Author Archives: michelle

Gender and the Meaning of Prison

hi-women-prison-852The title of this post may be a bit lofty for the content, but I want to share in this public forum an observation from my summer class that I have been reflecting on over the past several months.  One of my grad students and I co-taught a one-week course this summer (40 contact hours over 5 days) on “Inside Perspectives: Exploring Gender, Power, and Programs in Oregon Prisons.” Of our five class days, we were able to spend one full day in Oregon’s only prison for women and another full day in a medium-security prison for men.  In both cases, we spent a substantial amount of the day interacting with long-term prisoners, and we also spoke with correctional officers, counselors, and chaplains, and were able to tour both institutions.  We learned a lot about the available programming for men vs. women in state prisons, and we heard about both frustrations and small victories in each facility.

One of the things that was most striking to me was the conversation with a group of female lifers.  The women, the students, the chaplains, and the instructors (including me) were all sitting in a circle, coming together in the larger group to ask questions and hear different perspectives after spending time in the morning in small group discussions and sharing prison brown bag lunches.  The testimonials that have stuck with me came after the chaplain – who was clearly well-loved and respected  by the women in the group – gave a prompt: “Prison saved my life because…”

Approximately ten different women responded with their stories: “Prison saved my life because…”  As anyone who has studied gender and crime might suspect, many of these women were entangled in very abusive relationships when they were in the community, and the perception was that the violence they were experiencing would have only continued to escalate until they were killed by their partners/associates or possibly driven to take their own lives.  One of the older women succinctly – and honestly – rephrased the prompt to explain that her going to prison may or may not have saved her life, but it likely saved the lives of others in the community.

The thread of this conversation was striking to a number of us, made much more so by the fact that – even when given a similar prompt – not one of the men in the medium-security prison credited prison with saving his life.  I have heard men in prison make such assertions in other settings, but it was a stark contrast to have such a large percentage of the women claim that prison saved their lives, while not one of the men made this claim.

In all cases, there was consensus that prisons are overused and the sentences are much longer than is necessary for whatever growth and rehabilitation may take place in the prison setting.

It has now been several months since these conversations took place, and I remain intrigued and troubled by this gender difference in understanding the meaning(s) of prison for the women and men inside the walls.

Juvenile Lifers and New Beginnings

marc_tumblr 2013 (2)IMG_2356 (2) These two. Smart, funny, focused. Both were convicted of committing very serious crimes before they were 16 years old. Both spent time in a youth correctional facility before being transferred to the Department of Corrections where each served more than a decade in a maximum-security prison. Each of them has spent more of his life behind bars than in the community.  Yet, their time in prison was not wasted time; they took advantage of opportunities to learn and to grow in positive directions.  As I have written before, aging in prison is inevitable, growth is not.  These two chose to use the time to cultivate good choices and good habits: they grew and matured. While in prison they became students, citizens, philanthropists, and leaders, volunteering their time and best efforts to help at-risk and troubled youth.

They have worked hard from within prison to try to better their communities, both inside and outside of the prison walls. I’m happy today that both of these men will leave the prison behind them within the next few days and weeks – returning to society as full grown men. They will get another chance at life in the community, carrying within them hard-earned compassion and wisdom. Selfishly, I’ll miss interacting with them on a regular basis. They have been both students and teachers to me, and over the past several years we’ve shared some incredible conversations, projects, and laughs.

Welcome home, guys. One of you will get out in the next couple of days, and the other will follow shortly thereafter. Without internet access, you can’t yet read this post, but I wanted to put it out there anyways. I have no doubt that you will each prove to the world that it is possible to have positive, meaningful, and happy lives after growing up in prison. You’ve earned that chance.

(photos from We are the 1 in 100 site: http://iam1in100.tumblr.com/)

On Second Looks, Second Chances, and the Possibility of Redemption

shawshank redemptionI spent time in Southern Oregon last week to testify in a rare “second look” hearing. “Second looks” are possible in Oregon for some juvenile offenders (generally under the age of 15 at the time of the crime) at the midway point in their sentence in order to review the individual’s progress and reevaluate his/her sentences. The petitioner was 14 years old at the time of the crime and was sentenced to 30 years to life. He has served 16 years, literally growing up behind bars and becoming a real leader within the prison, with many positive accomplishments in that difficult setting. The judge was there to weigh evidence of the young man’s growth, progress, and accomplishments in the hearing and then wield the power to decide whether the young man would be paroled to the community or simply returned back to the prison to continue his sentence. Extremely high stakes for the petitioner, obviously, and the case would likely set precedent for any future second look cases in Oregon.

Thursday was a full day of testimony. It was nice to have friends (old and new) in the courthouse to share the time with as we waited to testify. The day started with opening statements/arguments/remarks, and then moved onto video-conference testimony from five different staff members from the Department of Corrections. I was one of the first to testify in person; I have worked closely with the petitioner and spent time with him in a number of groups and settings within the prison over the past 3 years.  He has been my student, my teaching assistant, the leader of inmate clubs that I work with, and a terrific collaborator on several different projects.  Because I had a lot of good things to say about him, I also had one of the tougher – and more sexist/offensive – cross-exams from the District Attorney. After my testimony, I was able to stay in the courtroom and be there for testimony by three other volunteers who teach and lead programs in the prison, the psychologist who conducted an in-depth evaluation of the petitioner over the last year (she was amazing in the cross examination!), two former prisoners who braved coming back into court for a man they knew inside and consider a friend, and the petitioner, himself. It was an extremely emotional day for everyone in the room, and I imagine I will be processing the experience for some time to come. The hearing was carried over into the next day in order for the judge to hear from a lawyer representing the victim’s family and to hear closing statements from both sides.

I had thought the judge would need time to reflect on all of the testimony, written statements and evidence, and to review the particular statutes and legal issues with second looks for juvenile offenders. We were told it could be a few days or weeks before the ruling. I teetered between being hopeful and trying not to get my hopes up. The testimonies had been consistent and compelling, and the evidence was overwhelming that the petitioner has become a model citizen and a leader in prison. He has grown into a very different man at age 30 than the boy he was at 14. The real question that remained was whether the judge would prioritize ideals of retribution and punishment over redemption and possibility.

I was very pleasantly surprised (this is an understatement) when the judge made his ruling from the bench after the closing arguments.  I had driven back to my home town in Corvallis the night before, and I was not able to be in the courtroom for the decision.  Instead, one of the petitioner’s lawyers sent me a two word email message: “We won.”

We won. The judge ruled that the young man be released. It was a huge, huge victory for the young man, his family and friends, and the belief in redemption and possibility.

The young man will be released from prison within 45 days and will now be under community supervision, reporting weekly to a parole officer and following all mandates. Here are a few comments from the judge in explaining his ruling on this case:

The judge said the crime was senseless, monstrous, and cold-blooded, but decided after hearing from a string of character witnesses that the young man was reformed. “I believe society will be better off returning him to the community,” the judge said at the conclusion of the hearing.

The judge detailed the young man’s progress in prison as a role model, teaching assistant, accomplished worker and leader of the prison’s Lifer’s Club.

“I can only conclude he is unique,” the judge said. “He’s remarkable with regard to the efforts he’s made to make himself a better person.”

“For the juveniles still in prison,” the judge also said, “what kind of message would be sent to them if this young man is not granted this. If not him, who would be eligible?”

The Best Days Inside are Family Days

field dayMy Spring 2014 Inside-Out class managed another first – my students were able to plan and host a Family Field Day for youth in the Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility on Saturday.  As a service-learning project for our shared college class, students from Hillcrest and Oregon State University planned a day where youth and their families could be outside, play games together, and enjoy more freedom of movement than normal visits in the facility allow.

Family members were invited to either a morning session or an afternoon session, and students from the class and volunteers from OSU manned stations with the following activities: face painting; cookie decorating and eating; potato sack races; water balloon tosses; basketball; and soccer.  A lot of little kids – the children, siblings, or nieces and nephews of the young men of Hillcrest – were able to attend the event, and they seemed to have a great time playing and running around the facility’s front greens.

CIMG3536CIMG3534Students from the Inside-Out class also hosted a fundraiser during our Family Field Day, selling lunches of BBQ cheeseburgers, potato or macaroni salad, potato chips, and pink lemonade for $5 per person.  The students decided that the funds raised would be equally split between a Hillcrest College Scholarship Fund and a donation to a community group that works with at-risk youth in Portland, Oregon.  This fits perfectly with our class discussions on prevention and rehabilitation, and our guests seemed happy to support the cause.  I haven’t seen the final numbers yet, but I think the BBQ fundraiser (also held during regular visiting hours on Sunday) raised in the neighborhood of $1000.  Amazing.

A related service-learning project that my students are continuing to work on is to create a child-friendly space for families visiting at Hillcrest.  The administrators have given us a fairly large room to work with, and my students are helping to clean it out, paint it (including the use of chalkboard paint so kids can draw on the walls), decorate it, and furnish it with toys so that kids visiting the young men of Hillcrest have a place to be active and play together.  We are planning a grand opening of the kids’ room on Father’s Day.  Stay tuned – I’ll try to post photos!

Obviously to make any and all of this possible, we have had – and continue to have – tremendous support from the administrators and staff at Hillcrest and from the larger Oregon Youth Authority.  The Hillcrest administrators are pretty wonderful in letting my students and I pursue our ideas and projects.  And, to their great credit, my students came with positive attitudes and enthusiasm all quarter long, and we accomplished a great deal in a 10-week class.

I’m sad to see this class ending, but I know our efforts have made a lasting impact at Hillcrest and on each of us who had the privilege of participating in this unique and fun experience.

More photos from We are the 1 in 100

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Representing the 1 in 100 Americans behind bars and those in the community who care about them and are affected by these incredible numbers, I ask my students in every Inside-Out course that I teach to share one key thought with the larger public.  I’ve shared photos from my previous Inside-Out classes on this Public Criminology blog, and will continue to do so as students put time and care into their messages.  This is the first time I’ve been able to put up photos of young men in the youth correctional facility.  I think the first photo here is all youth and vulnerability and this particular young man makes his case eloquently.  Please visit the We are the 1 in 100 tumblr site to see many more photos and sentiments of those inside and outside of correctional facilities.  I invite you also to submit your own photo.

new animated feature for kids with incarcerated parents

beausoleilThe Oregonian printed this story yesterday: “Charles Manson Family associate creates cartoon for kids who ask, ‘Why is my parent behind bars?’”  Bobby Beausoleil, now 66 years old and a prisoner in the Oregon State Penitentiary, created a video meant to help answer tough questions for children of incarcerated parents. The video can be watched on Youtube and is being distributed by Parenting Inside Out, a program that  helps to educate incarcerated individuals on parenting skills.

In the video, the little boy’s father is in jail; and the boy asks a professor – the blue head in the photo – questions about “bad guys.”  The Oregonian offers the following excerpt from the video:

A kindly old character named Professor Proponderus offers answers.

“There are some people in the world who do bad things, son,” he says. “Sometimes a person will get scared or confused or get sick in their minds and forget who they are. People who lose their way sometimes forget what is right and wrong and why it is important to consider what is good for them and for other people. … When people forget this, they may do something that is bad.”

“Are they all in jail?” Jeeter asks.

“A lot of them are,” Professor Proponderus answers. “But not all of them.”

Jeeter eventually gets around to asking the eternal question: Is my dad bad?

“A great kid like you wouldn’t have a bad guy for a dad,” Professor Proponderus says. ” Most people are good, decent people at heart. Just because a person gets into trouble and goes to jail does not mean they are a bad person.”

Professor Proponderus tells Jeeter that people like his dad make mistakes and get “time outs” for them. The older and bigger you get, he tells young Jeeter, the bigger the consequences.

After watching the video, I’m not quite sure how I feel about it.  I think this project is well-intended, but I’m not sure it quite reaches its goal(s).  I would be very interested to know how children and those with an incarcerated family member react to it.   Is this a useful tool for tackling these kinds of tough questions?

love and greetings from the community

IO card packets 2013Another of the projects my Inside-Out students took on this term was to create beautiful hand-decorated holiday cards for children visiting the Oregon State Penitentiary to take home with them, personalize, and mail back to their fathers, uncles, and other loved ones.  OSU (outside) student Lexie explains the rationale for these card packets:

These packets were made by the Inside-out class of fall 2013. These packets will be given to the children of inmates at OSP so that they may have a stamped, addressed, decorated card to send to a loved one with little to no barriers. It also included candy, extra writing paper and an extra envelope. Receiving things from family members on the outside means a lot to these guys and helps them to keep their heads up while working to improve their own lives and the lives of others for the duration of their sentences. Most of these examples of the cards are done by inmates and are beautiful. There are some that are not that great, haha, but have potential for the kids to make them great. These aren’t all of them, but a few we picked out to share.

It’s a small but important way for us to continue to support men in prison (including our own inside students) and the children who love them.

Oregon State University Inside-Out Class Project Aims to Educate Potential Employers

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We are the 1 in 100….Fall 2013

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The We are the 1 in 100 tumblr site is an ongoing project of my Inside-Out classes, with submissions representing both the approximately  1 in 100 Americans behind bars and those affected by their incarceration.  The Fall 2013 inside and outside students have recently added some powerful new sentiments and images.  Check it out.

Halloween Rituals and Bonding with Incarcerated Fathers

TheGreatPumpkinCharlieBrownI was fortunate to host one of the more meaningful Halloween events of my life this year.  Building on the work I have been doing in one of our state youth correctional facilities over the past couple of years, I approached the administration with the idea of holding a Halloween party for the incarcerated fathers and their young children.  The fathers, themselves, are in their late teens and early twenties, so their children are all very young and at the age when Halloween is a major holiday.

We arranged to have the event on October 30th, so that it was an additional celebration and did not take the kids away from their own neighborhood celebration of Halloween.  Approximately seven young fathers participated, and family members brought their young children in their Halloween costumes into the facility to decorate pumpkins with their dads, decorate and eat cookies together, and to try to catch donuts and apples on strings (a more hygienic version of bobbing for apples). The culminating event was when the kids and their dads were able to trick or treat down the hallways of the institution’s school.  I had eight fabulous students from Oregon State University helping to run the event – the OSU volunteers were able to each go into a classroom and greet the little trick-or-treaters with kindness and candy.    After the little kids went home, we invited the full population of the facility to join us in the gym for pumpkin decorating, lively games, cookies, and candy.  I think it’s safe to say that the OSU volunteers and the young men in the facility all had a great time.

In the grand scheme of things, this event was a little thing that the youth correctional facility made possible.  All we had to do was suggest the idea; they then allowed us to make the plans, and then the administrators made it happen.  In the past 20 years (at least), they have never had an event like this.  For the kids and dads who participated, this was a big deal.  The dads got to be involved in an important childhood ritual, and they were able to make some unique memories with their kids.  I got to play photographer for much of the event, and I took some great family photos that both the kids and dads will be able to look back upon and enjoy for many years to come.

In my research and teaching, I think a lot about at-risk youth and children of incarcerated parents.  Small events like this one seem to me to be a small but important step to show that the community cares and wants what is best for these children.  It was a Halloween well spent.