The New “Jane” Crow: Black Women are the New Target for Mass Incarceration

African American women only make up 13 percent of the entire female population in the United States, yet they represent 50 percent of the entire female prison population. African American women are 7 times more likely than White women to be incarcerated, and for every 100 African American women you come across at least one of them will have gone to prison.

For the complete article see: The New “Jane” Crow.

Students Thinking About Crime and Punishment

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Recently, students were asked to  write a “Thinking about Crime and Punishment” paper for my criminology course. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“We as society are constantly putting labels on individuals, and we are all human beings no matter what our social status is, background, race, or sexuality, we all are the same.”

“…But the majority of people who go to prison end up back there at some point.  I think one thing that needs to be changed throughout our prisons is to focus their attention more on helping these criminals get better.”

“We as a nation seem to be so good at incarcerating people but we fail to realize that we need to correct them and not leave them locked up. This became fact to me when I went to see the “A Day at Stateville” play that was portrayed by actual inmates who were there and who served 30 or more years in the Illinois prison system. Hearing of the living conditions and of what these individuals have gone through is mind boggling.”

“When I went to the Prison tour this semester I felt a sense of shame; not because I was at a prison learning about the corrections system or why people were committing all of these crimes, but I felt like I was degrading these prisoners by looking at them through protective barriers and through thick glass walls like looking at animals in a zoo.”

“We as the next generation of law enforcement really need to show compassion to the people we arrest because we are there to discipline them for their mistakes in hopes of preventing them from doing it again. We should also see this as an opportunity to serve our public and the people we care about and it should not give the perception that cops are the ones being served by their community.”

“Many American proudly proclaim that this is the greatest country to live in– the land of the free, but are either of these statements really true? America is ranked number sixteen in quality of life according to the Social Progress Imperative and number one in rate of incarceration (R. Walmsely, 2011). Further, the firm IPSOS Mori ranked 14 countries on their ignorance about social statistics and the United States ranked second. None of those statistics lends support to the initial claims, but what is the solution?”

“A specific example was discussing drug testing for welfare. It wasn’t anything I had supported beforehand, but after being asked “Why do we think [or assume] poor people do drugs?” I realized that I had never thought critically about it before that. Also, to learn that in states where that policy has been implemented it was ineffective which bolsters the “ignorance in social statistics” ranking. I’ve seen many Facebook “shares” supporting that policy, but no empirical evidence to back it up. This is an example of how ignorance can have a domino effect in the criminal justice system.”

“This brings me to the second important lesson that has influenced how I think about crime – compassion and how we treat others. The format of the class – teacher’s attitude, class discussion, etc…- facilitated a lot relation of lessons to real life. The two strongest examples were the prison tour and the Changing Mind stage reading. Putting faces to offenders and re-humanizing them and also bringing up the question “when is the debt to society paid?” Many people simply want to “lock criminals up and throw away the key”, but don’t want to think about the repercussions of this. Watching documentaries on how powerful different environments can be  in influencing criminal behavior – such as poverty or growing up in violence ridden streets – demonstrates that maybe we shouldn’t just be asking “What does this criminal owe society?”, but “Has society failed these individuals? And if so, what do we owe them?” This is probably a very controversially thing to suggest – that society may owe criminals, but with the current system I think it’s a fair question. I believe in justice, I believe in being punished for wrongdoing, but I also believe in second chances, redemption, and helping out your fellow human.”

Investigate Black Southern Church Burnings as Terrorism

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Since the mass shooting of nine African Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, there have been seven Black southern church burnings. The media often does not cover these stories with the same intensity the do with other types of crimes. A church is a place of solace for people–a place where people go renew their spiritual strength. These acts of violence are meant to intimidate African Americans and therefore should be treated as acts of terrorism. Here is the link to a change.org petition asking the United States Department of Justice to investigate these burnings as acts of terrorism. Please join me in signing the petition.

A Sister’s Love: You See an Inmate; I See My Brother

I don’t usually write about my personal experiences on my blog. However, I’m often asked why I’m so passionate about corrections. As I reflect on this question, there are a number of answers that come to mind. First, I worked as a correctional officer and I have seen firsthand that the term, “correctional facility” is a misnomer. We currently incarcerate close to 2.3 million people, and another 8 million are on some time of community corrections. We have seen some marginal declines in the prison population, but nothing to suggest that we are “correcting” offenders. Yes, offenders bear some personal responsibility for turning their lives around, but what are correctional professionals doing to assist offenders with this process? Correctional administrators and personnel often give lip service to rehabilitation and treatment. They know all the nice, pretty words to say but their words don’t hold up to close scrutiny.

Second, I’ve been to numerous jails and prison across the United States, and see that many correctional professionals receive minimal training to do their jobs effectively. For example, in Tennessee correctional officers attend the Tennessee Corrections Institute for 40 hours of training to become certified as correctional officers. This is hardly a sufficient amount of time to train officers for the people and situations they will likely encounter. There is insufficient training in the area of mental illness, women’s health, drug addiction, and the needs of aging and terminally ill prisoners. Correctional officers and inmates deserve better treatment than this. We should require rigorous training standards to ensure the best working environment for officers, and to increase the odds that inmates will have a real opportunity to turn their lives around.

Third, I’ve been conducting correctional research for a little over a decade. The research indicates that much of what we do in correctional facilities is woefully ineffective. We’ve just recently turned to evidence-based correctional policies, which is a step in the right direction. However, as researchers we often do a poor job of translating our knowledge into policy in the field. I feel a personal responsibility to talk to correctional professionals about “what works” in terms of rehabilitation and treatment. I reach out to the professionals in my community in both prisons and jails. I try to engage them in conversations about correctional research in an effort to improve conditions for correctional officers and the prisoners they serve. That’s right—the prisoners they serve. If correctional facilities were actually correcting offenders, we’d have lower recidivism rates and that would translate into safer communities. Correctional professionals need to view themselves as service professionals, too. Until they do, little will change. It’s easy to blame the inmates, but correctional professionals need to be held responsible as well. For example, the recidivism rate in Illinois hovers around 52 percent. If your customer service stats looked like this, how long would you remain employed?

Finally, none oZackf these reasons alone are why I’m so passionate about corrections. Let’s get real for a moment. I became passionate about corrections from my personal experiences. You see, I had an older brother, Zack, who was incarcerated for most of his adult life. He was an alcoholic and almost all of his criminal offenses were committed while he was under the influence. I do not tell you this to excuse his behavior, but to clarify that much of what he did was the result of his addiction. It was a demon he could not conquer. He spent years in jails and prisons and was encouraged to participate in Alcohol Anonymous (AA) and other self-help groups. However, many of the institutional parole officers and counselors were overworked and simply didn’t have the time or inclination to help him in any real way.

While my brother was incarcerated, he was physically assaulted by a group of inmates and he suffered a severe brain injury. He remained in a coma for two weeks. He could not remember me, other family members, or friends. He forgot how to eat, use the bathroom, walk, and talk. He had to relearn everything. He was like a child. He was never the same. Correctional administrators often mainstreamed him into general population. He was repeatedly victimized by other inmates. His personal belongiZackngs were stolen,  he was beaten, and, at one point, sexually assaulted. A lot of people would say, “So what?!” Others would suggest that he deserved what he suffered because he brought it on himself by way of being incarcerated. To those who would say these things, I say, clearly you’ve never had a loved one behind bars. I didn’t agree with my brother’s choices but I loved him.

I learned that prison is a violent and unforgiving place where rehabilitation is seldom realized, and where human compassion is even rarer. My brother died in prison. He had asked to be moved because he and his cellmate didn’t get along. His cellmate had threatened him on many occasions. While my brother slept, his cellmate heated up a full pot of hot water and doused my brother while he slept. When asked about it later, his cellmate said he did it because my brother’s snoring was too loud. As a result of his injuries, my brother suffered a seizure and died. The man who injured my brother was never held responsible for his actions. Even worse, corrections officers failed to take my brother’s safety concerns seriously. Welcome to our justice system!

So please excuse me when show my passion for corrections. For me and many others, it has had a real impact on our lives. It has taught us that our criminal justice system has a long way to go before we achieve “justice for all.”