Food is important in every social setting, but it is especially salient for prisoners deprived of so many other comforts. For prisoners in disciplinary units, a meatloaf-like concoction known as Nutraloaf is often the only meal. Nutraloaf (sometimes called a “special management meal”) is intended to meet the basic nutritional requirements in a “meal” that requires no utensils and minimal time to prepare or distribute. Nutriloaf — and the whole concept of “disciplinary food” — is so unpopular that prisoners have challenged its constitutionality in a number of jurisdictions.

I mention all this because Jesse Wozniak passed along this class project from Micaela Magsamen, a student in his policing class this semester. Hearing Jesse’s mention of Nutraloaf in lecture, Ms. Magsamen decided to prepare and taste-test one recipe for the  loaf (which includes both tomato paste and applesauce), photographing and powerpointing the results. While I didn’t taste-test this version myself, I’d imagine that such an exercise might change one’s view on the whole constitutionality issue.

I arrived late and left early at this year’s criminology meetings, but the two days in Washington, DC were terrific. I’m always inspired by forward-looking talks that put a big issue on the table, especially those that could spark public discussion and, perhaps, intervention.

The paper that really turned my head this year was Bob Agnew’s general strain model of the impact of climate change on crime. Professor Agnew made a convincing and nicely documented case that climate change will “increase strain, reduce social control, weaken social support, foster beliefs favorable to crime, contribute to traits conducive to crime, increase opportunities for crime, and create social conflict.” After 15 minutes, he had me convinced that climate change could become a driving force of crime rates over the next century.

Sara Wakefield and Simon Cole offered a similarly future-directed and provocative talk on racial disparities in DNA databases. Every state is now collecting DNA — in many cases for arrestees, as well as those convicted of crimes. While acknowledging potential gains to public safety, the paper raised large and timely issues about how such data collection affects surveillance and inequality. We heard evidence about what the databases look like now, but everyone in the room expected them to grow dramatically in coming years.

I’ve worked a lot with Sara, of course, so I’m not exactly unbiased about her work — or that of other Minnesota grads at the meeting (including the program co-chair, Ryan King). This year, I gave talks with current grad students Suzy McElrath (above), Jessica Molina, and Heather McLaughlin (all attending their first ASC meeting), as well as Brianna Remster of Penn State. I mostly sat in the background scribbling (as above), while my collaborators did the heavy lifting.

My only solo presentation came at Madam’s Organ Blues Bar’s Thursday night Karaoke. Like the two papers above, my rendering of Sinatra could spark public discussion and, perhaps, intervention.

My colleague Josh Page’s The Toughest Beat (2011, Oxford) is getting much-deserved good press from many quarters. Today’s props come from Wayne Kramer, the MC5 guitarist now writing at Jail Guitar Doors. Mr. Kramer calls The Toughest Beat a “well researched history of how the prison guards union grew from a minor municipal association into the second most powerful political lobby in California. It’s a fascinating journey into power politics.”

So how do legendary guitar players end up reviewing cutting-edge scholarship in the sociology of punishment? The name Jail Guitar Doors comes from a fine old Clash song that name-drops Mr. Kramer, who once served time in Lexington Federal Prison for a drug offense. His work with the MC5 once earned him 92nd place on Rolling Stone’s all-time top-100 guitarist list. Today, he’s working with Jail Guitar Doors, an organization that Billy Bragg and friends put together to provide prisoners with musical equipment in the United Kingdom and, now, the United States. 

I can’t cite rigorous evaluation data to show the positive effects of such programs, but it doesn’t take a top-100 guitarist to grasp the group’s vision: We believe prisoners provided with the musical tools to create songs of their own can achieve a positive change of attitude that can initiate the work necessary to successfully return to life outside prison walls. Creating music, along with other educational and vocational programs, can be a profound force for positive change in a prisoner’s life.

If the idea hits you like Wayne Kramer power chord — or if you’ve ever just found a little peace and focus while plunking away at an instrument — you might consider a donation.

I spent some time in court today, taking the stand to share some research on voting and disenfranchisement. I’ve done this sort of thing a few times before, but courtrooms, sworn oaths, and cross-examinations are still a little scary to me — more like heebie-jeebies scary than howling fantods scary — but scary nonetheless. Whenever I get anxious, though, I try to “do as I say” in my capacity as advisor, editor, or chair.

When my students are anxious about presentating their work, I tell them what my little league coach told me on his (frequent) trips to see me on the pitcher’s mound: trust your stuff. I remind them about all the preparation, hard work, painstaking research, analysis, and careful writing they’ve done on the subject. If they”re well-prepared, know what they’re doing, and have good stuff to present, there’s really little reason for anxiety. And, at that point, they can direct their energies into communicating effectively, rather than worrying about freaking out, melting down, or curling up in a fetal position before a room of stunned observers.

Social scientists are trained to be appropriately cautious in presenting our work to peers and to the public, but such caution shouldn’t morph itself into learned helplessness or defeatism. As editors, we’re often encouraging writers to trust their stuff — “We actually know a lot about that right? You don’t need to put “may,” “perhaps,” “preliminary,” and “exploratory,” in the concluding sentence. You’ve actually written some good stuff that’s quite convincing on those very points, right?” 

So, while it makes good sense to worry about “overselling” a particular study or finding, there’s also a danger in “underselling” the real knowledge we’ve gained on a topic of importance. When I see social scientists overselling or overreaching, it is usually because they’ve gotten away from their stuff and started popping off about things they haven’t researched or thought much about.

I was thinking of this after raising my right hand and striding across the courtroom to take the stand — just stay on your research and trust your stuff. And it seemed to work out okay today — I said “I don’t know” when I lacked the information to answer a question responsibly, but I also made clear that we have learned some information relevant to the case at hand.

Learning how to trust your stuff comes in as handy in the courtroom as it does in the lecture hall or on the pitcher’s mound. Of course, it won’t eliminate all sources of anxiety. While 95 percent of my attention may have been devoted to responsibly communicating the research, about 5 percent was still pretty anxious. So, however much I may trust my research, I’m still mortified that my fly may be down when I feel a cool breeze on my way to the witness stand.

cross-posted at The Editor’s Desk

My colleague Josh Page offers a thoughtful commentary on California’s prison system in Zocalo Public Square today. Quote:

Prison officers understandably worry that downsizing the correctional system will put them out of work. Thanks largely to their effective union, these officers have solid, middle-class jobs with good pay, good benefits, and good retirement packages. California officers make between $45,000 and $73,000 a year before overtime and other incentives. As the manufacturing sector declines, “prison officer” is one of the few remaining occupations providing upward social mobility for people who lack advanced degrees. This is especially true in the rural areas in which many prisons are located. Officers and their families, then, are justified in thinking that major reforms might close one of the few remaining paths they have into the middle class. Policymakers must make good faith efforts to protect these workers as they reshape the correctional system…The CCPOA would be much more likely to support reform measures if it could protect its members’ jobs along the way, or at least be persuaded that its worst-case fears are unfounded.

For more, check out, The Toughest Beat, Josh’s new book with Oxford.

I like gear that comes with a story. And “these alligator boots were seized in a cocaine bust” is a story worthy of Quentin Tarantino, if not the Coen brothers. See, the proprietor of St. Paul’s El Primo Western Wear was evidently stashing cocaine in the boot boxes, so the store’s inventory was placed into storage. Now you and I can bid for the fine snap-button shirts, boots, belts, and stetson hats at auction.

via Mara Gottfried at The Pioneer Press:

A large amount of Western wear seized from a St. Paul store by police is now up for auction. The owner of the store, El Primo Western Wear, was sent to federal prison after he was convicted in a 2008 drug case. He had stored cocaine among cowboy-boot boxes in the basement of the store at 176 Cesar Chavez St., according to a search warrant affidavit.

The merchandise seized included 881 pairs of boots, 579 hats and 1,111 pairs of jeans. It had been in storage until the advisory board of the now-defunct Metro Gang Strike Force authorized the sale of the inventory at auction last month. Hines Auction Service is holding the online auction now. The first one closes Dec. 20 and the second Dec. 23. There will be more auctions, but they haven’t been scheduled yet, the Ellsworth, Wis., company said today. The auctions are listed at and Proceeds from the auction will be used to pay Metro Gang Strike Force legal fees, settlements, storage fees and other costs, an attorney has said.

Property seizures by law enforcement agencies are controversial to say the least, as forfeitures of cars and other big-ticket items have increased directly with budget cuts in some jurisdictions. For their part, Minnesota’s Metro Gang Strike Force has transitioned from beleaguered to defunct, finally shutting down in 2009. By most accounts, the MGSF was overzealous about seizing property and not nearly zealous enough about recordkeeping — hence, an auction to help defray their own legal fees.

Now that’s a story worthy of the Coen brothers.

[update: Jessica Lussenhop offers further details on both the bust and the goods in City Pages.]

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:

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.

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.

Marc Jenkins gave a terrific lecture titled “How the Immune System Remembers Infections” this week. As a sociological criminologist, I’ve long been fascinated by immunology and its connection to the social organicism of Spencer, Durkheim and others. The immune system wondrously learns to quickly recognize and neutralize pathogens in the body, even as the pathogens quickly evolve and adapt to overcome the immune system. He used this trunk monkey* video to introduce immune functioning (body=car; pathogen=thief):

By analogy, some argue that communities exercise social control in the same way. One hears such analogies when people describe how a social group is brought down by a nefarious “virus” or “cancer.”  For example, when the Patriots traded Randy Moss to the Vikings, a commentator was asked whether Patriots Coach Bill Belichek considered him a “cancer” in the locker room (“more like a polyp,” was the clever response). Such social organicism can be carried way too far, of course, perhaps even to genocide.

More positively, I’d compare immune response to the sort of rapidly mobilizing and self-sustaining resistance that a good school might develop in response to, say, a sudden rash of fights breaking out at the Friday night football games. The destructive behavior can either take root or it can be brought under control pretty quickly, once the fans in the bleachers learn to recognize and take the collective responsibility to stop it.

Professor Jenkins closed with another video, and I couldn’t help but identify with the host’s completely ineffectual efforts to ward off the pathogen in this one. Reminds me to boost the ol’ immune system before winter hits….

* No, that doesn’t look like an actual “monkey” to me either, but “trunk monkey” makes for a clever name.