Monthly Archives: November 2010

did you think I was going to hang myself for littering?

Arlo Guthrie, whose Alice’s Restaurant is dished up like cranberry sauce each Thanksgiving, finally made the Macy’s parade this year. The protracted protest anthem tells the story of Mr. Guthrie’s 1965 littering arrest, as detailed in this uncredited and unsourced account:

The lyrics tell the tale of how this trivial criminal event emerges as a major issue at the draft induction center, with Mr. Guthrie ultimately asking, “you want to know if I’m moral enough to join the army, burn women, kids, houses and villages after bein’ a litterbug?” So, while there was plenty of humor and good fun in the song, it packed a real punch.

The story is well-told and still engages audiences, but the status politics of garbage dumping have changed a lot in forty-five years. When it comes to dumping busloads of garbage down hillsides, contemporary hippie kids might sympathize more with Officer Obie’s strict environmental protection than with their smiling sixties-era counterparts.

As I recall from my own freshman year, the film version was considerably sadder, slower, and uglier than the song. But I still like the following clip and could imagine using it for a class exercise on changing environmental norms:

making and owning hard choices

Two different stories hit the news (features) this week, and I was struck by the similar themes in these bad-boy-grows-up-in-prison-and-tries-to-go-straight-on-the-outside stories.  The first, published in The Oregonian, focuses on LaMarcus Branch, an ex-Crip who was recently released from prison and is now making visible efforts to reach young gang members in Portland.  He and friends wear matching t-shirts branding them the new, self-imposed label of BRO (Brothers Reaching Out), and they “show up at gang funerals and high school football games to ease tensions, they mentor young men on parole, and they try to intervene in gang scuffles before things turn violent.”

Branch claims that his time in prison saved his life.  While that itself is perhaps not that unusual, what is unique about Branch is that he is particularly grateful for his lengthy sentence.  The article explains:

Branch, at 24, was sent to prison for 13 years, four months, a rare consecutive sentence for first-degree robbery and second-degree assault, his first Measure 11 offenses. During his first decade behind bars, he was angry and bitter, often in trouble for fights or gang beefs. But the last few years of his sentence brought a change of heart.

“I’d say those extra three or four years was the most important part,” he said. “They gave me time to realize the life that I lived wasn’t a life.”

Measure 11 is our version of mandatory minimum sentencing in Oregon, and I generally hear complaints about the harshness and inflexibility of such sentences.  This is one of the only times I can remember hearing a former inmate say he appreciated the extra years he served.  Branch even sent a letter to the prosecutor – now a judge – who won the case against him, saying if he had done only 70 or 90 months in prison, he probably would have returned home bitter and angry and jumped right back into gang life. “So I’m not just thanking you for winning the case, but also for getting me this 160 months, because now I see and realize with understanding that there’s more to life than gangs and crime.”

Branch has only been out of prison since March, and he still does not have a driver’s license or a job.  He will face significant hurdles in building a new life and following his dream to mentor youth.  But the choices are his.

The second story, published in the New York Times, focuses on 26-year-old Raheem Watson, who spent nearly ten years of his life in juvenile corrections and prison.  As difficult as his time in prison was, Watson, too, believes he underwent a transformation during his incarceration and he claims he came out of prison this February as “a mature adult.”  Watson doesn’t have a driver’s license or a job yet, either, but he is working toward both and he shares Branch’s passion to mentor young people.

Watson had a difficult childhood, abandoned by his father at age 4 and raised by a drug-dealing mother who died after ingesting cocaine laced with rat poison when he was 12.  The piece of Watson’s story that I most appreciated was the moment when social context met individual responsibility head-on.  The article explains:

Mr. Watson said he sometimes felt the troubles he had faced were a product of fate — a notion that seemed at odds with his stated desire to steer others away from the path he took.

So, the question again: Did he have a choice? He rolled it around in his head, struggling with its implications.

“Yeah,” Mr. Watson said. “I had a choice.”

Yes, Branch and Watson both had choices.  They may not have had great options, but they made the choices that sent them each to prison.  And now they face hard choices again every day.  Criminologists know all too well the difficulty ex-felons have reintegrating into the community, finding jobs, and creating new lives for themselves.  The struggle and the stigma are real and can be overwhelming.  But making the hard choices and “doing good” is truly the best way these men can fulfill their goals of mentoring young people.  In leading by example, they may be able to help influence the next generation to make better choices.

student activism and public criminology

I’m feeling especially proud today of my current Inside-Out class at the Oregon State Penitentiary.  This is a class where students get deeply invested in the material.  To help facilitate their investment and involvement, one of their assignments is to write a letter to the editor or an op-ed piece to a local newspaper.  They can choose to send it individually or just turn it in to me; I had success one quarter getting a batch of them published together.  This quarter, the students did the work all on their own.

Two separate pieces were published in different local newspapers today.  First, here is the content of an op-ed written by Shelby, an outside (OSU) student, and published in the state’s largest newspaper, The Oregonian:

I recently attended a community breakfast hosted by the Marion County Reentry Initiative in Salem. According to its website, MCRI is dedicated to “rebuild lives, promote community safety and save taxpayer money by breaking the cycle of criminal activity.” I heard about the event through a brief article in the Salem Statesman Journal. The breakfast was meant to provide information for community members on how to help released Oregon prisoners reintegrate into Marion County society. Although I don’t live in Marion County, the opportunity was appealing to me because I’m currently taking a class called Inside Out.

Every Monday, my fellow Oregon State University classmates and I drive from Corvallis to the Oregon State Penitentiary. This unique class is held inside the maximum-security prison and it consists of 30 students — 15 of them from OSU and 15 of them OSP inmates. We come together once a week to discuss crime, communities, prisons and prevention. Through this exclusive opportunity, I’ve viewed all four topics in ways I never have before. The Inside Out program is one small way of helping a select few inmates prepare to re-enter mainstream society. Through our class they are able to feel tied to the community again. But we must be prepared to help all inmates.

The damaging stigma attached to prisoners by our society is clear for all to see. Even after serving their time, they forever bear the label of ex-convict. We often hear, “You do the crime, you do the time,” yet we continue to punish these individuals long after they’ve served their sentence. After being released, many face difficulties finding jobs, obtaining student loans, securing housing and readjusting to mainstream society. Unfortunately, many fall back into criminal ways and re-enter the prison system.

At the community breakfast state prision chief Max Williams said, “Ninty-three percent of prison populations will eventually be returned to communities. Therefore we must have a strategy to help them readjust.” He also pointed out that it’s a community problem that needs a community solution. This concept is something we’ve discussed in great detail in our Inside Out class. If community members could actively help ex-inmates transition rather than shun them from our communities, the likelihood of them recidivating is much lower, making our communities safer. MCRI is one organization that’s helping ex-inmates have a successful re-entry, but without community support, those individuals will forever be locked into the stigma.

This isn’t an easy concept for most to gladly accept, but Marion County is up for the challenge.

And here is the content of a letter to the editor written by an inside student, Jeremy, and published in the Salem Statesman-Journal:

I am an inmate enrolled in an OSU sociology class taught inside the Oregon State Penitentiary.

The class, made up of half inmates/half university students, focuses on crime, communities, prisons and prevention.

I am serving a mandatory Measure 11 sentence and I can tell you from my personal experience that many of us are working toward becoming more productive members of society by participating in classes and job opportunities available at OSP. I strongly encourage concerned citizens and lawmakers to allow inmates to be able to receive “earned time” off their sentences in exchange for good behavior during incarceration.

Gov. Kulongoski’s Reset Cabinet recently recommended up to 15 percent earned time off for the majority of Measure 11 sentences. Offering earned time incentive promotes good behavior inside prison while, more importantly, promoting the changes necessary for true rehabilitation outside of prison.

Currently, Measure 11 doesn’t allow for judges’ discretion and expertise in sentencing. Furthermore, it costs the state excessive dollars that are spent on incarceration only, which provides the least amount of treatment and incentive necessary for rehabilitation.

Allowing Measure 11 offenders earned time incentive is a responsible solution to reduce the costs of corrections.

These pieces were published today.  Prior to the elections earlier this month, Chris, another outside student, had a letter published in the OSU student newspaper in hopes of educating his fellow students before they cast their ballots:

Students still determining their vote for ballot Measure 73 should consider voting no. Measure 73 would impose a 25-year mandatory minimum on “major sex felony crimes” and DUII convictions, if prior convictions for either exist. This “Oregon Crimefighting Act” looks to be, on the surface, a valid crime prevention tool. However, mandatory minimums have historically been ineffective at preventing crime and may in fact contribute to more crime and greater state budget crises. If enacted, the long-term costs to the state can be upwards of $30 million annually. Issues raised by Measure 73 extend beyond budgetary and extend to questions of justice. Put simply, mandatory minimums set specific sentences for certain crimes without regard for individual circumstances, despite little evidence that mandatory minimums prevent crime. Politicians hoping to persuade the public that she or he is tough on crime may be getting the facts of mandatory minimums incorrect. Fourteen other OSU students and I are enrolled in a course on crime, communities, prisons and prevention that meets in Oregon State Penitentiary with 17 of its residents. We have been studying research and learning from OSP’s residents’ experiences on political, social and economic ramifications of mandatory minimums. In short, mandatory minimums have contributed greatly to the increased prison population in the U.S., where we are the world’s No. 1 incarcerator. Oregon should stop spending money on putting its citizens away and start spending money on proven methods to help prevent crime – addressing our economic and public education crises. Do not put Oregon citizens behind bars for 25 years so that politicians can appear tough. Learn the facts about mandatory minimums and you will no doubt vote no.

In addition, the students arranged for the Oregon State student newspaper to do a story on the class and their experience.  At least four students made the time to do interviews with the reporter in order to share their thoughts on the issues with the larger student body.

All very cool.  We are also coming up with some great stuff for class projects – more on that later.  For now, I’m just grateful to get to work with  such a motivated group of students who really care about the issues and are striving to make their corner of the world a better place.

on a scale from one to five-O…

Yahoo News reported on a study by media-research company Experian Simmons today. I couldn’t find any methodological details about the study and cannot vouch for its accuracy, but it presented the listing below, purporting to show how political partisanship is linked to preferences for various television programs.

Not surprisingly, Glenn Beck ranks high among Republican viewers and low among Democrats, with Keith Olbermann’s Countdown showing the opposite pattern. Yet some of the other patterns are more intriguing, with critically acclaimed cable-only shows like Mad Men garnering far higher ratings among Democrats, and highly-rated network programs generally doing better among Republicans. [I can only guess about the precise metric here, but it looks as though scores are standardized such that an average rating would be scored at 100.]

To get a better sense for the story the data might tell, I arrayed the shows and ratings from left to right by the ratio of Democratic to Republican scores. In this figure, it is easy to spot the “purple middle” represented by programs such as Desperate Housewives, Dancing with the Stars, and The Mentalist.

I wouldn’t draw any inferences from the bivariate association shown in the chart. It would be fun (or at least “fun” in the classroom exercise sense of the word) to ask a social statistics or methodology class to identify potential confounders and sources of spuriousness here — at minimum, I suspect that age, gender, race, and urban residence would be associated with both viewing habits and partisanship. That is, it might be the case that the Mad Men or 30 Rock crowd is not so much Democrat as young, urban, and female.

As a criminologist, I’m fascinated by portrayals of the criminal justice system — specifically, the extent to which they adopt a “crime control” or “due process” model of law enforcement. I’d guess that Democrats would be more likely to favor crime dramas that nod to “due process” concerns (e.g., Law & Order), but I’ve never seen a study documenting such preferences. Most shows, in fact, lean heavily toward crime control portrayals, with rogue officers routinely taking all manner of head-busting liberties with suspects.

For example, I recently caught an episode of the new Hawaii Five-O and was surprised to see the heroic detectives toss a witness (a witness!) into a shark tank, just to loosen his tongue a bit. Despite Five-O’s silly portrayal of police work, stilted dialogue, and cheesy acting, I’d still rate it highly — that theme song remains irresistable.

between the bars

Josh Beckman sends word that Charlie DeTar and friends have developed a prison blogging platform, with support from MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media. The description:

Between the Bars is a weblog platform for prisoners, through which the 1% of America which is behind bars can tell their stories. Since prisoners are routinely denied access to the Internet, we enable them to blog by scanning letters. We aim to provide a positive outlet for creativity, a tool to assist in the maintenance of social safety nets, an opportunity to forge connections between prisoners and non-prisoners, and a means to promote non-criminal identities and personal expression. We hope to improve prisoner’s lives, and help to reduce recidivism.

It felt good to see how they used one of our civic reintegration articles, since this sort of public criminology and civic reintegration project goes way beyond anything we might have envisioned.  Amazing stuff. I even like the project title, which brings to mind still another interpretation of an especially evocative Elliott Smith lyric.

civic responsibility

As I sit here listening to election results on the west coast, I’m reminded that it is both privilege and a responsibility to vote.  I didn’t always feel that way – as a working class kid, I was never really convinced that my vote “counted”.  I’m still not sure one vote makes a significant difference, but I do know that I owe it to my incarcerated students to vote knowledgeably and responsibly on issues that concern us all.  And I owe it to my on-campus students to set an example of civic responsibility.

Chris and I wrote a small paper last year on “The Price and Promise of Citizenship,” in which we argued the United States should extend the vote to non-incarcerated felons.   My favorite critique/response said that we were too modest in our goals and didn’t take the argument far enough.  I have several former “inside” students out in the community now – released from prison and building new lives for themselves.  I hope they voted in this election and made sure they had a voice in local politics for the first time in a long time, perhaps for the first time ever.

In Oregon, we vote entirely by mail.  Although the mail-in vote is definitely convenient, I miss the camaraderie of waiting in line at my local polling place for my moment in the booth.  I miss feeling the connection to the community, but I vote anyway, taking my civic duty seriously.  When you are fortunate enough to have a voice, it is both a privilege and responsibility to use it.