This blog entry launches a new series of voices from the recent past.

Guest post by Oliver Robertson

Oxford Criminology alumnus, Oliver Robertson, charts his intellectual journey from children of prisoners to death penalty abolition.

Credit: c/o PRI
I came to Oxford because I wanted to find out more about children of prisoners. I left Oxford because I wanted to find out more about children of prisoners.

Having looked into the issue of children of prisoners while spending a year working as a programme assistant at the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva, one thing that became apparent was that there was very little research done in this area, especially internationally. So what better way to find out than at university? You get access to information, support from knowledgeable professionals, a degree of credibility and (if you’re lucky) funding. So I applied for the Criminology Masters course at Oxford.

I soon realised that a year wasn’t long enough to find out everything I wanted to. In particular, I was interested in looking into the differences between countries on how long mothers can have their children live with them in prison. The UK, for example, only permits children under 18 months to live with their mother, the Netherlands allows four years and Germany six. All include in their reasoning the best interests of the child: up until that age the damage of being separated from your mother is worse than the negative impacts of living in prison, but afterwards the situation is reversed. I wanted to follow children in these and other countries, looking at which situation had the best short- and long-term outcomes for them.

But then a job appeared. My old employers at QUNO had been part of a successful EU research funding bid and I returned to Geneva to lead our contribution to the COPING Project on children of prisoners and mental health (the results of our three years are collected in a large pdf you can download from here). Much of this was academic research – which I would not have been competent to do without the criminology course at Oxford – but there was also dissemination, making sure that whatever we found out would have some kind of policy impact; something that universities such as Oxford are increasingly focused on. A significant contribution to this was persuading the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) to hold a Day of General Discussion (DGD) on children of incarcerated parents. At the DGD, we discussed the various ways and stages that a child can be affected by a parent’s imprisonment, from arrest to trial to imprisonment to release and reintegration, and deliberated on the different needs of children living in prison with a parent and those (usually older) who remain on the outside.

A particularly poignant contribution came from Amnesty International on the impact on children when a parent faces the death penalty. As the AI representative spoke about the unresolved grief of children whose parents are executed and buried secretly so that they never get a chance to say goodbye or to visit their parent’s grave the room went quiet as people realised: “Why haven’t we thought of this before?". Considering the collateral damage of capital punishment on innocent children can make even ardent retentionists reconsider.

Subsequent to the DGD, QUNO took up the issue with a series of publications (and a video). It also encouraged bodies like the CRC to ask about this issue when reviewing how well states comply with their child rights obligations. In 2013, a month or so after I decided to leave QUNO, a job came up to manage the death penalty work at Penal Reform International. I jumped at this opportunity.

PRI has been working on death penalty abolition since it was established in 1989. Currently it is carrying out a two-year project funded by the European Union, trying to encourage countries to abolish the death penalty and implement humane alternative sanctions (meaning no life imprisonment without any possibility of release, and ensuring that prison conditions are safe and reasonable). It’s doing this in Eastern Europe (specifically Russia, which still has the death penalty in law although use of it is indefinitely forbidden, and Belarus, which continues to execute and is the only country in Europe to do so), Central Asia (Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, the last countries in the region with the death penalty on the books), East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) and the Middle East and North Africa (which includes some of the world’s most prolific executioners; we focus on some of the states where there seems to be the most chance of positive change – Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia). The work includes efforts to inform the public and change public opinion, to change the laws to limit or abolish capital punishment, and to train prison staff in human rights-compliant prison management for those facing death or serving life/long-term imprisonment.

A lot of the work is about changing minds, or in some cases giving people the support and confidence to speak out (particularly if they’re in an environment where abolitionist sentiments are not mainstream). Such efforts are long and uncertain, and largely beyond accurate measure, but as we learned from the work on children of parents sentenced to death, introducing new arguments and new issues can help create vital change. Hence, one of our activities involves looking at the wider impacts of capital punishment. Recently an excellent 4-page briefing paper explored the effect on defence lawyers of representing clients facing death, and we are hoping to produce a companion piece examining the impact on prison staff of managing people awaiting execution. Information on this issue would be most welcome – please leave comments at the bottom.

I had not taken the death penalty module while in Oxford. I’d thought it wasn’t of interest. I hadn’t considered how it connected to the other issues I was passionate about. I’m now doing one of the things that attracted me to criminology in the first place: drawing on different insights and looking from various perspectives to provide a more complete picture of a particular social issue.