Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Things the world gets wrong – Perils of Perception

We don’t know the basic makeup of the countries we live in.  In fact, we are wrong on most key social issues, according to a fascinating recent Ipsos MORI’s global survey.  

This study shows how wrong the public across 14 very different countries (including UK, Australia, Sweden, Japan, US, France and South Korea) are about key population characteristics and social issues.  Generally, we tend to overestimate what we see as problems or differences (unemployment, murder rate, immigration) and underestimate the familiar or what we assume is the norm (voting, Christians).  

And we are not just a bit off – we are massively wrong.

       In the UK for example:

       • We hugely over-estimate the proportion of Muslims: we think one in five British people are Muslims (21%) when the actual figure is 5% (one in twenty). 
•      • We think that a quarter of the population are immigrants  (24%), while the real figure is nearly half (13%).

• We believe that the British population is much older than it actually is – the average estimate is that 37% of the population are 65+, when it is in fact only 17%.

• And we think that one in six (16%) of all teenage girls aged 15-19 give birth each year, when the actual figure is only 3%. 

• In contrast, we underestimate the proportion of the electorate that voted in the last general election - the average guess is 49% when the official turnout was much higher at 66%.

• We think  39% of the country identify themselves as Christian compared with the actual figure of 59%.

The same discrepancies between perceptions and reality are seen across the 14 countries surveyed. See survey’s index of ignorance below.

The big questions for me are: what is the impact of this huge gap between reality and perceptions and how do we get things so wrong? 
Bobby Duffy, Managing Director of Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, said: “These misperceptions present clear issues for informed public debate and policy-making.  For example, public priorities may well be different if we had a clearer view of the scale of immigration and the real incidence of teenage mothers.  People also under-estimate “positive” behaviours like voting, which may be important if people think it is more “normal” not to vote than it actually is.”

And how should politicians react? Should they act on these perceptions and design policies around them or should they try to challenge them?

As to why we get things so wrong, I blame the media. Although (or beacuse?) I am a journalist, I believe the media is largely responsible for reflecting distorted images of our societies.  For example, a relentless diet of Daily Mail’ stories about  ‘waves’ and ‘hordes’ of immigrants ‘flooding’, ‘invading’ British towns and villages must influence our perception on immigration.

Although the researchers didn’t generally ask respondents how they formed their views, they did ask the people who answered more than double the actual level for the immigration question how they formed their perceptions.

And surprisingly, the media (TV and newspapers) were far from their main reason. Rather, they said they based their immigration views on what they saw in their local areas and when they visited other cities. And because they believed people come into the country illegally, so aren’t counted.  

And now I wonder, how do people know who is an immigrant?  By the colour of their skin, the way they dress, the way they speak, behave? And that’s another big question…

Monday, 8 December 2014

Why prison doesn't work for women

Credit: Prison Reform Trust

Many years ago, fellow journalist Loren Stein and I worked with the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco on a year-long investigation into the alarming number of miscarriages among pregnant women in US prisons and jails. Packed into routinely overcrowded, understaffed and ill-equipped facilities, pregnant inmates were often denied essential pre-natal and emergency care. As a result, more than 30 percent of the imprisoned pregnant mothers lost their babies – in one prison, it was 80%.

We found that because women formed a small proportion of the US prison population, the system was generally ill prepared and ill equipped to look after them - and there was very little thought about the impact their incarceration had on their families.

A couple of decades later and on the other side of the pond, it looks like little progress has been made:

A day-long conference at Northumbria University, Newcastle, this Thursday (11 December), will address why prison doesn’t work for women.

Former prisoners, prison reform campaigners and criminologists will examine the impact that imprisonment has on women and their families.  They will also discuss effective alternatives to imprisonment that could help solve the problem of increasing reoffending rates for women.

Keynote speakers include Vicky Pryce, who served a prison sentence for perverting the course of justice and has recently authored Prisonomics, a book calling for reform for women prisons; Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner Vera Baird; and Jenny Earle, director of the Prison Reform Trust’s programme to reduce women’s imprisonment.

Louise Ridley, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Northumbria, will argue that the prison system has been designed for men and isn’t suited to the needs of women offenders.

“Women are mainly imprisoned for low level crimes, such as theft or handling stolen goods, which are often linked to their domestic situation. When men are imprisoned there is often a network of women – mothers, girlfriends, wives – who are caring for their children, paying the bills, and keeping their lives going so that they can more easily slip back into their family life when they are released. When women come out of prison they need support to rebuild their lives.”

Ridley argues that there is greater cost to the state when women are imprisoned as there is often the need to support their children in care during the custodial sentence. There also appears to be a larger domino effect when women with families are sent to prison.

 “Studies have found that children with mothers in prison are more likely to go on to offend than those with just the father in prison.”

The event is organised by The Centre for Offenders and Offending at Northumbria University, NEPACS, a regional charity providing support to prisoners and their families, the Prison and Offender Research in Social Care and Health Network (PORSCH), and OpenGate, a charity providing mentoring and support to women offenders returning to their community. 

You can follow the conference on Twitter: @PrisonNU & #wiprison