Fergus McNeill is a Professor of Criminology and Social Work at the University of Glasgow. His research focuses on institutions, cultures, and practices of both punishment and rehabilitation. He has significant involvement with a number of criminal justice charities, including CLINKS, Faith in Throughcare, ‘Positive Prisons? Positive Futures…’, the Scottish Association for the Study of Offending and Vox Liminis. His All Souls Seminar focused on his recently released book, ‘Pervasive Punishment: making sense of mass supervision’, situating it in wider works regarding supervision and ethnography.

A recording of this talk is available here.

Professor McNeill argued that ethnographies are not just about knowledge generation, but also about incorporating creative methods to offer better public engagement. A central concern of those studying penal supervision is the lack of ‘visibility’ of the issue, both within academic circles and within the public domain. This failure to ‘see’ has social and personal impacts on those under supervision. One example here is that of Lavinia Woodward, an Oxford student convicted of stabbing her boyfriend. Much of the reporting on her trial and sentencing focused on the controversy of her receiving a 10 month suspended sentence rather than a prison sentence, as would be the usual punishment for a crime of that severity. Professor McNeill argued this stemmed from a public inability to visualise what a suspended sentence might look like, rather than if she had been imprisoned. If we cannot imagine supervision, he asked, how can we measure its fairness or utility? ‘Mass’ supervision has several aspects. It can include the number of people supervised, the social concentration of supervision, the mass treatment of social groups as a single whole, and finally the penal burden of being supervised.

In defining supervision, it must be acknowledged that the definition used in the United States is different to that used in Europe, as the European definition excludes those who are currently incarcerated. Supervisory measures can include both parole and electric monitoring, and community sanctions such as probation and community service. Professor McNeill argues that just looking at incarceration misconstrues the picture of the penal population; in order to fully understand the carceral state all mass punishments must be included.

The book, ‘Pervasive Punishment’, first addresses the pervasiveness of punishment, and the changing nature of punishment – particularly the rise of ‘mass supervision’ - which today (it is argued) is more invasive and intrusive than ever before. It then moves on to the origins of pervasive punishment, most notably its grounding in movements for social change and the reconfiguration of the penal state to increase the number of supervisory sentences. Professor McNeill then turned to the statistics of supervision, focusing on the cases of Scotland and the USA. Roughly three individuals are under supervision for every one person incarcerated. Furthermore, there has been a simultaneous growth of both incarceration and supervision across all jurisdictions examined. The book then addresses the increasing legitimisation of mass supervision through media narratives on managerialisation, punitiveness, rehabilitation and repatriation. Particularly visible in the Scottish example is that prison reductionist and welfarist movements have been complicit in this expansion, and overall failed to recognise the harms of supervision. The book also addresses the experiences of those under supervision, directions for new criminological works in this field, and predicting future developments in supervision.

Professor McNeill identified three unusual features of his work: first, he incorporates the use of fiction, with a short story following the journey of a fictional individual under supervision included in each chapter—he describes this as a ‘sociological fiction’ as it is informed by and developed from his research; secondly, his research includes visual techniques such as photography; and finally, the use of music and songwriting as an expression of the experience of being supervised.

Next, Professor McNeill discussed his approach to ethnography in more depth. His research builds on previous works such as prison ethnographies and post-release ethnographies. He argues that the risk of recidivism causes significant problems for the supervised, seeing risk reducing behaviours as performance, and this form of rehabilitation as a sort of psychological control. That those under supervision are constantly subject to recall continues the psychological control the state has over them. These psychological pressures are invisible to the observer but prevent supervisees from being truly able to live a normal life. Supervision was examined comparatively, through studying the lived experiences of those under supervision in different countries. Participants were asked to take photos which demonstrated their experiences of being supervised, and then discuss these photographs in focus groups. Professor McNeill found many examples of shared experiences across diverse populations. Consistent themes included: constraint, in terms of feeling infantilised or even dehumanised; time, either lost, suspended, or interrupted; waste, though this theme could include the participant seeing themselves as waste, or as them getting rid of their waste; judgement, this being the only universally negative theme; and growth, which while beneficial, could also be painful.

Focusing initially on the theme of judgement, Professor McNeill took the photographs from previous research to a songwriting workshop with individuals under supervision and professional musicians. These workshops opened with a performance, with the photographs acting as stimuli to write and record songs about life under supervision. Professor McNeill discussed two of the songs produced in depth: ‘Blankface’ and 'Helping Hand’, which can be listened to here. The narrative of ‘Blankface’ focuses on how draining the experience of supervision can be. From this, Professor McNeill developed a framework he terms ‘malopticon’, which unlike panopticon, is not about disciplinary architecture, but instead is a series of degrading processes occurring alongside discipline. These start with misrecognition and objectification, followed by degradation, reification, and projection. One supervised individual stated ‘the more you struggle the more tightly detained you become’; struggling amplifies the malopticon process. Professor McNeill explored these themes in greater depth in an article which can be found here. In contrast to this, in ‘Helping Hand’, the narrative constructed was one of a positive experience; the supervised individual finds supervision helpful and reassuring, and as a legitimate part of the punishment for his crime. Through undergoing the supervision process, he finds himself earning a second chance.

Professor McNeill then turned to the future of mass supervision. His book provides alternate endings to the short story series, one a ‘good’ scenario, and the other a ‘bad’ scenario of the potential futures of supervision; in the first, probation is a benign diversion, and in the second, malign net-widening has taken place. Overall, he argues that narratives of rehabilitation act as a fig leaf to cover the failure of the system to reintegrate prisoners. His final chapter examines the principles needed to improve the current system: parsimony, proportionality, and productiveness. He further argues that issues such as these require not just ‘visual’ but ‘sensory’ criminologies that we can feel and be affected by, in order to better understand the experiences of the individuals we study; while this will not work in all contexts, it is a valid and valuable tool of scholarship. Exemplifying this, the video of his book launch event is available here.

Questions to Professor McNeill first invited him to expand on his forthcoming works on improving the parole system. Drawing on Judith Butler, he argued that the liberal state is founded on a gendered, racialized and propertied subject, leading to a justice system that primarily serves the interests of white, middle-class men, therefore increased intersectionality in scholarship and practice is necessary to address these shortcomings. Discussion then turned to defining which measures can be included in the definition of punishment. For example, many individuals who receive welfare benefits are treated similarly to those under penal supervision. Professor McNeill argues for the use of a sociological rather than a legal definition of punishment, as this can be better applied across jurisdictions. If individuals suffer as a result of coercive judiciary (or quasi judiciary) decisions, then these experiences are encompassed in his understanding of punishment. Supervision, he argues, can interfere with an individual’s human rights, and the resulting lack of autonomy, whether intended as painful or not, is experienced as painful. Seminar attendees then questioned who Professor McNeill is referring to when he argues that mass supervision is not seen; as the phenomenon is so widespread, many groups, particularly ethnic minorities and the working class, have direct experience with supervision. Professor McNeill acknowledged that using the arts as outreach focuses on a primarily middle-class audience, however, he argued, this audience still needs to be made aware and educated. Also briefly discussed were the issues of vulnerability triggered by supervision, and the impact of supervision on families.


Post by Toni Brunton-Douglas

Current MSc Criminology and Criminal Justice Student