Tuesday, October 30, 2007

building lives within prison

in an attempt at real public criminology, i wrote an essay that has just been published in the oregon humanities magazine. the oregon humanities magazine is published twice a year and each issue is built around a single theme. the theme of this issue is "domesticity," and i wrote about how men serving life sentences (or very long sentences) build lives and find meaning for themselves in prison.

to be clear, i had a great deal of help from my inside/inmate students who contributed most of the main ideas, examples, and points, and from the editor, kathleen holt, who did some major editing to make the essay fit into a humanities magazine. 8-10 of my inside students voluntarily took the time to write a few paragraphs or pages on their thoughts about domesticity in prison, and they then trusted me to try to turn the information they provided into a coherent essay. i think everyone feels pretty good about the final result. i am especially pleased to expose a different audience to the articulate and thoughtful voices of my inside students. maybe it will help remind us all that real lives continue behind prison walls every day.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

hating everything in prison

here's a modern take on the pains of imprisonment from david, one of my inside students. this is an excerpt from a larger essay he wrote discussing classic sociological/criminological theory (including, in his case, durkheim, quinney, and marx) and his view of the purposes of punishment. the last part of the assignment asked for reflection on how well prisons fit the purpose(s) of punishment; here is his thoughtful and brutally honest response:

"…from the moment I rise, to the moment I rest, I feel punished. Even sleep is a task…I hate everything. I hate the bells at 5:15 am, the sound of my alarm, the bland colors, the lukewarm food, fluorescent lights, concrete floors, metal detectors, the low pay, the limited options, and “cooking” with 190 degree water. I hate the headphones, the monotony, the fences, the guards, the tours, the TV, the bunks, the spreads, I hate it all. I miss my parents, my job, my money, my home, my space, my clothes, my jewelry, the freeway, women, good food, baths, and more. [Prison] is a punishment sun-up to sun-up, 24-7-365. Every moment is horrible. The only thing that makes me smile is time, time is on my side. Every tick tock of the clock brings me closer to reprieve."

Saturday, October 27, 2007

free at last

i wrote about genarlow wilson's case a couple of times this year (here and here), and i'm happy to report that genarlow was released from prison yesterday. he served more than 2 years of the 10 year sentence he received for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl. he was 17 at the time. in a 4-3 ruling, the georgia supreme court said the sentence was "grossly disproportionate" to the crime and was cruel and unusual punishment.

before the incident, genarlow had never been in trouble with the law; he was a strong student, an athlete, and and homecoming king of his high school. now 21, he plans to go to college and major in sociology. state lawmakers announced that they have raised $4000 for a scholarship fund for wilson, and jesse jackson has promised another $5000. i hope the academic world welcomes him and he has an easy transition back into the community. welcome home, genarlow.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

gallup: perceptions of crime problem remain curiously negative

the gallup organization has released its annual crime poll. as of october 4-7, about 71 percent of americans believe that there is more crime in the u.s. today than there had been a year ago.

only about 51 percent believe that crime is up in their area or neighborhood, as people generally believe that the crime situation is better where they live than in the nation as a whole.

such questions usually elicit pessimistic responses, but perceptions over the past few years appear to be growing increasingly out of step with the best available victimization data (see below). gallup researchers offer several explanations, including the following:

Americans’ pessimism about crime may reflect an overly negative interpretation on their part of the fact that the decline in crime has tapered off. It could possibly reflect a real increase in media attention to crime on the local and national news. Or it could reflect Americans’ broader dissatisfaction with the way things are going in the country, a sentiment that extends from ratings of President Bush and Congress to the economy, as well as to their satisfaction with the direction of the country more generally.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

we couldn't let such a nice prison burn down

i've heard many stories about the pro-social behavior of prisoners, but here's a fine example from norway, via jonathon tisdall in aftenposten:

We couldn't let such a nice prison burn down," Ronny Stenberg said after he and fellow inmates at Arendal Prison in Fyresdal chose to fight flames rather than run.

"I don't dare think what would have happened if the prisoners themselves hadn't discovered the fire and helped fight it," prison guard Daniel Trollsås told newspaper Agderposten.

When firefighters arrived after about 40 minutes, a prisoner sleeping near the blaze had been pulled out to safety and the fire halted, with damage limited to only one barracks.

In appreciation of the effort, the prison threw a party last Wednesday after the blaze, with Trollsås buying cake and candy for everyone.

"I've done time in a closed prison, I wouldn't wish that on anyone," said Stenberg about the inmates' decision to preserve their prison.

Fyresdal grants prisoners a high degree of personal responsibility, and this program gave the approximately 30 inmates little hesitation in staying to fight for their facility rather than going on the run when the fire broke out.

About 10-12 years ago prisoners took responsibility and saved my life when one of the inmates went completely berserk and tried to kill me. Now I have had another chance to experience that this prison is full of so many good and reasonable people that when things get dangerous, it is the prisoners that take charge," Trollsås told Agderposten.

supreme court term limits

every presidential cycle, it seems we get more talk and hand-wringing about how this election will forever alter the composition of the u.s. supreme court. true, yes, but it ain't necessarily so. what if we imposed term limits on those justices?

npr's justice talking took up the issue of supreme court term limits this week. personally, i'm often more flummoxed by the opinions of the court's junior members, but you might want to listen to jim lindgren's proposal and read his case against "gerontocracy" in the judicial branch. an excerpt:

While mental incompetence was rare in the first century on the Court, since 1898 it has become a regular occurrence for justices who serve more than 18 years; by one estimate about a third were mentally incompetent to serve before they finally retired.

yeesh. next thing you know, professor lindgren will be training his sights on tenured college professors and long-serving football coaches.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

$300 well spent

according to an associated press story, a pennsylvania woman was issued a disorderly conduct citation on thursday for shouting profanities at her overflowing toilet within earshot of a neighbor. ms. dawn herb of scranton could face up to 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $300.

"It doesn't make any sense. I was in my house. It's not like I was outside or drunk," Herb told The Times-Tribune of Scranton. "The toilet was overflowing and leaking down into the kitchen and I was yelling (for my daughter) to get the mop."

Herb doesn't recall exactly what she said, but she admitted letting more than a few choice words fly near an open bathroom window Thursday night.

Her next-door neighbor, a city police officer who was off-duty at the time, asked her to keep it down, police said. When she continued, the officer called police.

this item paints the sort of sweet old-timey picture that awakens nostalgia for my ruby drive childhood. every springtime, when the neighbors would raise the windows, i'd learn all manner of creative cuss words. my neighbor, mr. ray, was a veritable pavarotti of profanity -- renowned for the power and beauty of his tone, especially into the upper register. ralphie put it much better, of course:

He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master. ... In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.

so too with ms. herb, i'll bet. don't worry -- the keen legal minds at volokh quickly rushed to her defense and she should get off scot-free. in this age of youtube and cellphone recordings, however, i'm sorely disappointed that nobody taped and posted said outburst online. now i'll just have to imagine ms. herb as a character in my own flickering black-and-white sitcom -- an enraged pg-rated alice kramden, ethel mertz, or weezie jefferson, brandishing a plunger and exchanging blustering oaths with mr. ray.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

(very) young lifers

young lifers are making news again, this time in a piece by adam liptak in today's times. the figure is taken from work by the equal justice initiative, showing the number sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were 13 or 14 years old.

Monday, October 15, 2007

hiv/aids in prisons

the bureau of justice statistics recently issued hiv in prisons, a report by laura maruschak. according to the report, the trend for both hiv infection and confirmed aids cases is generally downward. in new york, for example, there were 7,000 hiv/aids cases reported in 1999, relative to 4,440 reported at year-end 2005.

while the rate of aids appears to be dropping among prisoners, it is rising in the u.s. general population. the graph above shows the percentage of prison inmates with confirmed aids cases relative to the u.s. population age 15 or older. the rate of total hiv infection among prisoners also remains higher than that of the overall population, but it too is dropping: from 2.2 percent of male inmates and 3.4 percent of female inmates in 1999 to 1.8 percent of male inmates and 2.4 percent of female inmates in 2005.

Friday, October 12, 2007

big toe blues

the swampadelic and impossibly-named graham wood drout has taken home hardware for the ghosts of mississippi, which i'm sort of agnostic about. that said, i'll aver that his big toe is the best prison blues lyric in years.

especially when said lyric is combined with albert castiglia's guitar work. dang. dude shreds nasty. filthy nasty. in fact, it hurts so much to hear him on my li'l youtube compuspeakers, that i'm making my way to oakland park, florida to put my head inside a 4X10 up in front of the stage. sweet.

mr. drout's words:

working all day in the sun
big bossman got a big shotgun
gonna take my shovel and cut off my big toe
if i can't walk i won't have to work no more

countin' every little move i take
countin' every little rock i break
oh baby, think i'm gonna take it slow
if i can't walk, i won't have to work no more.

scars on my ankles where these chains are hanging down
tired of draggin' these chains all across the ground,
gonna take my shovel, cut off my big toe
if i can't walk, i won't have to work no more.

three years down on an 8 to 10,
got a feelin' i'll be back again,
gonna take my shovel, cut off my big toe
if i can't walk, i won't have to work no more.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

a farewell to the summer inside-out class

things got a little chaotic this summer and i didn't really post about my summer inside-out class. i am now about one-third of the way into this quarter's inside-out class at the oregon state penitentiary. it's going really well and i think all 30 students (from OSU and OSP) are enjoying the collaborative learning and the entire stereotype-shattering experience.

summer class was a definite success, as well, although we did end up with fewer outside (OSU) students than inside (OSP) students. still, we had a good time and learned a lot. one of my inside students, barry, wrote this poem to commemorate the experience. i just got my copy last week and i don't think he would mind sharing it here.


a gathering of twenty-four good friends
closes out the Inside-Out summer term
where two worlds bonded with focus
redefining criminology by contentments affirm

even though emotions may have spiked
it was a night we will never forget
sharing food purchased by Beaver Nation
was something a bit beyond etiquette

reflecting upon what was accomplished
is a reality that words may not define
as them tears of joy bubbled forth
I duly toast Michelle's vision being divine

unto all Administrators who worked together
this special thanks is certainly a rewarder
because you united hope to greet its purpose
that is explained with successions recorder

having spent over half of my life inside prison
this experience was the best one yet
and the theories that this taught unto me
definitely is worth rehabilitation's mind-set


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

gross & simmons on professors' political views

inside higher ed summarizes a careful new study by neil gross and solon simmons on the political views of american professors. i created the figure above from their table 8, which examines party affiliation in the top twenty degree-granting fields. i've only perused the paper, but i'm impressed by the response rate, sample size and survey items (e.g., adapting wording from questions on the american national election study).

i've organized the figure by percent republican, but there's likely an interesting story in the heterogeneous "independent" category as well. about 49 percent of sociologists self-identify as democrats, 46 percent as independents, and 6 percent as republicans -- a distribution strikingly similar to that of political science. criminal justice professors seem a bit more conservative, at 40 percent democrat, 40 percent independent, and 19 percent republican. overall, republicans are rare in the social sciences (excepting economics) and humanities, but somewhat more prevalent in business and engineering.

in earlier posts, i'd cited data suggesting an even more lopsided distribution in the social sciences. this made me "worry in a what's the matter with kansas way about sociologists losing the hearts and minds of america. aside from real or perceived biases in instruction, would sociological knowledge flourish or founder if sociology faculty looked a little more like the rest of the citizenry on this dimension?"

the new study partially allays my fears, though i'm still convinced that greater ideological diversity would improve the state of knowledge in my home disciplines. that said, i'll leave it to others to launch the affirmative action initiative for underrepresented conservatives in social science.

Monday, October 8, 2007

koppel on prisons

i missed the initial broadcast last night, but i'm hearing good things about ted koppel's discovery channel prison documentary. from all reports, this one might be worth a bit of class time in an intro crim course.


from the statesman journal:
FARMINGTON, Mo. — It’s a hefty price for a pastry: A man accused of stealing a 52-cent doughnut could face time in jail.

Authorities said Scott A. Masters, 41, slipped the doughnut into his sweat shirt without paying, then pushed away a clerk who tried to stop him as he fled the store. The push is being treated as minor assault, which transforms a misdemeanor shoplifting charge to a strong-armed robbery with a potential prison term of five to 15 years. Because he has a criminal history, prosecutors say they could seek 30 years....

stigma, fear, power, & control in the u-district

today's seattle times includes a story about how the university of washington is forcing 13 sex offenders to move out of an area just north of the university. for the past seven years, a number of sex offenders on probation have lived quietly in rental houses near the fraternities and sororities of the u-dub greek system. while the offenders have never caused trouble, people in power--including university president mark emmert and washington governor christine gregoire--have decided they must relocate.

landlord carol clarke works closely with each of the felons who rents from her, setting strict ground rules and encouraging them to do good; with short notice she is about to lose 13 of her 55 tenants. she intends to fight the university to let the tenants stay; in her view, the students cause more trouble than her tenants.

several things bother me about this story, but i'll point out two. first, while a spokesperson for u-dub panhellenic said they haven't had specific problems with any of the13 individuals, "sororities have been advised to know the location of sex-offender housing and 'gain as much information as they can' about sexual predators in the area." i wonder if that includes looking into the fraternities and dorms in the area, as well. chances are if a student is going to be sexually assaulted, it will be by a fellow student and not a stranger who happens to live in the neighborhood.

second, "As part of the UW's neighborhood plan, [vice-provost] Godfrey said the university is looking into purchasing properties and maintaining them as student rental housing. He said Clarke's five homes are in the real-estate corridor they are interested in most." interesting. so, with the governor's approval, they force a quarter of the residents out of the very rental properties they are hoping to purchase.

whose interests are really being protected here?

Saturday, October 6, 2007

times op-ed on debt and reentry

October 6, 2007
New York Times
Out of Prison and Deep in Debt

With the nation’s incarcerated population at 2.1 million and growing — and corrections costs topping $60 billion a year — states are rightly looking for ways to keep people from coming back to prison once they get out. Programs that help ex-offenders find jobs, housing, mental health care and drug treatment are part of the solution. States must also end the Dickensian practice of saddling ex-offenders with crushing debt that they can never hope to pay off and that drives many of them right back to prison.

The scope of the ex-offender debt problem is outlined in a new study commissioned by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and produced by the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center. The study, “Repaying Debts,” describes cases of newly released inmates who have been greeted with as much as $25,000 in debt the moment they step outside the prison gate. That’s a lot to owe for most people, but it can be insurmountable for ex-offenders who often have no assets and whose poor educations and criminal records prevent them from landing well-paying jobs.

Often, the lion’s share of the debt is composed of child support obligations that continue to mount while the imprisoned parent is earning no money. The problem does not stop there. The corrections system buries inmates in fines, fees and surcharges that can amount to $10,000 or more. According to the Justice Center study, for example, a person convicted of drunken driving in New York can be charged a restitution fee of $1,000, a probation fee of $1,800 and 11 other fees and charges that range from $20 to nearly $2,200.

In some jurisdictions, inmates are also billed for the DNA testing that proves their guilt or innocence, for drug testing and even for the drug treatment they are supposed to receive as a condition of parole. These fees are often used to run the courts, the sheriffs’ offices or other parts of the corrections system.

A former inmate living at or even below the poverty level can be dunned by four or five departments at once — and can be required to surrender 100 percent of his or her earnings. People caught in this impossible predicament are less likely to seek regular employment, making them even more susceptible to criminal relapse.

The Justice Center report recommends several important reforms. First, the states should make one agency responsible for collecting all debts from ex-offenders. That agency can then set payment priorities. The report also recommends that payments to the state for fines and fees be capped at 20 percent of income, except when the former inmate has sufficient assets to pay more. And in cases where the custodial parent agrees, the report urges states to consider modifying child support orders while the noncustodial parent is in prison. Once that parent is released, child support should be paid first.

The states should also develop incentives, including certificates of good conduct and waivers of fines, for ex-offenders who make good-faith efforts to make their payments. Where appropriate, they should be permitted to work off some of the debt through community service. Beyond that, elected officials who worry about recidivism need to understand that bleeding ex-offenders financially is a sure recipe for landing them back in jail.

Friday, October 5, 2007

prison poetry contest

i've been reading and hearing as much prison poetry as non-prison poetry lately. i just got word of a contest offering both cash prizes and publication possibilities. the shot caller press prison poetry contest is open to all prisoners, ex-prisoners, family members or friends of prisoners, prison guards, prison volunteers, and prison workers.

i've never heard of the press, but they can sign me up for the forthcoming anthology. below the official rules, they offer advice that might benefit any poet:

Additionally: We do not look for literary merit. What we are looking for is creativity and originality. The correct usage of words or grammar is not a criterion in this contest; sometimes it is a plus. ... What makes a poem stand out is the use of language to create strong images, a topic that shows a unique awareness of prison life and a creative approach that shows originality.

amen to that. here's an excerpt from dietrich bonhoeffer's Who am I?, written in tegel prison in 1944:

...struggling for breath, as though
hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers,
for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness,
for neighbourliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends
at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying,
at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once?
A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still
like a beaten army, fleeing in disorder
from victory already achieved?

Thursday, October 4, 2007

a mayor walks his talk

i find myself charmed by newark mayor corey a. booker and his very public efforts to walk his talk and improve conditions for the residents of his city. if you're not familiar with mr. booker, the new york times has published a series of articles documenting his battles and his efforts in newark.

the latest article is my favorite so far. i'll admit to being a soft touch for anyone who takes the time (and the accompanying emotional wallop) to mentor troubled youth, and despite his crazy schedule, mayor booker has taken on the role of big brother to three delinquent young men. he gets together with "the boys" virtually every weekend, takes them to dinner, takes them to church, takes them to lectures, and plays games with them. members of the mayor's security team have become mentors to the boys as well. it hasn't been easy, and it hasn't been an unqualified success either. the article explains:

The year together has been something of a mixed and quixotic one for the boys and for Mr. Booker. Duwon has dropped out of school and largely slipped from Mr. Booker’s orbit. Anthony, a hyperkinetic youth who once had a penchant for shoplifting, has started earning better grades. Sean’s progress has been unsteady, too. He has stayed out of trouble, but in many ways remains unmoored.

Still, in a city where crime, drugs and violence have a way of ensnaring children, the fact that all three teenagers have stayed alive and out of jail is an achievement of some magnitude.
perhaps the best part of this story, for me, is how the mayor and the boys came together. as the article explains, it was not out of mutual affection:

Shortly after Mr. Booker’s inauguration in July 2006, the police arrested three people for spray-painting the words “Kill Booker” in the hallway of a school none of them attended. This occurred when Mr. Booker and his security detail were grappling with death threats from jailed gang members.

But when he learned that those arrested were under 18, Mr. Booker made prosecutors an unusual proposition. If they would drop the charges, Mr. Booker would become the teenagers’ mentor.
ironically, a 13-year-old arrested for the vandalism was considered "too far gone" for the mayor's mentoring intervention, but the other two boys were given the chance and a relative of one of them became the third little brother.

the article is clear that it hasn't been an easy relationship, that there have been plenty of ups and downs. but i'm impressed with mayor booker's bravery and his unconditional love and support for these boys who once acted out against him. he may be a good role model for us all.

mass incarceration in the joint economic committee

good on ya, bruce.

the u.s. senate's joint economic committee held a hearing this morning on "mass incarceration in the united states: at what cost?" "to explore the economic consequences and causes of and solutions to the steep increase of the u.s. prison population."

i hope some good comes from it. here's the press release:

The United States has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, despite having only 5 percent of the world’s population. The JEC will examine why the United States has such a disproportionate share of the world’s prison population, as well as ways to address this issue that responsibly balance public safety and the high social and economic costs of imprisonment.

Expert witnesses have been asked to discuss the costs of maintaining a large prison system; the long-term labor market and social consequences of mass incarceration; whether the increase in the prison population correlates with decreases in crime; and what alternative sentencing strategies and post-prison re-entry programs have been most successful at reducing incarceration rates in states and local communities.

Witnesses (as of September 27):

Dr. Glenn Loury, Economics and Social Sciences Professor, Brown University
Dr. Bruce Western, Director Inequality and Social Policy Program, Harvard University
Alphonso Albert, Executive Director, Second Chances
Michael Jacobson, Executive Director, Vera Institute for Justice

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

thinking experimentally

as chair, i attend far more meetings than talks these days. there's a talk at harvard today that i'd love to sink my teeth into:

The Applied Statistics Workshop presents another installment this week with Thomas Cook, Department of Sociology, Northwestern University presenting a talk entitled, "When the causal estimates from randomized experiments and non-experiments coincide: Empirical findings from the within-study comparison literature."

i've always been fascinated with social experiments and the collision between experimental and non-experimental methods. a lot of what we know about this subject comes from the literature on employment and training interventions. my reading of the cook, shadish, and wong paper discussed today is that non-experimental methods might fare better outside this context. hmmm. this sort of work strikes me as absolutely fundamental to understanding and contextualizing social scientific knowledge.

coincidentally, i'm editing proofs right now for thinking experimentally, a li'l essay written for experiments in criminology and law, edited by christine horne and mike lovaglia. my contribution is an homage to the fine graduate methods training that i received at the wizversity -- and, i suppose, an apologia for straying from the course.