BSC Blog of the Year Award 2020

A discussion by the 2020 Blog Award winners, hosted by the 2018 winner Lambros Fatsis.

The following interview was originally intended and recorded as a podcast for The British Society of Criminology. The aim was to celebrate the British Society of Criminology Blog of the Year Award 2020 that the interviewees (Anthony Ellis and Luke Billingham) and their colleagues (Elizabeth Cook and Keir Irwin-Rogers) won, for Violence in Our Cities; a blog article that is based on the authors’ chapters in a recently-published book: Urban Crisis, Urban Hope. Due to technical glitches and errors, however, our original interview failed to materialise— much to our dismay. What follows therefore, is a discussion in written form between Anthony Ellis and Luke Billingham, with Lambros Fatsis who won the first-ever British Society of Criminology Blog of the Year Award in 2018. While such interviews are usually conducted and hosted by Helen Jones from the British Society of Criminology, this brazen hijacking or take-over was envisaged as an opportunity for the BSC’s Blog of the Year Award winners to talk and listen to each other.  

LF:I would like to start by teasing out your reflections on violence in the light of the recent anti-police protests- following the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill as well as the most recent wave of #BLM protests, by asking you to tell us more about how or if you make sense of such events as what you describe in the blog as a crisis of ‘mattering’

A&L: I think ‘mattering’ is an important concept and we speak in the blog of a ‘crisis of mattering’. I think this is potentially applicable to not just the young men from poor inner-city areas who are the ones largely caught up in the violence in our cities that we discussed, but groups across the globe united by their precarious circumstances and their disposability. The BLM movement is partly a reflection of this – of knowing that the system does not value or care for you. We cited French Philosopher, Alain Badiou, in the blog, who speaks of vast swathes of people across the globe who are ‘counted for nothing by capital’. Capital effectively no longer requires their labour nor even their recognition necessarily; it does not care about them, and automation, particularly the rapid and dramatic shift towards this during the Covid-19 pandemic, signals perhaps a further drift into this situation of a ‘crisis of mattering’. Because, let’s face it, capitalism knew before Covid-19 that it could effectively operate without certain forms of labour. So now this has started to take place, can we seriously expect that it will reinstate them in a post-Covid future? Will the experience and trauma of the pandemic usher in a new era of social conscience, empathy and care? I really hope it can because the evidence is mounting now that the extreme inequality that has grown in the past several decades cannot continue without increasing the risks of social disorder and breakdown. For me though, it further confirms what Winlow and Hall described several years ago in their book ‘Rethinking Social Exclusion’ where capitalism in its advanced technologically-driven state, now seems to be utterly incapable of absorbing some groups into the productive process. Yet, the truth is that many members of excluded populations, including the young men fighting and dying on the streets of our cities, largely remain absorbed in – through attachment to consumer culture – the very system that has basically stuck two fingers up at them. So, for me, we see a strange dyad between exclusion and inclusion behind this crisis of mattering. The pandemic is like a spark to a pile of wood doused in flammable liquid. The arrival of Covid-19 into the corrupt unjust world created by zombie neoliberalism is, for now, pushing us further into an interregnum where we wait for something else to appear or to emerge, but all the while we must face the unrest that this generates.  

L.F:What I found really interesting in your blog was the way you centred and focused on gendered and sexual violence in the home as a form and type of violence that hardly made noisy headlines, compared to the so-called ‘knife crime’ epidemic that you discuss at length in the piece. Can you tell us a bit more about that, especially following recent and belated awakenings to the reality of violence against women- following the murder of Sarah Everard and the policing of the vigils that were organised in her memory?

A&L: Our co-author, Lizzie Cook, has recently co-written an interesting and important piece addressing this which we referred to in the blog, in particular the idea that the knife is out of place in public and therefore becomes subject to much more attention and concerted attempts to exert control over it. In contrast to its functional place within the home for preparing food for example. The home is of course the very place where, evidence tells us, women are more at risk of violence. And while domestic violence receives greater attention from the state and criminology than it did historically, the knife crime epidemic is another example of the tendency to direct attention towards more visible violence particularly taking place amongst the ‘usual suspects’ – young, poor, working class males. But, simultaneously, the paradoxical element to that was how attention has been drawn to what austerity and inequality have done to parts of English cities, like London, which is important and needs to be given attention. What I personally find depressing and unfortunate about that though is that the evident damage of austerity, or what Vicki Cooper and David Whyte called ‘the violence of austerity’, has not led to any significant political resistance against it. Even now, as we assess the economic wreckage of Covid-19, talk of future austerity measures, the need for fiscal discipline and ‘how will we pay for this?’ dominates the agenda of mainstream politics. Even many supposedly on the political Left, who equate the harms of austerity as partly causative of the recent rise in serious violence and a driving factor in the recruitment of vulnerable young people into illicit markets, still talk the economic language of neoliberalism.   

But coming back to the issue of violence in the home, I think we can see elements of the paradoxical tendency that we allude to in the blog. For instance, the knife crime epidemic becomes a problem of certain ‘estates’, communities or groups, often young ethnic minority males, and therefore becomes geographically and socially limited in scope. Those city spaces and groups come to exist beyond the periphery of civility, they become regarded as barbarous zones and people. Yet, we know from the evidence that domestic dwellings can be incredibly violent and sites of multiple forms of harm. However, the home is rarely regarded in the same way as particular parts of our large cities. Similarly, the domestic homes’ role in contributing towards the violence on our streets is often not fully acknowledged either. For some of the men I have interviewed, for example, violence begins at home, in the shape of intimates, often fathers, that attempt to toughen them up, that tell them to steel themselves against a merciless, unforgiving world.

LF: I was also wondering about your thoughts on where we look for violence and the harms and dangers of such selectivity; given that we seem to be bothered only by certain kinds of violence rather than others. State and police violence for example is seldom seen or read as violence but as a response to violence so I was wondering if your current and future work addresses that question at all?

A&L: I think this speaks to the core paradox at the heart of human violence and the question of social order. Philosopher Vittorio Buffachi wrote several years ago that ‘if violence is the problem, it is also the solution’. Similarly, Rene Girard and Jean Pierre Dupuy draw attention to the often neglected and taken for granted issue of what becomes known as ‘good’ violence and ‘bad’ violence. This is incredibly difficult to comprehend because we become accustomed to focusing upon the ‘bad’ violence committed by the groups we focused upon in the blog and often do not fully acknowledge what becomes regarded as the ‘necessary’ or ‘good’ violence. In reality, states are capable of inflicting much greater harm upon society than the young men we were concerned with in our blog. The irony here is that despite claims from scholars like Steven Pinker that our ‘better angels’ now hold sway over us, humans have come to possess in recent decades and in this recent era of ‘peace’, the means to inflict violence on an unprecedented scale. In this irony lies the potential for complacency and this is a real danger to us and our collective future.             

LF: You also briefly allude to progressive and fairer futures in your blog article and –having a soft spot for the realisation of utopias; as a shameless abolitionist– I was wondering if you could bring some light and hope to this session by giving us some examples of what such a fairer and more progressive vision looks like to you?

A&L: In our contribution to the book we spoke about what you might call more smaller scale changes that could be introduced in the immediate term. We suggested England and Wales could learn much from Scotland’s, and other states’, public health approach to addressing violence, which seems to have had some success. But this relies on real political will and also perseverance. The demand for immediate results in politics often undermines initiatives that in the long-term could provide much better results and outcomes. Beyond these kinds of interventions, there is of course the opportunity for utopian thinking and the Covid-19 pandemic should act as a catalyst for thinking deeply about the kind of society we want to live in. We need to look at political economic solutions for not just violence, but the range of challenges we face: future pandemics, climate change, for example. For me the cat is now out of the bag in regards to the capabilities of the state to respond to social and health problems: in particular, the absurdity of the oft-used analogy of household finances to explain government spending. An analogy used frequently to justify the cruelty of austerity. Economist Pavlena Tcherneva wrote recently in her book ‘The Case for a Job Guarantee’ that when people ask how can we pay for a programme like this, or how can we fund a green low-carbon future, or how can we end poverty, we must always answer: ‘the same way we paid for the pandemic’. Neoliberalism is on the ropes again, its legitimacy really is in tatters as it has proven once again unable to effectively respond to social problems and there are murmurings of discontent and acceptance of the need for change at the macro level, even amongst previously staunch advocates of it, such as the chair of the World Economic Forum Klaus Schwab. Strangely, the issue remains, can we actually land the decisive blow and move forward with a more progressive and fairer agenda?   

LF: Thank you both for such richly stimulating responses to my questions and I hope you enjoyed this discussion as much as I did. As a concluding coda, I wanted to end with a reflection plucked from the work of the always brilliant June Jordan whose reflections on violence chime well, I think, with your own thoughts on the matter: ‘Extremity demands, and justifies, extreme response’, Jordan writes, adding that ‘[v]iolation teaches violence. Less than that, less than a scream or a fist, less than the absolute cessation of normal events in the lock of abnormal duress is a lie and, worse than that, it is blasphemous ridicule of the self’. 

Dr. Anthony Ellis is Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Salford and the author of Men, Masculinities and Violence, which was awarded Critical Criminology Book of the Year in 2016 by the British Society of Criminology.

Luke Billingham is a youth and community worker at Hackney Quest and a violence reduction researcher at the Open University. Luke is currently co-authoring a monograph with Keir-Irwin Rogers addressing social harm and violence between young people

(Dr.) Lambros Fatsis is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton and the co-author of Policing the Pandemic (with Melayna Lamb) and Public and their Platforms (with Mark Carrigan).

Theorising ‘Digital Vulnerability’ in the Criminal Justice Process

In some instances, digitalised justice practices may be placing citizens at a heightened risk of injustice, rendering them increasingly ‘digitally vulnerable’.

Lindsey Rice is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Sheffield whose research interests include police modernisation processes, crime investigation, police training, and vulnerability within the context of police work and the wider criminal justice system.

Layla Skinns is Reader in Criminology at the University of Sheffield whose research interests include police discretion and police powers in the context of the police custody process in England and Wales, and in other common-law jurisdictions.

Vulnerability within the context of criminal justice has been heavily debated and remains a key concern for academics and policymakers in the UK (Cusack, 2020; HMICFRS, 2017), with increasing prioritisation being given to identifying and managing vulnerable crime victims and suspects (College of Policing, 2018; Department of Health, 2014) and in including vulnerability as a core part of the curricula in police training and education (Addidle and Liddle, 2021). However, owing to the difficulties in operationalising the term (Larkin, 2009), vulnerability within the context of criminal justice remains under-theorised, with very little consideration afforded thus far to exploring how conceptualisations of vulnerability have been affected by the digitalisation of the criminal process. Developments such as the courts use of video camera ‘live links’ to conduct hearings from prison (McKay, 2018a, 2018b) or from police custody suites (Fielding et al., 2020; Mulcahy et al., 2020), the police’s use of Microsoft Teams to carry out ‘PACE’ interviews, or the tendency of officers to carry out ‘voluntary’ interviews at the scene of an alleged offence using body-worn cameras (Ng and Skinns, 2021), have all been driven by managerialist concerns with the need for a more cost-efficient and convenient justice process for citizens and justice practitioners/agencies (Hodgson, 2020: 55). Whilst there is merit to the maxim ‘justice delayed is justice denied’, the potential risks of using digital technology to help speed up the justice process remain underexplored. The Covid19 pandemic has undoubtedly shone new light on this issue (Transform Justice et al., 2021), and it is becoming increasingly clear from the research in this area (McCann, 2020) that enhanced accessibility to the CJS, facilitated through digitalisation, does not necessarily equate to fair treatment and outcomes for all citizens. In some instances, citizen’s interactions with technology may in fact be placing them at a heightened risk of injustice, rendering them increasingly ‘digitally vulnerable’.

Digital vulnerability is a term that has been hitherto used to refer to types of victimisation that occur as a direct consequence of citizens’ engagement with new technologies, such as the internet. Research by Betts and Spenser (2016) for example, references the digital vulnerability of young people to cyberbullying, whereas Vargos et al. (2019) use the term to describe how increased citizen interaction with the CJS through digital platforms produces unequal exposure to risks associated with data breaches. Both of these conceptualisations of digital vulnerability importantly highlight how digital technologies and their related platforms have created new vulnerability spaces, wherein citizens’ interactions with technology (in particular, the internet) places them at risk of cyber-related harms, such as intimidation, exploitation and information leaks (Phippen and Bond, 2020).

However, what is missing from this discussion is a recognition of the way digitalisation practices are impacting (both positively and negatively) on suspects and defendants in the criminal process, including on their existing vulnerabilities, including greater prevalence of often overlapping mental health and physical health conditions, addictions, learning disabilities, neurodivergence etc., and, also, creating new categories of risk for citizen groups who may not have traditionally met the vulnerability threshold set-out by the relevant legislative frameworks (e.g. PACE). For example, to what extent do technological developments like virtual remand hearings threaten, but sometimes also support, procedural safeguards designed to protect the due process rights of vulnerable suspect populations (such as access to legal representation and right to an interpreter as per PACE Code C)? In what ways does the portability of devices like the body-worn cameras used to conduct ‘voluntary’ interviews outside of the police station (Ng and Skinns, 2021) effect/constrain the decision-making of suspects when it comes to their interaction with the police? Thinking about digital vulnerability as a phenomenon of technological use by criminal justice authorities rather than as a consequence of citizens’ autonomous engagement with it, demands greater attention be paid to the deeper/structuring effect that digitalisation practices may have for wider society. In particular, how digital technologies impact on existing inequalities for criminal justice populations both within and outside of the justice system, and how this may go on to affect legitimacy and citizen compliance (Heen, 2018; Demir et al., 2020).

Thinking about the examples of virtual courts and the police’s use of body-worn cameras to conduct voluntary ‘at scene’ interviews outside of the police station, we see that digitalisation practices within the context of criminal justice may produce distinctive risks, needs and inequalities for suspects which warrant consideration. For example, as primary carers for children, women in low-income single-parent households may be more likely to opt for a voluntary interview, even if this undermines their access to their due process rights and reinforces existing inequalities. Similarly, suspects with other ‘outside’ responsibilities such as ongoing employment and/or who have substance addictions may be more inclined to ‘get it over with’ (Skinns, 2009) through engagement with digital practices compared with others. In the case of virtual courts technology, defendants with no prior experience of the justice process may also feel less able to participate in it, for example, lacking the confidence/knowledge to challenge/seek clarification on evidential matters than repeat offenders (Fielding et al., 2020).

Based on Fineman’s (2008) analysis, it might be more helpful to assume that all detainees/defendants are ‘digitally vulnerable’ and that attention should therefore be paid to evaluating how their ability to adapt to technologically-mediated justice processes is depleted, reduced or removed (Fielding et al., 2020). A more universal notion of digital vulnerability might provide better and easier access to measures that mitigate its effects, by providing reasonable adjustments to the process, thereby rendering the criminal process fairer for all. For example, it might pave the way for greater guidance for criminal justice practitioners and information for suspects/defendants so that more appropriate decisions can be made about how to proceed with their case, such as allowing a nominated person (such as a family member or friend) to be present in the virtual court hearing or, in some cases, not using digital mediums at all. Greater attention must be paid to not only understanding how existing inequalities amongst criminal justice populations may be compounded by their engagement with digital technology/platforms, but also, to how these inequalities might be better accommodated within the digitally-enabled justice landscape. The concept of digital vulnerability would facilitate such a focus and would bridge an important gap in the literature, between technological developments within police settings and existing conceptualisations of vulnerability within the context of CJ more generally. More importantly, it would also help to ensure the future safeguarding of citizens’ rights and a more equitable approach to justice within an increasingly digitalised criminal justice system.

Dr Lindsey Rice, University of Sheffield


Dr Layla Skinns,University of Sheffield


Photos courtesy of the authors and Stock image credit to Aoumeur Abderra @ghostlens

Why Were Prisoners Left Off the Covid-19 Priority Vaccination List?

Despite calls from health experts to prioritise the vaccination of prisoners, the UK’s punitive society prevented putting prisoners above law-abiding citizens.

Rosie Judd is a Politics and International Studies graduate from the University of Warwick with an interest in social politics. Her studies have focused on understanding how societal opinions govern day-to-day policy matters, particularly in light of the recent Covid-19 pandemic.

The Covid-19 vaccination programme presented a difficult challenge to the UK justice and punishment system: where do prisoners fit in our public health policy? For many, such a conversation was about the absolute health of inmates. Prisons were viewed as hotbed climates with porous borders that required the priority vaccination of inmates for their, and public, safety. Indeed, previous infectious outbreaks in prisons demonstrate the severity of prison walls.

However, where health experts were arguably naïve was their assumption that the vaccination list was simply a health matter. Rather, the list was a convergence of health and crime and punishment, which in our punitive society, meant that prisoners would not be put above law-abiding citizens. Really, no matter the strength of the health argument (which was strong), ideas on crime and justice triumphed. So, rather than discussing why prisoners should have received the vaccine first, it is more useful to understand exactly why prisoners could not be prioritisied.

First, is how we characterise prisoners. In today’s punitive society we adopt a harsh view on criminals. They are stereotyped as unruly, dangerous, career offenders who keep such labels even once they have served their punishment. With such labelling, punishment is more commonly administrated through i) retribution; where offenders morally deserve a penalty, and ii) incapacitation; where the prisoner is removed so they do not pose a threat to the public. There are other aims of punishment, such as rehabilitation, but these are subordinated to more penal aims. This punitive landscape is well evidenced by the steep increase in prison populations, where despite crime rates falling we still decide criminals need to be locked away.

Second, is what the aim of the punishment is. Today, society demands criminal justice is for our benefit, at the expense of what is best for prisoners’ own improvements. For example, we do not lock away prisoners to primarily help them, but to make us feel safe. Naturally, punishment and justice policy may have benefits to prisoners. However, this is a secondary thought to how law-abiding citizens benefit from the decision.

Third, is who directs prisoner characterisation and the focus of punishment. Notably, the public has increasingly demanded, or taken interest in seeing, expressive punishment. We view crime as an incredibly personal, emotional experience and therefore want to be involved in both how justice is administrated and how it affects us. Our inflated belief that crime is a national epidemic means that we demand harsher punishments too.  Of course, it is important to remember that these opinions are heavily shaped by the media. Given we care about these issues based on our personal consumption of them (i.e. the way we feel they will affect us), how the media directs us to think about crime will impact our attitudes. Therefore, with over-reporting of violent and sexual crimes to stories of ‘soft prison life’, the media is guilty of scaremongering the public and shaping their penal demands.

However, why exactly does public opinion on crime and punishment matter? For there are other matters we have opinions on but do not drive policy on as much. Fundamentally, the public has a key role in crime. We need to report crime, act as witnesses and jurors, or provide evidence, without which would undermine the success of our punishment and justice system.  Public trust is required to ensure we fulfil our roles, so it is vital that the government responds to public expectations of the system. Additionally, the government will serve public interest for electoral success. For contemporary politicians, punishment and justice policy is the opportunity to prove they will ‘get things done’ and act in favour of public interest.

So, today then we have a punitive criminal justice system which: i) constructs criminals as dangerous, ii) prioritises law-abiding citizens and iii) listens to public demand over expert advice. We have a society divided by ‘us’ and ‘them’, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, the ‘law-abiding’ and the ‘criminal’ – in which there is a clear order of preference. When health experts tried to argue that prisoners should be prioritised, this was asking us to completely overturn today’s attitude on crime and punishment. First, how we depict criminals would have to be based on vulnerability and hardship. Second, what the focus of crime and punishment is would have to prioritise criminals over law-abiding citizens. Third, who drives such decisions would have to be led by experts not the media and public.

Problematically, such changes are arguably difficult to induce and without these changes prisoners were never going to be prioritisied for a Covid-19 vaccine. In fact, even though the government did not actually prioritise prisoners, inflamed media coverage of the idea demonstrates the impossibility of the proposal. The government is not in a place yet to forgo public opinion on justice and punishment.

So yes, the Covid-19 vaccination programme was always going to require prioritisation. But no, deciding the list was not a simple health exercise. Rather, the vaccination list was the convergence of ideas on health and crime and punishment, which in our punitive society generates a contrast to serve the helpless and punish the contemptible. It was such an intersection that health experts failed to properly acknowledge and therefore why their bid for prisoner priority vaccination was never successful.

As a concluding thought, note the impact of failing to prioritise prisoners. With a lack of vaccines prisoners have been stripped of nearly all their opportunities: seeing family, undertaking education, and general day-to-day interaction. A report by the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons found most prisoners have spent over 90% of their time behind their cell door, with disturbing levels of well-being decline. Of course, law-abiding citizens have faced enormous restraints on livelihoods too. However, we must remember that such dramatic prisoner restrictions have risked indefinite rehabilitation failures – crossing the line between Covid-19 prevention and ensuring offenders re-enter society as better citizens. Failing to prioritise prisoners, not only illustrated exactly what our criminal justice system is but reinforced the dwindling focus on rehabilitation we have in this country.


Rosie Judd, Warwick University


Photographs courtesy of author