Michelle’s too modest (and busy!) to post this herself, but Oregon Public Broadcating devoted their Thinking Out Loud program to her Inside-Out class last week.  There’s a great mix of both inside and outside voices represented on the hour-long show, as well as some extended content online. Highly recommended.

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.

I’m teaching something like my 10th Inside-Out class in the Oregon State Penitentiary, and I am inspired anew by my students’ compassion and commitment to learning with and from each other.  Even more impressive, they are already taking the learning outside of the classroom and passing their knowledge on as widely as possible.  This quarter we are focused on issues concerning crime, prisons, communities, and prevention.  We are only three weeks into the quarter; we have shared just three classes within the prison.

I am writing this post to share an informative editorial written by Molly, one of the current outside students, and published in Oregon State University’s student newspaper, The Daily Barometer.  Molly does a great job of discussing difficult issues surrounding incarceration, punishment and communities clearly and convincingly.  Molly is a columnist for the paper, so I may be sharing more of her work throughout the quarter as the class continues.

There are more exciting projects in the works, including: a plan to visit our state representatives to talk about prisons and mandatory minimum sentencing, participation in a campus diversity summit representing the voices of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated students, and negotiations about a possible discussion of the class and the issues on public radio.

This is an extremely motivated group of students and they are already providing an important service as public criminologists.  It will be fun to see just how much we can accomplish this quarter.  Stay tuned.

I read this story in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago; it has stayed on my mind even through the busy first weeks of classes in our fall quarter.  Thomas Haynesworth was mistakenly identified by a rape victim as her assailant, and – with no criminal history whatsoever – was arrested at age 18.  He was tried for committing four related rapes and assaults in the neighborhood.  He was convicted for three of those attacks and sentenced to 84 years in prison.  84 years.  Let’s just call it life.

Fast forward 27 years.  DNA evidence has now proved decisively that Haynesworth did NOT commit the rapes in two of the cases for which he was tried.  DNA in the other cases is not available.  With help from the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and the Innocence Project of New York, Haynesworth was released from prison on his 46th birthday.  He is, however, classified as a paroled sex offender and subject to the accompanying regulations – public registries, restricted movement, monitored telephone and email accounts.  Haynesworth is now fighting for exoneration.  While he is physically free of prison, a dark cloud still hangs over his name and his life.

It’s extraordinary enough to think of an innocent man serving 27 years in prison: imagine entering prison as a teenager and spending all of your twenties, all of your thirties, and half of your forties in a cage – the healthiest, most dynamic years of his life were stolen from him.  And the punishment continues with his classification as a sex offender and the public fear and revulsion that is attached to such labels.

Where the story gets even more interesting, in my opinion, is with the actions of the attorney general, Kenneth Cuccinelli.  Last year, local prosecutors came to Cuccinelli and told him they thought Haynesworth was innocent.  Cuccinelli conducted his own investigation into the 27-year old case and became convinced that the wrong man was in prison.  He then set out to make it right.

As the New York Times reports:

Now Mr. Haynesworth, 46, is asking for full exoneration on all of the rape convictions, although DNA from the other two cases is not available. But the circumstantial evidence supporting Mr. Haynesworth’s claims of innocence is so powerful that along with his own lawyers, the prosecutors from both jurisdictions where the rapes occurred support his efforts, as well as the attorney general for the commonwealth, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli…

Mr. Cuccinelli said in an interview that he and his staff reviewed the evidence in the Haynesworth case in great detail. “It was a complex decision,” he said, “but it wasn’t a hard decision.” The thought of the wrongful conviction haunted him. “It’s hard to describe how painful it is to me that somebody would suffer what he has.”

Cuccinelli has a reputation as a conservative figure, so his support for Haynesworth is perhaps even more surprising.  He argued in a Virginia appeals court that Haynesworth’s name should be cleared, and he went a significant step further by hiring Haynesworth to work in his office.  As reported in the Washington Post:  “Cuccinelli said he knew it would be tough for Haynesworth to get a job as a convicted felon. So the month after Haynesworth left prison, he put him on the state payroll.”

I’m really impressed with Cuccinelli’s actions in this case; he is a great example of “walking the talk” – truly examining the evidence and acting on what he believes is right.  Arguing for Haynesworth’s exoneration is already quite extraordinary; hiring Haynesworth to work in his office takes it to a whole new level.  Kudos, Mr. Cuccinelli.

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.

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.

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

I spent the last several days in Washington, DC attending the Lilly Conference on College and University Teaching and spending some time with best friend and fellow criminologist Charis Kubrin.  I took the Metro from Reagan National Airport, and I was struck by these signs:

These posters, sponsored by the NAACP and carrying the tagline: “Let’s build a better America together,” were plastered on virtually all available surfaces.  I found it a particularly powerful campaign, and I hope politicians – as well as voters – take the Metro to the airport and get the message.

How to incite public panic: the Oregonian newspaper offers an example in an article entitled “Oregon Court Ruling Could Shave Years from Killers’ Sentences”. The first lines read:

Thirty killers in Oregon could get out of prison up to a decade early following a court ruling that parole officials haven’t followed the law.

The pool of killers eligible for such release could be up to 250 over the next 15 years, state authorities said.

The convicts are serving life terms for aggravated murder with minimum 30-year sentences. The state Supreme Court recently declared those convicts are eligible for freedom after 20 years.

The article goes on to detail the graphic nature of the crimes of several men in question, naming names while reminding the public that each of those men is a convicted killer and may soon be living amongst them.  At the point, the fear apparently takes over for the vast majority of people who took the time to comment on the newspaper’s website.  A careful reading of the article, however, makes clear that the only real change in the law is  that a relatively small percentage of individuals whom the Parole board has deemed “rehabilitatable” after spending more than 20 years in prison will have a chance to go before the Board again this summer with the possibility of release by the end of the year.  Nothing is guaranteed.  Convicted killers will not be flooding the streets.

Last summer I blogged about the day I spent with the parole board listening to them conduct two “murder review” hearings, where they decided if the persons in question were “rehabilitatable” and might have earned the chance to one day return to the community.  I was impressed with the Parole Board members’ attention and thoughtfulness.  The case I primarily went to view was “flopped;” that individual will continue to work on his issues and will see the Parole Board in 2 more years to again plead his case.

The newspaper printed a sidebar with the names of 30 convicted killers and the dates they will see the Parole Board this summer.  It was particularly interesting to me because I know at least six of those 30 men quite well; they have been students in my college courses in the prisons and several of them are leaders in inmate clubs.  They seem to have worked hard to redeem what is left of their lives and to – perhaps against the odds – become decent men while growing up and maturing in prison.

Do they deserve another chance?  The Parole Board has already found this select group rehabilitatable, which suggests that they might.  Does justice require a minimum of 30 years in prison rather than a minimum of 20?  I’m not sure how to judge that.  How much are those extra 10 years worth, both in terms of what the citizens will pay for incarceration and what the convicted will pay as they try to rebuild lives?  How much will those extra 10 years change the odds for the “convicted killers” who are likely to reenter the community one day in the future?

I don’t know.  The Parole Board has a thankless job in any case, but sensationalistic news articles and headlines seem particularly destructive when they incite moral panic without revealing the true issues and questions behind the story.