, a 61 tear old Grandmother living in a council flat (what more evidence of criminality is needed) who is being threatened with an ASBO and a potential five years imprisonment for
growing tomatoes in the communal hallway.

Yet occasionally a rich bastard does get done. This is particularly the case when he (it normally is) gets caught thieving off his own kind. Robbing the poor is rarely a problem but robbing the robbers can provoke a response. These few cases are used as an example that the law applies to the rich as well thus justifying the punishment and imprisonment of thousands of poor and powerless people.

Prison is painful, particularly for those with histories of abuse and poor mental health. Recent evidence of this is the
epidemic of self-harm in the UK’s women's jails. But from the States we learn that the few rich people facing jail can use their wealth to prepare by, for $200 an hour hiring a prison coach

According to the New York Times, Steven Oberfest, the CEO of Prison Coach offers the following services:

His sessions are conducted in his upper East Side apartment and at a training facility nearby. For those under house arrest, Oberfest even makes house calls.

He typically opens with a primer on the nuts and bolts of prison life, demystifying jailhouse routines and things like commissary.

"If you're confused about something, you can't go to a correction officer and ask him what's happening because the other inmates will think you're a snitch," Oberfest said.

He offers up a workout routine suitable for life in a 6-by-9-foot cell and breaks down common prison lingo. Mental training, focusing on meditation techniques, comes next, followed by close-quarter combat lessons.

In the Oberfest school of prison survival, the ability to instantly stop a burly attacker is essential. "If someone is able to totally disgrace you the first day you walk in, that just opens the door for everybody not to respect you," Oberfest said. "The most important thing is mutual respect."

So now even the few rich people who are sent to prison as sacrifices for their class get to buy an advantage. Anyone who has read Archer’s Prison Diary will have noticed how he was able to use his wealth to buy privileges. He even maintaining his supply of bottled water meaning imprisonment never meant he had to do anything as common as drink out of a tap.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Released prisoners - set up to fail

I came across an article by Mark Johnson about the experience of a 17 year old child released from prison which illustrates how so many children, women and men released from prison are set up to fail. Ex-con criminologists Richards and Jones have coined the phrase the Perpetual Incarceration Machine to highlight how those who experience imprisonment find it incredibly difficult to escape the grip of the carceal system. In attempting to re-establish lives in the community ex-prisoners face a series of barriers that significantly increase their chance of returning to prison - they are set up to fail.

In the 1980s I worked an organisation called Hargrave House which provided housing to ex-cons. The organisation had been set up by PROP - the prisoners rights group involved in many of the struggles within prisons in the 1970s and rejected the idea that ex-prisoners needed control and supervision. Instead Hargrave sought to its residents gain access to social resources, such as housing, employment and health services.

The table below shows the "outcomes" for Hargrave residents. Without supervision, risk management, treatment or other control techniques very few returned to prison. By putting our efforts into getting access to Housing Association and Local Authority housing most got a stake in the community and managed to escape the criminal justice system.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Ben Goldacre's Bad Science on the quality of Home Office Research

"We'd all like to help the police do their job well. They, in turn, would like to have a massive database with DNA profiles from everyone who has been arrested, but not convicted of a crime.

We worry that this is intrusive, but some of us are willing to make concessions on our principles and the invasion into our privacy in the name of preventing crimes. To do this, we'd like to know the evidence on whether this database is helpful, to help us make an informed decision.

Luckily, the Home Office has now published a consultation paper on the subject. They defend their database by arguing that innocent people who have been arrested are as likely to commit crimes in the future as guilty people. "This," they say, "is obviously a controversial assertion." That's not true: it's a simple matter of fact, and you could easily assemble some good quality evidence to see if it's true or not.

The Home Office has assembled some evidence. It is not good quality. In fact, this study from the Jill Dando Institute, attached to their consultation paper as an appendix, is possibly the most unclear and poorly presented piece of research I have ever seen in a professional environment. Or am I having a bad day? Join me in my struggle to understand their work.

They want to show that the level of criminal activity in a group of people who have been arrested, but on whom no further action has been taken, is the same as the level of criminal activity in people who have been arrested and convicted of a crime, or who accept a caution. On page 30 they explain their methods haphazardly. They describe some people sampled on 1 June 2004, 1 June 2005 and 1 June 2006. These dates are never mentioned again. They then leap to talking about Table 2. This contains data on people each from a sample in 1996, 1995, and 1994, followed up for 30 months, 42 months, and 54 months respectively. Are these anything to do with the people from 2004, 2005, and 2006? I have no idea.

In fact, I have no idea what "sample" means. Crucially, I also don't know what the numbers in the table mean, because they don't explain this properly. I think it is the number of people, from the original group, who have subsequently been arrested again.

Anyway. Then they start to discuss the results from this table. They say that these figures show that arrested non-convicted people are the same as convicted people. There are no statistics conducted on these figures, so there is absolutely no indication of how wide the error margins are, and whether these are chance findings.

At a few hundred people, this study seems pretty small for one that is supposed to give compelling evidence that there is no difference between two groups – to prove a negative like this, you'd generally want a large sample.

This research was incomprehensible and unreadable. Anybody who claims to have been persuaded by the data quoted here is telling you, loudly and clearly in the subtitles, that they don't need to understand a piece of research in order to find it compelling. If research of this calibre is what guides our policy on huge intrusions into the personal privacy of millions of innocent people, then they might as well be channelling spirits."

The Home Office Document can be accessed here

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Safer Alcohol - A dangerous drug to be banned

I was up in London this week for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies Annual Eve Saville Lecture given by Professor David Nutt. David who chairs the Home Office's Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) spoke on Estimating drug harms: a risky business.

David has compared the dangers of (high risk) alcohol and (low risk) Ecstasy to highlighted the irrationality of the current system. Last year he got into trouble for pointing out the fact that horse ridding was more dangerous than taking Ecstasy. With colleagues he produced the chart below comparing the harms of both legal and illegal drugs.

What I found really interesting was an aside he made that he was sure he could create an alcohol substitute that had all the "positive" attributes of alcohol but had far less harmful effects. However such a 'drug' would be, he felt, banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act. I will follow up this madness and find out exactly why and the role of the Alcohol Industry in such decision making.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Alcohol deaths treble in Wales

Alcohol is a drug, and one that causes an immense amount of harm. But unlike many other less harmful drugs it is not only legal but has a powerful industry and political lobby supporting it. Last April I was invited to speak at a conference held at Newport University's Centre for Criminal and Community Justice on 'Drugs Alcohol & Violent Crime'

My paper was entitled The Elephant in the Room: Drug and Alcohol Policy as Generators of Violence and other Social Harms and I argued that far more harm and violence was caused by the government's policy on alcohol (and indeed illegal drugs) that was caused by individuals under their influence.

In particular New Labour (and before them the Tories) have allowed policy on alcohol to be determined by the commercial interests of the producers and retailers (the pushers) rather than public health interests. This policy is literally killing us. For example alcohol-related deaths in Wales rose from 199 in 1992 to 573 last year, with the sharpest rise taking place in the past two years. An individual drunk killing a person is deemed to have committed a crime, but a government who colludes with the pushers of a drug to increase its sales and kills thousands needlessly across the UK is not.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Corporate Law Enforcement

Under New Labour in the UK we have seen a growth of private prisons, indeed last week the Independent reported that Private prisons 'performing worse than state-run jails' In the US the private sector has lead to claims by groups like Critical Resistance and academics like Angela Davis talk about the development of the prison industrial complex.

But we hear less about private policing. Thanks to Rob for sending me a link to this story - The FBI Deputizes Business on Project Censored. The report highlight how:

More than 23,000 representatives of private industry are working quietly with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to collect and provide information on fellow Americans. In return, members of this rapidly growing group, called InfraGard, receive secret warnings of terrorist threats before the public, and at times before elected officials. “There is evidence that InfraGard may be closer to a corporate Total Information Awareness program (TIPS), turning private-sector corporations—some of which may be in a position to observe the activities of millions of individual customers—into surrogate eyes and ears for the FBI,” according to an ACLU report titled “The Surveillance-Industrial Complex: How the American Government Is Conscripting Businesses and Individuals in the Construction of a Surveillance Society.”
During recent reporting of policing of environmental campaigners it has been clear that the British police are working closely with the "security" staff of energy companies. Given that many of these private corporate policing operations are managed by former policemen the relationship is worrying not to say potentially corrupt. When we study policing do we need to include the growing private security sector?

Hat tip Rob

Whose Law

The Guardian today has a story about criminality at the News of the World. In January 2007 a News of the World Journalist, Clive Goodman, was jailed for hacking into the mobile phones of three royal staff. We were assurred by the News of the World that this was an isolated incident involving am 'out of control' member of staff acting without the knowledge of its managers and indeed its owner Rubert Murdoch. However the Guardian has now claimed that:
  • The police investigation into the Goodman account discovered that thousands of mobile phones had been hacked into by private investigators working for the News of the World.

  • The police did not inform the victims

  • That the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to press any charges relating to these thousands of criminal acts.

  • That Gordon Taylor, the Chief Executive of the Professional Footballers Association, on hearing during the January 2007 case that his phone had been target sued the News of the World. During the case documents were disclosed which showed that this was not an out of control journalist but widespread and conducted with knowledge of NoW management.

  • Taylor was paid £700,000 damages and legal costs on the condition he signed a 'gagging clause'.

  • The High Court agreed to 'seal' the court papers effectively helping cover up the NoW's criminality.
This case illustrates how the criminal justice system treats crimes by the powerful very differently to those committed by ordinary people. The police, crown prosecution service and courts all worked to cover up thousands of serious criminal acts.

Rubert Murdoch's relationship with the law seems to be no different from the nineteenth century corporate criminal Daniel Drew who observed:
law is no such wonderful thing after all. Law is like a cobweb; it's made for flies and the smaller kind of insects, so to speak, but lets the big bumblebees break through. I showed him in this affair that I was the bumblebee. Where technicalities of the law stood in my way, I have always been able to brush them aside easy as anything.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

More blood on the bike path

I used to live in Easton and used to regularly use the railway path, it was a great way to travel (on foot or by bike) through the city. I used it to walk to St Matts when I taught there and most evenings I used it to walk the dog. I like the path! But after dark I was aware how potentially vulnerable I was and had a couple of experiences where young men emerged from the dark under a bridge and although nothing developed beyond a friendly banter I certainly got a rush of adrenaline.

I was saddened to hear about this assault reported on the excellent Bristol Indymedia. But I was also interested by the response of both the person who wrote the report and others. Whilst they were quite rightly saying something should be done they had little confidence in traditional criminal justice responses and instead were arguing for a form of community justice. I will watch with interest how this develops.

As an aside I am currently reading William Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness published in 1794 (what a thrilling life I lead) and in the second volume he develops a very similar argument arguing that anti-social behaviour needs us to respond (both in terms of conflict resolution and indeed self-defence) as individuals rather than rely on the state.

Should Ronnie Biggs be freed

Jack Straw has rejected the Parole Board's recommendation that Ronnie Biggs should be allow to leave prison to die. Nick Cohen in the Guardian has critiqued the decision in this article - Oh, it's easy to play the hard man with Ronnie Biggs.

Eric Allison has questioned the decision in an excellent article, again in the Guardian - While General Pinochet was let out, Ronnie Biggs and Liverpool football supporter Michael Shields remain unfairly imprisoned

Straw's decision and the parole board recommendation illustrate how removed criminal justice system discourse has become from reality. Talking about his potential to re-offend and his dangerousness completely ignores the fact that the guy can neither walk nor talk.

It seems a particularly nasty decision.