In Search of Respect

Gabrielle Watson’s first book, Respect and Criminal Justice, has been published by Oxford University Press.

Gabrielle Watson is the Shaw Foundation Fellow in Law at Lincoln College, Oxford. She was formerly a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Faculty of Law and Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Law at Christ Church, Oxford. She works on topics at the intersection of criminal law, criminal justice, and jurisprudence.

My first book, Respect and Criminal Justice, was published in 2020 by Oxford University Press. It is the newest addition to the Clarendon Studies in Criminology series: the successor to the Cambridge Studies in Criminology series, inaugurated by Sir Leon Radzinowicz—the ‘founding father’ of British criminology—and JWC Turner 80 years ago.

The book offers the first academic study of ‘respect’ in criminal justice in England and Wales, where the value is elusive but of persisting significance. Its publication is especially timely in this political moment, as we reflect on the stark, seemingly intractable problems of police misconduct and deep structural racism, as well as the ongoing threat of COVID-19 and viral contagion in our prisons. Part of the push for criminal justice reform must involve the simple act of listening, followed by the search for robust theoretical ideas with which to frame the debate. In this piece, I reflect on the role and value of respect in prisons.

Owing to some sustained—but ultimately unsuccessful—reform efforts in recent decades, prisons regularly appeal to the word ‘respect’, proclaiming it as a core value in official discourse. Yet, on closer examination, the modern prison’s relationship to respect is not as clear-cut as institutional documentation would have us believe. 

In prisons, respect is a mere slogan. The real value and potential of respect as a critical and regulative ideal has been diminished by the tendency to treat it as peripheral to practical concerns such as target setting, the maintenance of order, and deterrence.

What is respect?

The book begins by attending to the deceptively simple question: what is respect? It turns first to philosophy with its rich Kantian literature on the issue, and its core claim that every human being has a claim to respect no matter what: respect need not be negotiated and cannot be forfeited. But contemporary philosophical accounts complicate matters by identifying respect in a number of ways: as a mode of behaviour, a form of treatment, a kind of valuing, a type of attention, a motive, an attitude, a feeling, a tribute, a principle, a duty, an entitlement, and a moral virtue.

If philosophers cannot agree, it should come as no surprise that prisons in England and Wales—notoriously pragmatic in their approach—have glossed over the meaning of respect. Yet empty appeals to respect distort as much as they communicate. When there is a lack of specificity in understanding and giving effect to respect, it does much to magnify the status inequalities that have come to define imprisonment. It also shows scant regard for the fact that respect—or lack thereof—tends to be felt more keenly by ethnic minority groups and those whose sense of belonging and social possibility in society are precarious.

As part of a reform agenda for the 2020s, prisons must be explicit in their definition of respect if they are to proceed according to—let alone realise—the value. My book offers some suggestions: among them, the idea that respect is both an act and an attitude, that it is ideally reciprocal, that it occurs at both the individual and the institutional level, and is the primary means by which to acknowledge an individual’s intrinsic worth.

Unsavoury punishment

To write a book on respect is an ambitious task, and I spend a good deal of time boundary-drawing in order to render it manageable. Perhaps the most striking illustration of respect—or lack thereof—in the book is to be found in a case study of prison mealtime from the eighteenth century to the present day.

The ritualised preparation and provision of prison food is imbued with considerable symbolic power, and its pivotal role in shaping the daily prison experience has been considerably understated. The dominant narrative in historical accounts of prison mealtime is that, pre-twentieth century, food was intended to punish, debilitate, and degrade. The eighteenth century may have epitomised the most indecent of prison conditions, where a restricted diet was an explicit feature of punishment. Part of the reformative work of John Howard was to offer an incisive critique of the practice of charging prisoners for meals, proposing instead that they be provided with a daily allowance of food. Nonetheless, his vision for respect was strictly minimalist:

‘I am not an advocate for an extravagant and profuse allowance to prisoners. I plead only for necessaries, in such a moderate quantity, as may support health and strength for labour.’

John Howard, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, with Preliminary Observations, and an Account of Some Foreign Prisons (1777: 33).

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the experience of imprisonment remained unimpeachably severe. Prison meals had seen no real improvement and consisted chiefly of bread and thin gruel or broths. There was cause for cautious optimism, however, following the introduction of prison inspections in 1835. Prison diet became a national scandal and inspectors made an explicit call for food to no longer act as an instrument of punishment. Advances were made in the quantity—if not the quality—of prison food but an instrumentalist line of thought endured, in part, due to widespread public support for a retributive approach and the prevailing conservative ideology of the period.

By the mid-nineteenth century, prison food had once again been called into question, with leading physicians of the time recommending a substantial reduction in portion sizes on the grounds that the food provided was excessive and insufficiently penal. To provide food sufficient to ensure good health would be to provide conditions of relative comfort, and the extremely poor with a positive incentive to commit crime.

Integral to more progressive developments was the commissioning of a Departmental Committee on Diets and the publication of its report in 1925 (289-292). Following the Committee’s investigation into prison food, the motivation to provide a nutritious diet to inmates was firmly established. The following year, the Committee made further calls for a more balanced and varied diet which included the provision of regular vegetables, the replacement of prison ‘cans’ with aluminium trays and utensils, and opportunities for prisoners to dine in association in the hope that it might cultivate in them a sense of self-respect. These reforms were indicative of a newly configured relationship between the state and its subjects, and a sustained attempt to afford prison mealtime a visibility and form that brought it into line with a society that considered itself to be civilised.

In the decades that followed, prison mealtime was visibly transformed. Prisoners were given increased involvement in menu design, and meals were gradually made available to those with religious, ethnic, cultural, and medical requirements. However, there is compelling evidence to suggest that, in prisons in England and Wales, food—if only implicitly—continues to form part of a penal strategy. Subtle institutional attempts at degradation through food persist, and daily meals serve as painful and periodic bodily expressions of the power that the institution exerts over the individual.

The National Audit Office, for example, noted concerns among prisoners that standards for the storage and preparation of ethnic and cultural food were not met consistently. It seems that prisoners’ lack of trust in this regard was not unfounded. The National Audit Office confirmed several cases in which prisoners had signed up in good faith to receive ethnic meals, which were later found to have been unethically prepared. Four out of sixteen prisons did not store halal meat separately from other meat and, in eleven prisons, kitchen equipment intended for those with Muslim diets was not labelled separately: by no means a peripheral problem in view of the expanding Muslim community in detention in England and Wales.

Such incidents make clear that, in practice, respect is not always reciprocal, whereby prisoners do not—even cannot—respect those responsible for preparing their food. When prisoners are denied ethically prepared ethnic meals, they are likely to become too distracted by the conditions of their confinement to respond respectfully to prison authorities who so unethically denied them respect.

The elusive promise

On 11 July 2018, HM Inspectorate of Prisons for England and Wales published its Annual Report, in which it documented two unannounced inspections that caused deep concern. HMP Wormwood Scrubs suffered from ‘appalling’ (p13) living conditions, violence, an almost complete lack of rehabilitative or resettlement activity, and seemingly intractable problems over repeated inspections. At ‘squalid’ (p5) and fundamentally unsafe HMP Liverpool, inspectors found some of the worst conditions they had ever seen. An impoverished regime, many cells lacked even the basic requirements for health and hygiene and the leadership and management focus on respect was ‘inadequate at every level’ (p15). It appears, then, that respect remains somewhat of an elusive promise.

Although respect is a precious commodity, in our prisons, it need not be utopian. It simply requires a degree of mutual understanding when it is owed to, called for, deserved, elicited, or claimed by another. With a sense of modest realism, the book sets out those challenges in detail—and envisages the advances that could be made—in inscribing respectful relations between state and subject.

Respect and Criminal Justice (2020). Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 256 pp.



Dr Gabrielle Watson, Shaw Foundation Fellow in Law, Lincoln College, Oxford.




Images courtesy of the author


Crime Fiction or Criminological Fiction?

Explaining the aetiological value of crime fiction for criminology across cinematic, literary, and hybrid modes of representation.

R McGregor

Rafe McGregor is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Edge Hill University, specialising in the intersection of critical criminology with philosophical aesthetics.   A Criminology of Narrative Fiction is due for publication by Bristol University Press in January 2021.


According to OfCom, average television viewing time increased by a third during the COVID-19 lockdown (from March to June, 2020), with almost a fifth of the UK’s population signing up for a streaming service for the first time, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ being the most popular choices.  Similarly, the Guardian reports that almost everyone who was reading before lockdown read more during lockdown, with many doubling their reading hours.  The most popular books in the UK were from the crime fiction genre (mysteries and thrillers) and four of the five most popular Netflix shows followed suit: Sherlock, Peaky Blinders, Line of Duty, and Killing Eve (the other was Game of Thrones, in third place).

Did we learn anything about crime from all that fiction?  My answer, which goes against the grain of both received wisdom and social scientific practice, is ‘yes’.  What I find particularly interesting about this question is that it would not even have been asked until relatively recently.  For more than two millennia European audiences accepted that fiction – most commonly theatre and poetry – communicated knowledge in a pleasurable way, but the combination of the rise of positivism and the differentiation of fiction into its literary and popular forms in the nineteenth century changed perceptions of the purpose of fiction (as well as art more generally), severing the representation from the reality.  Contemporary fiction is for fun, for the reasons cited by those who read more during lockdown: enjoyment, entertainment, and escapism.  I wrote A Criminology of Narrative Fiction as a reminder that fiction is not just for pleasure, but an important source of insight and data that readers, audiences, and academics often ignore.

My claim in the book is that complex narrative fictions – feature films, television series, novels, and graphic novels – communicate criminological knowledge and by criminological knowledge I mean knowledge about the causes of crime and social harm.  While fiction often misleads and misinforms, documentaries and reports can also be unreliable and all source material should be subject to verification and corroboration prior to its inclusion in a research project.  If we select our fictions carefully, then there are at least three types of criminological knowledge we can gain from them: phenomenological, counterfactual, and mimetic.

Phenomenological knowledge is knowledge of what a specific lived experience is like.  Fictions are especially good at communicating this type of knowledge because of the way narrative form and narrative content are combined to represent actions from a particular point of view and to create patterns of meaning.  Counterfactual knowledge is knowledge of reality that is provided by the exploration of alternatives to that reality.  Fictions are essentially (rather than accidentally) counterfactual, adapting and adjusting historical and contemporary reality to produce test cases.  Mimetic knowledge is knowledge of everyday reality that is detailed and accurate.  This type of knowledge is usually associated with documentary rather than fiction, but fictions can provide access to people, places, and events that cannot be documented for safety, legal, or ethical reasons.

So how does it actually work?  How do stories about fictional characters, settings, and actions provide knowledge about real people, places, and events?  The core idea, which originated in Ancient Greece, is that where documentaries represent particular people, places, and events fictions represent types of people, places, and events (called universals).  The best way of explaining this is an actual example and my final fictional analysis in A Criminology of Narrative Fiction is Martin Scorsese’s 2006 feature film, The Departed.  The protagonist is Billy Costigan (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a fictional particular that instantiates the universal of ‘an undercover Massachusetts police officer’ or just ‘an undercover police officer’.  The late Nicole Rafter wrote a great blog post on the film from a cultural criminological perspective, exploring the knowledge its production and reception provided about post-9/11 America.  My interest is more direct, in the knowledge the narrative fiction itself provides about the causes of crime and social harm.

First, The Departed provides mimetic knowledge of how necessary levels of secrecy and unnecessary levels of interdepartmental rivalry create chaos in undercover operations.  I use a historical example from my previous research to show that fact is often more fantastic than fiction, the unsolved murder of Anton Lubowski during the last-ditch defence of apartheid by the Civil Cooperation Bureau in Namibia in 1989.  Second, the film provides phenomenological knowledge of the lived experience of working as an undercover police officer.  Third, it provides counterfactual knowledge of the threat posed by agents of organised crime in and to policing, a theme that is also explored in Line of Duty.  As such, The Departed has aetiological value in virtue of the mimetic, phenomenological, and counterfactual knowledge it provides.  This criminological knowledge consists of data that explains the problems with undercover policing and the vulnerability of the police to organised criminal enterprises.  Like that from more conventional sources, this data could be used to improve police policy, procedure, and practice.

The process is of course much more complicated than I have described, but it should not be ignored by anyone who is interested in crime and social harm.  Understanding that there is truth in fiction would allow readers and audiences to realise that they have in many cases gained genuine insight from spending time with their favourite fictions.  For academics, narrative fictions are useful in at least two ways: as the pedagogical or methodological tools that Jon Frauley, Michelle Brown, and others have suggested; and as overlooked sources of data of the perpetration, collaboration in, and facilitation of crime and social harm, which is my thesis in A Criminology of Narrative Fiction.

I am not suggesting that the knowledge conveyed by fictional narratives is more – or even as – valuable as the knowledge conveyed by non-fictional narratives or discursive texts.  Such a claim would be both obviously false and highly irresponsible.  What I am suggesting is that some fictional narratives can provide sources of data for criminological research and that the practice of fiction is thus deserving of more attention than it currently receives within the discipline.  In other words, one could characterise my argument as an attempt to show that Frauley, Brown, and others have not gone far enough in their criminological engagements with fiction and that fictions have criminological value beyond their pedagogic and methodological values.


Dr Rafe McGregor, Edge Hill University



Images: courtesy of the author


Violence in our Cities

A short piece addressing the recent surge of violence in English cities.

Blog photo Ellis

Luke Billingham – Luke is a youth and community worker at Hackney Quest and Head of Strategy at Reach Children’s Hub. Luke is currently co-authoring a monograph with Keir-Irwin Rogers addressing social harm and violence between young people.

Elizabeth Cook – Elizabeth is Lecturer in Sociology in the Violence and Society Centre, City University of London. Elizabeth researches family activism, fatal violence and voluntary sector responses to violence. She recently completed her first monograph: ‘Family Activism in the Aftermath of Lethal Violence’, due to be published by Routledge later this year.

Anthony Ellis – Anthony is Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Salford. He is the author of Men, Masculinities and Violence: An Ethnographic Study (Routledge), which was awarded Critical Criminology Book of the Year in 2016 by the British Society of Criminology.

Keir Irwin-Rogers – Keir is Lecturer in Criminology at the Open University. Keir was the lead criminologist to the cross-party Youth Violence Commission and recently co-authored the Commission’s final report (2020). Keir is currently co-authoring a monograph with Luke Billingham addressing social harm and violence between young people.


Before Coronavirus, England and Wales had been experiencing an ‘epidemic’ of a different kind. Serious violent crime had been rising steadily over a period of several years. Between 2015-2018 the overall rate of homicide increased by 39%. In 2018, killings by a knife or sharp instrument were the highest on record and both police-recorded crime and NHS hospital admissions confirmed that there had been consecutive recorded rises in violent offences involving knives or sharp instruments during this period. It was when writing for the Guardian in 2017 that the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime, Sarah Jones MP, described this worsening situation as an ‘epidemic’. The most recent figures indicate that in 2019 the police recorded the highest number of offences involving knives since data of this kind was first collected in 2011, with a considerable number of these recorded offences taking place in the country’s large cities. The most recent data from the Homicide Index brings slightly better news with a decline in the overall number of homicides nationally. Nevertheless, killings in London in this period increased, while the number of women killed by violence in England and Wales has increased for the second year running.

Purported causal associations between crime, violence and the city have a long history. In his foreword to Frederick Thrasher’s (1927) seminal study of Chicago’s criminal gangs, Robert Park famously stated ‘It is the slum, the city wilderness…which provides the city gang its natural habitat’. Undoubtedly, the ‘city is a primary site of crime and deviance’ (Atkinson and Millington, 2019: 1), and today particular urban environments characterised by exclusion and marginalisation continue to provide the most common backdrop to presentations of violence. In recent years, dystopian images of inner urban landscapes populated by gangs of dangerous young men became synonymous with the country’s latest ‘knife crime crisis’; an association which both revealed and yet at the same time obscured the complexity of violence in contemporary society.

On the one hand, this association drew attention – if often in a sensationalist way – to the neglected, austerity-ravaged parts of cities like London, that are seldom seen amidst ascending skylines and visible wealth. The recent surge in violence has served as a timely reminder that there remain many groups of socially excluded young men who are ‘counted for nothing by capital’ (Badiou, 2016: 36), for whom crime and violence seem to offer the only feasible route to becoming visible, to feeling that they matter, and to accessing aspects of the perceived ‘good life’. More than half of recent recorded homicides occurred in the most deprived parts of the country, while the majority of those requiring hospital treatment for stab injuries in London were young, male, and from the city’s most disadvantaged communities. The various demands from across the political spectrum for tougher sentencing, zero-tolerance policing, investment in inner city areas, collectively conjured a sense of profound urgency to respond. While it is difficult to ascertain the overall effectiveness of the response so far, some of the most recent figures quoted above indicate very little has changed.

What is crucial in this respect is that the continued associations drawn between serious weapon-enabled violence and the less salubrious public spaces of cities, can obscure both the violence that occurs within intimate spaces as well as the connections between these differing contexts. Parts of cities quickly and easily become regarded as landscapes beyond the periphery of civilised life and subject to more intense forms of policing and control, while private intimate spaces are routinely ‘laden with the suggestion of civility’ (Atkinson, 2012: 250). The significant position that the domestic home assumed within the national response to the Coronavirus crisis served to reinforce this paradox: too often seen simplistically as a place of sanctity from the dangers of the urban streets, the home was shown during lockdown to be a place where intimidation, abuse and violence can occur with alarming regularity. As part of the Counting Dead Women blog, Karen Ingala Smith identified at least 14 women and 2 children who were killed in the first three weeks of lockdown (between 23rd March and 12th April) (Smith, 2020).

This unfolding crisis of violence and its complex relationship with the country’s large cities was the focus of our contribution to a new book: Urban Crisis, Urban Hope (Anthem Press) published in June 2020. The book brought together academics and practitioners to reinvigorate a sense of the city as a space where more progressive and fairer futures can be imagined, planned and realised. In this vein, our particular contribution sought to identify the possible reasons for this recent surge in urban violence and how it might be addressed. In the intervening period between finalising our contribution and the publication of the book, the country, and the world, was fundamentally shaken by Coronavirus. The pandemic’s cumulative social and economic impacts brought forth a range of issues requiring immediate attention, but will also have considerable and lasting impacts in the long-term. While the national lockdown temporarily emptied the public spaces of our cities where violent confrontations between groups of socially excluded young men had been taking place, confinement to homes has led to reported increases in domestic abuse, with considerable numbers of predominantly women seeking support and refuge.

We argued in our contribution to the book that the recent surge in violent crimes is a highly complex issue and one that is entangled with inequality, the legacy of austerity, and a crisis of ‘mattering’, as these play out unevenly across the sub-geography of cities. The recommendations we made in the book were numerous: the country must learn from the successes of Scotland’s much lauded ‘public health’ approach to violence; re-invest in services that support and protect those experiencing domestic abuse and that provide children and young people with support; and reduce the rate of school exclusions. These changes – among others – could enable the young people who are needlessly fighting and dying in our cities to feel that they matter, rather than treating their lives, and those of their peers, as disposable, due to the trauma and diminishment they have often suffered.

Coronavirus has not diminished the urgency to address the issue of violence in our cities. We suggest, tentatively, that the pandemic’s impact on social and economic life could serve as a catalyst for further violence in the future. It therefore reinforces our plea to power-holders to comprehensively address this issue in the long term, rather than treating young lives with the same disposability that is too often felt by the young people themselves. The final report from the Youth Violence Commission recently issued a stark warning that the increased private violence experienced through lockdown, as well as unfavourable conditions arising from the pandemic’s economic impact, could have devastating effects on young people, including an exacerbated problem of violence. For the sake of those young people, we sincerely hope that all those in positions of power can develop a more effective response to our society’s violence ‘epidemic’ than they have to Coronavirus.



Luke Billingham, Hackney Quest, @lbilli91

Elizabeth Cook, City University of London, @_Lizzie_Cook

Anthony Ellis, University of Salford, @DrAnthonyEllis1

Keir-Irwin Rogers, Open University,


Images courtesy of the authors