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.
I 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.
Few (if any) of us have abstained from crime completely. And recognizing our own criminality is often an important first step in understanding the situation of those who are caught and punished for crimes. I use self-report delinquency surveys to show this commonality to my students, but the traveling exhibit We Are All Criminals makes the point far more emphatically.
The multimedia project tells our stories — the millions of people who have committed felonies and misdemeanors but managed to avoid the stigma of a criminal record. Its architect is Emily Baxter, a visionary Minnesota attorney and Director of Public Policy and Advocacy at the Council on Crime and Justice. From the site:
Participants in We Are All Criminals tell stories of crimes they got away with… The participants are doctors and lawyers, social workers and students, retailers and retirees who consider how very different their lives could have been had they been caught. The photographs, while protecting participants’ identities, convey personality: each is taken in the participant’s home, office, crime scene, or neighborhood. The stories are of youth, boredom, intoxication, and porta potties. They are humorous, humiliating, and humbling in turn. They are privately held memories without public stigma; they are criminal histories without criminal records.
We Are All Criminals seeks to challenge society’s perception of what it means to be a criminal and how much weight a record should be given, when truly – we are all criminals. But it is also a commentary on the disparate impact of our state’s policies, policing, and prosecution: many of the participants benefited from belonging to a class and race that is not overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Permanent and public criminal records perpetuate inequities, precluding thousands of Minnesotans from countless opportunities to move on and move up. We Are All Criminals questions the wisdom and fairness in those policies.
While many criminologists still use the term “offender,” I’ve tried to purge it from my writing. For me, at least, the “offender” label implies an inherent criminality, rather than a factual legal status. I’m heartened when fellow academics consider the stigmatizing consequences of the terms they use, but it is especially good news when the official labelmakers take steps in this direction.
As Chris Palmer of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports,
The hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians who have served time in prison will no longer be referred to as “ex-offenders” in official city language, the mayor’s office announced Thursday. Instead, an ordinance will be introduced to call them “returning citizens.”
In a statement, Mayor Nutter said that the new term emphasizes reintegration, while ” ‘ex-offender’ carries with it a stigma which may increase the challenges these citizens face.”
Nah, too obvious.
William “Gates” Brown died Friday at 74. Mr. Brown was among the greatest pinch hitters in baseball history, batting an absurd .450 in 40 pinch-hitting appearances (and .370 overall) for the Tigers in their 1968 championship season. As a kid, I admired him for his cool demeanor at the plate, the fine career he fashioned from a very specialized skill, and a near-Ruthian story about toting hot dogs on the basepaths. What’s not to like?
On the backs of baseball cards, they generally list information like “Bill enjoys bowling in the off-season!” rather than “Bill did 22 months for B&E!” – and athletes of the day were quite content to keep their criminal histories in the closet. Still, even as a little leaguer, I knew something about Mr. Brown’s past. His 1974 Topps card, which I happen to have in my office (don’t ask) says, “Gates makes public appearances for the Tigers.” And he did just that, according to this 1974 piece from The Argus-Press, which details his efforts to get kids “on the right track” and his television appearances discussing his prison history. He’d done 22 months in the Ohio State Reformatory at Mansfield — an iconic prison used in certain Shawshank Redemption scenes.
Mr. Brown was also forthcoming about the racism he endured coming up the ranks in the Jim Crow south of 1960. Because the first year of his career was spent on probation, he knew that reacting physically to racist fans and coaches would quickly put said career to an end. Nevertheless, Mr. Brown progressed quickly through the minor leagues, playing 13 years in Detroit and then serving as hitting coach from 1978 to 1984.
So, while baseball fans will remember Gates Brown as the consummate pinch hitter, the matter-of-fact and compelling manner in which he told his desistance story is also well worth remembering.
I don’t recall any “So, your dad’s in prison” discussions on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood or Captain Kangaroo, but United States criminal punishment has increased greatly since my preschool days. Arturo Baiocchi sends along this powerful Sesame Street clip addressing parental incarceration in their “Little Children, Big Challenges” series. The short video is heartbreaking in concept and in execution, but I’m glad to see more people and institutions reaching out to support the children of incarcerated parents. For those interested in the numbers and the effects of parental incarceration, I’d recommend the excellent series of articles and upcoming book by our friends Sara Wakefield and Chris Wildeman.
Most importantly, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell will begin automatically restoring voting rights for “nonviolent felons” beginning July 15. Those convicted of violent crimes must still undergo an application process, following a five-year waiting period. “Non-violent” is a problematic definition in practice, but I expect this to be a meaningful change for Virginia. In particular, a switch to an “automatic” or default system tends to be far more effective in restoring civil rights than, say, “streamlined application processes.”
Also, Marc Mauer and I wrote a new Huffington Post op-ed on race, voter turnout, and felon disenfranchisement.
You might have heard that Minnesota Governor Dayton just signed Freedom to Marry legislation, but he also made Ban the Box the law-of-the-land-of-10,000-lakes. Megan Boldt describes it succinctly at twincities.com:
Gov. Mark Dayton this week signed a bill that would ban employers from considering a job applicant’s criminal history until the applicant has an interview or is offered a job.
Supporters of the bill, dubbed “ban the box,” have argued the change allows people who have made mistakes to be considered for a job on their merits and skills, instead of having their application immediately discarded.
Since 2009, Minnesota has required all public employers to wait until a job candidate has been selected for an interview before inquiring about criminal history.
I can take no credit (or blame, I suppose) for this development, but I can brag a bit about amazing Minnesota graduate students like Sarah Walker and Rob Stewart, community leaders like Mark Haase at the Council on Crime and Justice, and many formerly incarcerated men and women who came forward to tell their stories and build support for this legislation.
Yes, employers can and will still discriminate on the basis of a criminal record, but the research literature suggests that ban the box is a tremendously important step. In my Minnesota audit study on low-level records, for example, 25% of the hiring authorities we interviewed told us they wouldn’t consider any (hypothetical) applicant with a record, but they were much less likely to discriminate on that basis when confronted with a real human being applying for a job. And in Devah Pager’s important audit studies (and my own as well), personal contact with a hiring authority is a powerful, powerful predictor of “callbacks” from employers. So, I’m optimistic that Ban the Box won’t simply waste applicants’ time — or that of employers.
For a national perspective on these laws, check the recent EEOC guidance on the topic and a useful page from the National Employment Law Project. And, yes, I’m already scheming to evaluate implementation and outcomes…