19th May 2020

By Professor Laura Piacentini, University of Strathclyde

On hearing the Scottish government announcement, made on the 18th of March, that schools in Scotland would close indefinitely from the 20th of March, and that we would then enter a period of lockdown because of the epic human catastrophe called Covid-19, I entered a period of what I call upside-down-ness. In other words, since that time, this is the feeling of someone holding me by the ankles and shaking me all day, seven days a week. They say that when one feels immobile or paralysed, it brings an inner disquiet and a cerebral merry go-round. Under Covid-19, this has been acutely felt by millions of people; a kind of agonising inner howl of acute uncertainty for themselves and their immediate loved ones. My own immediate family consists of my two young kids (nearly 9 and 6), a cat and a partner. Oh, and a new puppy. Yes, you read that right: a puppy who we brought to his forever home the weekend of lockdown.

In the days before lockdown on the 23rd March, there was insomnia (thankfully gone), anxiety and an escalating wave, leading to a tsunami of fear that I or someone I love would catch it and die. Add to this is the fear of the losses facing my children, a fear of what life will be like with two kids locked in thirteen hours a day, and for whom I will now – and indefinitely – devote all my time to being their parent, their pal and their teacher while working at Strathclyde University. Put simply, I am deeply in my feelings about Covid as a parent, a person and an academic. Thus, related to this, is the question of understanding and managing the fear of an upended work identity as a Professor of Criminology. How I work, when I work and, crucially, what I do ‘at work’ have all been altered, probably not forever, but certainly for a long time to come. When work continues, but in a diminished capacity, a simple question then is: what matters now?


As a Criminologist of some twenty-six years, I am not entirely surprised, frankly, that it is this question that requires mine, and my profession’s, vigilance. Not least because numerous industrial disputes and an energised and angry social media culture, display overwork and acute pressure, in at times tragic ways. Covid, however, changes this extremely because it demands we ask not only, ‘what matters now’ but, moreover, ‘what is it that matters to us as humans now’? What matters now is not productivity and, yes, we all say this. Well-being and relationality, genuine connection and speaking out for others, trumps work performance, and, yes, we all say this too. While it is right and proper to assert that the self is well and truly over, are we all, collectively, performing our humanity first at this moment? Covid is a reminder that errors in practice and in judgment happen, but if ever there was a time in Criminology to focus on lives hidden and to be sensitive and caring, it is now.

When work continues, but in a diminished capacity, a simple question then is: what matters now?

A project I work on called In the Gulag’s Shadow: Producing, Consuming and Perceiving Prisons in the former USSR (ESRC, www.gulagshadow) has been affected by Covid-19 in unexpected ways: one of us in Kazakhstan has been in literal lockdown for seven weeks, thousands of miles from home, cut off, alone and with only Zoom for company. Another is in lockdown in Glasgow and is also, many thousands of miles away from family in the US. Meanwhile, our team and friends in Russia have faced the significant uncertainty of not only the virus, but also a fragile political context. The cultural and social contexts where we do our research for the Gulag’s Shadow study are extremely risky, far from stable, unknown and fragile. Bear in mind too that Russia had the largest penal system of the twentieth century and that the residues of it’s tragic past have scarred people today in ways we can only imagine. This includes my team.

A question that overwhelms me (because it is one that I have asked myself every day during Covid-19) is how do I maintain relationality, connectedness, empathy and humane working conditions that I believe I and my team have worked so hard to design into our research practice? We have worked hard to produce something we are really proud of, but what is our professional DNA now? How do we write ourselves into the story of Covid when the other story we are writing about – the tragic legacy of the Gulag on today’s penal culture – produces and then consumes its own fear, anxiety and cultural confusion; its own upside-down-ness? The porous lines between Covid, with its cruel compulsion to separate us, and working on Russian penality (very much hidden in Criminology for decades and decades) has created for us moments of reflection about how we come to terms with where we are now and what it is that matters to us as humans.

So, our team is reflecting more than we are working, re-balancing and settling down to who we are and where we are. Our brilliant Research Associate Dr Dan Horn has productively and humanely helped out more than expected and has been producing a ‘where we were and what we have seen’ on our website (www.gulagshadow.org) whilst doing his ‘other job’ of analysing complex data from our prison attitudes surveys. Our film on Penal Spectatorship is now in production and our Filmmaker, Dimitrii Omelchenko, has spent time in Russia’s giant landscapes of despair capturing a snapshot of a fragile cultural experience, of lives upended by the Gulag, and of a world coming to terms with its past. I suspect ‘fragility’ will become a key word for our whole team as we navigate the personal tragedy of Covid at the same time as we distil the cultural tragedy of mass incarceration and its ripple effects on today’s society in the former USSR.

As nature battles humanity, so what of my immediate family and their fragilities? Well it’s not all doom and gloom. My son wears a lampshade on his head for home-schooling, my daughter thinks I am a lousy school teacher and our puppy grows and thrives during these complex and sad times.

Photo by Vladyslav Tobolenko on Unsplash 

Laura is a Criminologist and prison Sociologist based at the University of Strathclyde. She is the founding member of the cluster Criminal and Social Justice at the School of Social Work and Social Policy and is an Associate Director of SCCJR.