Category Archives: prison

Inside-Out Class in the Juvenile Facility

My first Inside-Out class in a juvenile correctional facility is quickly drawing to a close on our 10 week quarter system.  The word cloud featured here is how the students described the experience.  I asked each of the 27 students (from OSU and from the facility) to write three words that described our class, and this is what they came up with.  Fun, eye-opening, interesting, thought-provoking…I’ll take it!  Those are pretty good adjectives to describe any college class.

Along with Sarah Ferrer’s guest editorial in The Oregonian newspaper, there have been other interesting products from this short class.  First, we’ve added on to the We are the 1 in 100 tumblr site that was started in last fall’s class in the Oregon State Penitentiary.

Next, several of this quarter’s outside students were featured in a story in Oregon State University’s student newspaper, The Daily Barometer.  In the story, they share their enthusiasm for the experience and the group service-learning projects they are working on with the inside students.  The last lines of the story:

The students are all very grateful to have taken part in the class and encourage other students to take advantage of it in future terms. “This class is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Settelmeyer said. “It does a great job of sparking student interest in making a difference and walks us through starting to do just that.”

Finally, I’m working again the with the Think Out Loud crew from Oregon Public Radio.  They are going to be taping their hour-long show tonight in the youth facility with my class.  The show is scheduled to air tomorrow morning at 9:00.  It should be available on OPB’s website (to stream or download as a podcast) shortly after.  The major question that emerged from our pre-show interviews, “From inside Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility we ask inmates: what is happening in prison to make them better citizens when they are released?”  I’m hoping for a fun, eye-opening, interesting, thought-provoking (sound familiar?) and very positive show.

So, for one brief class, I think we’ve done our part for public criminology and bringing attention to issues surrounding prisons and juvenile correctional facilities and their impacts on both those inside the walls and on the larger community.  I’ll be sorry to see this class end, but I am looking forward to a long and rewarding relationship with Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility and the Oregon Youth Authority.

longing to get away

I spent part of my evening in a juvenile correctional facility last night with a group of smart, articulate young women serving time for a variety of offenses and literally growing up while behind bars.  I spend quite a bit of my time teaching and volunteering in prisons and juvenile facilities, and I always enjoy talking with incarcerated young people.  While most have made some very serious mistakes, I very often come away impressed with their thoughtfulness and their resilience.

What particularly struck me last night was when several of the girls spoke about their dreams and fantasies about flying.  In doing so, they evoked – and perfectly quoted – the line from Forrest Gump, where young Jenny is praying to God to help her escape her father’s house and his abuse: “Dear God, make me a bird so that I can fly far, far, far away from here…Dear God, make me a bird so that I can fly far, far, far away from here….”

I’d seen the movie years ago, but that line never held the same resonance for me.  Lucky me.  I was fortunate enough to grow up cared for and loved, and as a child I never had to worry about protecting myself or getting out of the way of harm.  I wonder how many incarcerated youth can say the same?  How many children have their innocence destroyed and are never able to find a legal escape?

I think part of the reason these issues of youth, pain, and longing are lingering in my mind is because one of my favorite songs at the moment is “Take Me Away” which shares some of the sentiment of the girls’ discussion and Jenny’s prayer.  Some of the lyrics (written by Scott Alan):

Let me climb to the top
Of the highest mountain peak
Let me scream at the top of my lungs
Until I can no longer speak

Can’t remember the last time
I said live and let things be
And it’s just been way too long
Since I felt alive and free

So I’ll sail away
Until I reach the sea
So I’ll soar the sky
Until I feel the breeze

I am ready to return
To the place I last felt stillness
To return to the heart
I had when I was five

Where the only thing that mattered
Was making colors I can paint with
I’m much too young
To let my life hang out to dry

So I’ll sail away
Until I reach the sea
And I’ll soar the sky
Until I feel the breeze

If you have not heard this song, do yourself a favor and take 4 minutes to listen to Hadley Fraser sing it – his performance is absolutely brilliant:

“Take Me Away”

Am I Troy Davis?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that Georgia is set to execute a man that many people believe is innocent in a little less than an hour. I’ll leave the question of innocence to others, as the case has been widely detailed in numerous outlets, except to say that I think he has one of the better cases for reasonable doubt in the absence of DNA that I have seen. Putting that (important) question aside, I am struck by the ‘I Am Troy Davis’ campaign in support of clemency. On YouTube, in the media, at protests, on twitter and facebook, death penalty opponents (or Troy Davis supporters — it’s interesting to note how many death penalty advocates support clemency in this case) are shouting/wearing “I Am Troy Davis,” the implication being that this miscarriage of justice could happen to anyone. While I admire the organizations working on behalf of Mr. Davis, the simplicity of the campaign generally, and the empathy implied by its message, I wonder if it leads us away from a useful discussion. Some thoughts:

  • Let’s assume Davis is innocent. I am not Troy Davis and this would never happen to me — I am a white, highly educated woman who comes from a privileged background. There are few (none?) on death row who even remotely look like me. While I might post ‘I Am Troy’ on my facebook page, do I really believe that this could happen to me?
  • That a good predictor of eyewitness misidentification is whether or not the witness and suspect are of the same race seems relevant here (mistaken identification is the most common cause of convictions overturned with DNA evidence). Again, my race, class, and gender is an extremely good predictor not just of whether I will commit a crime but also of whether I will be erroneously convicted of one.
  • It is often the case that convicted innocents have lengthy prior criminal records (though not in the case of Troy Davis, which may have something to do with the attention his case has received). A friend of mine once said to me, regarding the recent execution of an arguably innocent man in Texas, “Well, he may not have done that but he certainly did a whole lot of other things.” I suppose (hope?) he was only half serious but it occurred to me that he had made a telling point — from his point of view, if you can demonstrate a pattern of bad behavior, it begins to matter less if the person being executed did the particular crime we’re killing him for and more if we can demonstrate a pattern of evil-doing. It also tends to get in the way of feeling empathy for a death row inmate, innocent or not.
  • Related to above, arguing that any one of us could be innocently caught up in the system is probably an unsuccessful strategy for the people whose minds you are trying to change. At the end of the day, very few of us are Troy Davis and those who are will rarely be in a position to offer clemency.

Perhaps I’m wrong on all of this but as I watch the discussion of the case, I think the  tougher long-term conversation to be had is why this happens to the Troy Davis’ of the world and not how it could happen to any of us.

Judging Change

I spent eight hours with our state’s parole board yesterday.  I sat in on two “Murder Review” hearings, the stated purpose of which is to:  ”determine whether or not the inmate is likely to be rehabilitated within a reasonable period of time so that the offender’s sentence may be converted to life with the possibility of parole, post-prison supervision, or work release.” 

The individuals in both of these cases were charged with aggravated murder; for both of them the question was whether they could prove themselves “rehabilitatable” so that they might have the possibility of parole at a future date.  One has at least 9 more years to serve on the mandatory part of his sentence before he can even be considered for release; the other is nearly 70 years old and is hoping for a chance to re-connect with family on the outside rather than die in prison.

The circumstance of the cases were quite different, and so were the hearings.  I’ll focus on the first, though, because it raises some difficult moral, ethical, and behavioral questions.  The first man presented over 100 pages of records, proof, and testimony that he has worked hard in his 20-years in prison to change and grow.  He has “programmed” persistently and thoroughly, participating in many educational and cognitive courses and experiences over the years.  His crime was a truly horrifying case of domestic violence – there really is no excuse for that crime and no making up for it, and the man acknowledges that.  Members of the victim’s family came to testify at the hearing, and their grief and pain was readily apparent.  They fear his possible release 10 or more years in the future, and they hope that he will serve natural life in prison.   The district attorney who attended the hearing called this man “a monster” and also asked that he be found “not likely to be rehabilitated in a reasonable amount of time.”

I was very impressed with the members of the parole board.  They had clearly done their homework in preparing for the hearings, and they patiently listened to testimony and took notes for the 8+ hours of these hearings, not even taking a break for lunch.  After the testimony of the inmates and their attorneys, they asked careful, thoughtful, and very probing questions, pushing the inmates to look deeper within themselves to answer the difficult questions.  Being a member of the parole board must be a thankless job – I doubt they get much credit for giving second (or third, or fourth) chances, but they undoubtedly face a great deal of public scrutiny and criticism should a release decision turn out badly.

The decisions will come later after the parole board has time to review and reflect on the evidence presented.  But here is the question: how can and should we judge change?  Even if an inmate has turned his life around in prison, does he deserve another chance at life in the community?  He can’t change the circumstances of his crime, but if he really has changed himself, is that enough?  Should it be?  How much weight should the victims’ fear, grief, and pain hold in parole decisions?  Can we ever really know if an inmate is ”rehabilitated” enough or if he is just a master manipulator as the victims and prosecutors believe and claim?  Is it worth the risk to grant even the possibility of parole?

Big questions.  I don’t have any clear answers at this point, but I definitely came away from the hearings with a lot to think about…

Home and Heart

home 021Here’s a short and, I think, uplifting story about some of the good work coming out of prisons.  Inmates in the Oregon State Penitentiary just donated $1000 to HOME Youth and Resource Center, a day shelter and drop-in center for homeless and at-risk youth in Salem.  That’s $1000 directly from inmates’ personal funds, where an average inmate may make $50 per month working in the prison.

Nearly a year ago, my Inside-Out class at the penitentiary chose to work as a group to sponsor a hygiene drive for HOME, in hopes of helping homeless teens and ultimately keeping them out of prison.  We were all amazed at the generosity of the inmate population as they donated brand new bottles of shampoo, toothbrushes, deodorant, razors, and socks from their own scarce supply.  As I wrote about in an earlier post,  we were able to deliver more than a dozen boxes of hygiene supplies and OSU tee-shirts to the shelter.  It was a great day.

The Statesman-Journal published an editorial that described our project like this:

Inderbitzin also challenged the 31 participants to “develop a small-scale, doable prevention project that we could put into action before the quarter was over…They came through in a big way,” she said. “There are a number of aspects to their project, but their main focus was to help homeless teenagers in the Salem area.”

OSU students updated a resource guide for homeless teens. These “outside” students also collected new hygiene products from inmates, prison staff members and even the OSU football team. The “inside” students collected a dozen boxes of products from the inmates and prison staffers. The “outside” students delivered the items to a Salem outreach program lastweekend.

Reflecting on the project, one “inside” student said: “Our group took this challenge to heart, and although not every individual agreed on the focus, every individual gave it their best effort. I watched the effect it had, within our class and in the prison, and I’m not ashamed to admit I had misty eyes when I saw the amount of donated goods that poured in from the prisoners. With only 700 jobs — and most with a monthly salary of $50 — these men gave a big chunk of their pay to kids they don’t even know.”

I’m glad to see the guys in OSP kept working all year to help the homeless kids in Salem.  It’s nice to be reminded that some good really can come out of prison.

(photo is an actual picture of the HOME center, where youth proclaim in the window that “HOME Rocks”)

FOR SALE: Rooms with a view of the Bay

On May 19th, California will hold a special election on several propositions related to the budget (the propositions, among other things, increase some taxes for a short period and divert money from early childhood and school programs to reduce the budget shortfall). Every poll suggests the propositions will fail. In order to increase support for the propositions, Governor Schwarzenegger is releasing his budget early in two versions — one if the props pass, another if they do not. Included in the latter is reportedly a plan to release 38,000 inmates from prison early. This will be the third time the Governor has suggested early release for some inmates — it failed miserably the first two times, largely for political reasons.

It begs the question — how far will the politics of fear get you? Will people vote for higher taxes in order to avoid releasing inmates? Will the voters choose to lay off teachers or release inmates? While these choices needn’t be pitted against one another, the press and the Governor are framing the choices this way.

Several reports also have the Governor proposing to sell San Quentin. Putting aside the apparent contradiction of why we would sell one prison while simultaneously building many more, I can’t help but wonder… do the inmates come with that?

puts my trust in god and man

today’s “modern love” column in the new york times is written by a former inmate who, by his own admission, had “eight felonies, and at least twice that many misdemeanors…(had) been to prison five times, all for nonviolent drug and drug-related offenses.”  while the column is about the development of a particular relationship, what i found interesting was the author’s discussion of trying to build any kind of romantic relationship in light of his rocky past.  matthew parker writes:

When I got out of prison in 2002, I was narcotics-free for the first time since I was a teenager, and achingly lonely. Yet I had never had a normal relationship, and I was clueless about how to get myself into one. My 11 years of forced celibacy in prison and decades of drug use had left me inept when it came to women. I sometimes had junkie girlfriends, but junkies rarely find love because their love is the narcotic. Everything else is secondary.

I experimented with various forms of dating, including online, but remained lonesome because most of the women I managed to meet could not come to terms with my past.

this struck me as a piece of the reentry puzzle that may deserve more attention.  i don’t know what the answer is, but i can well imagine the frustration of trying to build relationships after a long incarceration.  if inmates who complete their sentences have “paid” for their crimes, do they deserve a second (or third, or fourth) chance at life and love?  would you be okay with your sister or daughter — or brother or son — dating a former felon?

girl trouble

january will bring new challenges. i will be taking 8 or 9 oregon state university students (all female) into our state’s primary girls’ correctional facility to share class once a week with 8 female inmates. i’ve taught a number of inside-out classes with adult males in the maximum-security penitentiary, and my dissertation research was with violent males in an end-of-the-line juvenile facility, but working with young females will be a whole new experience.

i chose/volunteered to do this for many good reasons, and i am hopeful that we will have a positive outcome for all involved. this facility just reopened in february to house the majority of the females committed to close custody by the oregon youth authority. oya is planning to implement gender-specific programming in the facility, and i am hoping to build strong connections and to get my students involved from the beginning.

the latest news, however, is that eight girls in the facility assaulted and injured three staff members in a premeditated escape attempt. apparently, they staged a fake fight and then attacked the staff members with homemade weapons. the girls ranged in age from 13-17. all three male staff members needed medical attention; one had a head wound that required 32 staples to close it.

i’m not sure what to think of this. strange as it may sound, i feel completely safe in the maximum-security men’s prison, but somehow these teenage girls seem more volatile and more of a risk to work with. it may have something to do with the numbers. i have 15 students in the penitentiary at any given time out of approximately 2300 inmates. the girls’ facility only holds about 70, so to have eight involved in an aggressive escape attempt is to have more than 10% of the population plotting against the staff. i’ll have eight girls in my class, but my girls/young women will presumably be a different eight than those involved in the escape attempt, and it’s likely that most of them will be 18 or older (oregon youth authority can hold young people up to age 25).

it’s a lot to think about before our first class session in january. if anyone has any thoughts or advice for working with this population, i’d love to hear it.

public criminology from the classroom

my inside-out class at the oregon state penitentiary this fall was an exercise in engaging in public criminology from the classroom. of course, i would argue that holding the class in a maximum-security prison already makes it a form of public criminology, but this quarter we took our efforts several steps further. along with reading two books, writing several essays, and getting to know students from the other side of the wall (inmates from the penitentiary and college students from oregon state university), the class developed a community service project and wrote letters to the editors of local newspapers.

the focus of the class was on delinquency prevention. i challenged the 31 students to work together to come up with group projects that they could implement in less than 10 weeks. it was a difficult process at times, but they ultimately did a great job. the most visible aspect of the project was a hygiene drive to collect new products (shampoo, toothbrushes, tooth paste, razors, deodorant, gloves, socks, etc.) for at risk and homeless teens. perhaps most impressive given their relative resources, inmates in the penitentiary donated nine boxes of new items they purchased at the prison canteen. we added more donations from prison staff, sociology faculty, and the osu football team; we also bought several more bags of products with money raised by the outside students. 10 of the outside students (in the photo) and i had a great time dropping off the donations at the HOME youth & resource center in salem.

along with the hygiene drive, students went through and painstakingly updated a resource guide for homeless teens. inmates from the class wrote anonymous letters to the at-risk youth, offering their stories and testimonials and encouraging the youth to make the best possible choices in their own lives. the class also created “truth and consequences” templates for table tents that offer facts about crime and sentencing, personal examples, and encouragement to young people; they sent the templates to local high schools in case they choose to use them in their lunchrooms.

finally, this sunday the salem statesman journal devoted most of the space on its opinion pages to our inside-out class, publishing an editorial about the class and our project; excerpts from eight inmates’ letters to the editor; and excerpts from four outside students’ letters to the editor. if you get a chance, check them out. you might be surprised what the guys inside have to add to a conversation about preventing delinquency or the impact of mandatory-minimum sentences.

all in all, i think it was a pretty successful quarter and a good example of bringing public criminology into — or, more accurately, out of — the classroom.

OJ’s Sentence Length

OJ Simpson was sentenced to at least 15 years in prison today for armed robbery, kidnapping, burglary, and assorted other charges. He would become eligible for parole in nine years. The judge specifically said that the sentence did not account for past events, most likely a reference to Simpson’s 1995 acquittal in the death of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ronald Goldman. I wondered how his sentence compares to others…

At first glance, data from the US Sentencing Commission and the Bureau of Justice Statistics on State Court Processing suggests that OJ’s sentence is a long one. For those with a most serious conviction offense of robbery, the mean maximum sentence length ranges from a little less than six years to a little more than eight years, far less than the 15 years OJ was given. OJ’s sentence also seems long in light of his short criminal history, err conviction record. As far as I know, his only prior conviction is a no contest plea in a domestic violence case involving Nicole Brown Simpson and some tax evasion judgments.

OJ also appears to have paid the price for not pleading guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence. Convicted robbers who go to trial are sentenced to an average fourteen years in prison while those who plead guilty are sentenced to just over seven years.

Much of the roughly seven year gap in OJ’s sentence relative to the average convicted robber is likely due to the included kidnapping and burglary charges. BJS data doesn’t include information on average sentences for kidnapping but I suspect they are not short but not overly long either (other sources suggest about 3-5 years in most cases) nor does it allow for separation of armed robberies from others. Burglary will get you almost five years in prison on its own. And, being a black male robber as opposed to a white male robber will get you a year more in prison.

Still, I’d bet burglary and robbery often go together and OJ’s sentence is more than double those whose most serious offense was robbery AND had convictions of at least three or more felonies surrounding the same criminal event.

OJ’s sentence doesn’t appear to be improperly long but he certainly wasn’t given any breaks by the court nor did his relatively short criminal record earn him any reductions. In any case, I doubt he’ll have many supporters this time around to suggest that the court treated him unfairly.