Friday, August 19, 2011

West Memphis Three

Many readers of this blog will be familiar with the case of the West Memphis Three, most popularly represented in the Paradise Lost documentaries. The defendants apparently worked out a deal with prosecutors to enter a new plea of guilty, receive 18-year sentences, and be released for time served since their convictions. As CNN reports, this arrangement leaves individuals on both sides of the controversy unhappy.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Facebook Cooperating with Prisons

The past several years have seen a great deal of moral panic surrounding prisoner access to illicit cell phones and/or social networking sites (by proxy). Cell phones, prison administrators argue, are used to coordinate crimes on the outside or escapes from the inside, whereas MySpace and Facebook pages enable the incarcerated to stalk their victims. As a response, Facebook recently agreed to work with California prison officials to dismantle inmates' pages.

In my experience, social networking has been a vital mechanism for opening the closed world of prisons to public scrutiny. Not only do sites like Facebook allow inmates to communicate about prison conditions, but can also function as mechanisms for organizing around individual cases. For example, in 2007, I was part of a large scale campaign that successfully halted an execution in Texas; social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube were indispensable organizing tools.

For the past quarter of a century, the playbook has been simple, direct, and frighteningly successful. Play the fear card, mention the word "victim," and shut down rational debate. It's unclear to me how anyone could "stalk their victims" through Facebook. This is a perfect example of dragging a particularly stinky red herring across the trail, something prison bureaucrats are wont to do.

I don't want to naively suggest that social media are never used to harm others; however, such tools are also capable of empowering public scrutiny of the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, the very social networking site that is so widely credited with advancing the cause of revolution in Northern Africa and the Middle East is now complicit in closing public access to a human rights catastrophe on its own turf.

Drugs and Child Neglect

The New York Times ran this important article today, highlighting the relationship between minor drug arrests and child neglect cases:

For these parents, the child welfare system has become an alternate system of justice, with legal standards on marijuana that appear to be tougher than those of criminal courts or, to some extent, of society at large.

This phenomenon also appears to have a pronounced racial dynamic, suggesting more entrenched assumptions about race and parenthood may be at play:

Over all, the rate of marijuana use among whites is twice as high as among blacks and Hispanics in the city, the data show, but defense lawyers said these cases were rarely if ever filed against white parents.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Atlantic article: The Brain on Trial

Recent advances in cognitive neuroscience suggest the need to question assumptions about volition and "free will" in many criminal cases, and seems to support the idea of "customized sentencing" as well as medical intervention for some prisoners. I can't help wondering what Foucault would say about these conclusions!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Convictions in New Orleans Police Bridge Shooting Case

A federal jury has convicted five current and former New Orleans police officers for opening fire on unarmed residents amid the chaos following Hurricane Katrina. The New York Times describes the horrifying scene back in 2005:

Several of the officers then chased Ronald and Lance Madison, two brothers, to the other side of the bridge, where Mr. Faulcon shot Ronald, a 40-year-old mentally disabled man, in the back. Sergeant Bowen was convicted of stomping him on the back as he lay dying.

Much of the officers' defense relied on a familiar refrain regarding police violence: officers should not be punished for their instincts under such dire circumstances. Louisiana U.S. Attorney Jim Letten claimed the exact opposite is true, stating, “Who can we count on when our society is threatened... If we can’t depend on [the police], who can we depend on?”

Alternatives to Violence Project on NPR

Peace Talks Radio, the anchor program of Good Radio Shows, Inc., recently devoted a one-hour program to the Alternatives to Violence Project. The segment features interviews with former inmates James Alexander and Carl Irons, and with Pat Hardy, director of AVP California. The program will be sent to more than 150 affiliate radio stations throughout the country (the station list is at

The Alternatives to Violence Project is a volunteer organization that offers workshops on conflict transformation and nonviolence in prisons and conflict zones across the US and around the world. In AVP workshops, civilians and incarcerated people learn together.

For more on this organization, read Wendy Jason's excellent piece (in which I am quoted) for

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Reflections on Norway

As Bryan's most recent post explains, Norway is continuing to make international headlines not only for the tragic circumstances surrounding the loss of innocent lives but also for their "unconventional" approach to incarceration.

I have been fortunate enough to spend time in prisons both in the US and Norway. The differences couldn't be any more pronounced. The contrasts are numerous. Below, I articulate my perceptions of the three most distinct differences.

In the US I had to drive for miles down long dusty roads before even reaching the prison grounds. The prisons were typically "out of sight out of mind." In Norway, the feel was very different. The prison I visited was nestled in this lovely little neighborhood. I noticed children riding their bikes by the prison as we entered. The level of fear that is palpable in the US simply wasn't present in Norway.

Inside the experiences continued to differ. In the US I walked through a metal detector, removed my shoes, and had to leave my keys and cell phone in a locker. The inside of the prisons had 100 year old barred cells or newer cement block rooms. In Norway, the prison staff (and the people in general) were not suspicious. They believed that we as researchers had no intention to manipulate or harm any one. The cells felt like college dorm rooms. They were private spaces for the incarcerated individuals to get away from everyone else in the prison. They each papered their walls with personal items (pictures, posters, etc). They had private showers. They were allowed to wear their own clothes. These perks are not allowed in the US prison system. As one correctional officer explained, Norwegians don't strip prisoners of their identities.

The attitudes regarding incarceration and the prison system are starkly different. In Norway, being a correctional officer is a highly respected, sought after, and desirable profession. The job does not come with the stigma so often associated with COs here in the US. I would guess that part of the reason for the difference is that Norwegians don't see incarcerated individuals as distinctly different from themselves. They simply view people as people. In fact, several correctional officers in Norway emphasized that prisoners were people just like them, but they had made some mistakes. The social hierarchy that exists in many other cultures is far more muted in Norwegian society. In the words of one Norwegian prison employee, "just because someone has made a bad choice does not make him a bad person."

Simply put~ most US prisons are designed for punishment whereas Norwegian prisons seek to rehabilitate inmates.

Notably, there are prisons in the US that have a strong focus on rehabilitation (e.g., One private prison I visited in TX focused on behavior modification). However, these facilities are not in the majority.

In Norway, however, most of the programs offer various types of drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. Additionally, prisoners live relatively "normal" lives. They are arguably more prepared to succeed on the outside since they are not completely isolated from the "world" while incarcerated. Many inmates are even allowed to go on "vacation" from prison (or furlough). They take unmonitored leave from prison to visit family and return after their time (usually a week) is up. This article highlights some of the other benefits afforded prisoners in Norwegian prisons. I personally did not encounter a rock wall, but many of the other examples were true to my own experience.

This post is full of personal reflections based on my research experiences. Overall, I truly believe that the Norwegians are doing something right, and I would certainly argue that we can learn something from them.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Norway's "Soft on Crime" Policies

We're about two weeks removed from Anders Breivik's shocking wave of violence in Norway. Understandably, public discourse surrounding the bombing in Oslo and mass shooting at a Labor Party youth camp has been widespread and diverse. Many have speculated that Breivik's massacre--executed in pursuance of an extreme right-wing, Christian fundamentalist, anti-Islamic agenda--is symptomatic of a broader rise of nationalist right in Europe. Others, incredulously, have used the mass killings as an opportunity to advance precisely the kinds of xenophobic nonsense that motivated Breivik on his rampage.

Of interest to readers of this blog will be another trajectory of thought; several news outlets have suggested that Breivik's horrific crimes will prompt Norway to reappraise its "tolerant" criminal justice system. Norway, unlike the United States, approaches crime with an emphasis on rehabilitation (a concept the U.S. has all but abandoned in its prisons). The nation's facilities generally have no bars on their windows, resemble college dormitories more than traditional prisons, and are staffed by well-trained individuals responsible not just for keeping order, but for fostering productive relationships with the incarcerated. Indeed, this is the polar opposite of a culture reared on America's Most Wanted, Willie Horton, and other spectacular "tough on crime" discourses. Furthermore, a "life" sentence in Norway is, on average, 21 years; meaning Breivik will almost certainly not die in prison.

Few honest observers would argue that the American model is superior to Norways. While the U.S. rate of recidivism, or repeat offenses, falls somewhere between 50 and 60 percent, Norway's is a mere 20 percent. Nordic crime rates, though increasing in recent years, remain much lower than ours.

Nonetheless, western media outlets appear to be turning Norway's tragedy back on itself; surely, a nation that treats its criminals so leniently will take a second look at their policies in the wake of the horrors of July 22. One can only hope that Norway's own grace under tragedy, manifested in its leaders' and publics' determination to uphold their tradition of law and order, might function as an object lesson for a nation whose staggering prison population (the largest in the world) has resulted in prison system at war with itself.