The New York Times recently published an article about one of Norway’s maximum security prisons, Halden Fengsel – i.e. the “world’s most humane” prison.  The article doesn’t seem real.  Flowers, barley, open fields, live cows.  Since 1998, Norway’s sentencing has focused on rehabilitation.  This particular prison model – one that is designed from its inception for rehabilitation – was the first of its kind in Norway.  Even I, with my bright-eyed naiveté and mid-20s progressive agenda can’t help – just for a moment – think that the stars just aligned for Norway.  Maybe things are just different in Norway?

The reality is that’s just not the case.  Magic justice dust was not sprinkled on Norway.  Similarly, America is not too heterogenous or too populated or too developed (and therefore crime-ridden).  It is simply is too broken.

Make no mistake, Norway still faces serious crimes.  Extremist Anders Behring Breivik set off a bomb that killed eight people and systemically hunted down and shot sixty nine others, many teenagers at a summer camp for the Labor Party.  He was sentenced to the maximum 21 years in prison.

Compare Breivik’s story to that of Kalief Browder.  The New Yorker followed Browder’s story to its tragic end.  Mr. Browder was arrested ten days before his 17th birthday for allegedly stealing a backpack.  Since he was unable to pay bail, he spent the next three years at Rikers Island in New York awaiting trial.  The trial never happened and he was released after the government dismissed the case.  During those three years, he spent two in solitary confinement.  In 2015, only 22 years old, Kalief Browder committed suicide in his parents home.

Mr. Browder’s story is not an anomaly.  The extent to which this happens, the number of people to which it happens, its disproportionate racial impact on black Americans, and its disproportionate economic impact on the poor is unique to the United States.  I’m not telling you anything you probably don’t already know.  With all of the publicity, change in America’s prison infrastructure has seemed imminent for years, but something seems to be holding back the floodgates.

Policy questions regarding prison reform often focus, first, on money, and then, on balancing rehabilitation and punishment.  However, even before issues of punishment and rehabilitation, there are fundamental hurdles to overcome: what do human beings deserve from the State?  Do prisoners qualify for these entitlements?  Do prisoners deserve something less?  If so, what?  There are of, course, some nuances that warrant consideration depending on the nature of the crime, but let’s start with the basics.

It seems to me that the issue of prison reform distills down to two essential questions:

  1. Once a person does something “criminal,” does that diminish that person’s status as a human being? and/or
  2. What is the bare minimum that a human being is entitled to by the State?

The second question is more complicated, but easier to answer.  We’ll start there.  The caveat with this question is that it requires us to think about we need, regardless of whether we commit a criminal act.  Barring protecting the safety of others or the safety of ourselves, no matter what we do, what resources should we be entitled to as human beings?

Ethical theorists have been ruminating over what human beings need – not what we want, but what we need.  What is the bare minimum that a human being is entitled to?  In its contemporary iterations (and the ones I’d like to apply to prison reform in this post), this conversation has centered around international development.  Two theorists who have changed the face of this field are Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen with their separate works on the “capabilities approach.”  To simplify, they have both argued that human beings are entitled to certain “capabilities” or “functionings.”  A person is entitled to more than just food, water, and shelter but also an environment that enables productivity, creativity, and – dare I say it – happiness.

Their work was revolutionary, not just because it increased international pressure for aid and nation-state funded welfare but because it redefined human dignity.  People deserve to be happy.  It is a matter of human dignity.

The capabilities approach is only one of many frameworks that may be applicable to prison reform efforts.  It certainly resolves some of the inhumane practices present in American prisons.  However, jumping to considerations of rehabilitation/punishment without first addressing the bare minimum that each prisoner is entitled to may result – and I would argue, has resulted – in an inefficient use of resources and slow, scattered policymaking.  Though not a fixture, this concept isn’t foreign to the American criminal justice and prison system.  Correctional facilities have culinary programs, professional certifications, and arts programs.  However, these programs rely heavily on outside funding and volunteers; they are often not a part of prison infrastructure.

Next, once a person does something criminal, does that diminish that person’s status as a human being?  First thing’s first:  If committing a criminal act does diminish a person’s status as a human being, then perhaps it doesn’t matter what resources you give it or how you treat it. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that male prison guards watched female inmates while they showered, a 17-year old boy hung himself with a blanket in solitary confinement, or mentally ill inmates were so brutally abused that one was kept in solitary confinement for 2491 consecutive days and another left in his own feces and vomit until he died of a heart attack.

Of course, each of these stories is deeply unsettling.  They can only be written off as a case of mishandling by someone else (much less ethical, much less competent than any of us would ever be) so many times until we must confront the uncomfortable reality that our world – one that we cannot disclaim responsibility for (try as we might) – doesn’t treat human beings as such.  Status as “criminal” and “human being” though perhaps not mutually exclusive are certainly at odds to some degree, enough that the stories I’ve mentioned above are not a mere handful.

Though there are nuances of sentencing and resource allocation to be handled in policy meetings, thoughtful prison reform will remain a distant goal until uncomfortable confrontations are made.  Confrontations about how how our courts and our prisons treat people who commit crimes in terms of (1) their status as human beings and (2) what capabilities and/or resources those individuals are entitled to.

The importance of these preliminary issues is paramount.  The consistent to failure to confront them has left a broken prison system that has harmed our friends, families, and communities.  Behind the cages of America’s prisons are human beings just like you and me.  People who are entitled to our respect and, indeed, their own happiness.

Future Readings

The White House.  Source: Wikimedia Commons
The White House. Source: Wikimedia Commons

On Tuesday the White House launched its new campaign to address and prevent the epidemic of sexual violence against women on college campuses in the US.  The campaign, 1 is 2 Many, includes a blog, an informational website with a major report, Not Alone, and a PSA aimed at men and boys.  The launch of the campaign has been largely celebrated among the numerous sexual and domestic violence agencies across the country as a much needed step toward creating real change on college campuses.  For those of us in the social sciences, the campaign, and the report in particular, reveals just how much we don’t yet know about sexual violence on college campuses. more...

[By Pete Souza (White House Flickr Account) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

A few weeks ago, President Obama announced a new initiative designed to increase opportunities for young Black and Latino men. Acknowledging that Black and Latino men lag behind other groups in educational achievement and employment, while outnumbering white men in jails and prisons, at first glance, the President’s “My Brother’s Keeper” campaign seems like a much needed and timely project. However, when examining Obama’s rhetoric more closely, the initiative falls short of addressing the root causes and structural reasons for racial disparities in the US and instead perpetuates a neoliberal language of individual responsibility.


By Francois Polito (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

One of our readers responded to my previous article on the construction of rapists vs normal men in the media and the related issue of how to best respond to popular assertion that guns could play an effective role in women’s self-defense against rape. While agreeing with my overall analysis, she is looking for argumentative tools of how to counter ‘pro gun for self-defense against rape’ style arguments. Her question comes down to this: “The ‘change the society’ rhetoric makes the very concrete threats against women on a daily basis too abstract. Arguments [that advocate guns for self-defense against rape] keep the rhetoric concrete and practical and very present for very real women. And I haven’t yet found a gun regulation… argument that adequately challenges [the] point that in today’s society as it is, a woman can defend herself with a gun better than by any other means.” This is a valid question: Could it be the case that a society without firearms would be preferable from a moral standpoint, yet firearms might allow women to protect themselves in the here and now? This article is an attempt to argue why guns do not in fact make the lives of women safer.


Retrieved from
Retrieved from

The prosecution of 16 year old Ethan Couch has garnered considerable media attention in the past two weeks. Couch was accused of killing four pedestrians while high on valium and under the influence of alcohol. With a truck full of friends, Couch crashed into a group of pedestrians. The outcry from this case is twofold. First, Couch’s defense attorney argued that he could not be held fully responsible for his actions because he suffered from “affluenza.” Second, this defense worked and Couch was found guilty but only sentenced to 10 years under correctional probation. Couch, 16, was sentenced to 10 years under correctional probation for his actions. Couch never denied his actions, rather his defense argued that Couch’s dysfunctional upbringing was the reason for his actions and he deserves therapy over incarceration.  more...

Protest against police brutality
Source: Fibonacci Blue (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a previous ruling that had determined that New York City’s controversial “Stop and Frisk” practice constituted a civil rights violation, thereby placing any reforms (or the outright abolition of “Stop and Frisk”) on hold. In addition to being a highly ineffective police strategy, extremely questionable from a civil liberties perspective and undeniably a case of racial profiling, this policy might also impact marginalized students’ educational outcomes. Sociological research suggests that the interplay between constructions of masculinity and punitive criminal justice (and school) policies ends up harming marginalized boys’ educational prospects and channels them into crime – and ultimately the criminal justice system.

[ This article was originally published at Masculinities 101 ]


Memorial for the victims of the NSU murders in Dortmund, Germany.
Source: Reclus [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Germany is currently witnessing one of its most anticipated criminal cases in recent history, as Beate Zschäpe, the sole surviving member of the three-person white supremacist group National Socialist Underground (NSU), is being tried for membership in a terrorist cell and conspiracy to commit ten murders. In addition to highlighting the continued danger of white supremacist groups, this case and its handling by the police and the media not only speaks to the lingering racism in Germany but also to the perils of post-racial and colorblind ideology. In this latter sense, I would argue, it shares some parallels with a high profile murder case that recently grabbed the public attention here in the US, namely the trial of George Zimmerman for the shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.


File:A classroom in Parshvanath College of Engineering.jpgA few weeks back, I contributed a post highlighting possible explanations for the rise of criminal justice based practices within schools.  Although these strategies have become popular for managing school crime, growing evidence suggests they are often overly excessive and may produce a host of unintended consequences. Serving as a sort of a Part II, this essay outlines the effects of what has been termed the “criminalization of school discipline” (Hirschfield & Celinscka 2011). As discussed below, the evidence stands against the school criminalization when considering its effects on: social equality, school performance, school crime, and other disciplinary strategies. more...

File:Saladeaula itapevi.jpgOver the past two decades, schools across the U.S. have adopted a host of punitive practices and policies to prevent and respond to student misbehavior (Kupchik 2010). These practices include the use of security cameras, metal detectors, drug-sniffing dogs, and the full-time presence of police officers. Consequentially, the distinction between school discipline and criminal justice has become highly blurred. For a host of reasons, there has been an increase in surveillance over students and a tighter link between the education and criminal justice for a host of (Hirschfield & Celinscka 2011). The purpose of this post is to provide, from the extant literature, explanations for the rise of criminal justice based practices within schools. more...

Within the last thirty years the presence of adolescent offenders tried in criminal court has become increasingly commonplace. Scholars critical of this growing phenomenon have documented that the number of youth transferred to adult (criminal) court has gradually risen since the mid-1970s. Whilst the ability to transfer young offenders from the juvenile to adult court has long been an option, recent literature notes that the emergence of legislation facilitating the transfer of youth offenders to criminal court is a microcosm of a “penal turn” in criminal justice practices (Kupchik 2010). That is, laws that expanded the ability to transfer youth to adult court fit within a larger social, cultural, and political movement which sought to “get tough” on crime. more...