Thursday, November 30, 2006

recipe for prison pruno

i'm in nyc for a punishment conference at the new school. after today's academic sessions, richard gere and carey lowell offered a dramatic reading of prison writings.

the actors were working with some great material, of course, since there are some amazing writers behind bars. prison writing is challenging because simple, matter-of-fact reporting can come off as melodramatic to those of us on the outside. the best writers, of course, juxtapose telling descriptions of the mundane and taken-for-granted -- the ceaseless noise, the odors, the lack of natural light -- with the high drama and harsh reality that punctuates prison life.

for example, patricia prewitt's contraband brilliantly conveys the small absurdities of prison life from an inmate's perspective. other writers addressed heavier issues involving fear, pain, violence, and hopelessness. i found the pieces by jarvis jay masters to be especially moving. pieces such as "mourning exercise" make clear that mr. masters is not just a good prison writer. this one knocked me out:

recipe for prison pruno

Take ten peeled oranges,
Jarvis Masters, it is the judgment and sentence of this court,
one 8 oz. bowl of fruit cocktail,
that the charged information was true,
squeeze the fruit into a small plastic bag,
and the jury having previously, on said date,
and put the juice along with the mash inside,
found that the penalty shall be death,
add 16 oz. of water and seal the bag tightly.
and this Court having, on August 20, 1991,
Place the bag into your sink,
denied your motion for a new trial,
and heat it with hot running water for 15 minutes.
it is the order of this Court that you suffer death,
wrap towels around the bag to keep it warm for fermentation.
said penalty to be inflicted within the walls of San Quentin,
Stash the bag in your cell undisturbed for 48 hours.
at which place you shall be put to death,
When the time has elapsed,
in the manner prescribed by law,
add 40 to 60 cubes of white sugar,
the date later to be fixed by the Court in warrant of execution.
six teaspoons of ketchup,
You are remanded to the custody of the warden of San Quentin,
then heat again for 30 minutes,
to be held by him pending final
secure the bag as done before,
determination of your appeal.
then stash the bag undisturbed again for 72 hours.
It is so ordered.
Reheat daily for 15 minutes.
In witness whereof,
After 72 hours,
I have hereon set my hand as Judge of this Superior Court,
with a spoon, skim off the mash,
and I have caused the seal of this Court to be affixed thereto.
pour the remaining portion into two 18 oz. cups.
May God have mercy on your soul.
Guzzle down quickly
Mr. Jarvis Masters.
Gulp Gulp Gulp!

California State Prison-San Quentin

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

pubcrim and (in)expert knowledge

i presented some research today before the minnesota supreme court's statewide racial fairness committee, a distinguished group of supreme court justices and other justice professionals. they weren't wearing robes, of course, but it was still a bit intimidating, perhaps because my adolescent appearances before judges were not always so pleasant.

my schedule has been a bit hectic this week (or, more precisely, completely freakin' nuts), so i was racing from campus to capitol with little time to spare. i think the talk went well, although i had the horrifying realization at about the 25-minute mark that i was beginning to lecture the justices about the law (i tend to have all my horrifying realizations at the midway point of presentations -- being onstage sharpens the senses, i suppose). this would have been profoundly stupid and arrogant, in light of my very limited knowledge and experience with the law. i therefore beat a hasty retreat back to some solid social facts (e.g., race differences in punishment and disenfranchisement) and the conceptual tools of sociological theories (e.g., group threat) that help us make sense of them.

this seemed a good strategy, at least as measured by a dramatic increase in note-taking, questions, and eye contact during the talk. although i don't always make the best use of them, i'm once again convinced of the extraordinary utility of my discipline's methods and theories.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

the o.j. - arbuckle discrepancy?

erin aubry kaplan of the los angeles times penned a head-scratcher of an op-ed this week. in the la times, it was titled, "The O.J.-Kramer discrepancy -- Recent PR disasters reveal greater tolerance for a white man's unsavory behavior than a black man's," while the strib named the piece, Kramer-O.J. discrepancy says a lot about inequality -- Richards' racist rant is brushed off as an isolated incident, while Simpson is condemned for his character.

huh? i understand the idea of a racist double standard when it comes to crime and justice, and to public opinion about crime and justice. as a criminologist, i've seen racial disparity in the operations of the justice system and i'm personally committed to uncovering and redressing these inequities. while michael richards' racist comedy club meltdown was awful, however, mr. simpson was accused of murdering two people.

ms. kaplan reassures us, after 11 paragraphs, that she isn't "equating racist invective with charges of double homicide." fair enough, i suppose, but isn't this comparison precisely the point of her editorial?

Richards' "racist rant" has been described as a terrible but isolated incident. O.J., meanwhile, is condemned for his character.

if ms. kaplan believes that o.j. simpson has been unfairly condemned because of his race, couldn't she have found a more fitting comparison? i dunno, perhaps the situations involving senator ted kennedy and roscoe "fatty" arbuckle were somewhat more comparable to the accusations against mr. simpson -- at least when stacked up against mr. richards' cringe-inducing speech.

though the now-senior senator was never tried for murder, his behaviors were alleged to have contributed to the death of another person. senator kennedy's public image has never quite recovered from chappaquiddick, but he remains a powerful and generally respected public figure to this day. mr. arbuckle's career was pretty much cooked after he was tried for manslaughter in the death of a young actress, but it may have been even worse for him if he hadn't been white. mr. arbuckle never wrote an if i did it book like mr. simpson; given the public outcry over his alleged crimes, however, would it stretch credulity to suggest that a black fatty arbuckle might have faced a lynch mob?

so, i am sympathetic to ms. kaplan's larger point about race and justice, and i think some data could be martialed in favor of her assertions about mr. simpson's public image. but c'mon, comparing OJ and michael richards? unlike brentwood in 1994, only one person died at the laugh factory that november night: the formerly-likeable actor who played cosmo kramer.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

spare me my life!

throughout japan's protracted economic recession, crime rates remained low by international standards. as a visiting american criminologist, my japanese friends would often ask questions that seemed to presume scarface-level crime rates all over america. for example, a middle school student in osaka asked me whether my (middle-school-aged) children brought guns to school, to little league games, and other venues (they also asked about illicit drugs, but that's another post). i guess one can blame american cultural products, which tend to feature lots of violence. plus, by any measure, we really do have a lot of guns in this country.

perhaps all this explains the disturbing content and peculiar selection of commonly used english phrases in the video above. never in my forays into spanish, french, japanese, and norwegian language instruction, do i recall learning the phrase, spare me my life.* maybe i did learn it, but just can't remember because there wasn't a video featuring george castanza with half a brassiere on his head and a catchy dance number to accompany the lesson. as for the other bizarre features in the clip (is this thing for real? what's with the zoom into the shoulder? the marching and smiling?), you're on your own.

*sadly, i failed miserably at all but norwegian, in which i failed semi-respectably. i have tremendous respect for folks with real language skills. let's see, i think they started me off with food ("pass me the butter") in intro norsk, and we spent a lot of time on monsieur thibaut's hat in french. i came across some interesting phrases involving etiquette in japanese public baths, but nothing life-threatening.

Friday, November 17, 2006

call to justice tv - saturday night at 8

twin cities public television will show highlights of the council on crime & justice's call to justice forum on racial disparities tomorrow night. i can't vouch for the production values and, being one of the less exciting speakers on the bill, i don't know whether any of my remarks will survive the editing process. nevertheless, it was a lively event that could make for good tv. you can check it out on channel 17, saturday november 18th, from 8:00 to 9:00 pm.

here's a blurb on the conference and panelists:

In early 2006, the Council completed a five year research project known as the Racial Disparity Initiative (RDI). RDI consisted of 17 studies that examined both the causes and consequences of the racial disparities throughout Minnesota’s criminal justice system. In June of 2006 the studies’ key findings and recommendations were revealed at the Call to Justice Forum, attended by over 700 community members and leaders representing a diverse range of perspectives and expertise in the area of criminal justice or related areas.

The goal of the event was to bring community members, organizations, and leaders together to collaboratively and actively address the disparities. Panelists included: Senator Julianne Ortman; University of Minnesota Professor Chris Uggen; University of St. Thomas Professor Kenneth Goodpaster; Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman; Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak; Dr. Bravada Garrett-Akinsanya, African American Child Wellness Institute; Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson; Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page; University of Minnesota Professor Michael Tonry; Jim Rowader, Target Corporation; Donna Zimmerman, Health Partners.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

twenty large is too much to charge

many big-name and medium-name academics are charging large speaking fees. when local grad students invited a prominent (non-sociology) professor to campus for a talk, they were told it would cost $20,000 plus expenses. since s/he ain't flying coach, the expenses might cost an additional $5,000. around here, that's about a year's worth of support for a grad student and three years of undergrad tuition. in my view, demanding such fees is an absurd abuse of the academic star system and only suckers would pay such fees.

here is how critics of academics (including myself, of course) might see big speaking fees:

1. individuals grabbing credit for group accomplishments. unlike novelists who might conceive and execute projects on their own, most of us rely on others to do much of the real work on our projects. dozens of students and thousands of research subjects often assist in our research. so, where's their cut of the $20,000? they don't get a sniff of it.

2. feeding at the public trough. few of us could gain much private recognition without huge public investments. for example, the states of minnesota and wisconsin subsidized my education; the national science foundation, the department of justice, and the national institutes of health have supported my work; and, the university of minnesota has paid me a steady and generous salary throughout my career. so the taxpayers and students are triple-gouged by (1) the fee they must pay to speakers; (2) the lack of return on their previous investments; and, (3) the lost time i take for personal profit when i could be teaching or doing other work for the minnversity.

3. profiting from misery. shouldn't we feel conflicted and rotten whenever we take a limousine to a poverty conference or step over a homeless kid on the way to a sumptuous hotel? those of us who do social-problemsy research should really know better, unless we have such an outsized sense of personal entitlement that we don't even notice the contradiction.

4. nothing intellectual about it. such fees are for celebrities rather than scientists, so these folks aren't brought in for anything resembling a "serious" research talk. i'm all for popularizing high-end research, but big public talks should help fulfill the mission of teaching and disseminating findings rather than the mission of generating a supplementary income stream.

5. tenured professors already get paid. non-academics who must make a living giving talks and writing books likely need hefty speakers fees. i know some brilliant free-lance journalists who live article-to-article and supplement when and where they can. but big-shot tenured professors can already rely upon their six-figure academic-year salaries. forever.

6. lousy investment. our potential visitor was not a major political or cultural figure, either, who might arguably return $25k in attention and resources or even prestige to the minnversity. the minnversity may have gotten their money's worth in bringing in colin powell, salmon rushdie, and other non-academics to campus this year, but that's a tough argument to make for just another professor from a peer institution.

7. they'd be ashamed. if i blogged the names and fees of people who have turned down invitations for monetary reasons, they'd surely want to sue me. imagine if your peers read something like this: well, we invited uggen but there's just no way. his agent said he normally charges $10k, but would give us his special discount fee of $8,500. he's already got offers for $9,000 at the mall of america business college and $9,500 at the boat show. when we told him we only had $5,000, he said it just wasn't worth his time.

8. rubes, suckers, and marks. relative to small unranked institutions, fees are often much lower for well-endowed private universities such as stanford, harvard, and chicago. some bigshots only address the "rubes in flyoverland" when paid very handsomely, since there is no compensating gain in prestige. i can get a little cranky when a visitor sees the minnversity as anything other than a great public research university. paying fees that harvard wouldn't have to pay puts me into the position of a rube, a sucker, a mark, and (okay, i'll say it) a john.

9. even a high-end $20,000-per-night escort is still a ... i wouldn't push the analogy too far, but there's a word for people who seek monetary compensation for their kind attentions.

10. no accountability. when deans and department chairs put $20,000 into a new initiative, we like to know what happens to it. did it serve as seed money to launch a new initiative? did a publication result? was it used to further a teaching or service mission? sometimes expenditures turn out to be "blind alleys" that don't pan out, of course, but at least the recipient is accountable and there's a reasonable chance of an intellectual payoff. for a speaker series, there are plenty of non-$20k visitors doing the kind of exciting work that generates great ideas and intellectual exchange.

i'm not suggesting that everyone should put their honoraria into a felon fund or that professors shouldn't be compensated for their time. i can certainly understand why busy academics cannot accept every invitation to travel and speak. but wouldn't, say, $500 or $1000 be ample compensation? choosing academic invitations based solely on ability to pay any more than that doesn't pass the smell test. i guarantee that if you devote half your honoraria to an organization or a cause related to your research, you'll feel a whole lot better about taking the balance of the money.

Friday, November 10, 2006

school-to-prison pipeline

the american society of criminology meetings had some provocative film sessions last week, making good use of the l.a. convention center theater. i sat in on a series of short films and trailers, thinking they might be good for classroom use. unfortunately, i had to leave early -- it was pretty intense to see back-to-back-to-back docs on prison rape, kids in cages, and other atrocities.

one film that looks terrific, though, is book 'em: undereducated, overincarcerated by the three-minute clip addresses a phenomenon known as the school-to-prison pipeline. i just heard the term this summer, at a racial disparities conference in minneapolis. i learned that youth of color now make up about 80% of the juveniles appearing in hennepin county court, with 25% of those cases referred from schools. this doesn't include truancy violations, either. in just the 2003-2004 school year, minneapolis schools referred 2,656 cases to the juvenile justice system. 2,311 of these involved misdemeanors, about half for disorderly conduct.

in minneapolis, as elsewhere, the juvenile justice system is meting out a lot of school discipline these days. the naacp legal defense fund has compiled a useful report on the subject, but i haven't seen much strong empirical work on the subject in the mainstream journals. it might make for a terrific dissertation ...

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

victim services positions

the council on crime and justice sends word of two victim services positions in beautiful downtown minneapolis. one is for a victim advocate/outreach coordinator. here's a blurb from michael bischoff on the job:

"The person(s) we’d like to hire will work full-time, receive great benefits, and be based at our office in downtown Minneapolis. We’re looking for someone that is passionate about working in partnership with crime victims to advocate for their rights. I’m attaching the job announcement. There isn’t a set deadline for the position. It will be open until filled."

the council is also seeking a victim services coordinator to coordinate the council's volunteers and crime victim hotline. the council is a fine local non-profit with an excellent national reputation. i've been working with the organization a lot lately and can vouch for its leadership and core mission: "to build community capacity to address the causes and consequences of crime and violence through research, demonstration and advocacy."

to apply, submit a resume and cover letter to: council on crime and justice, attn: human resources, 822 south third street, suite 100, minneapolis, mn 55415 or

voting rights trump punishment in rhode island

rhode island voters today considered a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to probationers and parolees in that state. the referendum presented a clash between two deeply-felt imperatives -- the desire to punish criminals and the desire to secure civil rights for all citizens.

if i'm reading the ballot wording* and the results** correctly, voting rights trumped punitiveness tonight and about 15,000 rhode island citizens regained the right to vote.

after reviewing the social scientific evidence to the best of our abilities, jeff manza and i advocated reenfranchising probationers and parolees in locked out. so, yes, i'm pleased with this result. more broadly, however, i'm encouraged to see that at least half the voters plainly see convicted felons as fellow citizens rather than as a permanently stained and stigmatized criminal class, unfit for citizenship. these results might offer a ray of hope to those struggling to make it on the outside and perhaps encourage those working on their behalf.

*here is the wording for question 2:

Approval of the amendment to the Rhode Island Constitution set forth below will provide that no person who is incarcerated in a correctional facility upon a felony conviction shall be permitted to vote until such person is discharged from the facility, at which point that person's right to vote shall be restored:
Question 2 APPROVE
Question 2 REJECT

** here are the unofficial results compiled by the rhode island board of elections, as of 1:00 am:

With 565 of 565(100%) precincts reporting statewide STATE QUESTION 2 - VOTER INITIATIVE

Question 2 APPROVE (N) 191,454 51.5%
Question 2 REJECT (N) 180,161 48.5%

Monday, November 6, 2006

anything is possible

the new york times recently ran an interview with will smith, discussing his new movie, the pursuit of happyness. the movie is based on chris gardner's autobiographical book and tells the story of a particularly challenging time in gardner's life when he and his son found themselves homeless in san francisco even as the single father sought to better their futures by working an internship at a brokerage firm.

the former fresh prince said that he could relate to gardner's struggle and his continual striving:

"I have to be the best I can be. I have to achieve everything I can possibly achieve. I feel like I owe it to every single person I came into contact with, who knows my life, I owe it to them. It’s a call from God, or Allah, or Jehovah. I don’t even necessarily know why.

"The beauty of America is that we’re not realistic. The idea that anything is possible, that idea is being kept alive here. This story is why America worked — as an idea. The idea is that this is the only country in the world where Chris Gardner is possible. The pursuit is what makes America great."

Then Will Smith did something surprising. He recited the Declaration of Independence. The whole first segment, including the "pursuit of happiness," rapid-fire. When he finished, and noted the surprise of an observer, he said: "I believe it." Pause. "I don’t believe we do it well." And he recalled a moment from when he was walking through the Tenderloin with Mr. Gardner.

"We were just standing out there in this place of broken dreams. Of extreme poverty. And it washed over me that the greatest poverty is the poverty of ideas. Chris was equally impoverished as these people, but he never had the poverty of ideas. He was rich with belief. Rich with faith." He smiled, that sunny It’s-Will-Smith-Things-Are-Looking-Up smile. "And I’ve always felt like that."

why would i quote will smith on our public criminology blog? as criminologists, one of our jobs is to try to understand and explain why individuals commit crime, and why others who may be dealing with much more difficult circumstances embrace conformity. the poverty of ideas may be one explanation. i speak more often of the importance of hope, especially for our adolescents. how do we instill in them hope and belief and faith and then follow through by giving them the opportunity for meaningful work and satisfying lives?

anything is possible, right? how do we keep that idea alive for those who most need to believe it?