Dr Layla Skinns is a Reader at the Centre for Criminology Research, University of Sheffield. She has formerly worked and studied at the Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge and the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, King’s College London. She has conducted extensive research on ‘good’ police custody, arising out of a five-year Economic and Social Research Council funded mixed-methods study. Her All Souls seminar focused on a particularly novel aspect of this research, specifically how the material conditions of police custody interact with detainee experiences of dignity.

Material conditions can shape dimensions of dignity amongst detainees within police custody. Dr Skinns explored this proposition by examining materiality, dignity and material conditions.

Dr Skinns initially focused on the concept of materiality. Rather than seeing a clear divide between the subject and object, this approach establishes a symbiotic relationship between the two. Objects are imbued with a certain level of agency, and can both be influenced by and influence subjects. See work by Tessa Diphoorn who establishes that ‘materials should be regarded as actors – as actants – that do a wide range of things, shape subject formation, and produce a myriad of social relations’. While this approach has garnered much attention within the realm of prison literature, there has been less consideration within the world of policing. Research has focused on the role technology plays in police work, while limited consideration has been given to how objects may influence and shape police practices. In viewing police custody through the lens of materiality, Dr Skinns seeks to bridge the divide between literature on prisons and literature on policing.

Before examining the connection between dignity and material conditions, Dr Skinns ensured the seminar audience had a basic familiarity with the material conditions of police custody. Dr Skinns presented a video produced by Norfolk Constabulary, that was a staged tour of Wymondham police custody. It portrayed police detention as clinical and bare. It also revealed the way detainees engage with a series of invasive technologies during their period of detention. As the video was being shown, I could not help but consider the unintentional pertinence of the accompanying music, assumedly chosen by Norfolk Constabulary. The suspenseful and ominous music, reminiscent of the notable soundtrack from the dramatic film Requiem for a Dream, set the tone for the subsequent discussion of the impact of material conditions, including soundscapes.

To allow for definitional clarity, Dr Skinns established a clear framework within which her research on material conditions and dignity was conducted. Dr Skinns initially established three relevant dimensions of dignity: (i) equal worth, (ii) autonomy, and (iii) privacy. Following this, she defined five categories within which material conditions can be placed: (i) physical environment, (ii) design and layout, (iii) technology and equipment, (iv) smells and soundscapes, and (v) objects. Within this framework, Dr Skinns established that material conditions have a structuring effect on the three dimensions of dignity.

Dr Skinns considered equal worth first and found that objects in the form of food and drink had a clear impact on detainee feelings of equal worth. She referenced a particular detainee, who exclaimed that ‘I still need to be fed. I still need to drink. They still ask me do I want anything’. This simple gesture ensured that feelings of equal worth were enhanced for this particular detainee. Yet there were also situations were food and drink resulted in a denial of feelings of equal worth amongst detainees. Turning then to negative consequences of material conditions in regards to privacy, Dr Skinns explained how the prevalence of technology in the form of closed-circuit television (CCTV) contributed to a significant lack of privacy for detainees. Finally, she found that the autonomy of detainees was impacted by a number of material conditions, including soundscapes and objects. Her discussion of the negative consequences in relation to toilet paper and clothing was particularly confronting. Dr Skinns found that toilet paper was sometimes denied if detainees were seen as non-compliant or at risk of self-harm. Similarly, non-compliant detainees sometimes had their clothes removed and were placed into rip proof clothing. These problematic material conditions served to reinforce the loss of autonomy felt by detainees. Yet Dr Skinns was also careful to emphasise that alongside these material conditions, the importance of social relations cannot be ignored. The relationship between material conditions as ‘agents’ and social relations, within police custody, represents a little understood area that would benefit from further research.

The inequitable relationship between police and detainees in police custody existed as an underlying current throughout the work. Detainees are more likely to be from marginalised, vulnerable and disenfranchised groups. This inequitable relationship leads to a  question of whether the negative material conditions are in some circumstances intentional, in other words, whether policy custody is designed in a certain way so as to maintain inequitable power relations. While Dr Skinns noted that her research does not examine this particular question, an answer to this question should be prioritised for further research. Dr Skinns has produced a set of ‘good practice’ recommendations that ensure dignity is designed into police custody. An understanding of the intentionality behind the material conditions within police custody, may establish whether an attitudinal shift is required that will ensure these recommendations are supported.

Dr Skinns presented an insightful approach to how materiality may influence and shape detainee feelings of dignity within police custody.  Police custody is a space where existing power dynamics are easily exacerbated. In such circumstances, the dignity of detainees is more easily eroded. One can therefore only hope that the police respond to these findings in an engaged and open manner. Just as Dr Skinns has listened to detainees, it is time for the police to do the same. 

Blog Post: Samantha O’Donnell (MSc Criminology and Criminal Justice)