‘Come on mate, let's make you a cup of tea’: Theorising materiality and its impacts on detainee dignity inside police detention

Published date01 May 2024
AuthorLayla Skinns,Andrew Wooff,Lindsey Rice
Date01 May 2024
Subject MatterArticles
Come on mate, lets make you
a cup of tea: Theorising
materiality and its impacts on
detainee dignity inside police
Layla Skinns
University of Sheff‌ield, UK
Andrew Wooff
Edinburgh Napier University, UK
Lindsey Rice
University of Sheff‌ield, UK
In this article, we examine detainee experiences of dignity in police detention through
the lens of materiality. To do this, we draw on sociological and anthropological literature
on the material turnand its application to criminal justice settings, and a mixed-meth-
ods study of police custody in England and Wales. First, we conceptualise different
dimensions of materiality in police custody. Second, we show how some forms of
materiality, in conjunction with staffdetainee relationships, shape detainee dignity
rooted in equal worth, privacy and autonomy. Third, we examine how the intertwining
of the social and material in police custody opens up new possibilities for theorising
police work. The materiality of police work is active, not just symbolic. Alongside social
relations, it shapes citizen experiences of the police, including of hardand softforms
of policing, and by implication, pain and injustice. Materiality therefore provides a further
way of theorising the production of social order inside and outside police detention.
Corresponding author:
Layla Skinns, School of Law, University of Sheff‌ield, S3 7ND, UK.
Email: L.Skinns@sheff‌ield.ac.uk
Theoretical Criminology
2024, Vol. 28(2) 175194
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/13624806231184827
detainees, dignity, materiality, softand hardpolicing, police detention
Here we examine the humility of things(Miller, 1987) in police custody. We explore
how things mould detainee dignity rooted in autonomy, equal worth and privacy. We
also open up the debate about materiality and its relevance to police studies. Criminal
justice scholars interested in the police, rather than prisons are late to the materiality
partyand some catching-upis needed. To help, we draw on a 40-year debate among
anthropologists, archaeologists, sociologists and organisational studies theorists about the
divide between social relations and materiality.
Those at the forefront of this material
turnargue for a co-constitutive relationship (Woodward, 2020; Hicks, 2010; Miller,
2010; Orlikowski, 2007; Latour, 2005). [T]he social and the material are inextricably
related there is no social that is not also material, and no material that is not also social
(Orlikowski, 2007: 1437). Meaning emerges through the interplay of both.
Police custody is where 546,170 English and Welsh citizens are detained each year
(Home Off‌ice, 2022), pending a police investigation and the disposal of their case. It
is thus an important institutional setting for police work and entrance to the criminal
process. Detainees are increasingly held in large out-of-town purpose-built custody
blocks (Skinns et al., 2017b), which feel clinical, yet spaceship-like, with pale coloured
walls, and staff sitting on elevated bridge areas attending to detainees standing below
them, albeit that custody blocks vary in the precise nature of these material conditions.
Police custody is also a site of pain for those who enter, in which detainee vulnerabil-
ities and resulting inequalities may emerge or increase as a result of their detention and
the power exercised over them by the police (Dehaghani, 2021; Skinns, 2019; Welsh
et al., 2021; Pemberton, 2008). Although it is not formally intended as punishment, it
can be experienced as such, as a critical part of the penal painscape(Skinns and
Wooff, 2020; Harkin, 2015). Police custody is also a site of (racialised) injustice, in
which due process rights may be overlooked (Welsh et al., 2021), or people, especially
those from minoritised groups, may be subject to the use of lethal force (Williams
et al., 2023; Welsh et al., 2021; Angiolini, 2017; Athwal and Bourne, 2015; Razack,
2013; Pemberton, 2008). Therefore, we theorise how the material and the social
impact detainee experiences, while also acknowledging that this socio-materiality
arises in painful and dehumanising circumstances.
The article has three specif‌ic aims. First, we conceptualise the main material features
of police custody. Second, using observational and interview data collected in Phase 2 of
the goodpolice custody study, we examine the potentially active role played by some of
these features technology such as CCTV, objects and soundscapes in shaping detainee
dignity. The third aim of the article is to broaden the discussion of materiality from police
custody to police work more generally, where it has received limited debate. We therefore
hope to make a signif‌icant contribution in this regard. We argue that, alongside social
relations, materiality plays a key role in shaping citizen experiences of the police and pro-
vides a further way of theorising softand hardforms of policing and thus the produc-
tion of social order inside and outside police detention. Materiality, as we argue, is
176 Theoretical Criminology 28(2)

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