The shadow of penal supervision

The Ubiquity of Supervision

I’m pleased to report that chapter 1 of the book is ‘in the can’ — at least as a first draft, and that 3 wise scholars and good (critical) friends have agreed to review it for me.

Like many authors (I imagine), I find the blank page more than a little intimidating. In truth, my page 1 was not quite blank — I had the extract of the short story that I shared in a previous post. But I still had to decide how to start the ‘academic’ writing. One easy and perhaps lazy way to get something, anything, on the page is to think about the structure of the argument. Another is to start with definitions or at least clarifications of terminology. So, I did a bit of both. I recognised that I had to say something about the book’s title, ‘Pervasive Punishment’; a title that obviously begs the question, ‘pervasive in what sense/s?’. I’ll come back to that question in a moment.

Equally, the term ‘mass supervision’ needed some initial unravelling (or ‘de-fankling’, as we say in Scots). Leaving aside the question of what sorts of supervision the term implies, what do we mean by ‘mass’? Is this just a question of volume and social distribution (i.e. how many of which ‘sorts’ of people come to be supervised)? Even then, against what scale are we measuring? Is the comparison with our past, or with other places, or with other sorts of sanction? Is the adjective ‘mass’ also an allusion towards the aggregation of individuals into ‘masses’ for criminal justice processing — a kind of objectivisation and de-individualisation? Does ‘mass’ also refer to weight — is it or can it be about the heaviness of the burdens of supervision? ‘Mass’ is not just an adjective then; it is a series of metaphors — and different chapters in the book will try to explore each of these senses of ‘mass’, linked to volume or scale, aggregation or individualisation, and heaviness.

Although I have already used the title ‘Pervasive Punishment’ for a co-authored book chapter (Fitzgibbon, Graebsch and McNeill, 2017), I went back to the Oxford English Dictionary — mainly to reassure myself about the appropriateness of the word ‘pervasive’. The OED says that pervasive is an adjective that refers to ‘[h]aving the quality or power of pervading; penetrative, permeative, ubiquitous.’ Pervading, in turn, means ‘[t]hat pervades; that passes or spreads through…’. These definitions capture very well what the book is about. My argument is that supervision is pervasive both in the lives of supervisees (which was the focus of that recent co-authored chapter) and that it is pervasive in the social sense; it has spread through and across societies, although unevenly.

That said, the term ‘ubiquitous’ made me pause for thought. Do I want to go that far? Ubiquitous can sometimes mean ‘everywhere’ but is also used to mean ‘very common’. I suppose this second sense of the term does work in this context. For some sections of the populations of some countries at least, to be supervised in the criminal justice system is a commonplace experience.

But thinking a little more laterally, supervision itself really is everywhere. If we set aside the context of punishment, we are all subject to supervision in various domains of life; whether home and family or work or play. That observation reminded me of one of the songs written in the ‘Seen and Heard’ workshop in Glasgow a couple of years ago — which was performed at the recent Howard League Scotland event in Edinburgh. ‘You’re Waiting’ was written by Richard Bull. The song was inspired by two photographs. One, taken by a supervisee, shows a clock at 0:00. The other is the image at the top of this post — of a probation waiting room (taken by a supervisor).  Richard writes: “The words began with…  the photos, and lines that were written beneath them [by other workshop participants]: “What happens if I’m late?” and “Waiting for someone that never comes”. The alarm clock and the waiting room. From there I took the idea of me being late, and someone waiting for me.  It then developed into a song about my daughter – that I won’t always be there in person for her, and that she’ll be fine.” You can listen to the song here: You’re Waiting

Louis Abbott (who wrote the music and who performed on and produced this recording) sang this song at the beginning of the recent HLS event and, for a moment, I wondered if we should just stop there. There is so much in the words and music, and in the tension between care and control, between holding and releasing, that they convey. “It’s a question of balance: a watchful eye. To keep you safe but let you fly”. I imagine that every parent reading this — and maybe every child who has been parented — can relate to those words and the endless dilemmas, conflicts, arguments and reconciliations that they sum up.

Of course, the analogy between parenting and supervision in the criminal justice supervision is a problematic one. Parenting is not, in and of itself, a penal process. Though discipline is certainly part of it, parenting does not set out to impose ‘hard treatment’ on children. Rather, it is or should be directed at securing children’s wellbeing and development.  That loving intention, and our recognition of children’s developing but still limited capacities, is what gives parental supervision its legitimacy. It is also what sets limits on parental control or constraint.

Penal supervision is clearly different. Even so, the picture above of the waiting room seems oddly infantilising. There is or should be something fundamentally troubling about supervision in the criminal justice system degrading [adult] citizens into people who, like children, need to be watched and perhaps cons/trained before they can be released. In continental Europe, the English word rehabilitation is sometimes translated as ‘resocialisation’. It’s a word that sends shudders down my spine. Although I know this is not usually what is intended by the term, resocialisation makes me think of dystopian and/or totalitarian penal regimes where people are sent to be ‘re-programmed’ as compliant citizens, the assumption being that they haven’t learned to think correctly for themselves.

But supervision need not be infantilising. Indeed, recognising its penal character might help us to avoid that danger. Treating people subject to supervision as adult, rights-bearing citizens engaged in a dialogue about their punishment and reintegration may be challenging, but I think it is what is required to make supervision legitimate. The constraints that supervision imposes need to be justified; they themselves need to be constrained. It is indeed ‘a question of balance’. We need to keep a watchful eye on the proportionality of supervision’s demands — especially if supervision is becoming a pervasive punishment.

Click below to read a little more about the Seen and Heard project and to listen to Richard Bull’s podcast about the songwriting workshop:

Supervision: Seen And Heard


Fitzgibbon, W., Graebsch, C. and McNeill, F. (2017) ‘Pervasive Punishment: Experiencing Supervision’ in Carrabine, E. and Brown, M. (eds.) The Routledge International Handbook of Visual Criminology. London: Routledge.

1 Comment

  1. Thoughtful piece. The insurmountable difficulty for me is the idea of a self-policing supervision body which does not make paternalistic decisions. I think supervision can be less infantilising, but only because it is often so incredibly infantilising right now. Viewing supervisees as equals would be unthinkable to most practitioners, but that, at least in my humble opinion, is what is needed.

    Ps. Look forward to the book

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