Writing together, challenges and practices of collective working

SPARC is unique as a research group in that several members are serving prisoners who began their studies in custody. However, it should come as no surprise that functioning as a collective while half the members are incarcerated has proved challenging. Not simply for the basic logistical issues of communication and meeting, but for the disparity between our respective status, perceptions, aspirations and opportunities as two polarised populations – citizens and prisoners. Given the potency of these constructions, what is and remains the only genuine surprise is that we were actually able to become a collective at all! That it strives to be inclusive, non-hierarchical and egalitarian, is all the more remarkable. Our members are differently situated in profound ways: some are still in custody; some are on parole; some have been working and studying in universities for decades; some are the first in their family to obtain a degree.

In this blog we address how we are coming to form a true collective, a body of equals, across these differences and the challenges and triumphs in this process. It marks an attempt to reflect on our constant struggle against the rigid boundaries and subject positions imposed by institutions, and a society, that actively seeks to enforce a clear and binary distinction between us. And sometimes these boundaries are internalised and enacted by ourselves.

These different social and institutional positions were most apparent in the first meetings among eventual SPARC members, as we were introduced and got to know each other in a prison-based educational activity prior to forming the collective. It is fair to say that none of us, whether coming from university or based in prison, knew what to expect in those early days, and all of us had our own anxieties about how it would go and what the ‘civvies’ would think of the prisoners, or vice versa. As those early days of our meeting turned into months and then years, a natural sense of rapport developed. And, as our sentences and degrees move towards completion, we felt an ongoing interest in continuing to meet up and pursuing issues we had been unable to within the context of prison-based activity.

None of us imagined this would lead to founding a collective, a year or so down the line, where we all identify as academics. Or co-producing research recognised by the foremost authorities in criminal justice across Western Europe. Or calling each other colleagues, let alone friends.

The profoundly positive and transformative effect of education as an engine of social and personal change is something we are writing a peer-reviewed journal article on right now. What will be missing from it are the seemingly infinite and myriad processes and dynamics within our group we work through to develop our capacity to co-produce things like academic papers. While we aspire to be non-hierarchical and equal, for example, there is a sizeable gulf in our respective experiences, of life and education. This can leave some feeling like they are being carried by the efforts of others who just seem to do this like it’s nothing. Or we can feel like we need to defer uncritically and at all times to perceived areas of expertise – whether this relates to Foucault or food in prison.

This can trigger frustration and re-inscribe institutionally imposed differences. We are slowly learning that insecurity (either intellectual or personal) is not the sole preserve of those in prison, and that a sense of equality is not always to be found in achieving identical types of knowledge. Some of our strongest bonding moments have been a feeling of being equally confused, angry or powerless.

The aspiration of equality within our group concerns a lot more than academic prowess. It’s about the kind of people we are thought of and constructed as respectively, and it can at times be difficult to process. Both universities and prisons face problems of inequality, power and security with implications for the roles we think we are able, and have a right, to play in our collective, our professions and the wider world.

It’s why the small, taken for granted, intimacies that come from working and socialising as friends in the community; meeting up for lunch; greeting with hugs; and sharing details of our personal lives, overwhelms some of our prison members. So aware of their negative construction it still jars to be so openly accepted. And why those same bonds also incite anxiety when meeting again in a custody setting, awkwardly formalising our interactions for fear of how ‘overfamiliarity’ may be interpreted by prison staff.

It’s what makes our university members uncomfortable as they broker our imprisoned colleagues’ community access to participate in meetings and events, and by doing so, accepting the responsibility to supervise, and report back to the prison regarding their behaviour. Or why our university members feel frustrated further when our prison members then view them as authority figures in the community, not just academically, but in relation to their partnership role with SPS.

Our university members do not wish to be perceived as teachers and jailers, any more than our prison based members wish to be perceived as deviant and incapable. Moreover, none of our members wish to be perceived, least of all by each other, as either ‘us’ or ‘them’.

Most times, we successfully transcend such value laden, binary distinctions, working and socialising together as the true collective we aspire to be. But unfortunately, despite best efforts, either through personal insecurities or practical limitations, we occasionally resort and adhere rigidly to type.

There’s a hundred hang ups that all of us struggle to let go. But for all that baggage, we haven’t lost sight of the fact that we are involved in something remarkable, a coming together of people who, in a very short time, helped, encouraged and in some cases forced each other to challenge everything we had learned about our rightful place in the world and what we could aspire to do as individuals and as a group.

Inequality, Security and Punitivity in Institutions: Academia on Strike

University academic staff in the UK (61 out of around 130 total in the UK) have been on strike for over 14 days now,  and many of us in SPARC have been directly participating in the industrial action joining the pickets, cancelling classes and otherwise directly intervening in the dispute.

The immediate issue at stake is pensions. After killing off a final salary scheme several years ago, university employers now are seeking to undermine the very scheme they came up with to replace it – a pension with a defined benefit – as well as reduce the amount they pay into pensions. Staff affected would lose any guarantee of a minimum retirement payment and instead be exposed to the full force of market winds, possibly getting out of the pot less than they put into it, and losing the security of a liveable income in retirement after decades of service.

Those concerned about prisons and prisoners – the core audience of SPARC activities – may wonder why they should care about academics’ retirement packages.

Here’s why:

MARKETISATION: While the pensions dispute has been the catalyst for the strike, many of the conversations on picket lines have been about how to fundamentally transform universities and resist the growing marketisation of higher education. When we talk about the value of education, those discussions have become less interested in how university shapes our critical faculties, develops our ethics, engages our interests and builds our confidence. Just like the criminal justice system across the UK, the university has been reduced to its economic and market value. Staff and students from across departments, faculties and career-stages – including lectures, professional services staff, graduate teaching assistants, and librarians – have come together to question the growing rhetoric of students as “consumers” of educational “products” which are delivered for profit.  Questions have been asked about the way in which universities as institutions are structured and organised, and implications this has for the dignity, wellbeing and mental health of their employees.

INEQUALITY: These developments have created a system of inequality within universities – ironically one of the main institutions meant to be interrogating, exposing and reducing inequality in wider society. The pain of the neoliberal university has not been felt equally across the academia, however. A great divide has opened up between those at the top and those at the bottom. Principal and Chancellor salaries are now averaging £300,000 and senior professors are now bypassing normal pay rise and promotion processes to secure £100,000+ salaries. Against this, the staff who carry out the bulk of teaching and its smooth running – PhD students and administrators – are paid a fraction of this, without guarantee of long-term job security or progression.  Increasingly, people in the university work in precarious positions, and zero-hour contracts, this means many of the most valuable staff are treated as a disposable workforce. If it is not challenged, this precarity will serve as a barrier preventing individuals without other sources of financial security from pursuing an academic career.  Our teachers and researchers will become less diverse, not only limiting social mobility, but also the vibrancy of our scholarship. Additionally, other employers are taking note. If the universities are successful at dismantling the conditions of our pensions, then we believe other pension schemes are likely to be targeted. But other union members are also taking note and can be encouraged to fight back if we secure a good deal.

ACCESS TO EDUCATION: To meet the new market demands universities are receiving new architectural makeovers in the hopes they become more attractive to the more privileged and fee-paying students. Universities in the UK have embarked on the largest transformation of campuses and overseas recruitment in half a century – which is supported by the best case scenarios of borrowing and return on investment to finance construction and international expansion. The pensions dispute, however, is the result of a worst case scenario risk assessment of the market in which pensions are invested. In the race to produce shiny modern campuses comprising ‘hubs’ that will attract the best local and international students, universities have less funding and resources to develop pathways to education for those locally who have long been excluded from this essential part of transforming social mobility and life chances. The university is becoming more like the prison as an institution that reproduces and entrenches, rather than challenges, any existing vulnerabilities. This dispute is therefore also a powerful stand against the erosion of universities’ commitment to improve and welcome the communities surrounding them.

SOCIAL MOVEMENT LEARNING – This industrial action has had one of the highest levels of support and participation in a generation. The strike has involved an unprecedented numbers of days of action in which thousands of staff, including lecturers, professional services, graduate teaching assistants, and librarians, across the UK are coming back day after day to the picket lines. Staff have united in creating a painful, but felt to be necessary, disruption to university life. And while they are significantly affected, students from all backgrounds and programmes have been joining in to support the action, recognising that the fight against precarity and poor working conditions is their fight, too, no matter their career path. University annual and technical staff have been honking their horns in support while barred from sympathy striking. This solidarity, across disciplines, universities, pay grades, and role in the university has not only created an energising sense on the ground of a united community but demonstrated the power of collective action, which SPARC seeks to emulate and learn from. The sustained commitment to action forced the employers group back to the negotiating table and led to university managers at some of the most influential institutions to back off the pension proposals to support their own staff and the strike demands. Direct, coordinated action works and can inspire social change in other sectors. What we can learn from this is that penal reform will be at its strongest and most successful when there is a coalition of support seeking to change the criminal justice system.

RESEARCH IS ACTIVISM: The premise of the pensions fight is the familiar refrain of a ‘pensions black hole’. In this dispute, however, we have economists, mathematicians, lawyers, statisticians, philosophers and accountancy academics questioning the assumptions and figures used to devise this black hole. These informed and expert questions have challenged the methodology and the findings of a pensions shortfall. These informed questions and critiques show how research is a powerful tool of political action and change. High quality research is essential to activism, a core point in the SPARC manifesto.  New connections and solidarities are being formed amongst staff who have never previously met, despite often working at the same university for years.  These debates are also continuing online, where academics have been able to share research evidence that challenges many of the fundamental assumptions underpinning the pensions dispute.  Research, activism and campaigning materials are being co-created online and on the picket.

SOCIAL JUSTICE ACROSS INSTITUTIONS: Ostensibly, the strike is about pensions, but there are more fundamental issues involved that are symptomatic of growing social injustice across Britain. By taking and supporting strike action we recognise that lives are at stake. For those inside and outside the university, opportunities are being truncated, mental health is degrading, possibility is disappearing, and equality is being eradicated. These injustices are happening in the university, but also within the prison. In this moment we can begin to see the pervasive impact of neoliberal world we find ourselves in.

These strikes have been challenging: we value our students and our research.  For many, taking strike action has been a (financially painful) last resort. The strikes have shown that there is power in collectivism – when we come together we can gain ground that we might never have thought possible, and begin conversations about issues which had previously been sidelined or ignored. It is clear that these are important messages for penal reformers. Transformation is achievable if we can also see that penal reformers and university strikers share the same problems, endure the same impediments and seek the same goals with each other as well as many other sectors of society. Supporting social justice through positive institutional transformation is central to SPARC’s aims, as is our belief that education, collective action, and research is a powerful force for personal and social change. These actions can empower us all to challenge dominant or previously unquestioned assumptions or discourses. It is these same arguments that are being made everyday on the picket lines. It is clear that these are equally important messages for penal reformers. Seeing the connections between penal reform and the strike we can gain the collective power necessary to build a social movement intent on achieving equality and justice.  We continue to strike about the university pensions, but we do so knowing that we stand firmly against the political causes of social injustice across the UK today.

Snakes & Ladders: Regressive effects of sentence progression

snakesandladdersSPARC participated in the Edinburgh Conference on Reducing the Use of Imprisonment (Surgeons Hall, 8-9 June 2017), presenting a paper exploring divergent experiences of prisoners serving life sentences. Through ‘sentence progression’, prisoners are meant to transition to lower levels of security, testing their levels of responsibility and safety, ultimately achieving parole. However, while some prisoners obtain parole ‘on time’ (serving no more nor less time in prison than the minimum they were sentenced to do by a court), others are held back in prison sometimes for years, or even decades. Personal and research evidence suggests there are a range of reasons for this, and we argue that amongst these, administrative delays and non-criminal conduct, rather than criminal or dangerous conduct of the prisoner, often are to blame. Hence, the process of ‘progressing’ through a sentence may in fact have a regressive effect on prisoner’s lives. We argue that three prevailing logics of punishment – risk, rehabilitation and institutional order – obscure  unpredictable and sometimes excessive journeys through prison.

Snakes and Ladders web version (MS Word)

Snakes and Ladders PPT (Powerpoint)