On 23 May the Centre for Criminology held its 9th Annual Roger Hood Public Lecture which was given by Professor Kelly Hannah-Moffat from the University of Toronto. Sarah Turnbull, postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre and Shona Minson, DPhil Candidate provide their comments on this thrilling lecture. Read more below!


Professor Hannah-Moffat’s lecture, Moving targets: Reputational Risk, rights and accountability in punishment, examined how institutional concerns about prevention, reputational risk, and human rights have produced forms of accountability that facilitate persistent, systemic problems. Using the recent inquest into the death in custody of 19 year-old Ashley Smith, she showed how the current logics of rights compete with forms of preventative security used by prisons, and more generally criminal justice organisations to manage ‘incidents’ versus ‘individuals’ as ‘moving targets.’ The lecture was framed around answering three key questions:

  • How institutions think about and respond to calls for increased accountability to rule of law and human rights?
  • How do penal administrators attempt to protect rights, while simultaneously mitigating risk and justifying extreme interventions (prolonged isolation, chemical sedation, restraint, force, and insufficient health care)?
  • Are new modes of analysis and advocacy required?

Drawing on Michael Power’s notion of reputational risk and the literature on the ‘agency of documents,’ Professor Hannah-Moffat argued that the current penal culture of Canada’s Correctional Service is characterised by institutional protectionism and a managerialist preoccupation with audit, performance, and compliance.  Within this context, the human rights of prisoners are risks to be managed, with a focus on preventing ‘events’ (e.g., suicide, self-harm) and ‘crises’ (e.g., negative publicity, lawsuits) over individual prisoners’ needs.

Ashley Smith died from self-asphyxiation in a segregation cell at Grand Valley Institution for Women on 19 October 2007 as correctional staff watched, following instructions from senior management not to enter the cell until Ashley stopped breathing. Over six years later, a coroner’s inquest into her death ruled it was a homicide and issued over one hundred recommendations. Although undeniably a tragic and shocking case, Professor Hannah-Moffat noted that it isn’t anomalous, but rather reflects a systemic problem for female, male, and youth prisoners in Canada.

Prof Kelly Hannah Moffat: for researchers and scholars of punishment, it’s important to examine how existing norms have developed, as well as the knowledge practices, experiences, and tendencies they appear to foster.
Despite assumptions to the contrary, Ashley Smith’s death wasn’t the result of an absence of law or procedures governing the prison. Instead, as Professor Hannah-Moffat argued, Ashley died within a highly regulated context with a long history of responses to the rights of prisoners. The coroner’s inquest evidence actually shows an adherence to policy. What is not needed, then, is more rules, which can provide a pretence of accountability and transparency in an institutional context focused on reputational risk. In the case of Ashley Smith, Professor Hannah-Moffat explained that the institutional concern with reducing the number of use-of-force incidents was the primary driver behind the inaction on the part of staff to stop Ashely from choking herself. As such, more rules would not be needed when the Correctional Service was preoccupied with its compliance to existing policy and procedure.
Professor Hannah-Moffat concluded her lecture with the following findings: first, that prisoners’ rights are increasing becoming ‘risks’ to be managed; second, emergent forms of rights-based risk management are neutralising rights, as well as facilitating a penal culture wherein rights are increasingly hard to claim; third, there is a shift from the penal ‘subject’ to the penal ‘event’, albeit as competing and coexisting strategies of regulation; and fourth, for researchers and scholars of punishment, it’s important to examine how existing norms have developed, as well as the knowledge practices, experiences, and tendencies they appear to foster.