Monthly Archives: January 2010

compassion from prison

The Salem Statesman-Journal ran a story today highlighting the compassion of inmates in the Oregon State Penitentiary.  Guys inside the prison read a story about a 2-year-old girl who was hit by a truck and killed in November; her family was unable to afford a gravestone, so her grave was unmarked.

Inmates were touched by the story and donated $670 for a gravestone.  The money was collected from guys who generally make between $40 – $100 per month.  They had never met the girl or her family, but they had empathy for them and wanted to help.  More than just thinking about it, they dug deep and contributed in a very meaningful way.As one of the inmates said:  “Even though we’re in prison, we still have hearts.” 

Some of the guys mentioned in the story have been my students.  I have been amazed by the generosity of inmates in donating to families and organizations in the community.  The feel compelled to give back in big and small ways, and – usually without public recognition or fanfare – they reach out with whatever help they can offer to children in need.

We don’t get to hear about these stories very often.  I’m glad to be able to post a positive story within the realm of public criminology.

Osvaldo Hernandez’s criminal record, military service, and pardon

The Times reports that Osvaldo Hernandez, whose weapons conviction barred him from the New York Police Department but not the U.S. Army, has been pardoned by Governor David Paterson.

I learned Mr. Hernandez’s story when I met his attorney, Jim Harmon, at a recent Cornell conference on criminal records and employment. The military now conducts a “whole person review” of enlistment eligibility, granting Mr. Hernandez a misconduct waiver. Here’s the policy:

The Services will enlist into the Armed Services individuals who are fully qualified to serve. Judgment as to an applicant’s qualifications is reached by virtue of a “whole person” review in which all aspects of an applicant’s qualifications are examined. It is possible, in some cases, that waiver consideration may be warranted. Enlistment waiver practices shall be standardized across the Military Services to ensure consistent and equitable reporting that, in turn, assures reliable and meaningful evaluation of the Department’s performance in managing whole person eligibility reviews.

In contrast, the NYPD has categorically barred anyone with a felony from service. Mr. Hernandez evidently served with great distinction as a paratrooper in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Now, with the help of various generals, governors, attorneys, and advocates, he hopes to make good on his dream of becoming a New York City police officer.

LA Gang Tours: Somewhere Between Brilliant and the Worst Idea Ever

Have you heard about the new LA Gang Tours?  The website details their mission as follows:

The mission of LA GANG TOURS is to provide an unforgettable historical experience for our customers with a customized high-end specialty tour. We will provide customers with a true first-hand encounter of the history and origin of high profile gang areas and the top crime scene locations in South Central, Los Angeles. Each tour bus for LA GANG TOURS will have a guide from the South Central areas who has gained hands-on knowledge and experience of the inner city lifestyle. The objective is to create jobs for the residents of South Central, Los Angeles; to give profits from the tours back to these areas for economic growth and development, provide job/entrepreneur training, micro-financing opportunities and to specialize in educating people from around the world about the Los Angeles inner city lifestyle, gang involvement and solutions.

The first tour took place on January 16th and was sold out.  Tours cost $65 per person and are conducted on a 56-seat unmarked bus.  Former gang members narrate the tour and provide testimonials along the way.  Customers must sign a liability waiver that describes the tour as “inherently dangerous” and warns of the risk of death. The New York Times reports: ‘…after careful consideration, it was decided not to have residents shoot water guns at the bus and sell “I Got Shot in South Central” T-shirts.’  If these tours are striving to be legitimate educational experiences, that was probably a wise choice.

Interesting idea.  These gang tours may serve a function similar to prison tours where participants are offered an “inside” view of an unfamiliar culture, often shattering the stereotypical images featured in the media.   It’s too early to tell, obviously, whether this is a promising entrepreneurial endeavor that will benefit these communities or if these tours will turn out to be exploitative and/or truly dangerous.

Thoughts?  Would you go on a gang tour?  Why or why not?

Farrakhan v. Gregoire

via the crawler and Seattle Times:

Evidence gathered by friends at the University of Washington — sociologists Katherine Beckett and Bob Crutchfield — played a key role in overturning Washington’s law banning incarcerated felons from voting. Much of the litigation to date has focused on former felons who have completed their sentences, rather than current inmates. The case, Farrakhan v. Gregoire, was decided on January 5, 2010.

Having spent a few years doing expert witness work on this issue, I know that it takes good social science evidence, lucid presentation, and dogged persistence to prevail in such cases. The ruling will likely be appealed, but it represents a major step toward a more inclusive democracy.

fatalities down for traffic, fire, and murder in minnesota — but not suicide

When the Strib reported that Minnesota traffic deaths had fallen to a 65-year low, I checked the Department of Public Safety to see the long-term trend. They posted data from 1910 to present on traffic fatalities and from 1961 to present on vehicle miles traveled. The rate of deaths per mile traveled has fallen even more sharply than the rate per 100,000 population. As the figure shows below, both peak in the beautiful-but-deadly muscle car era of the late 1960s. Experts attribute the drop to safety features such as seat belts and airbags. Why, my own dad tells me that he started buckling up his seat belt when the legislature toughened the mandatory seat belt in 2009 — he even stuck a post-it note on the steering wheel to remind him of the fine.

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Over the past three decades, the death rate has also fallen for homicide and fire in Minnesota. In contrast, the suicide rate has risen in recent years. In 2008, almost as many Minnesotans died from suicide as from fire, traffic, and homicide combined. The final numbers are not yet available for 2009, but I bet that the number of suicides now surpasses the combined sum of the other three categories. Moreover, at least some of the deaths classified as accidental fires, car crashes, and shootings may be victim-precipitated (e.g., one-car accidents, “suicide by cop”).

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Suicide rates rise with age, especially for white males, so the number of suicides is likely to rise in Minnesota as the population ages (the figures above are not age-adjusted). Nevertheless, the overall death rate across the four categories has fallen from about 38/100k in 1980 to about 23/100k in 2008. If these trends continue, I suspect that more social scientists will be turning their attention to suicide (and, presumably, Durkheim) in coming years.

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Page on Irwin

JoshPageJohn Irwin, an inspiring and pathbreaking criminologist, passed away this weekend. We shared a few good conversations, often in the weight rooms of conference hotels, and a common lineage as  descendants of Donald Cressey (his undergrad advisor and my advisor’s advisor). Professor Irwin’s  powerful treatment of prisoner reentry and indictment of mass incarceration certainly altered my own research trajectory. I also find myself quoting him in lecture whenever a student makes a comment about senseless crimes or monster criminals (“Criminal behavior is human behavior!”).  

But my colleague Josh Page (shown at left) knew John Irwin far better than me, working closely with him on the recent Unlocking America report. Since Josh was corresponding with a reporter on an Irwin story today, I asked his permission to pass along some of these thoughts on pubcrim. I won’t reprint the entire message, since it wouldn’t be fair to the reporter posing the questions, but I do want to do all I can to introduce more people to Professor Irwin’s life and work. From Josh:

He redefined understandings about the origins and characteristics of prison culture and social relations (most notably in his book THE FELON and article with Donald Cressey, “Thieves, Convicts and the Inmate Culture.”). John traced changes in the prisoner culture and social relations over time in subsequent books (see his recent book THE WAREHOUSE PRISON). In short, he was a pioneer in understanding the “society of captives.”

He was one of the first scholars to tackle the issue of prisoner “reentry” (transition from prison back to the streets), arguing that the reentry process itself (not simply individual characteristics of ex-offenders) predictably lead many individuals back to crime and prison (see THE FELON). He insightfully compared prisoner reentry to the reentry of other returnees such as military veterans. In short, John analyzed “reentry” four decades before the topic was in vogue in policy and scholarly circles.

 He wrote the only sociological study of jails (THE JAIL), correctly arguing that the jail is a central penal institution (it’s the hub of the criminal justice system); it functions to manage “the rabble” (those who are detached and disreputable) not deal with serious crime; and it is harsh punishment, which raises serious liberty and humanitarian issues since most people in jails are not convicted of crimes.

His book PRISON IN TURMOIL is the best sociological history of California prisons during the rehabilitative era (1945-1976). It shows how the rehabilitative regime planted seeds for its own destruction by producing a prisoner intelligentsia (which included John), spreading injustice through indeterminate sentencing and parole release, and running what John termed “chickenshit” programs. PRISONS IN TURMOIL also details the “law and order” revanche that started in California in the late 1960s and gained steam in the early 1970s. Lastly, it chronicles the deep divisions between ethnic-racial groups and ethnic-racial violence that increasingly marked California prisons in the 1970s onward.

His recent book LIFERS delves deeply into an issue that John was extremely passionate about… an issue that receives little attention from scholars: prisoners serving life sentences. In this book, he opens up yet another area of analysis that criminologists typically ignore. This book is very important in an age when policymakers and many scholars talk only about reforms concerning “non-violent” and “non-serious” offenders while suggesting that those with long sentences (particularly those serving “life”) deserve to rot in prison.

He knew from experience that dominant criminological/sociological views of prison culture and social relations were partial and misleading. He understood, for example, that much of the prison culture during the 1950s was imported from the streets (it was an adaptation of the “thieves code”), not simply a reaction to the deprivations of imprisonment, as scholars had previously argued.

Most importantly, he knew that prisoners were primarily people who “fucked up”–not inherently or permanently bad people who needed to be locked up for decades. He abhorred and fought against images of monster prisoners that has permeated public and political discourse and informed policy for decades. After all, he and many of his friends were “fuck ups” who did their time and moved on.

He was incredibly principled (and rather stubborn). He detested injustice and spent much of his life advocating for outcasts. He wrote an autobiography called “Rogue.” He was a “rogue” until he died. He was a “rogue” scholar who continually cut against the grain and didn’t submit to stifling academic conventions. He was a “rogue” social activist who fought for people that many people (and even many “liberals”) defined as hopeless losers. He was “rogue” in his personal life… he defied conventions he felt were repressive and/or unjust. He inspired and supported people who take risks and question/defy convention. He was one-of-a-kind.

John passionately felt that prison sentences were too long and very unjust. His mantra was “cut the damn sentences.” He also felt that the parole system didn’t work and was unjust in many ways. In short, he (and me) wanted to make clear in UNLOCKING AMERICA that good rehabilitation programs should be in every prison; however, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that rehabilitation alone will significantly decrease the prison population… sentencing and parole reform will.