Tag Archives: prisons

A red state struggles with reform

screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-1-42-22-pmWhat constitutes real criminal-justice reform?

Advocates have warned for years that it’s a mistake to limit sentencing reforms to nonviolent drug offenses. Marie Gottschalk explores this in depth in a penetrating critique of the reform movement in Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, where she talks about the policies aimed only at “non, non, nons” (nonviolent, nonserious, nonsexual offenses).

In fact, dividing the criminal world into violent and nonviolent is a “demonstrably false” construct to begin with, as Katherine Beckett argued in this recent American Prospect article, in part because drug offenders often have committed violence, while violent offenders are among the least likely to commit new offenses.

And yet public opinion favors reducing our over-reliance on prisons — but not for the majority of prisoners who are serving long sentences for violence and other serious offenses. Perhaps that’s because the public believes, against all evidence, that crime remains in a perpetual upward spiral (actually, and despite alarming spikes in some cities’ violent crime recently, crime of all types has fallen dramatically for the past 20-plus years).

In my latest article, written for TakePart, I look at the ups and downs of criminal-justice reform in a deep-red state, Oklahoma, and ask whether its efforts are doomed to irrelevance. The state can barely make progress toward the most minimal drug-offense reforms, much less toward reforms that might put a bigger dent in a system that practically everyone involved agrees is unaffordable, ineffective, and overly punitive.

The story is about more than just Oklahoma. It’s a look at justice reinvestment, a nonpartisan approach to reducing mass incarceration through policies aimed at achieving lower crime and lower imprisonment. Researchers in dozens of states have found savings in reducing the use of prisons, and advised plowing those savings into crime prevention programs. Conservatives from groups like Right on Crime support such efforts. For some on the left, that’s enough reason to oppose it, or at least look at it very skeptically. But, like many other red states that have gone before it, Oklahoma is trying to take these baby steps before making bolder moves. The question is whether success, as they define it, will be enough.

The timing of this assessment of Oklahoma’s fitful progress coincidentally comes as Congress admits it is too divided to take up the modest reforms — focused mainly on nonviolent drug offenses — that it has wrestled with, and watered down in efforts at compromise, for the past couple of years.

My story appears in a package of stories on criminal justice titled “Violence and Redemption,” with stories on rehabilitation programs for people who committed violent offenses (by Rebecca McCray), forgiveness and victim-offender dialog (by Jessica Pishko), and several others as part of TakePart’s “Big Issues” series, an ambitious project using longform journalism to explore … yes, big issues. This was my second story for TakePart, which is part of the documentary and film production company Participant Media. Last December I wrote about police reform, with a look at what’s happening in Minneapolis. I appreciate this publication’s dedication to telling in-depth stories about criminal justice, as part of its larger agenda promoting social awareness. What my editors and I liked about both stories is that they defied easy answers. They are, instead, about the struggle to address crime in constructive ways — and in ways that move beyond the broken systems of the past.

Prison project in capable hands

I practically threw my credit card at Beacon Reader when I heard that it was crowdfunding an extensive series of stories by Shane Bauer on America’s prisons. In my post two months ago, I focused not just on the topic’s relevance to my work but also on my admiration for Bauer’s work. Still, I was willing to wait, and not demand a refund, when Bauer announced he was taking a job at Mother Jones.

My patience paid off with yesterday’s announcement by Beacon about Bauer’s replacements to produce “The Legacy of Mass Incarceration.” In choosing two journalists with an impressive track record of reporting and writing on the topic, Hannah Rappleye and Lisa Riordan Seville, and in a series of transparent emails to subscribers sharing updates and opt-out information along the way, Beacon has retained my loyalty. I eagerly await the start of this series and urge others interested in quality journalism on criminal justice to support it. 

Meantime, browse the pair’s work at NBCNews.com and The Nation that Beacon shared:


Shakespeare in supermax

Paying to educate prisoners never fails to rile tough-on-crime advocates. Witness the recent flareup in New York. Gov. Andrew Cuomo quickly dropped his plan to pay for college classes behind bars in the face of public outrage over favoring miscreants with a freebie that law-abiding youth cannot enjoy. Never mind the evidence that education reduces recidivism, which in turn reduces prison costs far in excess of what we’d pay to set these people on a better path.

This National Geographic feature offers something for both sides of that debate. Written by Jeremy Berlin and photographed by Mike Fender, it profiles Laura Bates, who for 15 years has taught Shakespeare to prisoners, many in supermax units — the so-called worst of the worst. The 56-year-old English professor at Indiana State University at Terre Haute does this work for a simple reason: these men need education. She started out assuming it was pointless to work with hard-core prisoners instead of nonviolent first offenders. Even now, she agrees with critics of the argument about public spending, saying prisoners who want an education behind bars should pay for it.  She volunteers her time.

Money arguments aside, Bates’ work — as skillfully portrayed by Berlin’s and Fender’s storytelling — supports the proposition that treating all prisoners with dignity, and showing them a way to enrich themselves that breaks old habits of the mind, yields public benefits. She works in all conditions, including solitary confinement, where she parks a chair outside a steel cell door to talk about Shakespeare through the food slot.

Why Shakespeare? Bates tells Berlin:

“I figured if I did the ‘criminal tragedies’ — Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet — they’d see that the content isn’t all lovey-dovey, but things they can related to: complicated characters, moral decisions, action-packed adventure. And I thought, ‘If I can just get one guy to buy in, he’ll spread the word.'”

Berlin’s narrative explains how Bates found that one guy, and how her program spread from there. It’s a story of flawed humans seeking something better in life; a story the Bard might approve of.

Crowdfunding a prison series

Shane Bauer, whose fine work in writing about solitary confinement I praised here, has embarked on a new venture: a year-long reporting effort aimed at American prisons, but only if he receives $75,000 in readers’ pledges through Beacon, a months-old crowdfunding site for journalists. A pledge of at least $5 per month unlocks not only Bauer’s promised series, but also all other stories on Beacon. Pony up at least $125, and Bauer throws in an autographed copy of A Sliver of Light, his new book on his experience as a prisoner in Iran. Bauer and Beacon explain it in detail, and then there’s this story in the Times today by Sydney Ember.

Based on Bauer’s track record as a reporter and writer, and on his compelling and necessary topic, I’m in. It’s easy to be skeptical of such funding schemes (for another example, see Big Roundtable), but I applaud their creativity in seeking a model that will provide journalists with a way to make a living at this kind of work. Anything that divorces journalism from the tyranny of low-CPM web ads and click-bait recycling of others’ original reporting is worthy of serious readers’ support.

“Compassion gap” and crime

Last month, when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to provide college classes to select prison inmates provoked an outpouring of public disdain for convicted criminals, I focused my criticism on news sites that invite mindless mob reactions rather than convene a more thoughtful debate. Nick Kristof’s column yesterday reminds me that the underlying problem is the mob itself — and the mindset that turns ugly whenever anyone suggests we treat social problems with compassion.

Kristof touched off a “compassion gap” in reader comments by writing of a mom struggling to care for her disabled son. Because she is not model-skinny and because she sports tattoos, she became a target for condemnation for supposedly failing to address her own problems. The same impulse he decries — scold first, ask questions later, when we’re asked to help those in need — turns even uglier when crime, not just poverty, is the issue. Then all the moralizing about taking responsibility gets ratcheted up even louder.

Because appeals to empathy and charity fail with some people, what about pointing out self-interest? When we turn our backs on people who have committed crimes — when we decide to rely solely on punishment and incapacitation (eliminating them as a potential threat) — we incur great financial costs to house, care for, and guard them. And we practically guarantee that if they ever get out, they’ll have no realistic chance to be better people, and better-equipped to live law-abiding, productive lives.

In the context of the prison-education debate, where the letters to the editor and online comments continue to wallow in the muck, you may lament the added public expense and the inequity of providing this for criminals when good citizens have to pay for their own education. But by that logic, why should we provide any programs of any sort to inmates? The answer should be obvious: We need them to become self-sufficient, productive, and law-abiding. The alternatives — locking everyone up forever or spinning the prisons’ revolving door ever faster — are ones we cannot afford, in any sense of the word.

It’s natural to feel resentful, at times, of others’ irresponsibility, mistakes, and cruelty. When we allow those emotions to overwhelm our better nature, and all reason, then we also forfeit any claim to moral superiority.


The anger games

Just when it seems we’re capable of having a civil, bipartisan conversation about criminal justice reform — when everyone from Right on Crime to Texas legislators to Rand Paul decides it’s OK to ease up on the tough-on-crime talk — I’m brought back to reality.  And it’s a newspaper’s fault for the letdown.

The reminder started when New York’s governor proposed using state money to restore the sort of college-classes-in-prison program that once was common but got thrown out in the talking-tough era. In what passes these days for journalism, one of my local papers, Gannett’s Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, posted its story on Facebook and lit the match with the not-so-profound question, “What do you think?”

The result: Payback for decades of distorted news coverage of marauding criminals and overheated, hateful rhetoric that scores cheap political points by bashing an easy target, the felons. It turns out, what “you” think looks like this:

Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 3.43.08 PM

And this:

Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 3.43.37 PM

And of course this:

Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 3.47.09 PM

Etc., for hundreds more posts.

The New York proposal is, of course, fair game for a real debate. And some commenters did, in fact, ask good questions about whether this is the best way to address recidivism or to use limited resources.  Some actually cited evidence about which tactics do or don’t work. But the vast majority of comments were simply spleen-venting, spittle-flying rants.

So here’s the question: What exactly do we gain from doing this to ourselves? When journalism meant digging for facts and convening a thoughtful discussion of experts and civic-minded laymen, it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone that we should wander into the howling mob outside the door, hand it the keys to our printing press, and invite them to enlighten us with their prejudices, assumptions, resentments, and uninformed bile. Now, someone at Gannett gets to check off a box noting how much reader engagement he fostered this week (put aside how many of the torch-bearing commenters is actually a regular reader, much less a paying subscriber). It’s a business model that works for some (I’m looking at you, Fox News and MSNBC) — creating controversy to give yourself something easy and exploitative to cover as “news” — and indeed today’s followup stories featured legislative critics responding to public outrage over the prison-education proposal. But when this is what passes for journalism about a topic so critical to a peaceful, stable society, I die a little.

I singled out this newspaper on this topic only because it’s convenient. But it’s an everyday occurrence everywhere, but for places that have decided open forums are just trouble.

And it’s more than just a waste of time. It serves as a stark warning to any policymaker who dares stand in front of the mob and ask, “Is it really wise to pound every inmate with punishment and humiliation and deprivation for way too many years?” When that policymaker considers asking what the end game is — what we ought to be doing to provide for a safer, more productive society; to fix what’s broken in public safety, and people — what are the chances he’ll have the guts to engage in this sort of “debate”?

So, what do you think?