Expert Breakfast Report for May 17th 2023: Dr. Fairleigh Gilmour, Dept. of Sociology.

Criminology became Dr. Gilmour's academic path more or less by accident, but, as exemplified by her work in Otago Correction Facility, she is now passionate about the subject.

From Wrought Iron to Prison

Dr. Gilmour hails from Queensland, and, on leaving high school her passion for metalwork led to an apprenticeship in very fine wrought iron objects in Melbourne. However, just before this was due to begin, the man with whom she was going to work suffered an accident which resulted in a fragment of metal in his eye. Although he recovered well, it took 9 months. Stranded in Melbourne with ‘nothing to do’, Fairleigh applied to University, where she took, and enjoyed Pure Maths. Her brother’s girlfriend was also there, and persuaded Fairleigh to join her in taking Criminology as an elective - “ and I loved it. I loved it so much!” She changed to Criminology as a major, but not with the approval of her parents, who naturally wanted her to be on a clear career path. In fact, Criminology has subsequently become much more vibrant, not only with research and teaching, but also jobs outside academia. Fairleigh had been planning to study Law, but by this time had a “wee baby” and was wondering if the inflexible timetable of Law studies could be managed. One of her lecturers suggested she do Honours in Criminology, and she jumped at the chance. “And that’s when I started looking at crime in the media, which is a key area of mine.” She analysed how the media had reported the case of Natasha Kampusch, an Austrian girl kidnapped at the age of 10, and kept in a cellar for 8 years by her abductor, whose aim was to have her fall in love with him.

Natascha Kampusch in 2019 — Image by: (


The media coverage was largely critical of “this poor girl, who was kidnapped when she was 10 by a stranger and held in a basement.” Fairleigh, however, had found her niche in doing research, and went straight from Honours to a Ph.D.

Sex Workers Under Different Legal Systems

For that, she looked at a completely different topic, comparing the work conditions of sex workers in the different Australian States, which have different laws to each other in this regard. In some States, sex work was decriminalised, but in others was still illegal. Comparisons could be made comparatively easily, since workers in the different States nonetheless had similar backgrounds and cultural history.

While Dr. Gilmour is a Criminologist, she has studied sex workers and also the media representations of women victims of crime, with a littleusing feminist theory. This meant that, when the job came up at Otago it was half for Gender Studies and half for Criminology. “Even though I had only attended one Gender Studies paper, it was with Sheila Jeffreys. . . . (some of whose views are very opposite to mine )“, but Sheila Jeffreys is a major name in feminist theory, and Dr. Gilmour was given the job here. Teaching Gender Studies the first time round was ‘a baptism of fire - teaching something you didn’t take.”

Fairleigh still looks at two areas of research. First, she examines, work conditions, safety at work, and gender performance - and particularly stigmatised work - “I did some work with undertakers. I’m very interested in work that we kind of stigmatise. The second key area is crime in the media, particularly new media.“ And that includes ‘True Crime’ podcasts, and a study at the moment on violent sex on Tik-Tok.

And So to Prison . . .

“The other thing I do is teach in prisons - so you can do Soci 103 if you are at Otago Corrections Facility. I go out there and run the tutorials.” Until this year Dr. Gilmour was the only academic working in the prison, but Shayne Walker (Assoc. Prof. Social Work, ONZM) now comes out too, which is awesome.” The prison work is very time-consuming, and the first thing you do if something is taking up a lot of your time as an academic is start researching it, so that is another of her research areas. Fairleigh is particularly interested in the fact that prisoners are not allowed to go online, yet that is now a major source of study material for most students. To give them experience of this, she is working on a searchable off-line database for them to use.


St Margaret's College Members produced a series of interesting questions enabling us to learn more:


“I had my daughter in the exam period of my final year of my undergrad, “so . . that was quite a challenge!” A single parent, Fairleigh raised her while doing Honours and a Ph.D. “Over a third of single parents are currently in tertiary study, and sometimes I think back and think ‘that could be a challenge for people managing all of these things . . . There is currently a post-grad student, Charlotte Bruce Kells, who is trying to get more support for such students’’. Another challenge is trying to obtain funding for ‘stigmatised groups’ such as sex worker organisations or people in prison. A hindrance is the type of assumption people make, for example when seeking funds to assist in the prison work, “How will you get into the prison? Will it be safe?” - while Fairleigh is already going there and working every Friday regularly - and further assuming that people in prison are not capable of undertaking higher education. In fact, although only one of those undertaking her course had finished High School, the rest leaving school when they were 13 or 14, the lowest mark obtained was a B-. One ‘advantage’ many of them have is that there is very little call on their time except reading! The prison staff are very supportive, not least because the study opportunity has such a positive effect on the prisoners. “It’s also interesting teaching Criminology to people who are in prison! . . . and the feedback from them is good for me.” Her summation is that most of the prisoners are very capable, and it is sad that they leave school so early. Also, Fairleigh expressed an interest in teaching at a woman’s prison, and regretted there was not one in this area.

The Otago Corrections Facility — Image by: John Cross

The prison staff are keen to help, even excited about it. During the Covid lockdown, they asked Dr. Gilmour if she would live stream with the prisoners, and the prison staff then set it all up.

Asked about True Crime podcasts, Fairleigh does feel that there is a heavy focus on the criminal and also on gratuitous detail of violence in a crime, with nothing in depth about the victim, just comments like, “She was lovely and her smile lit up the room,” but little in depth about the victim as a human being. “The Canada True Crime podcast is actually really good, and she focusses on victims who didn’t get media attention.

Within the sex industry there is a sort of stratification of criminalisation - whether the police take an interest in you or not depended on the circumstances in which you operate. For example, those working in brothels that tend to be patronised primarily by middle-class white men are largely ignored, whereas a Maori street-worker is much more likely to attract police attention and be criminalised. Similarly, Asian immigrant workers are targeted for criminalisation.

Fairleigh told us she had talked to many street workers who would not be at all likely to call on the police, but were pleased they are no longer harassed by them.”When people were talking about how they kept themselves safe, there’s really strong sex worker communities in Auckland and Wellington who travel between cities and give each other safety tips. . . really clear systems to keep each other safe. I often think about life without the police, what would we do? Well, some people had no access to that for decades, and they have wonderful support systems . . I found that really interesting, what we can learn.”

Abolition of Prisons

Dr.Gilmour stated that she has developed strong views about abolishing prisons, but that we can’t just get rid of the current system and not replace it with something better. “Most prison abolitionists do not say that we should shut down the prisons tomorrow.” GenerationFIVE in the US have interesting ideas about this. They suggest that, “if we all agreed that the end goal was no prisons, it would take about 5 generations to develop enough community safety strategies and transformative justice to do away with prisons, so they’re not saying ‘let’s shut them tomorrow.’” [GenerationFIVE are currently developing a web site, - Ed.].

Clearly prisons don’t work, they make people more likely to re-offend. “So what does work? “ The evidence suggests training opportunities for young people, support for single parents in trouble, give support to families that are struggling. These all tend to be long-term, and the problem is our election cycle is short.

A very small group of prisoners, perhaps 5%, probably cannot be rehabilitated in the present state of our knowledge. Where there are people who are very dangerous, there appears to be a constellation of factors that cause that. It seems to be partly rooted in neuroscience and personality problems, but a lot of it also seems to be the result of experiencing childhood trauma.

Education and Recidivism

Asked about a favourite project, Dr. Gilmour talked further about the off-line database she is working on, mentioned earlier. Unlike most other countries, there is no internet access for prisoners in New Zealand at all. Trying to write an essay without this access makes it really hard. However, it has been shown that the higher the level of education, the less likely it is that an individual will end up in prison. The single biggest thing that reduces recidivism is education. This has been shown by a study involving thousands of prisoners in the US.

While the prisoners she teaches cannot finish their degrees inside, if they want to finish when they leave, it can be too hard to make the jump to searching on the web. “No matter what you’re learning, you are learning how to research. If the guys can’t learn that, they can’t really learn.” The off-line database Fairleigh hopes to provide would look the same, ion terms of searching as the one University students use. She told us about being on the phone just the day before to “one guy who finished the paper with us, leaves prison at the end of the year, and is going to sign up to complete a degree. Which is awesome!”

In an effort to reduce the mystery of online searches, Dr. Gilmour has invented a video game which she plays in front of the prisoners, while talking, and they find it interesting. They also tell her the research strings they want to try, and she prints them out at Uni and takes them back to the prison for them.

SOCI1032 as a Health Science Elective - and Other Papers

Dr. Gilmour teaches SOCI103, “Which is a really intro kind of paper. It’s very much like Crim101 at a University that has a Criminology major. It looks at a few theories of criminal justice, and at race, gender and class in terms of crime and criminalisation. It’’s a big paper - epic! . . . . you can ask your friends when I’m not in the room if it’s any good! . . You can do that as your Health Sci elective. I deliberately set it up so that that is possible. . . I also teach gender, crime and justice, which is a second and third year paper . . It’s a feminist criminology paper . . . I love teaching it.” Dr. Gilmour was asked at interview, ‘if you get the job, what would you teach?’ And this is the one she chose. “I teach a bit of gender work and consumer culture - which is nothing to do with Criminology, and in it I teach Marxist-Feminist theory, and I talk about gender at work. . . 

Karl Marx — Image by:

And finally I teach Crime, Technology and Social Change, which looks at how technology has changed how people do crime" along with new technologies used by police, and understanding of crime in traditional media before looking at social media and crime and justice in the digital era. She also teaches sections of Gender 401.

Marxist Feminism

Asked to expand on Marxist Feminism Dr. Gilmour talked about the Marxist view of capitalism exploiting the worker, and the isolation of women at home with little contact with other adults, noting that children do better the more adults there are in a house, regardless of the adults gender.

“Follow what you are passionate about”.

Having been asked if she had any advice for her listeners, Fairleigh said it is really good to follow something one is really passionate about, and be aware that life can take unexpected turns, and to be open-minded about how you get to there. The path is not always well laid out and clear.

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Posted: Monday May 22, 2023