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Shane O’Mahony: The Neoliberalisation of Addiction Understandings in Ireland

16 Feb

ICRN is very pleased to host a guest blog from Shane O’Mahony, a PhD researcher at the University of Manchester. Shane is researching drug addiction in Ireland, approaching the issue from both an historical as well as a contemporary perspective. His research has involved conducting qualitative interviews with people who have drug addiction issues in his native Cork City.

The Neoliberalisation of Addiction Understandings in Ireland:

Continuities and Discontinuities in Irish Addiction History

It seems to me that the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticise the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent. To attack them in such a way that political violence which has always exerted itself obscurely through them, will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them‘ (Michel Foucault, Chomsky-Foucault debate 1971).

Many social commentators (see here and  here) have noted that a key feature of Neoliberal social policy globally, is a shift away from attempts to uncover the cause(s) of social problems, and toward an attempt to minimise the risks associated with them. In the case of crime and homelessness in Ireland, this has taken the form of a massive increase in the prison population (see IPRT here), as well as the passing of a number of legislative acts criminalising begging (see the Criminal Justice Act 2011 for example) and other behaviours which homeless individuals are likely to engage in (street drinking, and loitering, for example). At the same time we have witnessed, particularly since the 2008 financial crisis, a reduction in spending in social services which have traditionally attempted to alleviate social deprivation (seen as an important contextual factor in crime causation) and to provide social housing, and other measures intended to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable.

However, in the realm of addiction it seems, at least on the face of it, that Irish policy is moving in a more enlightened and humane direction. Indeed,  the Government’s most recent policy document entitled ‘Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery: A Health-led Response to Drug and Alcohol Use in Ireland 2017-2025′ , argues that addiction is a health problem rather than a criminal one. Is it the case then that addiction policy in Ireland is running counter to domestic and international policy trends in relation to social problems? Or is there more to this development than the Government simply moving in the direction of a policy more sympathetic to those suffering with addiction?

The key to answering this question, I believe, is a reconceptualisation of how power operates, and of how our understandings and conceptualisations of social problems develop across time, along the lines suggested by Michel Foucault. Foucault argued famously that social theorists should ‘cut off the king’s head’. Cutting through Foucault’s grisly poetics, this can be interpreted as a call to shift our gaze from an excessive focus on the state – its policy, concepts, and influence – to a broader appreciation of the many and varied sites from which power can operate; often in subtle and powerful ways. This is potentially beneficial as there seems to be a tendency among those who analyse drug and alcohol policy in Ireland to create a dichotomy between vested interests on the one hand, and progressive campaigners interested only in the public good on the other.

In terms of alcohol policy this has taken the form of the alcohol industry, in particular the Vintner’s Association, being portrayed as nefarious and interested in only their bottom line, rejecting the ‘objective evidence’ demonstrating a link between alcohol advertising and binge-drinking. At the other side of this dichotomy, we find those supporting population-based alcohol consumption models (for example, the medical profession) who argue that certain supply and demand measures (minimum pricing, stricter regulation of advertising, for example) can tilt the balance of incentives and disincentives in favour of a reduction in total population consumption levels, and alcohol problems more generally. In terms of drug policy, the dichotomy is between reactionary drug war supporters arguing for criminalisation and punitive measures intended to punish addicts, and public-health inspired campaigners arguing in favour of viewing addiction as a medical issue. However, a Foucauldian inspired perspective enables us to look beyond such dichotomies.

This shift in focus alerts us to the fact that Irish thinking in relation to alcohol and drug problems has never been, and still isn’t, based on an objective appraisal of the available evidence. Indeed one does not have to think very hard to come to the realisation that such a conceptualisation is not even possible. Facts do not speak for themselves, they must be selected, analysed, and placed within a framework. As psychologists have taught us, such a process is extremely vulnerable to confirmation bias and to our deeply held beliefs and prejudices. Furthermore, as Jean-Francis Lyotard reminds us, the social world is infinitely complex and the narratives and frameworks we deploy in order to render it more understandable are always incomplete, contingent, and intimately influenced by broader political-economic and socio-cultural processes.

So it has been in the history of addiction in Ireland, and two crucial developments will illustrate this point. Shane Butler and Tony Jordan have conducted extensive research on the emergence of the disease concept of alcoholism in an Irish context. In a number of books and articles they demonstrate how the disease concept of alcoholism was accepted initially, not because of the weight of scientific evidence in its favour, but rather, due to broader socio-cultural and political-economic developments. Indeed, the crucial neuroscientific evidence in favour of the disease model only emerged decades later with the advent of modern medical technology (FMRIs etc). Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and their ambassadors in Ireland had been trying to champion the disease theory since AA’s first European meeting was held in Dublin in 1946. However, initially they were met with an extremely hostile reaction from the Church, and indifference from government and the medical profession. This all changed in the late 1950s, and it is the timing that is crucial here.

The late 1950s represented a watershed in Irish history. The Government initiated its ‘First Programme for Economic Expansion’ which shifted Irish economic policy from a focus on protectionism and the promotion of native industry, to an aggressive policy of economic liberalism, free trade, and an attempt to attract foreign direct investment. Within this context, Ireland’s outdated and restrictive licensing laws came under attack. Indeed, in 1959 the country liberalised its licensing laws allowing for longer opening hours and easier access to alcohol in general. Despite the Catholic Church opposing this legislation, the Government quoted World Health Organisation research, which argued that alcoholism was a disease of a tiny number of susceptible individuals,  unrelated to population consumption levels. Furthermore, with the advent of foreign holidays and increasing access to the mass media, it is not surprising that the country at large became more receptive to the influence of global policy. Furthermore, the medical profession, eager to fall in line with international best practice, were at the forefront of setting up the Irish National Council on Alcoholism in the coming years. In relation to the Church, Butler and Jordan demonstrate that it was the AA’s ambassador’s theological and organisational sophistication which slowly broke down their resistance to the ‘alcoholism as a disease’ construct. I would add to this the fact that articles began to appear in The Furrow (the Church’s seminary journal), which highlighted alcohol problems among priests, and a drive to modernise the Church in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council.

Today’s embrace of Neoliberalism – and its attendant focus on the risks related to alcohol and drug use – is no more an embrace of the objective evidence and a move towards a more enlightened policy, than was the acceptance of the ‘alcoholism as a disease’ concept. To better comprehend this shift, one need only examine the policy documents from the late 1990s to the present (see Rabbitte, 1997; Ryan, 2001; Ahern, 2005; Irish Government, 2013; Irish Government, 2017). Throughout each document we see a shift away from discussing causation and towards risk, minimising risk, inter-agency co-operation to contain disorder among those at risk, and, in particular, the need to minimise the risks associated with intravenous drug use. A similar trend is noticeable in the Irish Medical Journal, The Furrow, and indeed the media.

However, such a shift in addiction understandings can be located in a Neoliberal response to the disorder produced by socio-cultural and political-economic restructuring, in particular the 2008 financial crisis. Indeed, none of the policy documents mentioned, nor any articles published in The Furrow, or the Irish Medical Journal, examine the impact of structural readjustment on alcohol and drug related problems. Instead we find a prominent discourse which blames alcohol and drugs for a host of social problems including: crime, suicide, rape, sexual assault, and violence.  At the same time this discourse focuses overtly on minimising risk and eschews discussions of causation. This represents a type of ‘New Managerialism’ whereby market principles and ideologies are used to contain the disorders (or risks) associated with social problems and ‘problem populations’, which is indicative of Neoliberal social policy. Discussions of broader socio-cultural and political-economic processes are afforded little credence and a host of political commentators attempt to depoliticise social policy with calls for ‘evidence-based’ and ‘objective’ policy-making.

However, as has been demonstrated throughout, our thinking, understanding, and responses to alcohol and drug problems are overtly political and always have been. Rather than being based on objective evidence, addiction understandings are produced by power struggles within society and broader socio-cultural and political-economic processes. An approach to addiction policy and understanding, based on a Foucauldian (and indeed a broader post-structuralist) perspective, highlights this and encourages us to challenge those who would impose an ideological (Neoliberal) position under the guise of objective evidence-based policy. What Irish addiction policy and debate needs is more deep discussion of politics, economy, and philosophy, and less rhetoric in relation to ‘objective evidence and policy’. The most immediate political task, however, is to demonstrate the historically contingent and ideologically based nature of addiction understandings and responses. This has the potential to create an opportunity to challenge Neoliberal policy and responses which masquerade as objective science, and opens up the possibility to advocate for radical future alternatives. It is to this end the current piece hopes to contribute.


  1. Ahern, N. (2005) ‘Mid-term Review of the National Drugs Strategy 2001-2008’. Dublin: The Stationary Office. Available at: (Accessed: 29 June 2017).
  2. Rabbitte, P. (1997) Second Report of the Ministerial Task Force on Measures to Reduce the Demand for Drugs. Dublin: The Stationary Office. Available at: (Accessed: 01 July 2017).
  3. Ryan, E. (2001) ‘Building on Experience: The National Drugs Strategy 2001 – 2008’. Dublin: The Stationary Office. Available at: (Accessed: 03 January 2018).
  4. Irish Government (2013) ‘National Drugs Strategy 2009-2016 Progress Report to End 2013’. Dublin: The Stationary Office. Available at: (Accessed: 05 July 2017).
  5. Irish Government. (2017) ‘Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery: A Health-led Response to Drug and Alcohol Use in Ireland 2017-2025’. Department of Health: Dublin.

#Blog: Attitudes towards Domestic Violence

21 Sep

This guest blog comes from Deborah O’Connell:

A number of years ago a friend of mine left a relationship because it had become abusive.   She developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, she became completely different to the bubbly, adventurous and life loving friend I knew.   She was nervous, on edge and fearful.   I could not really understand why until the terror attacks of the last few years.

I wrote the below article for my local paper and I was commended by a domestic violence resource group for describing it so succinctly and accurately that the ordinary person could understand.  I am now considering using this topic as the basis for my thesis, and I would appreciate any opinions. Contact:

A the launch of Ireland’s Second National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence, in January 2016 Frances Fitzgerald, T.D. stated that

Attitudes towards domestic violence

“…there lies much work, difficult work, to be done in changing society’s attitudes”

For the person who has never experienced domestic violence I can only describe it as akin to the fears society has over the terrorist attacks in the West at the moment. Is it safe to travel, (Brussels Airport, March 2016) will the plane explode / crash into something (America, September 2001), will it be safe to go to the beach – (Nice July 2016)?   Will the restaurant be attacked? (Bangladesh July 2016)

Fear, uncertainty, panic, on edge, anxious, terrified are just some of the words which can be used to describe the emotions of people caught up in terrorist attacks. For the bystanders, we watch in disbelief. I remember watching the news on September 11th 2001 and I thought i had accidentally switched over to a movie when the planes hit the towers. Terrorist attacks make us afraid and unsure. They attack the fundamental feeling of safety we have as we go about our daily lives.

This is the life of a domestic abuse victim. They cannot believe this is happening, they cannot understand it, and they live with the constant fear that it may happen again. Domestic Violence makes a person so unsure and so afraid they do not trust the world around them. People ask why they stay and its simple, how can they be certain the outside world is safer? How can they trust people, or indeed their own judgement? how will they cope? Similar fears to those victims of terrorism.

According to the world health organisation (WHO) almost 1/3 of women worldwide that is about 1.1 billion women will be affected by domestic violence. For every 3 women you know on average 1 is a victim of domestic violence.

Society doesn’t dismiss the feelings of victims of terrorist attacks or the fears of the general population about it, but victims of domestic violence are treated differently, for many they aren’t believed. A friend of mine was told they had mental health issues, told he can’t be that bad. Someone told her he was too good looking to be abusive! She wasn’t believed. Frances Fitzgerald has asked that society stop dismissing the feelings and fears of those who live with domestic abuse. I, for one, agree with her.

#Blog Christian Perrin: ‘Accumulating Meaning, Purpose, and Positivity ‘Drip-by-Drip’ in Prisons’

13 May

Accumulating Meaning, Purpose, and Positivity ‘Drip-by-Drip’ in Prisons

A growing body of research argues that in order to enhance offenders’ chances of successfully re-joining society and desisting from offending, prison should be less punitive and more focussed on rehabilitation. Indeed, substantial evidence suggests that punitive prison environments may actually increase recidivism (see Gendreau, 2012; Raphael, 2009). Such studies emphasise the need for ‘purposeful activity’ in prisons, and schemes that enable offenders to positively contribute towards their own rehabilitation (Herbert & Garnier, 2008). A recent report from the Ministry of Justice has emphasised the importance of ‘meaningful prison work’ and ‘active citizenship’ (Secretary of State for Justice, 2010). Recently a growing body of research has begun to explore what might constitute ‘meaningful work’ in prisons. Such research generally encourages constructive prison settings where offenders can form strong social bonds and meaningful relationships (Edgar, Jacobson & Biggar, 2011; Stevens, 2012). Peer-support schemes appear to represent a source for such positivity (Dhaliwal &Harrower, 2009; Perrin & Blagden, 2013).

Researching the Impact of Peer-Support in Prisons

The research project summarised here investigated one peer-support scheme, the Samaritans Prison Listener scheme, which operates in prisons across the UK. The research was inspired by my personal experience of volunteering with Samaritans. I experienced such deep realisations and attitude changes through listening to people’s innermost thoughts and feelings. This prompted my curiosity about how such experiences might impact on prisoners.

Offending is often associated with decreased empathy, communication skills deficits, and difficulties both in establishing strong social ties, and  in regulating emotions (Lohrlr, Farrington and Justice, 1998; Ward and Gannon, 2007). As such, it is plausible that participating in a scheme centred on principles of empathy and emotional wellbeing could have a magnified effect on offending populations. This assumption informed the main aim of the project: to explore the impact of ‘being’ a prison listener.

In 1991, the Prison Service, in collaboration with Samaritans, established the Listener scheme to help tackle suicide. Via the scheme, prisoners suffering distress, despair and suicidal feelings are able to call on Listeners and talk face-to-face about their feelings anonymously and without judgement. Prisoners wishing to become volunteer Listeners go through several weeks of training. Once fully trained, the Listeners may be called out several times a day to provide emotional support to those in need. As well as listening, members of the scheme also meet weekly to discuss issues relating to ‘caller care’ and the general running of the scheme (Foster and Magee, 2011).

The Listener scheme is currently the foremost peer support scheme in operation in UK prisons (Samaritans, 2012). However, research is limited; a significant gap in knowledge exists relating to how Listeners conceive their roles. Only one study has explicitly addressed what listening actually means to prisoners (Dhaliwal & Harrower, 2009). In that study, participants demonstrated elevated self-confidence, personal growth, greater empathy, and respect for prison staff as a result of Listener roles. Although being a Listener appears to elicit positive change within prisoners, there is a paucity of research specifically exploring what it is about listening that prompts change and what this change means to Listeners. The aim of the present research was to bridge this gap.

To this end, six male prisoners were interviewed. Transcripts were analysed using interpretive phenomenological analysis. Analysis revealed two super-ordinate themes (‘personal transformation’ and ‘countering negative prison emotions’) and several subordinate themes. Whilst it is only possible to provide a sample of the analysis here, the full paper (Perrin, C., & Blagden, N. (2014). Accumulating meaning, purpose and opportunities to change ‘drip by drip’: the impact of being a listener in prison. Psychology, Crime & Law, 20(9), 902-920.) can be requested at

Super-ordinate Themes/Subordinate Themes

  • Personal Transformation
  • Countering Negative Prison Emotions
    • New Me: Developing a Positive Self-image
  • Desire to Give Something Back
  • Gaining Perspective
  • Distraction / Channelling Energy
  • Development of Meaning and Purpose

‘New Me’

All participants appeared to experience their listening role as a method of evidencing and understanding change. Theorists propose that desistance requires personal maturity, new social bonds and a personal subjective narrative shifts which offenders build around these changes (Farrall et al, 2011). Research surrounding offenders’ experiences of desistance highlights how they tend to create and internalise a self-narrative which helps them understand the changes they experience and why offending no longer ‘fits’ into their life story (Vaughan, 2007). This self-narrative assists the development of a ‘new me’ but, crucially, needs to be combined with a key ‘turning point’ (Sampson & Laub, 2005). Listening appeared to constitute a turning point for participants:

If you’re out through life causing destruction and distress to people and yourself, you can quite quickly fill your bank up with negative ways of thinking and negative thoughts… It’s like having a big tub of dirty water, that’s negative. And then someone gives you a positive drip, and eventually, with more drips, the water gets less murky, overflows, and then it’s just nice and clean. That’s what happens basically. It’s learning to accept that positive (‘Steve’).

My whole concept now is to help rather than hinder, and that’s because of the scheme, and I’m not just saying that. That is genuine… I didn’t give a shit before I was a listener. I would argue with staff. I was a right so and so… Even my probation, he’d go “oh I feel so agitated when I talk to you”. And then in one of his reports, when I had joined the listeners, he said “Cliff is now approachable, he’s mellowed out, and we can talk”. I think it was because I’d learned respect (‘Cliff’).

Desire to Give Back

Along with the establishment of ‘new selves’ and positive self-images, participants also demonstrated a desire to ‘give something back’. In exploring crime desistance, Maruna (2001) posits that offenders who are ‘going straight’ construct a ‘redemption script’. This  is typified by a desire to ‘give something back’ and an acceptance that although they cannot change the past, they can contribute positively in the future. These propositions have been linked with successful reintegration (Marsh, 2011). During every interview, participants gave descriptions of how they thought they had given something back. These thoughts provided them with deep satisfaction:

You could see someone was upset or whatever, and after you speak to them they’ve perked up a bit… they start relaxing a bit and they say “yeah, I’m ready to go back out to the prison”… and when you see it happen it makes you feel good because you’ve done something good and given something back. I’m not saying it makes up for the crime you’ve committed, but you are giving something back and you’re turning something into a positive. Even if it’s just for that hour or that day, you know you’ve tried (‘Andy’)

Development of Meaning and Purpose

Every participant expressed that their Listener role provided meaning and purpose in prison. In 2010, the Prison Reform Trust asserted that ‘prisons should not allow offenders to simply mark their time in a purposeless fashion. Rather, prisons should be seen as places where prisoners are engaged in challenging and meaningful work’ (Edgar, Jacobson & Biggar, 2011). The Listener role certainly appears to help prisoners establish meaning and build purposeful lives in prison. Self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) is useful in explaining why having meaning is so crucial for prisoners. The theory holds that humans naturally seek autonomy, connectedness and have an intrinsic desire to effect the environment around them, not just exist within it. When these needs are not met, individuals construct illegitimate substitute strategies. However, when these needs are met, individuals become motivated to reflect and realise change (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Through Listener roles, participants were able to generate meaning and purpose. The following extracts highlight how participants moulded themselves important roles and gained a feeling of being needed.

It’s meant the world to me and I’m not gonna lie. And I think that’s come across, and it has meant the world to me cos it’s helped me a great deal. But I’d hope that I’ve helped other people, so it’s worked dual. (Ben)

These people have spilled their heart out to you. And you’ve got that, in a little box, just there, never to be revealed. So he’s put his life (pause)… He’s took everything and he’s put it in this basket here (hand gestures a box and passes the box to the researcher). “Please look after it” (whispers). That’s what it’s like. Like, don’t let no one see it. You’ve gotta protect that. (Kyle)

Conclusions and Implications

Broadly, this research furthers existing understandings of how change can occur through peer support schemes. More specifically, this research has helped bridge the gap in knowledge surrounding the Listener scheme and the effects on the Listeners themselves. Through listening, prisoners benefit from purposeful activity during their time in prison, a chance to acquire new skills, earning respect from others, building positive self-concepts, and an opportunity to give something back. Each of these benefits has the potential to encourage desistance, be it via the ‘knifing off’ of unwanted pasts (Sampson and Laub, 2005), the reversal of negative thinking cycles (Maruna, 2004), the satisfaction of desires through prosocial means (Ward, 2002), or via other psychological mechanisms. Although the Listener role cannot claim responsibility for reduced offending, becoming a Listener in prison appears to encourage desistance by surfacing the ‘good’ in individuals and allowing them to positively ‘re-story’ their lives. These implications may hold true for other peer-support schemes, and the concept of prison peer-support in general.

Fundamentally, adopting a Listener role in prison seems to help equip prisoners with the tools required for a productive prison life and a potentially successful societal re-entry. It seems necessary to present the Listener scheme (and other peer-led programmes) as a resource HM Prison Service should encourage. Furthermore, there may be significant value in understanding the benefits of listening in terms of therapeutic applications. Although this research does not claim that Listener (and other peer-support) schemes produce and sustain desistance, they certainly represent one avenue to catalyse change.

Questions, comments, and paper requests are very welcome (

Blogger bio:

Christian Perrin is a PhD researcher at Nottingham Trent University. His research focuses on peer-support schemes in prisons, and how prisoners who uphold peer-support roles may contribute towards their own rehabilitation. As such, the research is very much connected to the desistance and prisoner well-being literature. Christian carried out a study exploring the Samaritans ‘Listener’ scheme in 2012 as part of an MSc in Forensic Psychology. Findings from this study highlighted how having a meaningful role in prison can enable prisoners to progress through their sentences more constructively. This research is now being expanded as part of a PhD.

This blog was drawn from Christian’s paper at the Irish Postgraduate Criminology Conference in which he won the inaugural IPRT Postgraduate Prize.

#Blog Dr Mary Rogan: ‘Judicial conceptions of prisoners’ rights’

2 Mar

Decisions of the courts have the potential to alter penal policies in radical ways. As the Plata litigation before the Supreme Court of the United States has shown,[1] judicial decision making can disrupt policies of penal expansionism, and even reshape how prison is conceived of.[2] While this is so, criminology has paid rather limited attention to litigation as an influence on the penal policymaking process, and also to judicial decision making as an indicator of a state’s penal culture.

The Irish experience of prison litigation is developing slowly, but a series of cases have determined the contours of how the judiciary conceives of the rights of prisoners. These statements are essential to the legal regulation of Irish prisons, but are also important sources of understanding about the nature of Irish penal culture and practice. This blog traces the development of judicial discussion of whether and how prisoners are holders of rights in Ireland.

Several decisions have held that, while imprisonment inevitably involves the deprivation of rights, those rights which are not necessarily diminished must continue to be upheld.

In Mulligan v. Governor of Portlaoise Prison[3] the High Court held:

 any attenuation of rights must be proportionate; the diminution must not fall below the standards of reasonable human dignity and what is expected in a mature society. Insofar as practicable, a prison authority must vindicate the individual rights and dignity of each prisoner”.

In Murray v. Ireland[4] it was held that the rights which may be exercised by a prisoner are those which do not depend on the continuation of liberty, and which are compatible with the reasonable requirements of the Prison Service or do not impose unreasonable demands on it.

In Holland v. Governor of Portlaoise Prison[5] it was held that a prisoner is obliged to suffer such restrictions on constitutional rights as necessary to accommodate the serving of a sentence. Subject to this proviso however, McKechnie J held that all other rights should be capable of being exercised. McKechnie J also considered prisoners to have the right to free communication, the right to practice one’s religion, and the right to natural and constitutional justice, holding that this was not an exhaustive list.[6] The court reiterated that any restrictions on the constitutional rights of prisoners must be proportionate.

In Devoy v. The Governor of Portlaoise Prison[7] Edwards J recognised the broad discretion vested in each Governor, but held that:

the application of the Rules must be in a manner which is respectful of and intended to vindicate the constitutional rights of the prisoner to the extent that they are not abrogated or suspended by the very fact of his being sentenced to a term of imprisonment. Among the residual constitutional rights of a prisoner which are not abrogated or suspended is the right to be treated humanely and with human dignity.[8]

Perhaps some of the most uplifting language on the rights of prisoners is to be found in Connolly v. Governor of Wheatfield Prison where Hogan J held:

The obligation to treat all with dignity appropriate to the human condition is not dispensed with simply because those who claim that the essence of their human dignity has been compromised happen to be prisoners….

For even though prisoners may have strayed from the path of righteousness and even though …  they may have severely and wantonly injured other persons, the protection of the dignity of all is still a vital constitutional desideratum. This is because the Constitution commits the State to the protection of these standards since it presupposes the existence of a civilised and humane society, committed to democracy and the rule of law and the safeguarding of fundamental rights. …

All of us are, of course, sadly aware of the great failures of the past and the present where these rights seemed and seem like hollow platitudes. But this is not quite the point, since it is by upholding these values and rights that we can all aspire to the better realisation of the promise which these noble provisions of the Constitution hold out for us as a society.[9]

In Kinsella v. Governor of Mountjoy Prison the High Court had no difficulty in accepting that a prisoner has a right to bodily integrity and that this right encompasses a person’s psychological wellbeing.[10]

We may well see the judiciary becoming a more influential factor on penal policymaking. As Justice Kennedy in Plata held:

A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.

If government fails to fulfill this obligation, the courts have a responsibility to remedy the resulting Eighth Amendment [prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment] violation.

These statements are crucial indicators of our approach to the treatment of prisoners. They deserve greater attention within criminological scholarship. Furthermore, we must never lose sight of the fact that lawyers and judges engaged in prison law cases play an essential role in ensuring accountability and the upholding of the rule of law in places which are very far from public view.

[1] Brown v Plata, 131 S. Ct. 1910, 1923 (2011).

[2] See further, Simon, Mass Incarceration on Trial, The New Press, 2014.

[3] [2010] IEHC 269.

[4] [1991] ILRM 465.

[5] [2004] 2 IR 573.

[6] [2004] 2 IR 573, at p. 594.

[7] [2009] IEHC 288.

[8] [2009] IEHC 288, at paragraph  88.

[9] [2013] IEHC 334 Paragraphs  15-18. Internal citations omitted.

[10] [2011] IEHC 235.

#Blog ‘Crime, Disorder and Symbolic Violence’ by Matt Bowden

25 Oct

The Irish Criminology Research Network is very pleased to present a guest blog from Dr Matt Bowden. Matt has written a blog on his new book (forthcoming, November 2014) from Palgrave, Crime, Disorder and Symbolic Violence: Governing the Urban Periphery. His guest blog provides an overview of the work, and a fascinating insight into the continued relevance of its subject matter and the publishing process.

What I have tried to do in Crime, Disorder and Symbolic Violence is to use some of Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas on the formation of the state to draw out a theory of governance of territories and of subjects. In this way we might come to understand state power as a penetrating force in physical space, symbolic space and in social space. Like Gramsci, Bourdieu was interested in the state’s quest for legitimate power as an agent of dominant classes. However Bourdieu’s emphasis is upon the use of symbolic violence – the manipulation of meaning through the imposition of arbitrary frames on reality. The state therefore acts as the shaper of conscience and appoints and legitimises various institutions and allies into this project.

In a nutshell, I have put forward a theoretical case of symbolic violence. This centres on how youth crime and disorder was dealt with in the urban periphery. Previously many social scientists had sought to conduct, like the social Darwinists at the Chicago School, ecologically informed studies of the inner-city. My focus was on the urban periphery as a new socio-spatial formation – seen by politicians and planners as a developmental environment that was supposed to be an improvement on the living conditions experienced by the working classes in inner-city areas. The outbreaks of urban disorder in these planned communities in the 1990s were upsetting for all those planners and beneficent politicians who built them. Manuel Castells in his book City, Class and Power spoke of the urban periphery as a productive ensemble of labour and the means of production: the Irish urban periphery, primarily in Dublin was an ensemble of labour power and little else. Industrial policy in the 1980s had dispersed new FDI based industries to the provinces, leaving cities surrounded by pools of surplus labour – the very conditions for urban disorder. Hence that state had to make a phoenix-like resurrection after its own benign neglect, and this is best captured in the report of the Interdepartmental Group on Urban Crime and Disorder published in 1993. Recognising the wider complexities of the problems in the urban periphery, the report effectively placed the Department of Justice as a central driver of development in a number of governing arenas. It had to find additional ways of penetrating the space and the people who lived there. Thus the argument of the book is the state found itself governing its way out of a crisis through symbolic violence.

It took me a long time to write this book but I have long since given up on seeing that as a shortcoming. Apart from the fact that the subject matter is of a type that needed the passage of time to protect those who informed it, the finished product I hope has an aged flavour. An article that I wrote based upon this book was rejected by two international journals.  Of course I could have done a better job writing it but a reviewer in one journal said that it was dealing with historical events that did not reflect what was happening in the country now. My initial anger on reading this turned later to pity for that poor soul as this year I watched, read and listened to day after day reports about how the police were treating whistleblowers, reports of the secretive and silo culture in the Department of Justice, and the cosy relationship that existed between government and police. I am very pleased that the book will be a repository for the 15 years I put into researching and writing this material and so I am cool with that.

Crime Disorder and Symbolic Violence

#Blog ‘PhDs in Prague: ESC 2014’

29 Sep

The 14th annual European Society of Criminology Conference was held in Prague from 10-13 September this year; 2014 saw a sizeable Irish contingent in attendance, with quite a few PhD students attending, some for the first time. This blog publishes the abstracts of Irish PhD students which were presented at Prague, and provides some impressions of the conference.

Prague by night... crawling with Irish criminologists!

Prague by night… crawling with Irish criminologists!

Louise Rooney

I am currently entering the third year of my PhD in the Sutherland Law School, University College Dublin. The aim of my research is to investigate the decision-making processes of criminal justice professionals when managing female offenders, with a particular focus on female child sexual abusers. Over the past couple of months I have developed my research methodology and at present I am going through the ethics process. I hope to start data collection before Christmas.

I am a member of the ESC working group ‘Gender, Crime and Justice’ that is chaired by Professor Loraine Gelsthorpe from the University of Cambridge. I presented a paper at the 14th annual Eurocrim conference as part of the panel session Gender, Crime and Justice: Methodological and Conceptual Challenges. This was my third time presenting at a criminology conference and on the morning of my presentation I was extremely nervous and felt quite intimidated by the number of high calibre academics that I was surrounded by! However, it was apparent on my arrival that the conference environment had a warm and friendly feel and I was instantly put at ease. I felt that my presentation went very well. I received a lot of positive feedback and some really helpful advice regarding my research methodology.

During the conference Loraine Gelsthorpe and Michele Burman hosted a lunch meeting for the members of the Gender, Crime, and Justice Working Group. Whilst attending this meeting I was lucky enough to casually chat with a number of researchers from all over Europe who had similar research interests as myself.

Throughout the course of the four days I attended a number of panel sessions which I found to be extremely informative and interesting. Overall, I thought the conference had a very welcoming atmosphere, was exceptionally well organised, and covered an enormous variety of criminological topics. I definitely plan to return next year!


Words and Numbers: Introducing a New Methodological Framework for Investigating the Response of Professionals to Female Perpetrated Child Sexual Abuse

Over the past couple of decades the Republic of Ireland has witnessed an upsurge in research interest into the incidence of child sexual abuse. However, the majority of this research has focused on male abusers and their victims whilst the issue of female perpetrated child sexual abuse has been largely overlooked. Findings from victim surveys demonstrate an Irish prevalence rate of female perpetrated child sexual abuse of between of 3-7%, yet to date only a minimal amount of research attention has been allocated to investigating the response of professionals to female child sexual abusers and their victims.

A small body of international research suggests that female perpetrators of child sexual abuse are treated more leniently than their male counterparts by professionals working at every stage of the criminal justice process. This paper will review the existing theoretical and empirical knowledge concerning the response of professionals to reports of child sexual abuse and why it can differ according to the gender of the perpetrator.

The majority of research investigating the response of professionals to female perpetrated child sexual abuse has been carried out using quantitative measures. Whilst quantitative measures are extremely efficient methodological tools, in that they allow the researcher to gather a large amount of information from a great number of participants in a short period of time, some theorists argue that quantitative analysis is only capable of generating one-dimensional findings which can result in a shallow understanding of the issue at hand. The author will contribute to the existing body of research by employing an innovative methodological framework that will incorporate both quantitative and qualitative measures.   The incorporation of qualitative data collection techniques will allow the researcher to explore the attitudes and decision-making processes of professionals in greater depth, thereby elucidating any bias or distortions in responses to female perpetrated child sexual abuse. 

The aim of this paper is to present a new methodology for studying this issue within an Irish context. The author will outline the qualitative and quantitative data collection methods that have been selected for the current research project and the corresponding methods of analysis will also be discussed.

Kate O’Hara

Let’s talk about PREP baby!

This was my first time attending the ESC. In fact, the first time I attended any large criminology conference. As a novice I did not know what to expect, therefore relied heavily on my fellow attendees to fill me in. The abstract had been written and accepted months in advance, but the real prep took place in the weeks approaching our departure. There is more to getting ready to go to a conference than writing the abstract, getting it accepted, putting together your presentation, and rehearsing it. Weather updates, appropriate attire, and socialising etiquette were all thrashed out via email well in advance. Once the programme was available online the stalking took place. Who was I presenting with? Who did I know attending? The PREP accumulated into hours and days.

Presentation written, boarding passes printed, directions to our accommodation sorted, I was nearly set to go. Of course I left my packing to the night before and faced the usual Ryanair dilemma. How was I going to fit all my stuff in this carry on case? I needed to bring my laptop, maybe I didn’t needed that many shoes! By 11pm, I had it sorted.

The PREP continued once I got to the conference. Examining the conference programme I plotted out my plan. Early mornings and late evenings were required, but that’s part and parcel of the ESC I’m told! Preparing for my presentation required some last minute tweaks and a quick run through. I found somewhere to print my notes and some last minute prep with Lyns right before helped sooth the nerves. The prep paid off, my paper went well. Although there were only a few attendees, questions and discussion arose. I was happy.

BUT you can’t prepare everything! You can’t always pre-empt the questions, the discourse, how other studies will make you consider your work differently. You can’t prepare for the conversations you’ll have with colleagues and others PhDs travelling on the doctoral roller-coaster. You cannot prepare for this part of the conference. Everyone’s experience is different. It is these encounters that makes all that PREP worth it! Here’s to Porto 2015, from an enthusiastic ESC novice.


A comparative study of short custodial and community service populations in Ireland: Examining sentencing in a highly discretionary system

As a result of an over-reliance on short prison sentences, Ireland introduced the Criminal Justice(Community Service)(Amendment) Act 2011 requiring courts to give greater consideration to Community Service Orders in cases where prison sentences of less than 12 months are deemed appropriate. A Community Service Order is a direct prison alternative requiring an offender to complete between 40 and 240 hours unpaid community work, in lieu of a prison term. To date, the empirical research concerning the operation of these community sanctions has been limited to oversight reports commissioned by government departments. Ireland’s highly discretionary and unstructured sentencing system provides a rare opportunity to study the behaviour of judges when relatively free of externally imposed constraints. While this is so, few have investigated sentencing trends, attempted to examine judicial influences or succeeded in prompting the reform of sentencing practices. This paper will investigate and compare factors influencing decision-making in these cases. Administrative data collected by three criminal justice agencies, pertaining to all adults sentenced to a short term of imprisonment (n = 6608) or a Community Service Order (n = 4594) between 2011 and 2012 were linked and analysed. Predictors of group membership, between group differences, as well as geographical and court variations in sentencing outcomes are presented as is an in-depth account of methodologies used. Results and implications for policy are discussed.

Aoife Watters

At the recent European Society of Criminology Conference in the beautiful city of Prague I gave a presentation on the operation of the prison disciplinary system in 19th century Ireland.  I began the presentation by briefly introducing the audience to what daily life was like in an ordered 19th century prison in Ireland and to how life differed for male and female prisoners. A corrective holistic penal policy had operated in Irish prisons from approximately the mid-19th century. The role that the disciplinary system played in the overall corrective policy was considered; it promoted the maintenance of order in prisons and encouraged the reformation of unruly prisoners. I then illuminated the discussion with findings from prison records held in the National Archives and attempted to provide an explanation for the differences found in the operation of the discipline system in the male and female prisons. This presentation forms part of the historical context of my PhD research which is titled ‘Gender and Control in Irish Prisons: The Prison Disciplinary System’.

The Panel on which I was speaking was titled ‘Imprisonment from Female Perspectives’.  The four presentations were from different jurisdictions and so a thought-provoking discussion ensued despite the session’s start at 8:30am which was preceded by the Conference dinner the previous night!

From a personal point of view it was really interesting to meet up with researchers from other jurisdictions who are carrying out research of a similar nature. From our discussions it seems that our research may very well reveal different findings and so it will be exciting to watch unfold. Getting to meet up with fellow Irish criminology PhD students also proved to be a source of inspiration and enjoyment! The trials and tribulations of being a PhD student can at times be overwhelming and so it is always good to ease the burden with other similarly-minded people! I am already looking to the ESC Conference 2015!


The maintenance of order is an important aim of prisons; Sykes declared that after custody the next most important aim of a prison is the maintenance of internal order. To maintain order a number of control mechanisms are employed by prisons, one of which is the formal disciplinary system. Indeed the formal disciplinary system has been described as being at the heart of maintaining good order and discipline in prisons (King 1985). This system, generally speaking, consists of rules and sanctions for breaches of the rules. The operation of the disciplinary system can differ substantially between prisons due to, inter alia, the heterogeneous characteristics of prisoners detained in a prison. The disciplinary process also impacts on prisoners to different extents. Research has shown that prisoners’ gender can affect the operation of the disciplinary system and it also has a bearing on the impacts of the process for prisoners. This paper offers broad analysis of the use of the disciplinary system as a control mechanism in Irish prisons. Preliminary insights from prisoner interview data will seek to identify whether the discipline system operates differently in male and female prisons and has different impacts on male and female prisoners in Ireland. The research will be discussed in the context of findings from other countries.

Colette Barry

Like some of my fellow contributors, this was my first excursion to the ESC conference. For the uninitiated, the sheer scale of the event can be momentarily overwhelming (this year’s conference hosted a whopping 1,078 participants and 799 papers!). Once you get over seeing that many criminologists in one room, it’s easy to settle in (and begin worrying about your own paper!).

I was quite fortunate to be placed on a panel alongside papers that would have been top of my ‘to see’ list. Our panel, ‘Power of institution: Different perspectives on the treatment of prisoners’ included papers from Alison Liebling on the changing shape of maximum security custody in England and Wales, Marie Hutton on power and the ‘unsentenced’ body, and Tim McSweeney on prison absconders. My own paper focused on major incidents in prison officer work, exploring some early findings from my PhD research on Irish prison officers’ experiences of deaths in custody. I commenced with a discussion of the importance of prison officers’ experiences of major incidents in our understanding of prison officer culture, highlighting the scant extant research in this area. Following this, I moved to explore three emergent themes in my study: resilience, professionalism and coping. The paper concluded with an optimistic ‘call to arms’, discussing the future potential for research in this area and encouraging participants to explore the experience of major prison incidents with officers in their own jurisdictions. The Q&A session afterwards was most enjoyable, and I was grateful for the advice of one or two participants with regard to progressing my research.

As I am approaching the final stages of my data collection, the ESC was one of my first opportunities to disseminate my research findings and I would heartily recommend to fellow PhDers at the same stage in their own studies. It was also a wonderful opportunity to meet fellow early career researchers from all corners of the globe. This year’s conference also saw a strong Irish contingent in attendance, with many Irish participants presenting papers across a variety of panels. The diverse range of research disseminated was a wonderful showcase for Irish criminology, demonstrating how criminological research continues to flourish on these shores.


‘You just get on with the job’: Exploring resilience, coping and the importance of professionalism among prison officers who have experience of dealing with a major prison incident

The prison is a unique and peculiar workplace, and one that does not always run smoothly. Major incidents, such as collective prisoner dissent, prisoner fatalities, serious violence and hostage situations become a common experience for many prison officers over time. While recent years have seen the expansion in understanding of prison officers as researchers turn their attention to the working lives and cultures of prison staff, certain aspects of prison officer work remain curiously under-discussed. Among these lesser-explored areas is the experience of dealing with major incidents. This paper seeks to contribute to the developing prison officer literature by shedding light on this aspect of prison officer work, framed within the specific context of officers’ experiences of deaths in custody. Findings from a qualitative study comprising a series of in-depth narrative interviews with prison officers who have experience of dealing with a prisoner fatality will be reported. Discussion will focus on officers’ accounts of their approach to dealing with a death in custody, both in the immediate aftermath and in the days and weeks following the event. The paper will explore the impact of dealing with a prisoner’s death on officers’ perspectives on their roles, and will consider officers’ strategies for coping and moving on following their experiences. Following this, officers’ reflections on the importance of appearing resilient and capable, both during the incident and in the aftermath will be discussed. The paper will then move to examine the high value placed upon professionalism by officers, particularly in the context of officers’ actions and decisions during the immediate response to the incident. Finally, the need for further research in this area will be articulated, emphasising the significance of future scholarship on prison officers’ experiences of major incidents as a vital contribution to existing knowledge of the working lives and cultures of prison staff, and criminological research more generally.

James Maher

PhD student at University College Dublin.


The idea for this presentation arose when carrying out a review of existing literature during my doctoral research. My PhD thesis is examining issues currently effecting foreign national prisoners in Ireland, but this talk will focus specifically on the history of imprisonment of foreign nationals in Ireland. While significant rates of immigration have undoubtedly been a relatively recent development, foreign national prisoners have still been detained here at various stages throughout the past. The scope of this presentation will cover a time period going back before Ireland gained its independence from the United Kingdom right up to the present day. Ireland was without question an extremely homogenous country until the 1990’s, when immigration became much more widespread. Despite these recent demographic changes Ireland has a much longer history of foreign national prisoners than one might initially envisage. For example, during both the First and Second World Wars citizens of other states were detained in Ireland. Such historical incidents will be examined during the presentation. In 2002, the first time a question regarding nationality was included in census questionnaires, 7% of the population were foreign nationals. Since the accession of ten new member states to the European Union that same year the level of immigration has increased significantly. The most recent census in 2011 showed that 544,000 people from 196 countries now lived in Ireland, making up 11.7% of the population. This sudden increase has inevitably coincided with a greater number of foreign national prisoners in Irish prisons. Prison statistics will be utilised to show the change in Ireland’s prison population over this period.

Slides from the conference presentation are available here:

Lynsey Black

I’m beginning the fourth year of my PhD in the Law School of Trinity College Dublin. My research explores women sentenced to death in Ireland in the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, unearthing the narratives used in the construction of the death-sentenced women, and exploring how gendered norms contributed to judicial disposal. I am also interested in the evolving cultural meaning of death-sentenced women and my research encompasses the entirety of discourse on a case. Case-studies are therefore constituted by findings gleaned from more recent writings and representations such as, for example, true crime writing, fictional representations, and television documentaries.

Conferences present their own special terror. They offer a chance to gorge on ideas and research which can be overwhelming. The timetable can be gruelling as the conference programme becomes a tattered rag reminiscent of a festival programme with its pen-marked circles and stars. There’s also the sometime surreal experience which comes from seeing your discipline en masse, comprised of actual people; faces to put to the articles and books. The fear for a PhD can often be palpable. Will anyone turn up for your paper (a very real fear!), will anyone ask a question, will anyone ask a stubbornly difficult question which exposes the paper and shames the presenter? In Prague, however, with the truly amazing support of my fellow PhDs, the Irish contingent (we need a catchier title), the experience was rewarding and, above all, lots of fun.

The paper I presented in Prague, The Construction of Gender in a Death Sentence Case: “Miss Cadden Found Guilty of Murdering Mrs O’Reilly’ took as its starting point one of my case-studies, the case of Mamie Cadden. However, its scope extended to include how both offender and victim were represented and provided a critique of the limited ways in which both Mamie Cadden and Helen O’Reilly were constructed.

In Prague I was fortunate enough to be part of a pre-submitted panel with David Doyle and Diarmuid Griffin. Under the title of ‘The Ultimate Penalty: Past, Present and Parole’ the papers traced the trajectory of the mandatory penalty for murder in Ireland since Independence. David Doyle provided a critical overview of capital punishment in Ireland, including its political meanings and gradual ebbing away towards total abolition in the referendum of 2001. Diarmuid Griffin presented research on the rationale behind decision-making in the parole process in Ireland relating to the release of life sentenced prisoners. The opportunity to locate my own research within this narrative was a welcome one, and the panel had a thematic coherency which situated my own work on the Cadden case within an historical context. At the 2013 conference, held in Budapest, I had presented on another of my case-studies, I can only hope that at some future ESC conference I can deliver a dazzling paper which is drawn from a completed piece of research! That’s the point of all this, right?


The case of Mamie Cadden presents an opportunity to explore an Irish death penalty case according to a gendered analysis. Mamie Cadden was sentenced to death in 1956 for the murder of Helen O’Reilly, who died during an illegal abortion procedure. The case study demonstrates how stereotypical notions of femininity were used as an unattainable yardstick, and how both women were constructed in court and in the media as failing this standard. Cadden became a notorious mythical monster while O’Reilly was presented as a nullified victim. The case provides an interesting opportunity to employ a gendered critique for both the accused and the victim, and touches on themes of monsterisation, madness and ideal victimhood, maternity and propriety.