Books Behind Bars: College Courses in Prisons

Oregon State University-Oregon State Penitentiary professor Michelle Inderbitzen shares a photo of a book her "inside" students inscribed for her.
Oregon State University-Oregon State Penitentiary professor Michelle Inderbitzen shares a photo of a book her “inside” students inscribed for her.

The American public tends to balk at any prison amenities or “luxuries.” Others, however, challenge the idea that prison is meant to be stark and bleak. Those who look to a rehabilitative view of prison’s role include Dr. Reid Helford, a sociologist from Chicago’s Loyola University who works in areas outside traditional academia, such as prisons. Recently quoted in a Seattle Times article, Helford states that teaching in prison is “the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done.” Personal fulfillment aside, why should society spend public efforts, time, and funds on providing college courses and instructors for prison inmates?

Sociology helps us look past the surface morality of this debate and consider the broader contexts in which our prison system operates. Regardless whether one believes prison should offer punishment, rehabilitation, or a hybrid, society clearly benefits from lower rates of recidivism (criminals returning to crime). But what does education have to with recidivism? Helford was quoted:

Education does more than offer inmates a credential… it teaches them how to be the people we want our fellow citizens to be—thoughtful, critically aware of the world around them, disciplined and able to recognize authority.

Thus, Helford and his colleagues believe a college course (or eve degree) can help an inmate succeed in the outside world. The benefits of inmate education also spread into the communities to which they return after finishing their sentences. The Seattle Times cites a 2013 study that “concluded that prisoners who participated in education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years of release, and also found that every dollar spent on inmate education translated to $4 to $5 saved on re-incarceration.” This study considered GED, college, and vocational inmate-education together, and new studies are already in motion. A sociological understanding of those findings will be key to implementing and perfecting inmate-education programs like the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which works to create nation-wide partnerships between universities and state and federal incarceration centers.

A short film via Temple University’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program:

2014: When Social Media Changed Sports Culture

Much of 2014’s sporting news happened off the court or outside the stadium. As described by Dave Zirin in The Nation’s “Why 2014 Will Be Remembered as the Year the Sports World Turned Upside Down,” incidents involving sports figures’ off-the-field conduct created a new era of public accountability and showed social media’s ability to effect change. The article quotes Dr. Harry Edwards, a UC Berkeley sports sociologist:

I’m not sure that institutionally, this nineteenth-century institution of sport is really organized to handle, in this modern age of real-time communication, the kinds of concerns that are going to come up. I just don’t think that they’re organized or developed to absorb and handle the situations we’re going to be confronted with.

As, say, fans saw NFL player Ray Rice punching his partner (now wife) in an elevator and heard NBA owner Donald Sterling hurling racist epithets at his girlfriend, the news spread like wildfire online. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice after security footage went viral, despite the fact the NFL leadership, including Goodell, had turned a blind eye to domestic abuse in its ranks many times before. Similarly, Sterling, a billionaire with a long history of racist comments in his 30 years of basketball ownership, was this time disgraced, forced into selling his team as pressure mounted via social media mobilization.

As Edwards told Zirin, “[W]e’re moving into utterly uncharted waters and again, I’m not sure that these nineteenth-century institutions can function within a twenty-first-century cultural and technological context, without utterly changing their structure, management and, in some instances, even their goals.” Sport may look quite different in the coming years—and sports sociologists will have definitely have to keep their eyes on the ball.

What Doulas Do

Photo from Persephone's Birth by eyeliam on flickr.com
Photo by eyeliam via Flickr CC.

Pregnancy can be stressful. Friends and family may have good intentions, giving informal support to expecting mothers, but their helpful hints sometimes come across as critical. A doula, however, provides emotional support before, during, and after birth, and helps women make informed health decisions.

Sociologist Lisa Hall talked to Missouri State News about her research on doula services and how these workers’ contribute women’s well-being. Hall reflected on one interview:

The client’s words were, “if it had not been for my doula, I think I might have just left my baby with my husband and moved away.” She had no confidence that she could be a good mom—especially in the midst of criticism—and the doula empowered her.

Many doula clients receive WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) services and lack access to adequate healthcare due poverty or homelessness. Furthermore, lack of education and connections (part of what social scientists call “social capital”) prevents many low-income and young women from asking questions or expressing health concerns. And, for all women, a doula can serve as a liaison to health service providers. Hall elaborates, “It’s a major view shift for some of these [expectant mothers] who haven’t been taken seriously or hadn’t been treated like an adult …”.

Taking a client’s physical and emotional needs seriously is just one aspect of doula services. The Doula Foundation teaches effective parenting, helps with healthcare access, and encourages breastfeeding, all of which benefit mothers and their children by providing a tool kit of positive health practices. Other groups, like the Isis Rising Prison Doula Project, bring doula services into spaces where birth may have even further complications.

The Political and Cultural Problem of Paid Leave

This co-edited volume considers "Public Policies and Innovative Strategies for Low Wage Workers."
This co-edited volume considers “Public Policies and Innovative Strategies for Low Wage Workers.”

One of the most forceful themes in the 2015 State of the Union Address was the need to help working families. President Obama and other progressives argue that implementing policies like guaranteed paid sick leave and child care tax credits will boost the national economy by making it easier for mothers to work. Opponents believe the policies will hurt businesses, damaging job growth and economic recovery.

Sociologists have long studied how the roles of parent and worker intersect, and some of their data and findings are being put to use in this political debate. The New York Times’s Upshot blog highlighted several studies of paid leave policies, including CUNY sociologist Ruth Milkman’s work. Milkman’s analysis supports paid leave and credits for child care—she argues that “For workers who use these programs, they are extremely beneficial, and the business lobby’s predictions about how these programs are really a big burden on employers are not accurate.” Milkman, along with economist Eileen Applebaum, surveyed California firms about whether their costs had increased as a consequence of that state’s paid leave law. 87% of companies said that their bottom line had not suffered, and 9% found that their costs had actually decreased, thanks to lower worker turnover or health benefits payments.

Yet even in California, New Jersey, and Washington, the three states that have, thus far, enacted paid leave laws, many workers don’t know about the policies. State-level political campaigns may change policy, but a broader national discussion must help change workplace cultures to make good on the policies’ promise.

Trial Hype: The Different Allures of the Tsarnaev and Hernandez Cases

Photo by Christopher Pacquette via Flickr CC.
Photo by Christopher Pacquette via Flickr CC.

From OJ Simpson to Casey Anthony, America has no shortage of highly anticipated and hotly discussed trials. At the moment, Boston is a hive of judicial, legal, and media activity surrounding the trials of two infamous, if unrelated defendants: Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and New England Patriots tight-end and homicide suspect Aaron Hernandez. An article from ABCNews by Denise Lavoe uses sociology to explain why some trials can gain so much attention and how that affects the ideal of trial by a jury of peers. In each of the Boston cases, jury pools reached well over 1,100 people until a group of potential jurors who hadn’t already reached a conclusion about the case could be found.

Quoted in the article, Northeastern University sociologist Jack Levin explains that each trial attracts interest and media attention in a specific way. People are interested in the Tsarnaev case because of “a widespread feeling that people have that they are vulnerable.” The fear of terrorism drives public interest rather than the fame of the defendant. The Hernandez case is different, as Levin explains, because the trial of a popular sports figure attracts its own kind of attention. Society, he says, places “tremendous value on athletes, and when one of them commits a serious crime like homicide, it shocks the public.” The trial of a disgraced, once-popular player draws public attention partially because the narrative seems to run so counter to prevailing perceptions of sport and athletes, as well as the gloss of fame. Tsarnaev is felt keenly as a physical threat to everyone, while Hernandez represents a more abstract threat to assumptions and values. Both cases will likely remain front-page news well into the future, but different social processes lay beneath their infamy.

Modeling: A Tough Job at Any Size

Fashioning Fat coverIn December, thousands watched tall, thin models parade bedazzled bras, panties, and angel wings down the runway at the Victoria’s Secret fashion show. In the U.S., however, these “standard size” models aren’t representative of either the female population (an average size 10-14) or of the entirety of the modeling population.

Sociologist Amanda Czerniawski, who worked as a plus-size model in researching her book  Fat: Inside Plus-Size Modeling, was featured in a Pacific Standard article about the opportunities and limitations for plus-size models in the fashion industry. She explained that featuring plus-size models can be considered an “act of resistance” against the fashion industry’s standard ideals. Still, while plus-size models contribute to a more inclusive idea of beauty, Czerniawski said the status quo is hard to change:

Though plus-sized models want to change notions of beauty and glamour, she argues, the industry restricts their efforts and their effectiveness. Plus-sized models are not really all that free; though they do not have to be a size zero, their bodies are still regulated and policed.

The article goes on to explain how some plus-size models find themselves labeled too small, too big, or not the right type for a given job. Further, though plus-size models continue to gain visibility in the fashion industry, they still have fewer opportunities than “straight” (that is, willowy) models.

In the end, all modeling is about capitalism:

Many of the indignities that Czerniawski details—lack of benefits, arbitrary management decisions, exploitative contracts—are typical of many (most?) labor relationships under capitalism.

This means including a wider range of sizes among models is unlikely to change the regulation of their bodies; it’ll just mean more women in a glamorous and restrictive sector of sales.

A Sociology of Celebrity Sanctions

Photo by Ed Yourdon via Flickr CC
Photo by Ed Yourdon via Flickr CC

Bill Cosby is a household name, once associated with a long and illustrious career, now with an infamous string of sexual assault allegations dating as far back as 1965. After new rape charges arose in late 2014 and became the subject of pop-culture discussion, TVLand dropped The Cosby Show from its rerun schedule and Netflix postponed a Cosby comedy special. A sitcom he had in development was canned. Notably, Cosby had weathered such accusations for decades without losing the support of networks and business partners. This time has been different.

University of Texas-Austin sociology professor Ari Adut lends his thoughts in a New York Times article. When public knowledge about a scandal is limited rather than widespread, entertainment businesses are less likely to take action. Once an allegation leveled against a public figure and becomes common knowledge, though, businesses are compelled to respond: “[w]hen everyone knows that everyone else knows about the claim (and so on), society can judge people and groups that do not act on that knowledge.” So, though rape and assault accusations had followed Cosby for nearly a half-century, the latest set of allegations have been hotly discussed in the media, and groups like Netflix moved to distance themselves from the performer so as to avoid public perceptions of Inaction.

This sociological explanation for how businesses assess public opinion regarding scandals and act accordingly helps us understand many other occurrences in the entertainment industry. For example, after actor Charlie Sheen had a run-in with the NYPD regarding drugs in 2010, CBS soon dropped the star from Two and a Half Men, despite the fact that Sheen had notoriously faced drug issues before. Once Sheen’s 2010 crime became public knowledge, the axe fell swiftly. For the famous, what the public doesn’t know—or mobilize around—needn’t be a worry. When it hits the front pages, though, anything from “dirty laundry” to felony assault is likely to tarnish a even a star’s brand image (and paychecks).

Women at the Top Find the View Depressing

Photo by Charlotte Morrall via Flickr CC. Click for original.
Photo by Charlotte Morrall via Flickr CC. Click for original.

Gender bias in the workplace may not be breaking news, but its negative impact on mental health among powerful women might surprise you. A new study highlighted in Fast Company magazine suggests that women in high-ranking positions experience increased symptoms of depression. Lead author, sociologist Tetyana Pudrovska, describes the unexpected findings that came out of the WILLSHE project on the experiences of highly successful women:

What’s striking is that women with job authority in our study are advantaged in terms of most characteristics that are strong predictors of positive mental health. These women have more education, higher incomes, more prestigious occupations, and higher levels of job satisfaction and autonomy than women without job authority. Yet, they have worse mental health than lower-status women.

Men do not seem to suffer similar negative mental health consequences when in powerful occupations. Marianne Cooper, sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, explains:

Women leaders are viewed as being less competent than men, they’re evaluated in performance reviews on personality traits while men are evaluated on accomplishments, and they’re interrupted more often during team meetings. The day-to-day interactions can become tiring to deal with—it’s like death by 10,000 paper cuts.

Twitter Tension?

Twitter coverAlthough some research emphasizes the negative impacts of social media on well-being, a recent Smithsonian article highlights a specific benefit: social media platforms allow individuals to connect across thousands of miles. Further, despite anecdotal evidence, social media usage does not actually result in higher stress for users.

Dhiraj Murthy, sociologist and author of the book Twitter, told the Smithsonian Magazine about how social media lets people keep up with friends and family members, whether it’s communication about big events such as births or weddings, or every day things like food or funny cat videos. By fostering a sense of connectedness, Murthy says, this communication can reduce stress and increase happiness.

Still, Murthy warns, “Increased social awareness can of course be double edged.” Connectedness can mean feelings of stress, sadness, or anger when the interactions relate to death, job loss and other heavy topics. This means it’s the content viewed on social media, not social media itself that affects stress levels.

While the relationship between social media and stress is complex, many such studies focused on heavy users, Murthy says. In general, the common perception of most social media users as gadget-addicted stress cases doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. 

Busy schedules coupled with near constant access to technology contribute to people becoming more social via social media. While sharing a cup of coffee takes coordination and time, a quick scroll through an album or a post about a promotion allows users to participate in communal behaviors that benefit mental health. If the trick is focusing on the good content without ignoring the bad, it seems our online interactions are an awful lot like the in-person ones.

Suicide and the Loss of Employment and Identity

Photo via epSos.de via Flickr.
Sociologist Dawn Norris shows a link between suicide rates and a weak economy, particularly for men. Photo via epSos.de via Flickr.

Understanding how rates of suicide are related to social conditions is a foundational theme in sociology dating back to the work of Emile Durkheim. Investigating how people’s mental health is shaped by the broader economy, social networks, culture, and identity continues to be an area for social research.

A recent article in The Dallas Morning News reports on research that shows a link between a weak economy and higher rates of suicide, particularly amongst men and in the recent Great Recession. University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse Sociology Assistant Professor Dawn Norris explains that for men in particular, losing a job is not just about the money but about losing one’s identity and sense of masculinity.

“Our societal definition of masculinity is being employed, being the provider, being the breadwinner.”

Norris explains that masculinity is linked to work, and without work, even wealthy men describe themselves as “impotent, deficient, worthless.”

“Work at the moment isn’t as central to who women are in society,” says Norris. In one study, Norris found that women who lost their jobs during the economic crisis could shift from the role of breadwinner to another identity such as mother and better cope with unemployment.

Losing a job can deprive people of social support networks and other mechanisms for coping with stress, depression and mental health conditions. Men are especially at risk because they are less likely to seek support and medical care because of stigmas around mental health illness.

Norris says that potential solutions include better work-life balance, along with job creation, which can help de-emphasize work as the most central aspect of people’s identities and lives.

Read Erin Hoekstra’s article about flexible work policies shown to help men and women improve their work-life balance here.