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Dagmar Vanbergen

Prof Colman: "Being able to shield children 100% is a pipe dream"

Prof Charlotte Colman surprised with her children's book "Who's in jail?", giving children a first look into the world of criminology. In this interview, Prof Colman highlights why informing children at an early age about law and justice is vital. Her book bridges complex topics with childlike curiosity: "Children pick up things but have gaps in their knowledge. We need to fill these gaps with neutral information tailored to the child, otherwise they will go looking for themselves or their imagination will fill in the blanks." The proceeds of "Who's in prison?" go to CAW East Flanders, for the benefit of children of parents in detention.

How did your idea to write a children's book come about?

I teach at university in the fields of criminology and law, from second to final year. My classes include discussions on the development of punishments over time, the identity of offenders, and the motives behind crimes. While I find it valuable to discuss these issues with students every year, I also notice misunderstandings among some, similar to those with children.

I already notice signs of misunderstandings around punishment and crime even with my four-year-old daughter, albeit on a different scale and in different contexts. I notice that even at primary school age, children are already hearing a lot about crime and punishment. Because of this, I strongly believe in providing the right information, not only as a basis for parents and teachers, but also as a reference point for a wider audience, such as in news reports.

I share the belief that it is crucial to share accurate information, especially adapted to this generation's language and living environment. After all, they are the ones who will later have to think about punishments, rules and crimes. This is why I stress the importance of providing accurate information, preferably as early as possible.

"I notice signs of misunderstanding about punishment and crime also with my four-year-old daughter," he said.
Prof Charlotte Colman

How did you find the balance between scientific rigour and accessibility for children?

"I greatly enjoy making my research accessible to a wide audience. Until now, this has involved a lecture, TED Talk or podcast - each time allowing me to use adult language. Recently, however, I was given the challenge of translating my research to children, something I had not done before.

It was the first time I had to present my work in front of a younger audience, an exciting yet difficult task. The biggest challenge for me was language - 'What can I write?', 'What can I write?'. That constant balancing act between informing and avoiding creating anxiety was very important for me. I had to carefully consider every word and turn jargon into understandable language. For topics like the death penalty, for example, I looked at how youth news or newspapers covered them. I particularly examined how they conveyed the message and what language they used to do so. I found that aspect of the writing process the most difficult, but everything else felt more like a relaxing exercise. One of the courses I teach to university students is actually similar to this book, albeit a version for 19-year-olds. (laughs) So it felt like I was writing a kind of basic course.

To write this book, I also surveyed eight-year-olds about their questions about rules, punishments, crime and prisons. To my surprise, I found that their interests did not always match what I expected. Sometimes their questions were very practical, such as "What do they wear in prison?" or "What do they eat in prison?". Being able to integrate these concrete questions into my book also created added value in itself."

The book is available now, have you received any feedback from children (besides your own daughter)?

"My daughter is only 4 years old, so actually she is still a bit too young. She mainly focuses on the drawings and enjoys discovering things in them, like a dinoskeleton (hint). Despite her young age, I do use the book in a different way, though. I have received positive feedback from children who read it in one go and enthusiastically shared facts with their parents, such as "did you know this?" and "did you know that?". This was a pleasant surprise for me, as I was quite excited to release the result of my writing process to the world. Of course, you find the end result quite interesting yourself, but when the book comes out and reaches readers, it is out of that 'safe environment'.

Teachers too have already given feedback, and even put together teaching packages to work with the book in the classroom. I am delighted to hear that parents from the legal community indicate that they can now give their children a more concrete picture of what they do."

"I get a lot of positive feedback, even from people who have been caught up in crime themselves."
Prof Charlotte Colman

What do you think readers, both children and parents, really learn from the book?

"I think they learn about how we punished in the past and how we do it today. I talk about positivism, social defence, and the fact that not everyone does a cost-benefit analysis or can think rationally. Initially, I mainly tried to make it clear to my four-year-old daughter that not all people who commit crimes commit property crimes, like crooks or thieves in her language.

In my book, I emphasise that everyone has the opportunity to commit crime, but most people don't. There are so many forms of crime, even people in tailored suits or people dumping rubbish, those are different forms of crime. I also try to illustrate this, for example in TV soaps, where you often have a good person and a bad person. The bad person is stereotyped as a typical thief or crook, with a beard or an asymmetrical face. This is reminiscent of the period of positivism when people thought there was such a thing as a 'born criminal'."

"Children pick up things but have gaps in their knowledge. We need to fill those gaps with neutral information tailored to the child, otherwise they will either look for themselves or their imagination will fill in the blanks."
Prof Charlotte Colman

Is it what you are most proud of: succeeding in translating the content into a child's environment in an understandable way?

"I am particularly proud of the positive reactions I have received, even from people who have been caught up in crime themselves. They indicated that they found the book gripping because it enabled them to discuss certain topics with their children where before they did not know how to address it. When I wrote the book, I didn't actually envisage that it would have such an impact; I just found it incredibly fun to do. It's somewhere in my nature to do social valorisation.

I also explain what it means to stigmatise someone. To do so, I use an example of a plaster that you put on someone and find difficult to peel off. For example, I tell: "Suppose your brother has done something and you call him a vandal. But you keep calling him a vandal even though he hasn't done anything more. That's what a label does.

Moreover, I try to dispel some misconceptions, such as 'once a thief always a thief', by saying that most people stop committing crime when they are in their late 20s, i.e. around 27 to 28.

My aim is mainly to provide a scientific starting point, translated on a child's scale, so that stigmatising ideas about crime disappear. For example, when I explain what a prison cell looks like, I use a drawing of a classroom to show that that is the size of a cell and that people sit there together for about 20 hours a day. That way, children can also understand it visually."

"It is utopian to think that children live sheltered lives and suddenly come out of that protective cocoon informed on their 18th birthday."
Prof Charlotte Colman

Do you have any ambition to somehow incorporate your book into the educational curriculum?

"That would be great! Imagine if, during lessons on punishment for example, schools asked how they could use my book to learn more about punishment and its evolution. I would really love that! The fact that a teacher already contacted me and expressed interest suggests that the book actually has the potential to be used in a safe learning environment for children. It could even be linked to history lessons, for example, when they are learning about the Middle Ages. Back then, we had the pillory, where criminals were chained to, and it is surprising how relevant that still is. I also discuss this topic with my students: posting photos on Facebook with the caption "this person has been indulging in stealth dumping" is actually a modern form of the medieval pillory. I have no judgement on this, but it is fascinating to engage in conversation about it. Although the book is not directly about this, the historical context allows readers to have such conversations after reading it."

"My proceeds go CAW East Flanders, that way I want to mean something to parents in detention and their children."
Prof Charlotte Colman

There are always those who hesitate to discuss such topics with children, thinking it is better to shield them. But we know that children are exposed to information about punishment and crime anyway through the radio, television, or conversations between adults. Children do pick up certain information this way, but there are gaps in their knowledge. It is therefore important that we as adults fill in those gaps by providing neutral and information tailored to the child, otherwise they will look for themselves or their imagination will fill in those gaps, often with inaccurate information that can just cause fearful ideas."

What impact do you hope your book will have on the future?

"The book itself is obviously informative and has no pretensions to crime prevention. Preferably, I would indeed like to use it educationally. In terms of content, for example, I end with the new forms of detention, such as transition houses and detention homes. In the future, I think it would be interesting to get the youngest generation to think about the prison system. We all know the traditional prison, enclosed with barbed wire and high walls, but what if we considered building 'prisons' within our society for a certain group of inmates, certainly not all of them? The aim is to educate children and encourage them to think critically. That's a nice impact to have on the future, I think.

Moreover, with my proceeds going to CAW East Flanders, I can hopefully give something back to children and parents in detention. We know that there are 16,000 children who have a parent in detention, which is a huge number. We know from research that those children are often ashamed and, for example, have an increased chance of ending up in crime themselves. It is therefore important to strengthen the bond between child and parent in detention. On the one hand, it has a positive impact on the person in detention because it promotes a positive attitude and reduces the risk of recidivism, and on the other hand, the child also benefits from being able to maintain and even strengthen the bond with that parent. I especially hope to have a positive impact in this area as well. It will probably only be a small impact, you don't earn much from a book, but every little bit helps. Take something small, like buying a toy. Toys can create connection, a touch point or common ground for children and parents with complex relationships. For example, if inmates could give toys to their children, this could be a tool to start strengthening the bond with their child. Ultimately, it would make me happiest to be able to create that impact.

It is utopian to think that children live shielded lives and suddenly come out of that protective cocoon informed on their 18th birthday. Crime is simply part of the world now, and by offering children tailored information, the book can really help develop critical thinking about legal processes for children."

Charlotte Colman is professor of Drug Policy and Criminology at Ghent University. She teaches courses related to drug policy and criminal justice policy, to undergraduate and graduate students of criminology and law. Charlotte Colman has been involved as coordinator, senior researcher and expert in several (inter)national multidisciplinary research projects on the evaluation of drug policy, the production and trafficking of illicit drugs and restorative practices within the criminal justice system and society.

Since July 2022, Charlotte combines her appointment as professor with work as National Drug Coordinator and chair of the General Cell on Drug Policy. This cell comprises administrations and cabinets of all federal and regional ministers involved in drug policy. This cell is responsible for the day-to-day coordination of drug policy and prepares national actions and strategies on behalf of the ministers concerned.

Charlotte has also gained a lot of (inter)national experience in the field of drug policy, including as a visiting scholar at American University in Washington DC, as a consultant at the Organisation of American States or as a member of an expert group for organisations such as UNODC/UN (Vienna). Since 2022, she has also been a member of the Scientific Committee of EMCDDA.

Furthermore, Charlotte tries to maximally translate her research to the general public, including through her TED talk on the role of the community in drug use recovery and her project on adapting cities into inclusive recovery cities that support people in their recovery process from drug use.