How to escape from jail: a tough but intelligent approach

Martha Gill's Irrational Animal's Column.

As David Cameron’s approach to crime gets “tough but intelligent” (if he says so himself), now might be the time for the rest of us to take a tough but intelligent approach to staying out of prison. For it can be done – and not just through blameless living.

One fairly sure way is to appear before a jury right after lunch. It’s an old courtroom legend – that the outcome of a trial depends on what the judge ate for breakfast – but here's some evidence to back it up. A scientist called Shai Danziger collected the results of 1,112 hearings from prisons in Israel, plotting how often judges granted parole against how long it had been since they last ate. The results were remarkable. The odds of getting out of jail free start at about 65 per cent right after everyone’s had a sandwich and then fall off to almost zero after a couple of hours. Feed the judges another sandwich and their generosity climbs right back up again.

Human willpower, you see, is a finite resource. When judges resist the hunger pangs, they are dipping in to reserves of stamina, making tempers short and sentences long.

Take a look at this experiment, conducted by Baba Shiv at Stanford. It was constructed as an exercise in resisting temptation, in the form of a slice of chocolate cake. Subjects were asked to remember strings of numbers (not long strings, just two to seven digits). Resisting the cake was easy after two digits but became almost impossible after seven. It took just a couple of extra pieces of information to wear down the subject’s willpower completely. Willpower is that weak. Life only needs to batter you slightly and you will go for the harsher jail sentence, leave the washing-up for tomorrow, have another drink, nick a watch.

And when your willpower is worn down, you are more likely to make snap judgements based on stereotypes, becoming sexist and racist. And this is a problem for judges, because evidence shows they are already vulnerable to these sorts of influences. So, if you want to stay out of prison, try being female rather than male, white rather than black, baby-faced rather than mature-looking. If you are a psychopath, make sure your defence explains the biology behind this to the jury. A study recently written up in the journal Science showed that this reduces sentencing by an average of one year.

If you want to stay out of prison, it also helps to make your statement rhyme. This loophole in judgement is known as the “Keats heuristic”, in which beauty is mistaken for truth, rhyme for reason. Johnnie Cochran used it to get an acquittal for O J Simpson, with his signature phrase: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Sounds right, doesn't it?

Wriggling out of a jail sentence or falling into one undeservedly has never been so easy. However, if, for symmetry, we were to take a tough but intelligent approach to jury standards, there are a couple of things we could do.

According to Birte Englich from the University of Cologne, making judges play games that teach them their own biases can help. Mandatory guidelines for sentences have been introduced in America (although they are being resisted) and there have been initiatives in New South Wales to increase the size of juries. Compulsory biscuit eating before each hearing can only be the next step.

Prison. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.