Monthly Archives: October 2008

on empathy

last week i was invited to attend a meeting of the 7th step inmate club at the oregon state penitentiary. i spoke about education at an earlier meeting of the club last year and I was impressed with the sincerity of the men in attendance. the club’s mission is to reduce recidivism from the inside; as such, the members work hard to deal with their issues, to grow and to change, and to become better men.

last week’s meeting focused on victim impact and awareness, and the club had invited a representative from ‘parents with murdered children’ to speak. the speaker spoke of a crime that had taken place on the east coast – he was there to share his story, not point fingers at any individuals in the oregon prison. at the club president’s request, i brought a few carefully selected osu students along to witness the event, and, not quite knowing what to expect, we made our way into the visiting room to join the inmates in attendance.

i chose to sit with one of my inside students who i have known now for nearly two years. he is a sensitive soul and feels grief and deep remorse every day for the crime he committed when he was 16. i knew this would be difficult for him and i was impressed with the courage it must have taken him to attend and to face his demons so directly. we sat in the front row and as the speaker began telling the story of his son’s life, i could feel the pain wracking through the body of the young man sitting beside me. by the time the father finished describing the brutal murder of his son and the devastating impact on his family, my inside student was weeping.

after the father spoke – to an incredibly attentive and supportive audience – three different inmates stood up and told their stories. they each spoke articulately about how they had committed their crimes very young and how in the years that followed, they finally began to understand the full impact of their actions and how many people had been affected.

attending the meeting was a moving experience and i’ve been thinking a lot since then about empathy. i’m also reminded how quickly many, many lives can be destroyed. we’re ultimately pretty fragile beings. it takes years of hard work to build a career, a relationship, a home, but all of that can change in a moment with one very bad decision. and, as much as you might wish otherwise, you can never take it back.

and you thought presidents bush and clinton were tough on crime

via talkleft and the national law journal:

the national law journal invited the major candidates to write about the legal issues facing the next administration. a portion of senator john mccain’s op-ed:
…Terrorists are not the only threat to public safety. Lax enforcement policies, judges who legislate from the bench and lack of support for law enforcement personnel all continue to force our innocent citizens behind the barred windows of their homes and allow criminals to roam free.

And now drugs are bringing waves of crime and organized gang activity to rural areas thought to be nearly immune from such problems. The federal government must both support state and local law enforcement and effectively enforce federal laws designed to root out violent crime, organized gangs and other interstate criminal activity.

let’s see … barred windows, criminals roaming free, organized crime waves, drugs and gangs infecting our countryside … where have you heard that before? right! this language might’ve been lifted from any of bill clinton’s (or ronald reagan’s or richard nixon’s…) old state of the union addresses. though i’m not at all complacent about public safety, i might point out that this is a time of comparatively low crime rates and record high incarceration rates. roaming free? we’re keeping prisoners so long that we’re building nursing homes behind the walls.

senator mccain continues:

None of these law enforcement efforts will succeed without a judiciary that understands its proper role and its proper mission. Senator Obama would appoint liberal activist judges and supply them with greater sentencing discretion. I will appoint judges who will strictly interpret our Constitution. Senator Obama’s judges would coddle criminals. I will appoint judges who will hold criminals accountable.

this last strict constructionist bit has been a staple in republican platforms since the warren court. given the relatively unhealthy state of the economy, the crime situation looks pretty good by comparison. and, while senator mccain portrays his democratic rival as a coddler, lefties are criticizing senator obama for being too tough on crime. all of this suggests to me that voters won’t be basing their decisions on a tougher-than-thou debate on crime issues.

trying to do good

i’ve been spending a lot of time in the oregon state penitentiary lately. i’m currently teaching my fifth inside-out class and it continues to be an inspiring, rejuvenating experience. it’s amazing how much good will can be generated in a tiny room on the fifth floor of a maximum-security prison where 15 oregon state university students come together with 15 (or so) inmates in order to learn and work together. the inmates in the group are men who are working hard to change their lives and to make their time behind bars meaningful. of the approximately 2300 men in the penitentiary, i’ve selected about 60 to participate in inside-out classes; as such, i’m well aware that i’ve worked with a skewed sample of the best citizens in the prison. we’ve received good press for the program and i’ve been singled out for some honors for my part in the process, but what i appreciate most is knowing that these classes have offered hope and motivation in a place where both can be very hard to find.

this quarter, we’re focusing again on the topic of preventing delinquency, and i’ve challenged the class try to figure out what action(s) they can take to make a difference. they’re trying to come up with small-scale projects that can be implemented relatively quickly and with no budget. a challenge, to be sure.

and so, i’ll offer my own small-scale project as an example. i applied for a “literacy grant” from a national program last year and did not get it. because i thought the idea was a good one, i pitched it to administrators at the penitentiary and they agreed to fund a pilot program (two inmate clubs are also providing funding). it’s a simple enough idea, but it just might make a difference: incarcerated fathers will have a chance to sign up to read the same books as their children. with help from the lifer’s club (and others), we’ll start with a volunteer group of fathers and their children. with help from local librarians and bookstores, i’ll choose age-appropriate, interesting books and give one to the father and one to the kid. reading the same book(s) will hopefully give them another chance to connect, another topic to discuss, whether it’s in person, on the phone, or via mail. the fathers are enthusiastic about the idea; presumably the kids who agree to participate will get on board if we choose good books.

simple, small-scale, do-able. i’m hoping this little program succeeds and grows. i don’t know if it will make a difference, but at least we’re trying to do good and we’re working to translate our good intentions into action.

if anyone has suggestions for the program, for projects for the inside-out students, or recommendations for interesting kid/teen books, i would love to hear them.

cut it out

doctors and other medical professionals are now trained to recognize signs of domestic abuse and other violence. of course, many of us never see doctors or other medical professionals. the strib reports on the clever new(ish) cut it out program that trains hair stylists to recognize signs of domestic abuse.

i can’t vouch for its efficacy, but i like the idea of training folks who actually interact with the targets of abuse. for example, i see my talented haircutter jackie about five or ten times per year, while (aside from race-side medical tents and my good friend carl), i haven’t seen an actual m.d. in ten years. i don’t have data on this, but i wouldn’t be surprised if the most vulnerable targets of violence are quite unlikely to see physicians.

ohio state talk

i’m visiting columbus on friday, meeting old friends and new at ohio state and the ohio department of corrections. my talk will feature new work with some of the grad student collaborators on the minnesota exits and entries project team. if you happen to be in the neighborhood, please stop on by to say hello.

Entries and Exits: Contrasting Pathways to Community Reentry
Christopher Uggen, University of Minnesota

October 24, 2008
9:00-10:30 a.m.

Frank W. Hale Black Cultural Center, Rm 100A, OSU
Coffee, bagels and refreshments are being served

Dr. Uggen will discuss the design and some very early findings from the new Minnesota Exits and Entries Project and related projects. You will hear excerpts from pre-release interviews with young people age 18 to 25 as they are leaving the following institutional settings: (1) foster care; (2) mental health treatment; (3) chemical health treatment; (4) the armed forces; (5) the juvenile justice system; (6) a county jail system; and, (7) the state prison system. Some of these groups, such as former prisoners, are highly stigmatized. Others, such as Iraq war veterans, typically return home to brighter prospects and more welcoming communities. By taking a more comprehensive and comparative perspective on the reentry phenomenon, project organizers hope to reveal the processes operating in each institutional domain and to explain how vulnerable young adults fare once they leave the care or custody of the state. Graduate student collaborators on this project include Arturo Baiocchi, Jeanette Hussemann, Shelly Schaefer, Sarah Shannon, and Tom Walton.

employment as a sociologist may require a criminal background check

each year, i get about a dozen calls or emails from people with criminal records who are interested in graduate study. many of them ask whether their record would bar them from becoming a professor. i usually say, “that depends” and offer stories in which certain records have or haven’t precluded employment at certain places. i then say that the academic track is tough (but not impossible!) and that their records will just make it that much tougher (but not impossible!).

so, i was disheartened to read this advertisement* while preparing a letter for an applicant to my beloved alma mater. i have nothing but love for wisconsin sociology, but i found that last bit about the background check disheartening. i bet it wasn’t the department’s idea to include it, since such lines usually emanate from university human resources departments. in fact, i’d wager that my friends and mentors in the sociology department would go to the wall (so to speak) for a good social scientist who had moved beyond his or her criminal record.
nevertheless, we know that advertisements send strong signals to potential applicants and — in light of wisconsin’s standing as one of the great departments of the world — to the discipline of sociology. employers certainly have a right to conduct background checks and to provide fair warning to potential applicants, but my worry is that these applicants view the line “Employment may require a criminal background check” as a much tougher screen that it actually is.
it makes me wonder who would be disqualified (e.g., arrestees, those convicted of felonies, or particular felonies), for how long (e.g., a conviction within the past 5 or 10 years), and at what stage of the hiring process they would be screened out. without such details, i’d guess that this boilerplate language has a chilling effect on applications from anyone ever arrested for anything.
*here’s the ad (emphasis added):
The University of Wisconsin Madison. The Department of Sociology invites applications for a position at the assistant professor level with preferred starting date August 2009. Applicants must hold a PhD or equivalent prior to the start of the appointment. Areas of specialization are open. Applicants should demonstrate excellence and productivity in research and a commitment to undergraduate and graduate teaching. Submit a letter of application, a curriculum vitae, and three letters of recommendation by mail to: Ivan Ermakoff, Search Committee Chair, Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin‐Madison, 1180 Observatory Drive, Madison, WI 53706‐1393. Finalists will be asked to supply copies of published and unpublished manuscripts for evaluation. To ensure full consideration, send all application materials by November 1, 2008. Unless confidentiality is requested in writing, information regarding applicants must be released upon request. Finalists cannot be guaranteed confidentiality. Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer. Women and minorities are urged to apply. Employment may require a criminal background check.

post on outlaws at times/freakonomics blog

the fine folks at the new york times freakonomics desk gave me a few hours to respond to the following question:

Does America still have an outlaw group? If so, why do you consider them outlaws? Does society need outlaws?

hmm. you know i didn’t want to take even a minute to reply, but outlaws? first i thought of waylon, then i thought of hughie, then i figured that a sociologist like me really can’t resist this sort of invitation. so i condensed a couple weeks of my deviance lectures into about 400 words — and i dared them to print the words badass and bloody snot.

my reply is below, but check the full freakonomics quorum for responses by economist peter leeson, historian stephen mihm, and folklorist graham seal. our analysis is necessarily quick n’ dirty, but the combination of responses might be a decent classroom conversation-starter.

here’s my li’l essay:

Oh, hell yes, there are outlaws in America — and everywhere else, for that matter. Anyone who breaks rules is in some sense an outlaw, subject to social or legal sanctions if their outlawry is detected. These penalties operate on a sliding scale, depending on whether the outlaw smokes cigarettes or meth, pirates DVD’s or ships, or violates college hate-speech codes or state hate-crime laws.

But our standards for outlaws are relative, not absolute; they change over time and social space.

Societies are constantly raising or lowering the bar, outlawing formerly accepted behaviors — like smoking — and legalizing former crimes, like lotteries.

In any group, those with greater power tend to control the rule-making process. And they sometimes go to great lengths to make outlaws out of those who might threaten their power, by restricting their ability to vote or work or have children. Regardless of who holds power, societies operate with a basic set of rules that necessarily beget a basic set of rule violators.
Just imagine, as sociologist Emile Durkheim did, a society of saints made up of exemplary citizens. Would there be no outlaws in such a group? No! They’d pick at each other for minor peccadilloes and trivial misdeeds. In that crowd, even a burp or blemish could mark one as a real bada–.
Nobody is arguing that contemporary America is a society of saints. To the contrary, it often seems as though we’re “defining deviancy down,” as senator and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it.
Cultural critics of the hell-in-a-handbasket school worry that our blasé attitudes toward once-shocking behavior –- network telecasts of ultimate fighters beating the bloody snot out of one another, for example — diminish us all. But don’t forget that we’re simultaneously outlawing other nasty conduct that shocks our collective conscience, such as date rape or sexual harassment.
Whether you view our culture’s current constellation of outlaws as ennobling or diminishing is largely a matter of value preferences.
And remember that outlaws put in some important work for a society. When they expose their bodies at the Super Bowl, our reactions — the extent to which we freak out — tell us something about the current boundaries between proper and improper public conduct. When outlaws are arrested at a political convention, we get a heads-up that change is in the wind. When outlaws sell sex or drugs, we get a safety valve to release pent-up frustrations.
Even when outlaws commit consensus crimes like murder, we get a needed opportunity to publicly condemn them and reaffirm our shared values with our fellow citizens.
While society needs outlaws, it doesn’t need a permanent outlaw class. We’d do well to remember that today’s outlaws are tomorrow’s good citizens; and there’s no citizen more zealous than an outlaw redeemed.

You Tube: The [Non-] Gateway Drug?

The Office of National Drug Control Policy recently released results of a joint study with Nielson on exposure of teens (age 13-18) to online videos with drug and alcohol-related content (see the summary here). Among the findings:

  • Of 18mm ‘unique viewers’, teens watched an average of 35 videos in one month. Of these, about 1 video per person contained drug or alcohol-related content
  • About 5% of online teens viewed a video with drug or alcohol-related content
  • Females were slightly more likely to watch videos with drug or alcohol-related context (57% to 43%)
  • More than 2/3 of viewers of drug and alcohol-related context were under age 16
  • 78% of drug-related videos included positive comments on drug use, 40% of videos showed explicit drug use.

What are we to make of this? Well, one ought not be too concerned if only 5% of teens viewed videos that some may deem dangerous or objectionable. And, we don’t know that watchers end up being users. On the other hand, it looks as if a small percentage of teens are watching a lot of stoner videos. And, there’s one more rub: the methodology section gives no information on whether or not kids knew they were being monitored (I suspect they did). After all that, should we be concerned about a nefarious You Tube-drug use link? I dunno.