Left to their own devices: A technosocial ethnography of penal electronic monitoring in Scotland

Casey, Ryan (2021) Left to their own devices: A technosocial ethnography of penal electronic monitoring in Scotland. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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This thesis explores how digital technology is embedded in penal practices and experiences in Scotland. While the role of digital technologies in the criminal justice system and the datafication of penal practices are becoming growing areas of interest within criminological research, there remains very little research into how such databases, assessments, devices, and connections sink into the texture of everyday life and impact experiences of punishment. This thesis ethnographically explores such experiences through a particular form of punishment that brings the surveillant and technological aspects to the forefront: penal electronic monitoring (EM hereafter), a seemingly progressive alternative to prison which entangles people in its own distinct systems and digital infrastructures of diversion. Thus, the aim of this research is to untangle the networked governmentality of EM in Scotland to better understand how digital technology is used to punish people. Rather than evaluating how EM can be expanded or improved, I explore the more fundamental questions of what EM is and what it does; in other words, what is going on beneath the façade of apparent technological simplicity, neutrality, and straightforwardness? This study seeks to make visible the hidden processes, practices, and powers involved in ‘penal surveillance’ through an ethnographic exploration of EM.

Based on 13 months of ethnographic fieldwork, including participant observation with EM Officers who worked for the private sector company that provides EM services in Scotland and interviews with people who were subject to EM, this thesis digs into the situated, relational, and constrained experiences of both being monitored and doing monitoring. Drawing upon ways of thinking from Science and Technology Studies, and actor-network theory, I explore the entire system of circulating relations that make up EM including not just the people, but also the objects, things, places, spaces, and narratives that interact in everyday contexts and distribute power, reflect governance, and construct subjectivity. This reveals EM as a messy and heterogenous network of relationships and as a set of enacted and intimate performances embedded in everyday contexts. The thesis uncovers the surprising and strange ways that technology shapes our penal actions, thoughts, and experiences as well as how penal contexts shape technology. As penal surveillance data flowed and converged from afar to the computer screens at the Monitoring Centre, the system software generated what I have termed ‘system narratives’ in order to efficiently sort through and resolve the flurry of information needing processed. Yet, these simplification techniques did not just project some external notion of reality, but instead actively reconstituted narratives of reality that were interpreted as more reliable and quantifiable than that of untrustworthy humans. EM is neither the product of machine automation nor human discretion, but a messy combination of both forces. By spending time with both monitored people and those who carry out monitoring-work, which are seemingly pitted as oppositional experiences, there was a shared balance both had to negotiate between discretionary powers and the experience of constraint proffered by this distinct form of connectivity. EM felt less like a hegemonic and totalising punishment and more like a series of small, latent, accumulated moments that gripped people in different ways. Lastly, focussing on the communicative, representational, and bodily aspects of digitally mediated punishment reveals how EM changes penal supervision through the material, embodied, and digitised ways that surveillance data and information leaks out.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Subjects: H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
Colleges/Schools: College of Social Sciences > School of Social and Political Sciences
Supervisor's Name: McNeill, Professor Fergus and Fraser, Dr. Alistair
Date of Award: 2021
Depositing User: Theses Team
Unique ID: glathesis:2021-82367
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 03 Aug 2021 13:38
Last Modified: 17 Nov 2022 09:33
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.82367
URI: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/82367

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