Criminalisation and injustice: double standards which target the poor

In 1979, Jeffrey Reiman published the first edition of his book, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison. The book’s title perfectly summarised the systemic bias in the exercise of state power and in the institutions of the criminal justice system. Its publication came at a key political moment: the rise of the new right in the UK represented by the bleak and brutal neoliberal vision of social order articulated by Margaret Thatcher. Thatcherism intensified the violence and authoritarian repression which had been central to the exercise of state power over the previous two centuries.

The object of criminalisation

Criminalisation was, and remains, central to this process. It involves an often-violent, state and media-driven focus on policing the behaviour, morals, families and communities of the poor and the powerless  systematically differentiated by race, gender, sexuality, age and ability/disability, therefore punishing them accordingly for their deviance. Criminality is regarded as the prerogative of the poor. Criminalisation has continued right into the twenty first century and has now been extended into the lives of welfare claimants in the UK, through constructing them as lazy, feckless and immoral whose benefits need to be brutally cut if they are to become responsible citizens and embrace work, of whatever kind, in the neoliberal marketplace.

The devastating impact of these cuts, built around humiliating and degrading welfare claimants as human beings, has generated a range of mental health issues and self-inflicted deaths amongst them. Increasingly socially and psychologically pulverized, they, unlike income tax evading individuals and corporations, are now at the needle-sharp end in the exercise of state power.

For some, the outcome of state criminalisation is the nightmare of the prison. Marx made the point that the institutions which developed in the nineteenth century to police the poor and dispossessed were ‘places of punishment for misery’. That punitive mentality remains in place. The modern prison, and other institutions, are sites for delivering punishment and pain to what Steven Spitzer called the ‘social junk’ and ‘social dynamite’ thrown up by capital’s relentless, unforgiving drive for profit, whatever the social cost.  This can be seen in the number of deaths in custody, in general, and in the number of self-inflicted deaths in particular, as well as the obscene levels of self-harm inside.

Power and immunity

There is a converse side to this which is the non-policing, non-regulation and non-criminalisation of the powerful and their systemic criminality. Their devastating activities cover a range of social areas from the micro to the macro: domestic, racial and homophobic violence, sexual assaults, environmental devastation, income tax evasion, fraud, corporate crime and organized state criminality. These profound social harms, from the bedroom to the boardroom, still remain effectively unpoliced and unregulated which, in turn, generates a sense of entitlement, immunity and impunity which further legitimates the powerful’s destructive behavior. They do not need to be policed or regulated. They are ‘good chaps’ who can be trusted to do the right thing.

Non-regulation has been profound in terms of its human costs and misery. The fire at Grenfell Tower provides a chilling lesson in what happens when the state is rolled back. It also illustrates what happens if the state denies legitimacy to those without power, in this case the tenants, and the contemptuous dismissal of their claims that Grenfell was unsafe. There was no policing or regulation of those who were responsible for the protection and safety of tenants. In short, they were simply not accountable for their actions.

Contrast this, with the case of Marie Baker. In April 2017, after breaking an injunction to prevent her begging, she was imprisoned for 26 weeks after asking for 50 pence on the street. She could not read or write, had no legal representation or public funding, and had to defend herself in court.

Despite the systemic inequalities that operate in, and through, the criminal justice system, and the injustices that continue to be generated, the state is not immune to challenge and contestation. There are cracks and contradictions which have allowed activist groups and communities to challenge systemic injustices: women’s groups; anti-racist groups; anti-homophobic groups; tenants groups; campaigners against miscarriages of justice, deaths in prison and deaths at work; prisoners’ rights organizations; survivors of sexual violence and child sexual abuse and so on.

Documentaries and voices of dissent

Critical documentaries fit into this spirit of contestation, providing alternative realities through challenging the common-sense assumptions and ‘truth’ articulated by the state, and its media acolytes, thereby constructing ‘good sense’ about the world. The dissembling webs of deceit, lies, mendacity and bullshit that dominate, consciously and unconsciously, the state’s definition of events, and the mainstream media’s interpretation of the world, has not achieved total domination due to the interventions of activist groups and filmmakers. Indeed, they are integral to the spirit of contestation, altering perceptions while seeking to hold to account those who wield the axe of power. In doing so, they ensure that the powerful cannot always be comfortable and at ease within, and between, themselves. Voices of dissent, working inside and outside of the media, confront their gross sense of entitlement and impunity which dominates their world view.

Their very existence means that they contribute to the demands for social justice and the democratisation of social life while challenging the insidious view articulated by the ex-head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, and still embedded within the state and the wider political and popular culture, that ‘justice is incidental to law and order’. Academic and grassroots activism, alongside alternative media interventions, would clearly and correctly dispute this claim and argue for the democratization of state institutions and for a radical transformation of the wider, morally and politically indefensible, system of power and privilege whose blistering social divisions scar and traumatize the lives of the majority in this country. The great American novelist James Baldwin pointed out:

The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter even by a millimetre the way people look at reality, then you can change it.

Baldwin’s soaring rhetoric provides a fitting testimony to the work of activist groups and radical film-makers. 

Guest blog by Joe Sim, Professor of Criminology, School of Humanities and Social Science, Liverpool John Moores University. It is part of a series of guest blogs written by Injustice Documentary’s interviewees and other criminal justice reformers. If you are interested in submitting a piece, please contact us.

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