Categories
Interviewing research space Zoom

Zooming in: shifting time, space and distance

Anna Kotova

In mid-2020, my small, city-centre studio apartment became not only my lecture theatre and seminar room, but also the space where I conduct my research. I am, at time of writing, researching the use of video-call technology in prisons in England and Wales, looking specifically at how this is experienced by families of people in prison. This technology – an app called Purple Visits – was designed specifically for prisons with the necessary security features, but at its core it allows people in prison and their families to video-call in a way that has become increasingly familiar to many of us during COVID-19.

In a peculiar twist of fate, I have only been able to conduct interviews using either Zoom or the telephone. The original research design, mapped out prior to the start of the pandemic, would have involved me meeting with research participants face-to-face. So, whereas I would normally spend hours travelling to the interviewees, the research participants and I now enter each others’ homes, albeit virtually.

For those who opt for Zoom with the video on, this is all the more true. They can see my kitchen, the gin bar behind my shoulder, hear my neighbour’s dog (the bane of my current confined existence) barking next door to me. Likewise, I am able to see the research participants’ homes. At times, this helps build rapport – some show me their pets, their living rooms, or other items they are talking about during their interview (for example, one interviewee displayed the artwork she shared with her incarcerated loved one on their video-call and another her home office). Recently, an interviewee showed me the photos of her imprisoned sons. In another interview the interviewee’s teenage child was sat next to her and I could hear the young woman’s voice in the background. This would not have been possible were we sat in a community centre or office, and adds an additional dimension to the interviews.

There is also a sense of ease and comfort to these interviews, which, upon reflection, was unexpected for me as a researcher. In ‘normal’ times, these would be held in a private office, community centre, or a function room of a pub or cafe. We would be surrounded the hubbub and sensory intrusions of everyday life – the smells of coffee, the noises of doors shutting, even interruptions of someone knocking on the door or needing to pick something up from the room we were in. It would also be a neutral space with a sense of “official research interview” to the meeting. I would be dressed in work clothes, for example, and have my hair and makeup done. Online interviews are arranged (when possible) at a time when participants are mostly in a quiet and totally private place so there was very littlebackground noise. Likewise, I live alone, so there is very little interruption (noisy dog notwithstanding).

It is peculiar how the dynamics change when one is sat in their pyjama bottoms, in one’s own living room. Or, if the interview is on the phone, lying on the sofa or bed with my eyes closed, recovering from what is usually an exhausting day of teaching and marking. Even on video-calls, I am usually dressed in lounge or sports clothes rather than business attire. For me, the experience becomes an informal conversation, the sort of chat we have become so accustomed to during COVID-19 lockdowns. I become an over-worked academic in a similar situation to the stressed participants, who are often juggling work and childcare and supporting someone in prison. The researcher-participant hierarchy feels, to some extent, flattened for me – though of course I am aware that this might not be the case for those I interview. For instance, most appear on Zoom video calls dressed in what seem to be “work clothes”, and so might experience the interview as more formal than I do. Nonetheless, there is a sense of togetherness I seek to create via chats about lockdowns and COVID-19 and other topical issues (currently, this is vaccination in prisons!).

The sense of ease and the familiarity of one’s own setting helps most of the interviews to flow easily, with participants sharing their experiences openly and candidly. Those on Zoom are able to illustrate how they would stay still during a prison video-call, or show the backgrounds they use to ensure the call goes smoothly. This is because the technology can glitch or stop the call if portraitss or photographs are visible, or even if the caller’s head moves too much. This enables me to see exactly how the interviewees conduct themselves on a prison video-call – via them briefly reeancting the experience for me on a Zoom call – a fascinating experience which would not be possible offline (because I would not see the backgrounds, the framing of them on the screen, etc.).

Despite the positives, I wonder about the conflation of research and home. It is at times difficult to detach after the interviews, in a way that I might have done taking the train back after meeting with a participant. I would occupy myself with getting home, buying food, settling down for the evening. When one’s trip back is the few steps from the desk to the sofa, the interview lingers. It stays, intangibly, within my tiny studio apartment, the words of the interviewee lingering much longer in my mind as I reflect on what we have discussed. Since lockdown means very little sensory and experiential distraction – no trains to rush to, no adverse weather to be annoyed about – there is more headspace for the interview to occupy my mind after the event.

I am certain that remote interviewing is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future – and it is undoubtedly beneficial for those who have accessibility needs or for whom there are other reasons why a Zoom interview might be easier, practically and/or emotionally. Nonetheless, we need to be careful and consider the ethics of ‘entering’ someone’s home, albeit virtually. I do not know whether I linger with the participants after the interview, but there is no reason to suggest why this would not be the case for participants as well as the researcher.

Interviewing during a pandemic, thus, raises some interesting questions about power its fluidity in research. To some degree, inequalities are flattened because participants can choose what they show me, where they are located (for example, they can choose a white wall rather than a place where I would be able to see much of their room). They can even choose for me to not see them or their home at all if they opt for a phone call. On the other hand, I as a researcher still enter their home environment to some extent, albeit indirectly. Morever, it is possible that my perception of power inequalities flattening is heightened because I am used to conducting research interviews and therefore am comfortable with lying down and conducting a phone interview from my bed! For participants, this may not be the case – this might be the very first time they have taken part in research. Ultimately, the choice should rest with the interviewee.


Categories
Ministry Of Justice power research sound space

Experiencing Research Interviews at the Ministry of Justice

Harry Annison

I like to walk to the Ministry of Justice. In part because you just can’t beat the Waterloo Sunset (so to speak); in part for the symbolism of a route that takes me past the Houses of Parliament, past the Supreme Court and past an assortment of other government departments. I can navigate most of it on auto-pilot by now. Off the train at Waterloo, racing to beat the crowds at the barriers. Out onto the South Bank. I squeeze past the endless waves of tourists near the London Eye, experience never teaching me that a quick pace is impossible. Over Westminster Bridge, usually dotted with bagpipers and tourists smiling at their selfie-stick phones. I use the road to skirt around people, until I remember this is ill-advised in central London. I push on through the hordes, wading through treacle. The air is thick with dirt. I arrive.

The brutalist exterior of 102 Petty France looms over me. It is a magnificent building, in its own way. I look up; take it in. Architectuul tells me that it is “a big, assertive building which succeeds in its job as a symbol of government authority and a landmark on the local skyline”. It is somewhat facile to describe it as prison-like, with its cold, concrete exterior and resistance to the outside world. But it is just that. I am a little early. I stroll down the side street, Queen Anne’s Gate. A plaque on the side of this mega-building tells me that Jeremy Bentham lived in a house on this site. I gaze through a barred gate. I could be free, launched into the open air of St James Park. I turn back.

Built in 1976, 102 Petty France was extensively modified from 2003 before the Ministry of Justice eventually became its new tenant in 2007. A high glass roof was installed, covering the former rear courtyard, meaning that there is now a large bright atrium at the building’s core. This contains a café, seating across various levels and glass-boxed meeting rooms. It looks remarkably like one of those overly-optimistic architect’s visualisations of how a space will be utilised: it feels light and spacious and there is a thrum of activity. Things happen here; power is held within these walls. I like being here, but feel a pang of guilt: I am there to talk about prisons, about punishment, about pain.

Getting past reception can be a challenge. They never seem to know the person I am meeting, to the point of doubting their existence to me. Initially this would induce panic in me. “Shit, I’ve got it wrong. Why didn’t I double check the details? What an idiot!” As I become more experienced, I realise that this seemed to be reception’s default approach for anyone. “Justice Secretary? Nope. Have you got a mobile number for them?” So, over time, my reaction shifts from panic to amusement. (And being more organised in asking for a contact number in advance). I sit and wait to be collected from reception.

I notice the whirr of a coffee machine: there is a brightly coloured mobile coffee shop shaped like a little tuk-tuk in the reception of the Ministry of Justice. I ponder the meeting at which this was decided to be A Good Thing. It is squeezed into the frontage, fitting – just – in amongst the anti-terrorist defences that have been installed. Out of the window I glimpse smokers, hanging around the huge strategically-placed planters on the pavement outside; more situational crime control in action. I hope that I’m collected soon; the longer I wait the more liable I am to have my bag searched by the security guards who inhabit the reception area. It would only take a moment, but it’s aggravating. My interviewee arrives.

Small talk, as we walk from reception, through the security ‘pods’ (think Derek Smalls in Spinal Tap) and to our meeting room. We walk past the signage for ‘independent’ bodies who are in fact physically based in the Ministry of Justice’s flagship building. This is normally coupled with a quip by the person I am meeting with. At the time this passes as polite chit-chat. But on reflection its importance strikes me more clearly: they mention it – and are primed to mention it – because they feel the problem. Every time they walk someone past it. Every single day.

A more recent experience involves the act of actually finding a space to meet. One interviewee had told me in advance that we might need to sit in the atrium as meeting rooms were hard to come by. It happens again. And again! And then, it became difficult even to find a table in the café. “Look forward to seeing you at 12. I’ll work in the café from mid-morning, before all the tables are taken.” What is going on?

Once I’m attuned to this situation, it can become hard not to be distracted by it. I notice people walking across my eyeline, like animals prowling the savannah looking for their prey. A free table! And they’re down, out of sight. I have also found myself, more than once, in a glass-boxed meeting room designed, I can only assume, for two-thirds of a small adult human. Being packt like sardines in a crushd tin box does not make for the best interview, it must be said.

These sometimes rather farcical experiences tell the tale, in their own way, of the crushing grip of austerity on the Ministry of Justice. Personal desks are being taken away; hot-desking is in. Partial home-working is another scheme, intended to reduce the need for office space. Different parts of government, and semi-independent bodies overseen by the MoJ, are moved in (and out), re-organisations to try to squeeze some more value (in a certain sense) out of this central London prime real estate. To the extent that this evokes the senses, it is a sense of impermanence and transience (there are always moving boxes somewhere, if you look for them), coupled with a low-level friction (people have been doing ‘more with less’, for a decade now).

My concluding observation is one that perhaps I shouldn’t admit, as a purported expert in penal policy: the Ministry of Justice makes no sense. Job roles change all the time. If you’re lucky, you may find an organogram (imagine a family tree, but for job roles) that putatively tells you who-does-what. You will invariably find that it is out of date, or does not help much on the specific issue you are researching, or both. The policy/operations boundary and related organisational schematics wash in, and out, like the tide. The organisations within 102 Petty France are contingent social constructions; they are in a permanent state of near-becoming.

Put another way, HMPPS is very much not the MoJ, and the MoJ is very much not HMPPS (or NOMS, as it was previously). Talking to insiders about issues that required a precise understanding of the current MoJ-HMPPS (and related organisational) dynamics would sometimes remind me of my French exchange trips as a young boy, trying to follow the rapid-fire chatter of my French family.

The observation that organisations – just like cultures, historical events and so on – are inherently resistant to efforts at a single and coherent account (and perhaps become more so, the more one learns about them), is by no means novel. I have myself explored what the Ministry of Justice ‘is’ from an interpretive analytical perspective, examining the narratives and webs of belief relied upon by penal policy makers.

Here, I have reflected on my sensory experiences of conducting research interviews in the Ministry of Justice headquarters, 102 Petty France, over recent years. This will hopefully be of interest to some, and perhaps even helpful to others. At the same time, I have a hunch that there is much more to investigate, to learn, and to theorise, about the sensory experience of being in spaces devoted to the development and maintenance of criminal justice policy, in addition to the direct study of spaces of punishment and social control.

Note: This account is an amalgamation of numerous visits to 102 Petty France, in part to ensure the anonymity of research respondents. To the extent that it can be said to take place at a particular moment in time, it occurred in spring 2018. For those planning to conduct their own research on penal politics and policy making, I am told that the appendix to my book Dangerous Politics, ‘Studying Penal Policymaking: Access, Ethics, and Power Relations’ is helpful and am happy to share the text with anyone who cannot access the book.

Categories
Emotions Environment Green Criminology research sound space

Deep-Sea-Soul-Sensing : deindustrialisation and the energy transition environment – Aberdeen City

Janine Ewen

Acknowledgements

 I would like to start this blog by acknowledging the people in Aberdeen who are responsible for our street art and the visuals featured within this piece. These people have made it possible for me to start expanding my criminological and sociological imagination thanks to their creativity in our home; I hope that paying closer attention to “unlikely places” will mean that those unknowns will feel acknowledged and less alienated. I would also like to say thanks to Dr Colin Atkinson and Dr Erin Sanders-McDonagh – two academics (and friends) who have been generously supportive of me in recent years, and who have inspired me to explore the power of visual and sensory methods in research. Many thanks also to Dr Kate Herrity for giving me the platform to write and discuss partial findings and interpretations of my fieldwork, and for having thoughtful conversations with me on sensory criminology.

Deep-Sea-Soul-Sensing

My first sensory experience of the sea comes from my childhood living in Larne, a seaport and industrial market town on the east coast of County Antrim, Northern Ireland. As a child, I loved to run over the grassy hill at the back of my house and listen to the boats’ horns, watching them glide in and out: I wanted to know what it would feel like to be on one. Little did I know that, one day these moments of curiosity would become a reality, and vital for my family’s safety. When I was eight-years old, I was on one of those boats, escaping, with my mother and brother, from my father’s domestic abuse. We travelled to Stranraer, a town in South West Scotland, and then caught the train up to Aberdeen, where a social worker was waiting to drive us to a women’s refuge in Aberdeenshire.

I will never forget the journey, leaving to start a new life in Scotland, with a mixture of feelings of overwhelming fear, excitement and sea sickness. Whenever my mother and I have reflected on the journey, she apologises that I became unwell. It acts as a trigger stemming from the guilt she still holds for staying with my father as long as she did, trying to change his abusive behaviour. Some mild nausea did not phase me, even as a child. I was on one of the boats I had watched with joy. But most of all, I felt a great sense that we were going to be safer. It is for this reason that I have a comforting, yet reflective, relationship with the sea; watching and listening to the movement of the waves is the ocean’s way of confirming to me that we got away.

When I meet people who are from Northern Ireland and they ask me where I am from, their facial expressions and body language give a lot away. This is not to convey any great love of Larne: “Christ almighty, you’re not really from that rough shithole, are you?” I shrug it off, as it is not as if I personally hold many treasured memories from my birth home, although our next door neighbour was a friend to my mother and a lifeline to us when my father was especially violent and we needed to get out of our house. However, it is the same stigmatised reaction that I get when I tell people I mainly grew up in the North East of Scotland, in Aberdeenshire and in Aberdeen City. That chilly, wet, mean, rich, oil-dominant place that is far away from everywhere else – ‘the Granite City’, as it is commonly known, because of the presiding urban city-scape of locally quarried grey granite.

Admittedly, I have had my own depressing thoughts of Aberdeen. This is not because I believe we live constantly under a hovering ‘Aber-doom’ cloud of grey in the complete absence of bright spells, but because it creates my own frustrations, witnessing and experiencing the impact that the oil and gas sectors’ volatile nature of production and price can have on people’s livelihoods and declining living environments. It denotes the historic discrimination and ongoing survival of working-class fishing communities and our stark social divisions, inequalities and crime. It cuts deeply amongst people living here that we endure great vulnerability as Europe’s oil capital. No area in Scotland is immune to poverty from a decade of UK Government austerity measures, but Aberdonians do ask the question, “Where has all the oil money gone?”

An Illuminating and important spotlight on Aberdeen’s poverty was televised last year, on ‘Darren McGarvey’s Scotland series. It was a relief for locals to witness, on screen that our social challenges were being given national attention, rather than them being drowned in a sea of oil and material wealth. My only criticism is that people living in the North-East barely have a voice to talk for themselves about these challenges at a national level in Scotland. This must now change as we go forward, experiencing another identity as an energy transition environment.

A new appetite for multi-sensory exploration

In thinking about the potential for criminology/sociology research in the North-East, back in July, I attended an arts-based socially-distanced ‘sensory sea-sound walk’ to explore the acoustic environment (facilitated by researcher Maja Zećo and supported by the ‘Look Again Aberdeen’ organisation). The walk started off at the South Bank of the River Dee, going past Torry and in and around part of Aberdeen harbour

To give a brief context, Torry, which sits opposite the harbour and within Aberdeen city, is an area and community historically based around fishing and boat building, although over the years it has become more of a hub for the oil and gas giants. For better or for worse, Torry is always firmly on the table for discussion due to the area’s deprivation and social stigma that live beside the undeniably diverse and rich community spirit. The industrialised harbour site, once host to the largest fish market in Europe, is acknowledged by some as an urban gift, due to its inner city presence and accessibility, including a claim to fame in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest existing business in the UK. However, the harbour site can be viewed with more nuanced local realities; for example, it is an industrial space where onlookers can watch boats pass by against the backdrop of towering oil tanks whilst eating a bag of chips. However, be sure to prepare for battle with the criminally-aggressive and renowned oversized Aberdeen seagulls about to flock around you.

The focus of the walk was to savour the aesthetic pleasures of listening by examining sounds which we do not normally pay attention to, as well as different volumes and textures, and the relationship between quiet, industrial, and residential zones. Although genuinely curious and keen to participate in the walk, carrying my notebook, pen, fully-charged phone and wearing my face mask, I didn’t expect to experience as many visual, sensory and therapeutic stimuli as I did. This forced me to confront my own problematic relationship with the physical environment, which has led to a level of disengagement. In other words, it became apparent to me that I had neglected to fully register what was so close and right in front of me. The walk gave me a bitter sweet taste; on the one hand, I became revitalised after setting aside my inner frustrations of structural struggle and oppression, but equally I felt guilty because I thought I was making a considerable effort to ensure I was witnessing and acknowledging it – it being the good, the bad and the damn right beautiful and ugly. It is true that the usual urban and industrial suspects were out in force that day: the gulls shrieking alongside the stretch of constant traffic through the city centre, as if they were in competition with one another to make the most noise. Also present were the inescapable odours of fish and other pollutant pongs as a reminder of the atmospheric harm and dominance that comes with the territory of living in such an industrial environment. The group came together at the end to discuss how our personal identities contribute to our experience of listening to places, including the need for multisensory engagement, incorporating histories and memories situated in place.

What was an hour and half’s worth of walking evolved into several weeks of my own independent fieldwork, revisiting the area, looking at the visuals on the streets and abandoned buildings with an appetite to feel, see and listen more. I was also able to visualise the expansion of the urban trail through Torry, with the end point being the site for the new £350 million Aberdeen South expansion project, which will accommodate larger vessels being used in a range of industries, including cruises, as part of addressing the downturn of the oil. Directly opposite the area will also lie a soon-to-be-constructed new multi-million-pound clean energy park (Energy Transition Zone). A campaign group is now in battle with the oil elites to prevent them from taking away the last green space in Torry – St Fittick’s Park. Is history repeating itself again? In an opinion piece I wrote for a national newspaper, entitled ‘Brexit, coronavirus, oil, and the struggles of Scotland’s North-East’, I urged that any current and future developments to address deindustrialisation and economic renewal in the form of a speedier transition from oil and gas to a sustainable renewable energy future could only be deemed ‘just’ if they were driven by a humane agenda. Indeed, we must reflect and learn from our past mistakes, which are rooted in greed and sit beside unforgiveable misfortune, otherwise we have missed the point entirely. There should be no fast flowing free pass to claim success and the future title of “Energy Capital of Europe”. Any risk of harm caused by the unjust exercising of elite power in the pursuit of creating an “energy pot of gold” which exacerbates or causes the persistence of social inequality and environmental harm must be monitored and scrutinised, but also documented. It is for this reason that expanding the criminological and sociological lens in the North-East (green criminology for environmental concern and crime, as one example) would be timely, as it would restore the critical eye in the hope that people’s voices will be strengthened and human lived experiences will become conceptualised over the transition. Such an expansion would also fill a major geographical gap in Scotland in a region which is part of the global phenomenon of deindustrialisation politics – that, for me, is the transition gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s time to swap the ‘shithole’ insults for sensory ethnographic methods to inspire inclusive, therapeutic and collaborative conversations for researching home, belonging and atmosphere

Fieldwork Findings and Interpretations

‘Stuck’: Humorous stickers but hazardous industries

Situated directly opposite the harbour, the imposing cartoon smiley sticker is funny, playful, but it also feels sinister. The smile of the emoji, popular for evoking positivity of the human experience, is trying its best not to be distracted by the toxic eye, representing the hazardous nuclear waste dripping down—but how long?  Do we need to keep just smiling despite the harm?

Close to harbour boats and in the midst of intense noise construction (hammering and drills), this pirate skull sticker armed with crossed swords, gave me an immediate sharp focus for thinking about the dangers associated with our major industries of fishing and oil in the North East, the more unfortunate realities for people working on the sea—rough working conditions and risks to health and life. The sticker gave me a clear message of deadly troubled waters

Separate but linked: ‘Go Fuck yourself; it’s Scotland’s oil!’—the politics of Scottish independence

There is a strong sense of political support depicted through a large number of ‘YES’ for independence stickers on the streets all around Torry and the harbour, next to the North Sea oil. This provided me with moments of reflection, some of which evoked worries, doubts and insecurities about our future, our homes, how we feel living here and our contribution to the debate on Scottish independence. Aberdonians feel tension on this subject, particularly in relation to their industries, economic policies and Brexit. Although one sticker exhibits a fresh and bold-looking sense of freedom, the profanity sticker below, even though distinct, provides a connection and an example of local discussion on the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) and the UK government, for instance, the issue related to where the oil money is being distributed. The sticker suggests uprising, frustration and a possible message ‘It’s Scotland’s oil’, which was a political slogan used by the SNP in the ‘70s to build its economic case for an independent Scotland. Both stickers inspire an honest change.

Sweet smell of surprise: a rebellious weed!

This weed took my sense of smell to another direction while I was walking down Sinclair Road. Through the harsh stench of fish and industrial smoke, at either side of me, it offered me a powerful sweet fragrance as if it was trying to be noticed and offering a few moments of relief from the background of strong competing smells. The weed is high enough to cover the background of tall tanks, so I could catch a glimpse of the natural world tangling through hard and tough industrial fencing. It is a rebellious weed that is making a bold statement by climbing high. Because it really wants to be seen, it provides me an inner comfort as well as a feeling of confirmation that exploring the area was an important and necessary experience—we should always have a closer look at the most unlikely places and look out for nature —for inspiration.

Words of accuracy: tanks labelled ‘slops’

When I saw the word ‘slops’ on these tanks, it felt accurate as it depicted my own images of liquid: overflowing, spillage and other industrial harms, including the harm from oil. In my research, I had found that ‘slop oil’ needs careful management since it contains water, oil and a mixture of waste products. Slop oil can cause dangerous environmental hazards and costly storage problems. It is a serious burden not only for oil companies and governments but also for communities. Moreover, it is a reminder of the burden Torry has been ‘gifted’ by the oil industry. Yet, the liquid is stored in front of the community waiting to be dealt with.

The sun still shines on fishes: community strength in Torry

Although Torry has largely been cleared to make way for the oil boom, there are still some small fishing businesses left. Although most of the fishing sector now operates from Fraserburgh and Peterhead. This mural on a fish factory that sits directly across the River Dee gave me the perception of the community—keeping oneself above the dark shadows. The sun still shines on fishes, giving them a needed spotlight. Although vulnerability has made deep inroads, some strength has still survived, preventing from falling into dark shadows beneath and pushing to move on.  It depicts a sense of closeness, resilience and hope. Torry has a long-standing social stigma attached to its deprivation, poverty and crime, particularly drug-related crime. It shows why dark spots of Torry’s history should not be swept aside, along with its social challenges.

Abandoned, but with character intact: double-handed peace amid neglect

When walking back from the new harbour expansion site to the centre of Torry, I walked past this abandoned warehouse which bore several graffiti writings. What brought an instant smile on my face was a double peace sign and cheeky hat on the corner wall of this unoccupied building. To me, the double hand gesture symbolising peace is not there to represent victory but a higher form of resistance against being abandoned, sitting on a skateboard representing activity and movement. The top hat symbolises an upstanding presence. So, perhaps the place is empty but not completely abandoned.

Crashing waves of construction: the comforting sea but the unknown future

This picture represents the first visit to the new Aberdeen Harbour Expansion site. The sea has always been of comfort to me in several ways—particularly for the fact that it has helped to bring me and my family to safety. I will always want to be as close as I can to the sea in the future. However, the experience of watching the developments at the new Harbour Expansion site is disturbing. It is miserable to listen to the crashing sound of the waves in a bleak background and the noises of the machine bringing along the worries of the unknown. The known is what will be physically present here from the expansion, but the unknown is how this will impact people and their living environments—who will benefit? My own experience of moving to the North-East is interconnected with my concern for people and the environment in the North-East. Although it is more fearful and strongly reflective experience to confront the construction atmosphere, it needs to be faced. We cannot allow the decisions about our future and industrial decline to be made by a small number of wealthy men at the top. The time is now to take ownership.

Categories
probation research sound space

Soundscapes of Probation

Jake Phillips

Many of the posts on this site have explored the sensorial experiences of punishment in novel and exciting ways. Most of them focus on the sights, sounds and smells of the prison as a site of punishment and these posts have got me thinking about how I might better understand probation and community sanctions (my own area of interest) if I take a more sensorial approach.

Probation has rarely been subjected to the kind of sensory analysis advocated by those who run and contribute to the Sensory Criminology project. The projects Picturing Probation and Supervisible (both undertaken as part of the COST funded project on Offender Supervision in Europe) sought to explore what probation looks like (as does the work by Rita Shah in the US). Yet probation offices are full of sounds and very few people seem to have explored them (as far as I know – please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong!). And so, as requested by the editors of this blog I have returned to my fieldnotes from an ethnographic study of probation (conducted 2009-2010) and reflected on more recent research which has taken me around both Community Rehabilitation Company and National Probation Service offices across England and Wales to think about what probation sounds like. A somewhat brief analysis of these notes has led me to identify three distinct ‘sounds of probation’: the sound of the office; the sound of the building; and the sound of conversation.

The first ‘sound’ that I identified when I looked back through my notes and thought about what I hear when in a probation office (bearing in mind I tend to spend time watching and listening rather than doing) is that of ‘the office’, by which I mean the space where staff sit and to which clients rarely have access. I have previously called this the backstage of probation and, in many ways, it’s where much of what constitutes probation practice occurs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the main sound in this space is the computer and other technologies upon which probation practice increasingly depends. As I noted during the first day of observations in a probation office during my PhD:

The office is large with about 11 banks of 6 desks. It is open plan with privacy screens between each desk. Each desk has a computer and a phone … Most people are typing or are on the phone- there’s a bit of general chat/banter as people come in but otherwise there isn’t much interaction going on between people. Each desk has a coffee jar/tea bags on as there is no communal tea fund – it seems that milk is the only thing shared. The air is alive with the tip-tap of keyboards and the ring-ring of unanswered telephones.

The sound of telephones ringing was a constant during those hours I spent listening, observing, and chatting to people about their work in probation. In addition to the sound of typing, a related and very common sound was that of someone announcing that ‘The computers are down… again’. The computers in one office would go down so frequently that it just seemed part and parcel of probation practice in the late 2000s. I hear the new IT equipment invested in by the National Probation Service in the last 18 months means things are much more stable – and so this particular sound might be understood as an indicator of how things have changed in recent years.

When the computers went down, the sound, and so the atmosphere, of the office would change. Some people would take the opportunity to get out of the office – either for a break or a much-neglected home visit. Others would resort to filing (yes, this was in the days when there were still paper files) while others would start chatting – about work, or about home. Others would be stressed – the computers going down was no excuse for not getting that OASys done by the end of the day. My point is that when the network went down, the office would suddenly fill with different noises. I have always been struck by how the computer directs probation work, but analysing this work through sound changes that understanding. It alerts us to what replaces ‘normal’ probation work when a key tool is out of action, and it accentuates the underlying stresses of the job.

The second sound is that of the building. Again, this is dominated by technology, but this time overlaid with the sounds of risk and security. The sound of the building is the sound of people asking to be let in via an intercom or the sound of a door being unlocked remotely or with a fob, allowing service users access to otherwise locked rooms and corridors. Occasionally it’s the sound of a panic alarm, more often than not set off accidentally by a curious child who’s attending probation with their parent.

These ‘building sounds’ convey something about what constitutes modern day probation. Through these sounds, probation becomes about security and risk: service users not being allowed access to officers’ spaces, panic alarms being situated around the building, buzzers and intercoms controlling peoples’ lives. It also highlights what it means to be a probation officer. Probation officers cannot be found by simply ringing their phone or walking to their desk: they need tannoying. There can be few other public buildings which still make use of tannoys quite like probation offices. It puts them in the same realm as train stations, doctor’s surgeries, supermarkets. It gives the impression of bureaucracy, importance, and busyness.

The third ‘sound’ of probation acts as a counterpoint to the previous two. During the many hours I’ve spent in probation offices the sound of conversation is a constant and, indeed, conversation is present in both the ‘sound of the office’ and the ‘sound of the building’. In spite of probation becoming increasingly reliant on technology, probation staff still overwhelmingly (in my experience) do the work because they want to help people. Moreover, they believe that the way to do this is through the officer-client relationship. Without conversation it is hard to create relationships and so we can see the sound of conversation as being at the heart of what many people would describe as ‘quality’ probation practice. Thus, the sound (or, conversely, lack of) of conversation (including both content and tone) between a client and member of staff tells us something about how probation functions.

But it’s the more casual, ad hoc conversations which I find particularly interesting. Many of these take place in the waiting room and all tell a story. Such conversations may take place between staff and former service users, such as in the following example, taken from my fieldnotes:

Accompanied Jim on a home visit. As we went through the waiting room he stopped and chatted to a former service user:

Jim: Oh no, you’re not back here are you?!

Former service user: No [laughing] – just here with me mate

Jim: Oh good – you did so well when you were here, good to see you again

Former service user: You too [they then had a brief catch up before departing with a shake of the hands]

In the car Jim told me about the service user, how he’d ‘properly turned his life around’ during and after his time no probation. He seemed genuinely pleased to have bumped into him.

But the waiting room is also home to conversations between service users, or between service users and their family members and they all tell us something about what probation is all about. I’ve heard conversations between old cell mates who haven’t seen each other since they were last in prison, or friends from school who, similarly, have not been in touch for many years. The probation office brings people who would otherwise have remained estranged together – perhaps only ephemerally, perhaps permanently: my snatched sounds are not enough to tell us any more than this. But I also hear people bemoaning the fact that they have to attend, complaining about the wait or asking for help with their bus fare home. For these people there is no doubt that probation is a hindrance. In a probation office, the sound of people worrying about being late for their appointment is also the sound of the power that probation officers hold over their clients. These are the sounds of liberty versus incarceration; a powerful reminder of how being under probation supervision can be experienced in painful ways.

The sound of these conversations – in the waiting room and in the office – suggest probation as a place where lives mingle – sometimes briefly, sometimes after a long period of absence and – in many cases – over a long period of time. And so, they are about how important the probation office can be in some people’s lives. The probation soundscape of probation can be the difference between freedom and incarceration, an aural manifestation of what Fergus McNeill calls the ‘malopticon’ but also, importantly, a place of human encounter.

A few years ago, I wrote about the architecture of probation offices, suggesting that the layout of an office and the way people use it reflects probation policy and shapes staff and service users’ experiences of probation. It is worth reflecting on what the sound of a probation office tells us about probation and how people may experience it. The noise of the office and the widespread use of technology seems to suggest – to me at least – an organisation which is predicated on efficiency and bureaucracy but which has encounter – both positive and negative – as an underpinning notion.

The ‘sound’ of probation, therefore, can represent both the good and the bad of how probation in England and Wales has developed in recent years. It reflects the bureaucratisation and technologisation of the service as well as the constraints it places on service users’ lives and relationships. But it also reminds us that at the heart of probation (for most of the staff and many of the service users who I have spoken to over the years) sits the relationship: that bond between people which is so important, whether engaged in the criminal justice system or not.

I write this in the middle of a global pandemic: probation offices will be sounding very different indeed at the moment. A few people are going into work, but most are working from home. What does the sound of probation at home tell us about community sanctions in a pandemic? Fewer chats and no incidental conversations will be limiting the connection that occurs within and through the probation office. But equally, there are no locked doors, intercoms, or tannoy announcements trying to find people who may be otherwise busy. People have talked to me about how they have been having more meaningful conversations with their service users, especially on socially distanced walks: in my mind, the sound of probation in these circumstances becomes the sound of cars, the weather and bird song rather than computers, tannoys and locked doors. Perhaps these are sounds which take us back to the days of ‘advise, assist and befriend’ where it was considered normal to meet a service user in a café or even, according to some of my more ‘old skool’ participants, the pub. As with many aspects of this pandemic, probation at home presents both opportunities and challenges – the key will be to hang on to the positives as things return to normal.

Above all, this brief reflection reinforces the point – already encapsulated by other posts on this blog – that analysing penality and penal institutions sensorially complements and augments existing knowledge about how that system of punishment functions. Paying attention to the ‘sound of probation’ has told me something about what probation is, how it functions and how people experience it and I hope that others respond to the editors of this blog by analysing probation and other forms of punishment in this way.

Categories
Emotions research space

A sense of home in prison?

Annie Bunce

When I sat down to write about my sensory experience in prison I hesitated. I have a lot of rich data from my participants describing their sensory experiences, which have greatly enhanced my knowledge and understanding of the prison environment. But my sensory experience? Having not spent extended periods of time in prison, I wasn’t sure I had a right to claim any significant sensory experience. During my first and most significant experience of prisons research, I spent approximately one year going in and out of four UK prisons interviewing prisoners who were participating in a rehabilitation programme, BrightHorizons, which was the focus of both my PhD and a wider evaluation study. Throughout these interviews I focused closely on what my participants said to me, and I have always considered the stories I heard to be the main source of my own knowledge and understanding. However, when I looked over my fieldnotes and data and reflected on my experience, I was hit with an avalanche of sensory memories. I realised that the sounds and tactile experiences that I had been surrounded by whilst in the prisons had hugely influenced my interpretation and understanding of my participant’s accounts of their experiences of prison and the programme.

BrightHorizons was a dual-purpose initiative that brought groups of at-risk young people into the prison estate and trained teams of prisoners to deliver interventions to them, with the aim of diverting young people away from the criminal justice system and supporting prisoners’ rehabilitation. The programme was delivered in four Cat C/training prisons in South-East England (three men’s, one women’s), with a designated space for the programme to run within each prison. This consisted of the main programme room where all the action happened, a kitchen area and/or office, and a toilet. Two prisons had their own separate portacabin, whilst the other two had designated areas within the main prison. I interviewed prisoners in either the kitchen or office, with the door shut and a view through a small window into the main room.

I was struck by how the sensory experience in the privacy of the interview space was sharply juxtaposed with that in the adjoining room, where the rest of the team were training. The presence and absence of sound and touch was particularly profound and are the focus of this blog post.  

Sound and its absence

I always arrived at BrightHorizons to a cocktail of sounds. There were usually between seven and ten men or women in the room, but it sounded like a far bigger group. There was layer upon layer of different sounds, which got invariably louder as each of the participants clamoured to be heard. Somebody would tell a joke and the room would rumble with laughter, there was a constant stream of what was popularly referred to as “banter”, hands slapped together in high fives and every now and again somebody would break into song or start rapping.If I closed my eyes I could have been standing in a school at playtime, or amongst a group of friends at a festival. I suppose such a lot of noise from a group of near strangers in an unfamiliar environment could have been intimidating, but instead all of these sounds bubbling over one another put me at ease.

Inside the interview room, however, it was the absence of sound that made the most noise. Participants spoke softly and slowly and there were regular, long silences as they considered their answers. The tone of the interviews was mixed- words dripped with sadness and regret, sighs were heaved and voices wobbled and cracked as participants spoke about their past. And then the tone would lighten, become animated and eager, and laughter would be shared as they regaled stories of their families, their time spent on BrightHorizons, and their hopes and dreams for the future. At times the tone was more serious- words carefully chosen, measured (other than the odd expletive!) and laced with frustration, as they reflected on the dark side of being in prison and the less positive aspects of the programme. Throughout the dynamic tones and relative quietness of the interviews, the constant muffled sound of laughter and banter could be heard from the main room- which felt like a reminder of the relief that the group atmosphere provided in the context of such complex individual life stories (Collica, 2010; Marshall and Burton, 2010).

Touch and its absence

Touch is one of the most essential elements of human development, a profound method of communication… and a powerful healing force.” (Bowlby, 1952)

Something that struck me straight away when spending time at BrightHorizons was the centrality of touch in prisoner’s interactions. Stereotypical depictions of the prison centre on iron bars, high razor-topped fences and heavy metal doors, which connote a physical separation, isolation and coldness antithetical to tactility. Touch in prison can be a ‘taboo’ (Houston, 2009). The BrightHorizons space was filled with high fives, back slaps, hugs, fist bumps and handshakes. Touch was obviously a vital aspect of participant’s interactions, and it strikes me as I write this how deeply people in prison must be missing such sensory experience during the current Covid-19 lockdown (Douglas et al., 2020). But it wasn’t just about touching and being touched by others. One warm and sunny day when I was interviewing at the women’s prison, I sat outside the portacabin with the women on the surrounding field at lunchtime, feeling the grass between our toes and the sun on our faces. This felt quite significant for me, as I felt a little bit less of an outsider. From my fieldnotes:

“M popped in while I was writing and said they were sitting in the sun for a bit and I was welcome to join them nice to be involved as can feel a bit awkward when just hanging around not sure where to plonk myself.”

If I closed my eyes I could have been in a garden or park. None of the men’s prisons had green outside space, and this example highlights the differences in sensory experience depending on the specific prison environment the men and women were in. When I asked Anthony what he was most looking forward to upon release he said:

                 “Four and a half years behind a door, just get a bit freedom, even just to do a walk, like I don’t know, walk on some grass or something (laughter).”

Within the realm of the interview touch was far less salient. I sat opposite participants, with a table where the audio recorder was placed physically separating us. Generally, this physical space felt appropriate and comfortable, and did not appear to impede rapport or interview depth. Male participants, particularly, appeared conscious of maintaining boundaries, and were outwardly apologetic and embarrassed if they felt these had been crossed. For example, from one interview:

I:               Okay, that’s interesting, thank you.  So, a little bit about the future now, so you said your parole’s pretty soon –

R:             Sorry –

I:               – that’s okay (laughter).

R:             – I’m playing footsie with you under the table (laughter).  Sorry (laughter).

I:               That’s okay, that’s alright.  So, parole is due relatively soon did you say?

When interviewing female participants the absence of touch felt more palpable. Perhaps due to the shared experience of being female and increased relatedness and empathy associated with this. The interviews with the women were generally of a more emotional nature and I often felt the need to physically comfort them. I felt torn between maintaining professional and ethical boundaries, which made me feel that it would be inappropriate to hug my participants, and responding with care, which made me feel guilty for not huggingthem, as this felt like the most intuitive response to a human being in distress (Dickson-Swift et al., 2007; Cowburn, 2010). I did my best to communicate care, compassion and empathy through my voice and eyes. From fieldnotes:

 “Most harrowing interview yet- she cried at one point and I very nearly did on a few occasions. When she cried I didn’t quite know what to do as was the first time it had happened- she carried on talking and seemed like she wanted to finish what she was saying so I got up and got her some tissues but didn’t interrupt what she was saying and then she kind of pulled herself through it. I wanted to hug her at the end and tell her how amazing she is but I knew that would be inappropriate, so I complimented her on her English (which she was clearly self-conscious about) and wished her all the best instead.”

Concluding thoughts

Tuning into the senses helped me to understand the importance of the programme space in terms of providing sensory and physical stimulation that my participants did not generally experience anywhere else in the prison. This contributed to one of my most dominant findings, that BrightHorizons provided participants with a sense of home. BrightHorizons appeared to function as a sort of sensory bubble. Having somewhere to go where they knew they could relax and unwind gave them the space to recover from general tiredness induced by the prison environment, detracted from the stresses of daily prison life, and made it easier to deal with the rest of the prison (see also Stevens, 2012; Frank et al., 2015):

“it was very like a home, not a home but it’s like a home within prison if you understand what I mean, a go to place to escape sometimes”. (Keira)

Having a space perceived as ‘theirs’ and access to a few ‘home comforts’ seemed to have provided prisoners’ with a community of their own (Stevens, 2014; see also Lloyd et al., 2017), away from the “absolute chaos” (Jonathan) of the rest of the prison:

“To tell you the truth, since I’ve come to BrightHorizons I don’t even think about the rest of the prison.” (Marvin)

But it also occurred to me that there is an element of a sort of sensory time/space trap. Due to the highly structured nature of BrightHorizons and predictability of the prison rules and regimes that programmes are bound by, these sorts of sensory experiences seem likely to lose their significance eventually, as they risk becoming as monotonous as the rest of the prison. This was reflected in my finding that participants who had spent some time on BrightHorizons had found themselves less stimulated and were pursuing other experiences alongside it. Yet they all carried on participating, because groups of youngsters and professionals visiting every week added a much-appreciated element of spontaneity and meant no two weeks were identical. This underscores the importance of people in prison being able to interact with a diverse group of people- including staff, family and friends on the outside, and fellow prisoner- and participate in various creative activities to provide ongoing growth and learning via sensory experience (Houston, 2009; McNeill et al., 2011).

Bowlby, J. (1952) Maternal Care and Mental Health: A report on behalf of the World Health Organisation. Geneva: World Health Organisation.

Collica, K. (2010) ‘Surviving incarceration: two prison-based peer programs build communities of support for female offenders’, Deviant Behavior, 31(4), pp. 314–347. doi: 10.1080/01639620903004812.

Cowburn, M. (2010) ‘Principles, virtues and care: ethical dilemmas in research with male sex offenders’, Psychology, Crime & Law, 16(1–2), pp. 65–74. doi: 10.1080/10683160802621974.

Dickson-Swift, V. et al. (2007) ‘Doing sensitive research: what challenges do qualitative researchers face?’, Qualitative Research, 7(3), pp. 327–353. doi: 10.1177/1468794107078515.

Douglas, M. et al. (2020) ‘Mitigating the wider health effects of covid-19 pandemic response’, BMJ, p. m1557. doi: 10.1136/bmj.m1557.

Frank, V. A. et al. (2015) ‘Inmates’ perspectives on prison drug treatment: A qualitative study from three prisons in Denmark’, Probation Journal, 62(2), pp. 156–171. doi: 10.1177/0264550515571394.

Houston, S. (2009) ‘The touch “taboo” and the art of contact: an exploration of Contact Improvisation for prisoners’, Research in Dance Education, 10(2), pp. 97–113. doi: 10.1080/14647890903019432.

Lloyd, C. et al. (2017) ‘A short ride on the penal merry-go-round: relationships between prison officers and prisoners within UK Drug Recovery Wings’, Prison Service Journal, 230, pp. 3–14.

Marshall, W. L. and Burton, D. L. (2010) ‘The importance of group processes in offender treatment’, Aggression and Violent Behavior, 15(2), pp. 141–149. doi: 10.1016/j.avb.2009.08.008.

McNeill, F. et al. (2011) ‘Inspiring desistance? Arts projects and ‘what works?’’, Justitiele Verkenningen, 37(5), pp. 80–101.

Stevens, A. (2012) ‘“I am the person now I was always meant to be”: Identity reconstruction and narrative reframing in therapeutic community prisons’, Criminology and Criminal Justice, 12(5), pp. 527–547. doi: 10.1177/1748895811432958.

Stevens, A. (2014) ‘“Difference” and desistance in prison-based therapeutic communities’, Prison Service Journal, (213), pp. 2–9.