Re-engaging with ‘real life’: reflections on empirical research post-lockdown  

The impacts of both the actual virus and the lockdown have affected everyone. The world changed for all of us.

Victoria Canning is a Senior lecturer at University of Bristol, co-coordinator of European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control, associate director at Border Criminologies, trustee at Statewatch. Violence, harm and torture researcher. Actively against border harms.

I’m sure it doesn’t need to be said, but this last 18 months has been challenging – not only in the everyday ways we all quickly came to know, but for undertaking empirical research. No doubt many of us pondered if and how Zoom could really replace ‘real life’ interviews. How would focus groups run when it’s hard enough to pull people together pre-pandemic, never mind during enforced isolation? As an activist ethnographer, being pulled from communities I usually work with was a new and fresh kind of research hell – how could I continue authentic critical discussion on border harms if I’m sitting day in day out on my own in what would become an isolated office for 18 months. Yes – it’s fair to say there were layers of problems we were all abruptly presented with, and always in the shadow of the new ‘C’ word and the anxieties it brought with it. Research barriers seemed endless.

Whilst many managed to adapt to the ‘new normal’ (who doesn’t hate that term by now?), there is perhaps now a secondary challenge to consider: going back to the old normal as lockdowns come to an end and the ‘in person’ world begins to open up again.

In this short blog, I will reflect on just that – re-entering the ‘real world’ with a project I am working on in Denmark. It won’t fit everyone’s research, and might even be completely unrelated to yours, but some of the processes may resonate. It was to include a six week stay, epidemiological analysis, and focus groups, all focusing on organizational responses to survivors of sexualized torturous violence. In any case, it is fair to say that nothing turned out like it was supposed to.

Here is a bit of an insight into how things have developed, what fell on its face, and mainly what things have been like since getting back to it. To quote Mary Schmich ‘my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience’, but let’s see how it goes…

  1. Take it easy on yourself

The impacts of both the actual virus and the lockdown have affected everyone. Sure, not everyone has been equally impacted, and some demographics and individuals have been hit harder than others. But the world changed for all of us.

The extent of this change didn’t hit me until I was back in empirical ‘real life’ mode. The project I’m working on is with the Danish Institute Against Torture and was awarded by the British Academy in – wait for it – March 2020. After a long time formulating it with colleagues here, all we wanted to do was get started. Barrier after barrier understandably arose: people could not access the archives to translate the torture files needed for the epidemiological aspect of it. People were hyper busy and, well, dealing with an actual pandemic. Suddenly we were all forced to recognize more was happening than our own bubble (but more on this later).

As soon as I was double vaccinated and likely to travel, planning began. It would now have to be less than six weeks. Focus groups weren’t allowed. Interviews were. In any case, I was desperate to get started – virtual meetings have been great, but (for many people) human interaction needs more than this. Video software increases our own self awareness so rather than natural expressions; it can be a little wooden. When I’m presenting, I want to gauge when I’m making sense, when I’m talking nonsense, and when my Northern Irish dialect has left colleagues stumped. I couldn’t get all that from the virtual world.

After so much anticipation, planning, changing to address barriers, the last thing I anticipated was feeling anxious, a little lost, overwhelmed and – bizarrely – homesick. I’ve never been an anxious person, and probably since my undergraduate degree have never really worried about presenting to crowds. Many people do experience presenting as opposite to this, and many people have experienced or often get anxiety. In short, no matter how relaxed or not that you normally are, be aware that lockdown can change how we feel in public. Confidence, sociability and ability to engage for long periods of time have definitely reduced. Even texting and emailing to arrange meetings, interviews or activities is draining in a way it wasn’t before. Months of reduced contact definitely plays with patience and willingness to be flexible (read: I’ve become a bit of a crank…).

So, the advice here is threefold. Firstly, recognize that this is all fine. We’ve been under utterly bizarre circumstances and dealing with exacerbated work and social stress. Build downtime into schedules where you won’t be prioritizing other people’s time schedules. And make sure to use it. Secondly, don’t over stretch yourself or your schedule. It is tempting to cram as much in as possible we might feel we have lost so many other opportunities and indeed time when some things were put on hold. Some things are more tiring than before – like using facial muscles in conversations that have been hibernating since March 2020. Thirdly, not everything will go to plan, but at this point it is worth realizing that the world will still turn if a few interviews don’t go ahead or some data isn’t useful. Of course, I didn’t apply this to myself at the time, and can confirm you will only end up exhausted and absolutely no further on.

  1. Take it easy on others

It is easy to forget that everyone else has had a tough time, especially if you are relying on others to help with your own work. Things like Zoom fatigue and long covid have not gone away, and anxieties about the use of social space can be felt differentially. What is OK for you is not OK for everyone. Moreover, many sectors experienced intensified workloads, and the shift from online only to dual spaces comes with its own extra energies and time restraints. Plan with people in advance, but keep in mind that everyone is busy in their own way. For those who have lost others during the pandemic, being pushed back to the old normal can have its own issues.

Let’s look at two examples when this advice would have been useful in hindsight. The first was presenting a workshop in September – the first ‘in person’ presentation I had given since March 2020. As mentioned, I’m seldom nervous about presenting my own work. But this occasion – 18 months into isolation – was nerve wracking, stomach churning and sweat inducing… and this was with a friendly crowd! Then the chair (Andrew Jefferson) welcomed everyone to their first workshop in 18 months. I’d been so anxious about being out of practice that I hadn’t stopped to think everyone else is also slowly edging into ‘real life’ too. People were just as cautious, but also enthused to be back in a covid-secure room with their colleagues. (As a side note, if you work with students, keep this in mind – in person events can be a lot to take, even for the most confident of people).  

The second example is on using people’s time. Some people I was working with were so busy that only the lunch hour was free. Research is important, but so are working conditions. If a person only has lunch free for actual work (not socializing), they are too busy. It is tempting to force people into activities when your own time is limited, but in a worst case scenario there is now still a chance for discussion online.

  1. Expect bureaucracy

A lot of it. The extent to which travel allowances and regulations are changing is difficult enough for governments to keep up with, never mind researchers. Moreover, the complex differences between countries and even regions need specific focus and clearance. In the Danish case for example, the UK was a green area except for England, Scotland and Northern Ireland which is, well, most of the UK. Things like PCR tests changed between regions, and whether or not a locator form was needed was completely unclear. By all accounts, it’s a bureaucratic nightmare.

The pace of change also may mean that there can be no singular point of contact to ask, so build in time to check around – and really do. Sorting out covid-risk assessments, PCR booking and other travel forms was at least a full day’s work. At the same time remember that it is practically impossible for any one individual administrator to be able to know all this. If you manage teams or researchers, it is a good idea to embed these time requirements into overall planning time. The last thing you will want is a surprise on how much time it takes, or worse – to miss doing a small task that will be required for entry to another country and thus risk the project or time spent on it anyway.

  1. Embed keeping well, and not just in the neoliberal sense

We are all told how important wellbeing and self-care is, even as universities (and many other environments) intensify workloads and reduce our capacities to build looking after ourselves into our working environments (which I have talked about at BSC conferences before).

This doesn’t change the significance of looking after ourselves, or how important it is that we do so as we come out of lockdowns – whenever that may be where you are. Workplaces have an ethical requirement to ensure our wellbeing. Take as much as you can that is of relevance to you, and build in what matters to you most when on fieldwork. I always admire people who can start with early morning yoga and an herbal tea – if that is you, crack on and build it in. I’m much more likely to be found outdoor swimming or staring vacuously at shop windows, internally complaining about the price of things I’ll never buy before opting for a beer in the end. Whatever – just make sure you do it, even if ‘it’ means doing absolutely nothing.

And if and when things get too much, use the systems in place that we often refer students or others to, but don’t always do ourselves. Again, workplaces have an obligation to support you – and so they should. Take what is available if it’s right for you.

  1. Don’t overly sweat barriers and hiccups as much as we all used to

The penultimate piece of advice here is one I never seem to take myself, but swear to do going forward. If we have collectively learned anything, it is that there are much bigger things in the world that can – again in the words of Schmich – ‘blindside you at 4pm on an idle Tuesday’. After such a turbulent era, it’s worth regrouping and thinking about what is realistic, what is essential, and what is unlikely to fit without causing you and others unnecessary stress. If something can be picked up later without causing undue issues, do so. If someone is too busy to meet during a research stay, let them choose a time for a virtual meeting when it suits them later on.

This is especially important if you are in a position of influence and have capacity to make post-lockdown research life easier for others. Collegiality, avoiding unnecessarily short deadlines, ensuring work/life balance should really be how we build going forward. A lot of people have lost, a lot have faced undue anxieties and stress, and a lot of things have changed even if in small ways. People do not need to be bubble wrapped, but we do need time to adjust.

Finally, this meandering blog started with Mary Schmich’s approach to advice. If you haven’t made time to listen to ‘Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)’ since the late 90s to hear the rest of it, now is as good a time as any. It might even be the most useful advice here.

References

Luhrmann, Baz. (1999), Everybody’s Free (to wear sunscreen), Romeo and Juliet Soundtrack, available at Baz Luhrmann – Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen – YouTube

Schmich, Mary (1997), Advice, like youth, probably wasted on the young, Chicago Tribune, 1st June, 1997, available at Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young – Chicago Tribune.

Contact

Victoria Canning, University of Bristol

Email: Victoria.canning@bristol.ac.uk

Twitter: @Vicky_Canning

Images: courtesy of the author

BSC Annual Conference 2021 (online) at The Open University: some reflections

The event helped to foster a stronger sense of identity and community within our team at a time when home-working has left many of us feeling detached and isolated.

Between July 7th and July 9th, the Open University’s Department of Social Policy and Criminology (SPC) hosted the BSC’s annual conference online. The event went better than any of us could have imagined, and the feedback we received during and afterwards has been positive, and generous. It goes without saying that there were one or two tech glitches, but overall, we ‘got off’ lightly.  Expectations were modest in the sense that we would not / could not replicate the usual BSC conference process and experience. The initial thinking around this was that it would operate as a ‘place-holder’ type event. To that end we believe the conference over-delivered in some ways. There are too many people to mention for their help by name, but Louise Westmarland must be singled out for instigating the whole thing and making it happen, alongside the BSC team who offered close support and guidance along the way.

Using MS Teams for such a complicated event gave us some concern. We toyed with the idea of using other platforms, but we figured that simplicity would be best. We had the main conference room, which hosted 5 plenary sessions focused on important and pressing criminological themes and issues – broadly reflecting the interests within SPC. We had 14 presentation rooms running in parallel for the 3 days (for the delivery of several hundred papers). There were separate rooms for publishers with their own presentations and consultations, activities run by the various BSC networks, and fantastic evening entertainment orchestrated by Dave Turner – live jazz, live rock, a magician, a quiz, ‘crim dine with me’, and a virtual bar. In all, we had approximately 450 registrants, logging-in from as far away as Australia, Hong Kong, and the USA. Despite only starting to plan the conference in the early Spring, it all seemed to come together well.

Having a team dedicated to managing the various meeting rooms proved invaluable. We sought the help of various colleagues (too many to mention) from the support arms of the faculty, and our associate lecturer colleagues. It’s not something we initially envisaged, but rather, it was a last-minute scramble to resolve a problem we identified with the tech, following a sobering test run. We are very grateful to those colleagues who gave up their time to support the event. The involvement of so many people in making this event happen has helped to foster a stronger sense of identity and community within SPC at a time when home-working has left many of us feeling detached and isolated from one another.

The plenaries got off to a great start, with the Wednesday morning session delivered by Jonny Ilan, exploring the criminalisation of drill music. This was followed on Wednesday afternoon by a ‘harm and crime interface’ session, with papers from Tanya Wyatt and Lois Presser, with Nigel South as discussant. Thursday morning saw Molly Dragiewicz, Kate Fitz-Gibbon, and James Messerschmidt exploring gendered harms. Later in that day there was a plenary to reflect on criminal justice considering Black Lives Matter, with Prabha Unnithan, and Katheryn Russell Brown, with Azrini Wahidin as discussant. Finally, Friday morning offered a focus on decolonisation, with Leon Moosavi, and Kerry Carrington. The parallel sessions provided an impressive breadth of topics and coverage of criminological enquiry, with many closely tracking the focus of the plenary sessions.

Mike Hough was a well-deserved winner of the Outstanding Achievement Award; David Maguire won the criminology book prize (sponsored by Routledge) for his fantastic book Male, Failed, Jailed: Masculinities and ‘Revolving-Door’ Imprisonment in the UK; Alison Hutchinson won the research poster prize (Sponsored by Sage) with an excellent poster on the harms of the fishing industry; and Swansea University won the National Award for Excellence in Teaching Criminology and Criminal Justice 2021.

Being online proved to be advantageous on several levels. It enabled the use of chat boxes for comments and questions throughout, which meant otherwise reticent attendees (within a face-to-face meeting) could take advantage of an arguably less daunting option. People could easily hop in and out of sessions, or to sit in a meeting whilst looking after children, and still ‘be there’ in some sense, rather than being excluded had they physically needed to attend. Our plenary sessions included global experts, pioneering in their focus, who otherwise might not have been able to participate face-to-face. Also, there were the financial savings for institutions and individual attendees, and indeed, the environmental benefit of hundreds of attendees not having to travel. The BSC have indicated that future conferences will entail some online element. Surrey 2022, for example, is set to be a hybrid delivery model, and we wish them every success with this.

There was a wider sense of inclusion both in terms of the aspiration and delivery of the conference. Although we held the usual postgraduate morning on day one, we were also careful to integrate postgraduate papers throughout all the parallel sessions. The online nature of the conference in some ways acted as a ‘leveller’, whereby usual power dynamics between some of the more-established names in criminology and relatively inexperienced presenters were less pronounced than usual (in part because of digital competency!).

Overall, we are delighted to have been able to host such a prestigious event, to showcase The OU and SPC, and to positively engage with some of the most pressing issues and debates in criminology (and beyond). It was a step into the unknown for us, but a thoroughly enjoyable and welcome one! We couldn’t have pulled it off without the help of colleagues across the University and the BSC — a huge ‘thank you’ once again to everyone who supported the event, and thank you to all those presented and attended. We look forward to Surrey 2022!

Tony Murphy and Keir Irwin-Rogers

(on behalf of the conference organising team)

Contact

Tony Murphy, The Open University

Email: Tony.murphy@open.ac.uk

Dr Keir Irwin-Rogers, The Open University

Email: Keir.irwin-rogers@open.ac.uk

Twitter: @KeirIrwinRogers

Images: courtesy of the authors

‘Technically’ Worse: The Paradox of ‘Smart’ Prisons in India

A critical evaluation of the challenges posed by the digitization of Indian prisons.

Ashna Devaprasad is a final year law student at the National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi, India, and has a keen interest in researching prisoners’ rights and capital punishment. She is currently a Death Penalty Research Fellow at Project 39A.

Around the world, government support for the digital transformation of correctional institutions through the creation of ‘smart prisons’ is on the rise. Discussions on the use of Information and communication technologies (ICTs) in prison settings include introducing risk assessment software, facial recognition tools, artificial intelligence-based monitoring systems (AI), electronic tagging using GPS, and audio surveillance mechanisms. While using technology in the criminal justice system, part of a larger scheme of ‘algorithmic governmentality,’ can help address a shortage of prison staff and aid socially distant functioning during the COVID-19 pandemic, its routine application in homogenous environments of control raises serious human rights concerns.

Human rights advocates commenting on the use of such technology in law enforcement, including in prisons, have flagged issues like accuracy problems in violence detection, the possibility of embedded biases, invasions of privacy, data ownership, violations of consent, and a lack of transparency in their functioning. In an attempt to replicate these models, reports from India highlight efforts to install prison management software, AI-based video surveillance and drone monitoring to effectively scrutinise prison activities, check violent behaviour, and improve overall prison governance. In addition to posing a threat to the human rights of its prison populations, plans to digitise correctional institutions in India also suffer from implementational hurdles given the unique structural design and functional aspects of prisons in the country.

Nearly seventy prisons in India are currently known to be implementing an AI-based video surveillance software called JARVIS, developed by a locally run start-up. In some prisons, the software uses a combination of object recognition and computer vision to closely monitor live footage from prison cells and evaluate frisking of inmates, acts of violence, unauthorised use of contraband, and access to mobile phones, knives, guns, and other potentially dangerous weapons. Other jails have set up similar systems where prison personnel use automated drones to provide minute-to-minute information on activities within the prison, including casual interactions between jailers and inmates. In Punjab, the state government recently amended its Prison Rules to ‘strengthen security arrangements’ in its prisons by introducing various technologies. Consequently, prisons have installed a range of surveillance systems, including CCTVs, AI-enabled motion sensors, body scanners, biodata kiosks, mobile jammers and alarms. Though authorities claim that such measures will address prisoners’ grievances, the emphasis seems to be mass surveillance, preventing escapes and creating high-security enclosures, which authorities call ‘prisons within prisons.’

In India, prison authorities have continually praised this shift to ‘smart’ prisons, vaguely terming them as ‘spectacular’, ‘cutting edge’ and ‘advanced’ solutions to security concerns. State authorities impetuously justify ‘smart’ initiatives in prisons using public safety and crime prevention rhetoric without offering any concrete scientific evidence on the actual logistics of their efficient functioning. The repeated use of such rhetoric enables the State to reproduce a ‘fabricated social truth’ grounded in what Jinee Lokaneeta calls ‘a spectacle of science’, without addressing how technological interventions will address the constantly changing and unpredictable human realities of prisoners’ lives. With no clarity on what these systems do, who has access to the data collected, and how prison officials will use such data, technological incarceration only reinforces the power and privilege of state authorities, disenfranchises prisoners and relegates them to the fringes.

Mahuya Bandyopadhyay, in her prison ethnography studies, characterises everyday Indian prison life as a chaotic confluence of nuanced negotiations between prisoners and prison staff — a constant struggle by inmates to secure rights, break free from discriminatory stereotypes on criminality and prevent frequent misuse of power by prison authorities. She draws attention to various strategies of control used by jail wardens to deny prisoners their basic amenities and their right to freedom of speech and expression. Introducing technological reforms to such authoritarian carceral settings complicates this chaos by forcing prisoners to rely on services they can neither choose nor truly consent to, thereby brushing aside the ethical burdens of the State.

Although replacing human reasoning with automated technology in prisons could arguably minimise subjective human decisions leading to bias, a failure to recognise distinct living conditions in Indian jails could magnify opaqueness through unilateral decision-making and exacerbate ‘past injustices or produce new ones.’ For instance, technological incarceration could become a source of exclusion and invisibilisation, especially for illiterate and impoverished prisoners who are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system and have little background knowledge about these issues.

As Bandyopadhyay notes, mutual prisoner-staff negotiations often help prisoners construct meaningful, smaller worlds within the jail by opportunistically preserving self-interest even in the slightest of ways. The substitution of such human interactions with tightened non-human technologies only deprives prisoners of their agency, heightens manipulation risks, and worsens their frustrations and anxieties. Similarly, a decision to protest against technological surveillance or a refusal to volunteer biodata could increase chances of exploitation, with prison officials arbitrarily denying prisoners material ‘privileges’. Removing human staff from the equation could aggravate distrust among the prison community, who may perceive ‘secret surveillance systems’ as nothing but deliberate strategies to exercise more power and invade their privacy.

The ‘smartification of prisons’ could also result in what Kaun and Stiernstedt identify as a ‘desynchronisation between the temporalities of prisoners’ lived experience and temporalities of digital technologies.’ For example, from the prison regulation perspective, jail officials could take swift remedial action in the form of complete lockdowns or pervasive monitoring of personal communications under the garb of providing real-time surveillance to efficiently identify regulatory breaches. For prisoners, such ‘immediate results’ that are non-negotiable then translate to more repressive prison conditions. Fast-paced digital reform thus paradoxically becomes a way for authorities to maintain the institutional goal of ordered routines, slowness, and predictability of prison life. Concomitantly,  prison officials evade responsibility for their choices while interpreting the results generated from automated monitoring systems and proving their effectiveness. Since technological reform is accompanied by the dehumanisation of everyday prison governance, officials can mechanically control how prisoners spend their time, placing constraints on their sociality and bodily mobility.

Much like prison reform in other areas in the past, efforts to digitise prisons in India have thus far been piecemeal, opaque and undemocratic. Although measures to introduce technological reforms within carceral settings may be well-intentioned, failing to plan and scrutinise their implementation could give rise to a ‘modern panopticon’ — an invisible surveillance mechanism within an already disintegrating criminal justice system that validates power and subordination, exacerbates vulnerability, and normalises social sorting to identify deviant behaviour. From the State’s perspective, it is symbolic of a deliberate policy to reinvent the status quo — to ignore the harsh sociocultural and legal-political realities of everyday prison life, retain arbitrary control, and continue to deprive prisoners of their most fundamental human rights.

Ashna Devaprasad,  The National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi, India.  

Email: ashnad96@gmail.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ashdev13

Images: courtesy of the author