When you take a course of antibiotics to zap a bacterial infection, you can also lay waste to a lot of healthy bacteria that your body really needs. And once you’ve wiped out the healthy flora in your gut, you’re vulnerable to nasty bacteria such as Clostridium Difficile, which brings symptoms ranging from severe diarrhea to life-threatening colon problems. Though I’m skeptical-bordering-on-terrified of organicist arguments in sociology, hearing a talk by Minnversity colleague Mike Sadowsky on “C. diff.” brought some parallels in social research to mind. Before proceeding, I should acknowledge the obvious “ick factor” in this post, but bear with me a moment.

As Dr. Sadowsky explained, one successful treatment for recurrent C. diff infections involves fecal transplantation – essentially implanting a donor’s stool sample in a recipient to repopulate the healthy colonic flora and restore bacterial balance. Within a very short time, the donor’s gut flora is typically brought back to healthy equilibrium. Now that might sound icky (even when said sample is freeze-dried), but it is way less icky than surgical treatments like colectomy. What really got me thinking was my colleague’s big-picture conclusion that much of the past century of U.S. research in this area had been devoted to isolating and zapping the bacterial delinquents, while much of the next century seems devoted to restoring the whole to healthy balance. And, if I understand things correctly, it turns out that the latter approach is actually a lot simpler than specifying, modeling, and manipulating the complex interactions among myriad bacteria that may be “good” or “bad” depending on the particular combination and circumstance.

Of course, certain Ghosts of Sociology Past, Present, and Future think about societies in quite similar ways. No, people aren’t bacteria and communities aren’t intestines, but you don’t have to be a functionalist or an organicist to draw some basic analogies. For example, as William Julius Wilson points out, it is the social isolation of the urban poor that exacerbates the challenge of redressing imbalances and (re)building the institutions needed for basic community functioning. More generally, social interventions, like medical interventions, sometimes bring their own pathologies or iatrogenic effects. Like the overprescription of antibiotics behind the apparent C. diff epidemic, the grand American experiment with racialized mass incarceration, has had untold effects on individuals, families, and communities that are only now coming into focus.

I won’t speculate here about how to restore social systems to healthy balance, but some of us try to at least consider such questions in our research. In some cases, this involves calling out the problems associated with attempts to isolate and zap our more delinquent members. In others, it involves identifying and assessing viable alternative approaches to reducing harm — regardless of any potential “ick factors” that might be associated with our research.

The word cloud above represents how my 2012 Inside-Out students from Oregon State University and the Oregon State Penitentiary felt about their experience in my class.   As you may know, the larger the word is in the cloud, the more times it was mentioned by participants.  I had each student try to capture the essence of the experience in three words and this is what they came up with.  “Inspiring” was by far the most-used word to describe our class.  Wouldn’t it be great if all college classes earned such a positive response?

This quarter’s students also added more posts to our We Are the 1 in 100 tumblr site, offering perspectives on incarceration and communities from both inside and outside of prison.  For the first time, we’ve got photos taken inside the prison on the site; while no individuals are identified in these posts, I think it adds a little something.  Check it out and feel free to add you own submissions.

Here’s a case that brings up some intriguing questions: as a condition of a youth’s probation for a driving-related manslaughter conviction, an Oklahoma judge sentenced him to attend church regularly for 10 years.   The New York Times reports on the details of the case:

The 17-year-old defendant, Tyler Alred, was prosecuted as a youthful offender, giving the judge more discretion than in an adult case. Mr. Alred pleaded guilty to manslaughter for an accident last year, when he ran his car into a tree and a 16-year-old passenger was killed.

Although his alcohol level tested below the legal limit, because he was under age he was legally considered to be under the influence of alcohol. Mr. Alred told the court that he was happy to agree to church attendance and other mandates — including that he finish high school and train as a welder, and shun alcohol, drugs and tobacco for a year. By doing so, he is avoiding a 10-year prison sentence and has a chance to make a fresh start.

This sentence certainly seems to challenge the separation of church and state, and the ACLU is seeking sanctions against the judge…but is it a bad idea?

The judge believed that both the offender’s and victim’s families were satisfied with the sentence; the article reports his view of the outcome: “‘I am satisfied that both the families in this case think we’ve made the right decision,’ and noted that the dead boy’s father had tearfully hugged Mr. Alred in the courtroom. If Mr. Alred stops attending church or violates any other terms of his probation, Judge Norman said, he will send him to prison.”

Given the few details we have on this case, I think it’s fair to speculate that Mr. Alred – the young offender – was friends with the 16-year-old victim who was riding in his car with him.  Being responsible for a friend’s death is a heavy, heavy burden to carry regardless of the state-imposed punishment.  I’ve known a couple of young men serving prison sentences for similar crimes, and the guilt seems to be a separate entity that they will carry for a lifetime.  I wish we could hear from the victim’s family to better understand their thoughts on the situation and the sentence, but it may be that these unusual conditions of parole may actually “save” a second family’s son.

What do you think?  Is sentencing an offender to church all that much different than requiring parole/probationers to attend 12-step programs like AA?  If the young man fulfills the conditions of his probation and stays out of prison, should it be considered a success?  Why or why not?

Thanksgiving offers an annual opportunity to stop, take stock of one’s life, and to simply be grateful.  As a sociologist, I can appreciate the many continuums in the social world, and it is a useful exercise to think about where my one wild and precious life fits into the grander scheme.  I’m grateful for parents who loved me (and love me still) and supported me through every aspect of my life.  As someone who studies and teaches about delinquency, I truly understand the importance of parents and families in shaping our understanding of the world, in building and nurturing our emotional bonds, and in guiding us into adulthood.  I was more than fortunate to have kind, caring, compassionate, and hard-working parents.  I was and am lucky to have older sisters who watched out for me when I was younger and are now my beautiful friends as well as my family.  School was another place that largely worked in my favor: I grew up with peers who took school seriously and helped me stay out of trouble, and I had teachers who took notice of my particular skill set and ambitions and encouraged me.

I am fortunate today to have a career that I love and that I believe matters.  I have great colleagues and friends that I get to share ideas with and engage in thought-provoking and fun discussions.  My students – both inside and outside – inspire me on a daily basis.  They make me strive to work harder and do better.  The resilience of the men that I know in our state prisons and their passion for doing good in the world – despite their confinement and limited resources – reminds me of the luxuries in my own life and the many, many opportunities that I have to make a positive difference in my own communities.  I’m grateful to know them and to be able to consider them my teachers as well as my students.

I’m still learning and growing, but I’m grateful for these many blessings and happy to be another year into this journey.

Here’s an election image from the smart and creative folks at the Prison Policy Initiative, adapting some data from our recent Sentencing Project report on felon disenfranchisement.

This post is in response to a comment on my earlier post The Irony is Killing US: When to Treat Juveniles as Adults.  It was written by an inside student after I shared that blog post – and the comments – with a couple of men in my Inside-Out class at the state penitentiary who were convicted as juveniles (they do not have internet access, so I shared a paper printout and was given a handwritten response).  These are his words:

“People are versatile.”  I pulled this from what was written in the previous comment.  Absolutely, I agree.  Beyond that, and in support of that very idea is that “everyone is different,” as no two people or situations are the same.  Do I believe that there are some juveniles who once imprisoned should at no point thereafter be released?  Yes, I do believe that, however, not based solely on that act which first put them in prison.  To say that any choice made as a juvenile discounts one’s ability to grow, learn, change, and become a productive member of society…for the rest of their life!  No, not now and not ever.  One can change at any stage in life, for better or worse, we as humans are continually going through changes from the moment we are conceived to the moment we pass from life to death, this is simply in our nature.  I don’t believe it is just in any way, shape or form to label a juvenile as “scum” that cannot ever change and therefore be sentenced to “Life in Prison” when at that age there remains such an incredible amount of potential for both growth and change.  It does no harm to allow someone hope; condemning an individual, especially a juvenile, closes doors we as a society have no right to close.  Can anyone know the future?  No matter what position of authority is held, I’ll not be convinced that the act of a minor guarantee the outcome of their future based on decisions made as a juvenile.

the photo is from OSU’s Inside-Out tumblr page: We Are the 1 in 100

At Oregon State University, our football team is big news.   The team is 5-0 for the first time since 1939, and they are currently ranked as the eighth best team in the country.

What makes this particularly surprising and, frankly, glorious, is that the OSU football team only won three games total last season, and there were no great expectations for this year’s squad.  OSU’s team is young and scrappy, and their confidence is growing with every win.

And, yes, I realize this is not a sports column, so let me explain how my experiences with OSU football coincides with the time I spend with men in the Oregon State Penitentiary – the connection today is about motivation, preparation, and – one hopes – redemption.

As I’ve written about before, for the past 6 years, I have taught our incoming freshmen football players in a summer session intended to help them make the transition into college.  I teach them a Sociology course in Social Problems, and I always arrange a field trip to one of our state prisons where the young student-athletes can learn about crime, social control, inequality, and family and neighborhood issues from incarcerated men.  For the past several years, we have worked with a wonderful inmate club to spend an afternoon talking with incarcerated fathers, and then the football players were able to spend that evening meeting and playing with the kids of those men at a family event in the prison.  It’s a wonderful experience for all involved, and in this way,  OSU football has a positive connection with state prisons.

The OSU players also know what it is to work hard.  Brandin Cooks, in the photo above, played last year as a true freshman, and he is now in his sophomore year.  He is currently one of the top college receivers in the country; in this week’s game, he sprained his ankle, got it taped, and came back to finish the game with 8 receptions for 173 yards.  Brandin was a standout student and leader in the classroom last summer; it’s clear that his work ethic has translated onto the field.  Coach Riley spoke about him in a story in The Oregonian:

Riley talked earlier in the week about Cooks’ motivation when asked how his receiver can go all-out on every play – finishing pass patterns, diving for deflected balls – in practice.

“The best motivation guys can find is self-motivation,” Riley said. “Cooks is a high, high character person. He only knows one way to do it. He works hard. That is catchy for everybody else. Really, we have a whole team like that now – if you don’t do that, then you stand out the other way…”

Back to Cooks’ example. After his father died when he was 6 years old, Andrea Cooks raised four boys by herself – a lesson that stays with Cooks.

“I knew she had hard days, but she kept pushing, and nothing can be harder than that. I’m playing something that I love. She didn’t choose to do that, I’m choosing to do this. If she can get through anything, I’ve got to get through.”

The other impressive example of motivation and preparation that I have been witness to this quarter is taking place within the Oregon State Penitentiary.  A parenting program is offered within the prison for men who want to learn parenting strategies and practice those skills.  A required component of the program is that the men first have to carry around an egg, and then they graduate to carrying a stuffed animal.  The egg/animal represents their child, and they must care for it 24 hours a day for several weeks; they can never leave their “child” unattended.  It’s quite a sight to see a small handful of men in a large maximum-security prison carrying around eggs and stuffed animals.  It seems a clear sign of maturity and motivation to make that choice.

I got a tiny taste of caring for a stuffed-animal-child in prison last week.  Along with 2 college classes and a job with a lot of responsibility, my TA for my Inside-Out class is going through the parenting program.  He is also the president of a respected inmate club.  He is incredibly busy, but he has an amazing attitude and is a joy to work with.  I chose to “babysit” for him during class, and then more visibly babysat for him at his club’s annual banquet, where he was taking care of details and being presidential.  It was both funny and somewhat disturbing that some of the elderly guests thought that I had brought my “little friend” into the prison with me; carrying the stuffed animal all night, however, did provide several opportunities to explain the parenting program and the ongoing work and efforts of her “parent,” the club president.  It was yet another reason for guests to be impressed by this smart, motivated young man.

Motivation and preparation are paying off for Brandin Cooks and the OSU football team.  I can only hope they will also pay off in redemption for the club president and my other hard-working students and friends inside the Oregon State Penitentiary.  If and when they get their chance to return to the community, I hope their efforts will be recognized and we – as community members – will offer them the fresh starts they have earned.

A new Bureau of Justice Statistics Report by Erica Smith and Jessica Truman shows a significant decline in the Prevalence Of Violent Crime Among Households With Children, 1993-2010. The study is based on the large-scale annual National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) and it differs from standard victimization reports in its explicit focus on households with kids.

The chart below shows the percentage of households with children in which at least one member age 12 or older experienced nonfatal violent victimization (rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault) in the previous year. This does not necessarily mean that the children witnessed the violence or that they were even aware of it, but it does give us a pretty good sense of whether kids are living with household members who are themselves experiencing violence. And the NCVS provides the sort of high-quality nationally representative survey data that are useful in charting big-picture trends. According to the report, this rate dropped from 12.6 percent of children to 3.9 percent in the past 18 years (the blip in 2006 is due to a shift in methodology). That’s an impressive 69 percent decline since 1993.


These numbers still seem high to me, but I think it is because simple assault (which encompasses a pretty broad range of behavior) accounts for the bulk of the violence (about 2.6 percent of the 3.9 percent total in 2010). Which kids are most affected? Children in urban areas, children of color, and lower-income children are most likely to live in households experiencing violent victimization. Rates are significantly higher for urban households with children (4.5 percent) than for rural (3.6 percent) or suburban (3.2 percent) households. With respect to race and ethnicity, rates are lower fir households headed by Asians/Pacific Islanders (1.4 percent) than for households headed by multiracial persons (5.6 percent), American Indians/Alaskan Natives (5.3 percent), African Americans (4.9 percent), Hispanics (4.0 percent), and Whites (3.4 percent) (the authors caution, however, that estimates for several of these groups are based on a small number of cases). There is also a very clear socioeconomic gradient to violent victimization: the greater the household income, the lower the rate of violent victimization, as shown below.

This sort of story might be familiar to criminologists: the overall crime situation is improving, but victimization is heavily concentrated among the most disadvantaged. Nevertheless, this report is important and useful in showing how children’s proximity to violence is changing in some ways — and not changing in others.

I rarely write about crime fiction, since most of it seems completely orthogonal to the phenomenon that I’ve spent a career studying. Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorcese, and the Brothers Coen are surely gifted filmmakers, but the hyperviolent worlds they create are pure fantasy — bearing about the same relation to the lived reality of crime as the average pornographic film bears to the lived reality of human sexuality. By confronting compelling characters with horrible moral choices, however, the best crime fiction can actually tell us something meaningful about human frailty, morality, and justice.

I think Breaking Bad succeeds on this level, though I still switch over to the Hallmark channel or America’s Cutest Pets during its ugliest moments. I have many questions about the show, but Joe Kleinschmidt’s Minnesota Daily article answered one of the biggies. Forget about the crime, how’s the chemistry? Mr. Kleinschmidt put the question to Bill Tolman, the straight-up brilliant Minnesota chemistry professor and department chair pictured above.  I was surprised to learn that the show’s etch-a-sketch explosive might’ve actually worked and that the makeshift battery that Walter White constructs in the desert might indeed have started his stranded mobile meth lab:

Walt uses the RV’s brake pad for its mercuric oxide and graphite. This serves as the cathode, which gains electrons. He also gathers spare metallic parts, nuts and bolts, for the zinc they contain. The zinc serves as the anode, where the other electrochemical half-reaction occurs (loss of electrons). With potassium hydroxide solution leftover from their meth-making process serving as electrolyte (to conduct charge), Walt uses a sponge to separate the anode and cathode. Finally, he connects the cell components with copper wire and connects the parallel batteries to the RV’s jumper cables. “The only question now is, will this supply enough current?” Walt says in the episode, posing the only hang-up in his plan. “When he said that, I thought, ‘Yes! That’s the problem!’” Tolman said. But it worked. As Walt sets the batteries up and connects the wires, he creates a spark and the RV is revived. “It was a perfectly reasonable electrochemical cell using mercuric oxide and zinc,” Tolman said.

Of course, the show takes a few liberties — hastening a body’s dissolution in hydrofluoric acid, for example, and tossing around mercury fulminate like a bag of powdered sugar. All told, however, Breaking Bad does pretty well on the chemistry. As for its portrayal of drug markets, I’d have a few more quibbles…

I’ve been teaching and taking college students into both “adult” state prisons and juvenile correctional facilities for a number of years now.  One thing that always stands out is how very young many of the men in prison were when they committed their crimes.  In a visit with the penitentiary’s Lifers Club, I could look around the room and see former students of mine who were 14, 15, and 16 at the times of their crimes and have been or will be locked up for most of their lives.  The photo above is from the tumblr site, “We are the 1 in 100” that my students and I created to represent perspectives from those inside of prison and those affected by the prison sentences of their family members, friends, and classmates.  The sentiment was written by one of my inside students, based on his own experience (although the card is held by a young man on the outside).  He was convicted as an adult at age 14 and sentenced to a minimum of 30 years.  He’s about 10 years into his sentence now, and he is a remarkable young man – smart, motivated, driven to do something meaningful with his life.  I’ll be working with him again this fall, and I’m looking forward to what he can teach me and my other students.

At the same time, for the past 6 years, I have taught Oregon State University’s incoming freshmen football players in a summer bridge program designed to help them make a smooth transition to college and the accompanying responsibilities.  Every summer I have arranged to take them to one or more of our state prisons and juvenile correctional facilities to talk with inmates, see the institutions,  and to get outside of the classroom to learn about social problems.  It is easily the most impactful experience of the class.

It’s generally the case that at least a few of my student-athletes in the summer have not yet turned 18.  I make an effort to talk to their parents and to ensure that I get waivers signed before our field trips; parents seem to trust that if a woman like me can spend that much time in prison, their young and often very large sons will probably be okay.

So here’s the irony…the maximum-security prison will not allow my 17-year-old students to visit/tour the facility and meet the inmates.  I’m not entirely sure of the reasoning – the waiver releases the Department of Corrections of responsibility should any incidents arise (although they never have) and parents sign on behalf of their minor sons.  Perhaps, the prison administration does not want minors to be exposed to inmates and the harsh realities of prison life.  Yet, the young man convicted at 14 has lived in that very prison for a number of years.  How can we possibly treat 17-year-old college students as incapable of making a decision about a 1-day experience, yet judge young teenagers as fully responsible for their criminal behavior.

The debate about life sentences for juvenile offenders is both important and timely.  Perhaps with a fresh look, we can critically evaluate the accumulated evidence (including the emerging data on brain development and maturity) and create new, thoughtful, considered sentencing structures and policies for juvenile offenders who have committed serious crimes.