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In my opinion

Placements, police and prisons: a response from Carleton criminologists

The decision by the Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice to end undergraduate placements with police and prison authorities is not ‘academic isolationism’ but a measured response to injustice.


The Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice (ICCJ) at Carleton University recently announced a set of actions to address issues related to white supremacy, systemic racism and settler colonialism. Among these actions is the termination, starting in the 2021-2022 academic year, of all undergraduate placement positions with police and prison authorities. As we wrote in our public statement, advocacy and mobilization efforts since May 2020 have mainstreamed the extensive work and struggles by communities who are heavily impacted by police violence and mass incarceration. The ICCJ’s decision stems, in part, from growing calls for organizations to relinquish institutional and symbolic relationships with police and prison agencies.

Our decision to divest from placements with prisons and police has received considerable attention, generating both criticism and celebration. On August 31, University Affairs published a critique by our friend and colleague Kevin Haggerty. We are pleased to see a senior colleague, who has contributed like few others to the establishment and solidification of critical criminological scholarship in Canada, jump into public debates surrounding our decision. Dr. Haggerty enumerated seven arguments to explain why our decision is “worrying” and we engage with these criticisms in turn.

1. Dr. Haggerty submits that our decision testifies to a “new academic isolationism” and to an “extreme institutional isolationism” that signals a “resigned pessimism” towards policing and correctional institutions. Listing five examples, Dr. Haggerty aims to demonstrate that such institutions are not, as we affirmed in our public statement, “impervious to reform.” For instance, Dr. Haggerty points to the enactment of strategies designed to reduce harms associated with the injection of illicit drugs within federal correctional institutions. Obviously, such reforms do take place – and they will continue to take place, whether or not the ICCJ sends one or two dozen students to prison or police placements as part of their undergraduate degree in criminology. What we insisted on is that these institutions have demonstrated their imperviousness to substantive reform and their inability to address systemic racism and colonialism. Tellingly, none of the five examples listed by Dr. Haggerty are institutional reforms about systemic racism and colonialism.

2. We completely agree with Dr. Haggerty’s second argument, according to which “efforts to transform the criminal justice system” are more likely to succeed “if they include the engaged pragmatic research and assessment efforts of criminologists.” We simply do not understand how this argument bears any weight with regard to our decision to end undergraduate placements in prison and policing organizations. Field placements are certainly not about having students “do the heavy lifting of engaging with these organizations to develop, initiate and assess concrete, pragmatic measures designed to reorient” the practices of these organizations. Such claims conflate an institutional divestment from student placements with academic research.

3. Dr. Haggerty argues that institutions tasked to administer criminal justice will be more humane and progressive if their actors have received higher education on “topics such as marginalization, substance misuse (sic), structural inequality, institutional racism, the dynamics of institutional and interpersonal power, patriarchy, the pernicious effects of colonization, and much more.” The criminal justice system, he writes, “shows no sign of disappearing” and it is “precisely those students” who have been trained in critical criminology “who should be working in” this system. Once again, we entirely agree with this argument. Our decision, indeed, is precisely that police and correctional institutions are not, at least now, able to provide such critical education to our students.

4. The fourth source of worry identified by Dr. Haggerty is that it is “suspicious” for ICCJ faculty to claim they will continue to research police and corrections. The argument is that it is reasonable to assume that these institutions will not collaborate with individual faculty for research purposes given our institutional public stance towards divestment. Perhaps, perhaps not. Yet there is a more troubling trope in Dr. Haggerty’s fourth argument: characterizing as “extreme” our position towards divestment, he submits that “any research conclusions produced by individuals who advocate for such a position” shall be “politically preordained.” Such accusations leveled against critical criminological research seemingly demonstrate a belief that research produced in collaboration with police and prison agencies is “value-neutral” (or construed as such by state actors). Again, this conflates our decision regarding placements with academic research. Finally, it is also troubling to see a discussion about placements be used as an opportunity to mark the scholarship of those who actively encourage divestment from carceral and policing institutions – which includes many critical race scholars and Indigenous thinkers – as “extreme” and thus illegitimate.

5. Dr. Haggerty suggests that ending placements with police and correctional organizations violates the role of the university, “a publicly funded institution that aims to educate all qualified students.” There are important variations in the ways in which students are educated in criminology in Canada today. Some criminology programs place an emphasis on training correctional officers. Other programs focus on domestic security. At least one criminology program in Canada requires all students to take a course on the need to abolish the entire criminal justice system. Many programs do not have placements with police and correctional organizations. The termination of placements with these institutions at the ICCJ reflects the flavour of our program, which is oriented towards social justice.

6. The penultimate argument forwarded by Dr. Haggerty is double-barrelled: most individuals recruited by the police and corrections are not criminology graduates, so “academics who do not want to affiliate with students who end up working in policing and corrections need to cast their eyes at the university more broadly.” Our responsibility as educators is limited to our students qua students, not as potential employees of apparatuses of state repression. We are not a technical college or a police academy. Dr. Haggerty indicates that his “local police service recently hired a woman with a PhD in zoology.” Certainly, this will not lead zoology departments to adapt their curriculum to facilitate careers in policing.

7. Dr. Haggerty ends his intervention with a set of questions and scenarios. The ICCJ’s decision to end placements is seen as an “isolationist strategy” that may well lead to divesting from “pharmacological research in light of the hundreds of thousands of deaths attributable to the opioid crisis knowingly fostered by Purdue Pharma,” political actors trying to shut down programs construed as producing graduates contesting the current political order, or the elimination of units “in engineering departments whose graduates work in harmful industries.” The ICCJ decision is rhetorically associated with nothing less than potential state repression and the end of the good old university as we know it. Dramatization has its value. The way it is used by Dr. Haggerty erases any distinctions between higher education, the workforce, and politics. It grants a small curricular change made by a small academic unit tremendous (potential) collateral damage. Why? Because we are stating, in the context of a set of educational actions towards anti-racism and decolonization, that the police and the prisons are not, at least currently, places where students should be sent to learn? Whatever happens, our graduates shall remain radically free to go work where they want.

The ICCJ’s placement decision is not a testimony to a “new academic isolationism”; it is an action that prioritises alternative placements in order to foster students’ ability to imagine and create a world where police and prisons are decentred and deprivileged.

The authors are all faculty members at the Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Carleton University: Nicolas Carrier, associate professor and director; Lara Karaian, associate professor; Evelyn Maeder, associate professor; Alexander McClelland, assistant professor; Jeffrey Monaghan, associate professor; Madalena Santos, instructor; and Natasha Stirrett, lecturer.

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  1. James Demere / September 17, 2020 at 17:48

    This rebuttal perfectly demonstrates the ivory tower privilege of university professors at Carleton. I sincerely wonder how many of the professors within Carleton criminology conduct empirical research with the criminal justice system. I highly suspect many of them conduct theoretical critiques from their ivory tower. Indeed, their assertion that a few dozen graduate students will not change the system is antithetical to any semblance of understanding how the real-world works. These placements provide their students a foot in the door for future employment, as well as connections for future research.

    The crux of the debate for Carleton Criminology, and the social sciences more generally, is the pursuit of truth vs social justice. Dozens of peer-reviewed research articles report the vast, vast majority of university faculty are left of center, and oftentimes extreme left of center. Extreme leaning leftist professors, many of whom have not worked in the real world for years or even decades, are surrounded by other extreme leftist professors. They see the pursuit of social justice as being more meaningful than objective fact-based positivism. They certainly do not engage with centrist liberals, let alone conservatives but exist together in their groupthink perspectives.

    This response demonstrates how out of touch Carleton Criminology is with reality and the real-world. The criminal justice system is not going anywhere, anytime soon. The professors at Carleton do not even have the empirical research to claim that Canada’s criminal justice system is systemically racist. An overrepresentation of specific groups does not equal causation or discrimination. If you are interested in consistency and facts: there is a greater disparity in the incarceration of men to women then there is between racial groups. Why then isn’t the CJ system sexist? What about the overrepresentation of individuals with mental illness? Why is race the deciding factor?

    The biggest losers in all of this are not the privileged professors making 6 figures but the students who gain valuable work experience to put on their CV. These students should be given every opportunity to advance during the difficult economic times of Covid-19.