A “bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face” someone said on Twitter this morning. Best description I’ve heard so far.
Imagine for a moment you are wrongfully convicted of a crime. You get sent to prison, where you start to serve out your sentence – every minute of every day knowing you are innocent. Then the unthinkable happens and you are released. You are elated – this is the moment you’ve been waiting for.
But those feelings of elation and happiness quickly turn to fear and despair as you realise you have nowhere to go. Your old life as you knew it is gone, you have no way of supporting yourself, your relationships have broken down and you have nowhere to turn to for support.
Sadly, this is the reality many exonerees face when they are trying to put their lives back together. Many of these people – who have in some cases spent years behind bars – find upon release that their problems are only exacerbated. Wrongfully wrenched from their families, homes and communities, they struggle to reintegrate into society when they return.
And things seem to be made worse because unlike prisoners who have access to support to help them resettle when they are released from prison, those who suffer a miscarriage of justice do not get this.
“Rightfully convicted” individuals are provided with a plan for release from prison – often starting months in advance. This involves a range of activities, all of which are aimed at helping the person to resettle back into the community. But exonerees have none of these preparations – and often receive very little notice of their release.
Victor Nealon, for example, served 16 years in prison after he was falsely charged with rape. He received three hours’ notice of his release, and ended up in a bed and breakfast on his first night as a free man – he had nowhere else to go.
An unfamiliar world
The wrongfully convicted don’t receive any preparation for their release because of the way the prison system works. Prisoners have to show they are “tackling their offending behaviour” to gain parole. But if you haven’t committed the crime in the first place, this is not possible. The end result is that a person may spend longer in prison than if they had committed the offence and admitted it.
Upon release, the wrongfully convicted are thrust into a world they are unfamiliar with – and they have zero support or guidance. It’s common for exonerees to develop PTSD as a result of their wrongful conviction, alongside other mental and physical health problems requiring significant support.
This in part happens because as soon as the conviction is quashed, these people are no one’s responsibility. They are no longer a prisoner, or an ex-offender. There is no standard programme of support which is triggered at the point of release. And while probation would be well placed to support the wrongfully convicted, they cannot as they are not ex-offenders – ex-prisoners, yes, but not ex-offenders.
Say I’m innocent
There are only two specific organisations that provide support to exonerees. They are the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) based at the Royal Courts of Justice, and the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation (MOJO). This was founded by Paddy Hill – one of the six men wrongly convicted of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. He set it up in an attempt to provide the support to others that he was not given when released in 1991.
But both services are restricted by funding and staffing limitations, and while both organisations do superb work against a backdrop of austerity measures and extremely limited resources, both are at best a piecemeal response to what is, in reality, a government responsibility.
A recent BBC documentary called Fallout highlights these issues. The the director of the documentary Mark Mcloughlin has launched the “Say I’m Innocent” campaign, and is now fighting for all the services that are available to guilty prisoners on release to be made available to exonerees. The campaign is also calling for a public announcement of a person’s innocence upon their release. As well as other measure including a transition centre in both the UK and Ireland to allow them time and help to reintegrate into society.
This is important because the key issue here is responsibility. The state assumed responsibility for these individuals when they were wrongfully convicted. It is therefore only right that the state continues to take responsibility for them once exonerated.
Humans are like no other species. We have constructed stratified states, colonised nearly every habitat on Earth and we’re now looking to move to other planets. In fact, we are so advanced that some of our innovations – such as fossil fuel technologies, intensive agriculture and weapons of mass destruction – may ultimately lead to our downfall.
Even our closest relatives, the primates, lack traits such as developed language, cumulative culture, music, symbolism and religion. Yet scientists still haven’t come to a consensus on why, when and how humans evolved these traits. But, luckily, there are non-human animals that have evolved societies and culture to some extent. My latest study, published in Nature Evolution & Ecology, investigates what cetaceans (whales and dolphins) can teach us about human evolution.
The reason it is so difficult to trace the origins of human traits is that social behaviour does not fossilise. It is therefore very hard to understand when and why cultural behaviour first arose in the human lineage. Material culture such as art, burial items, technologically sophisticated weapons and pottery is very rare in the archaeological record.
Previous research in primates has shown that a large primate brain is associated with larger social groups, cultural and behavioural richness, and learning ability. A larger brain is also tied to energy-rich diets, long life spans, extended juvenile periods and large bodies. But researchers trying to uncover whether each of these different traits are causes or consequences of large brains find themselves at odds with each other – often arguing at cross purposes.
One prevailing explanation is the social brain hypothesis, which argues that our minds and consequently our brains have evolved to solve the problems associated with living in an information rich, challenging and dynamic social environment. This comes with challenges such as competing for and allocating food and resources, coordinating behaviour, resolving conflicts and using information and innovations generated by others in the group.
However, despite the abundance of evidence for a link between brain size and social skills, the arguments rumble on about the role of social living in cognitive evolution. Alternative theories suggest that primate brains have evolved in response to the complexity of forest environments – either in terms of searching for fruit or visually navigating a three dimensional world.
Under the sea
The latter are especially interesting as, not only do we know that they do interesting things, some live in multi-generational societies and they also have the largest brains in the animal kingdom. In addition, they do not eat fruit, nor do they live in forests. For that reason, we decided to evaluate the evidence for the social or cultural brain in cetaceans.
Another advantage with cetaceans is that research groups around the world have spent decades documenting and uncovering their social worlds. These include signature whistles, which appear to identify individual animals, cooperative hunting, complex songs and vocalisations, social play and social learning. We compiled all this information into a database and evaluated whether a species’ cultural richness is associated with its brain size and the kind of society they live in.
We found that species with larger brains live in more structured societies and have more cultural and learned behaviours. The group of species with the largest relative brain size are the large, whale-like dolphins. These include the false killer whale and pilot whale.
To illustrate the two ends of the spectrum, killer whales have cultural food preferences – where some populations prefer fish and other seals. They also hunt cooperatively and have matriarchs leading the group. Sperm whales have actual dialects, which means that different populations have distinct vocalisations. In contrast, some of the large baleen whales, which have smaller brains, eat krill rather than fish or other mammals, live fairly solitary lives and only come together for breeding seasons and at rich food sources.
We still have much to learn about these amazing creatures. Some of the species were not included in our analysis because we know so little about them. For example, there is a whole group of beaked whales with very large brains. However, because they dive and forage in deep water, sightings are rare and we know almost nothing about their behaviour and social relationships.
Nevertheless, this study certainly supports the idea that the richness of a species’ social world is predicted by their brain size. The fact that we’ve found it in an independent group so different from primates makes it all the more important.