Saturday, May 30, 2015

Prison Paradigms

I'm reminded of a story.

Jesse Jackson had been arrested at a protest, and as he sat in the local jail, he looked around and noticed all of the other "guests" were young men. He rose up, and got their attention. "Do you young men want to shut this jail down?"  They all rallied behind Reverend Jackson and shouted "Yes"!  He then calmly told them, "then don't come back here any more".

The jail system in this country is not bursting at the seams because of racism, police brutality, or income inequality.  Jails are full of people who committed crimes in a culture that celebrates criminal activity.

What culture celebrates crime? Are you talking about "Ocean's 11" where George Clooney leads a band of criminal masterminds to steal large sums of money?

Currently, one of the most popular and successful movie franchises (as well as the video game) deals with stealing cars, and all of the violence that goes along with that. I don't think they even have plots anymore, just violent crime and car chases, and young people pay a great deal of money to watch it on screen, and participate on-line.

You don't believe that racism has anything to do with the racial imbalance in prisons? Don't you think that there are far more poor people in prison than rich people?

This is systemic racism. White-collar crime rarely results in jail time.  On the other hand carrying a couple of marijuana cigarettes can result in years in prison.

You've touched on a great many issues with very few words, there. 

There is a racial imbalance in prisons. And I do believe for petty crimes, you are more likely to be arrested if you are a minority. But you only go to jail if you are found guilty of a crime. However, African-Americans make up around 12% of the general population, but are responsible for half of murders in this country ( statistics).  There is a racial imbalance of violent crime, and prisons reflect that. It's not a statistic you can walk away from.

White-collar crime is not a racial term. If a black man commits a white-collar crime, he's as likely to walk as a white person. And that is the one thing you said that is absolutely true: money talks. If you can afford a high-priced private attorney, you have a much better chance of avoiding a guilty verdict, and jail time. (Remember O.J.Simpson?) Justice is slanted against poor people. I think this is why many feel that there is no true justice, just a gamed system. The only place race comes in, is minorities are disproportionately represented among the poor, but that's a discussion for another blog(s).

The drug wars may be another topic for later discussion, but clearly, making marijuana possession a felony was a terrible idea.

But again, you get arrested when you commit a crime. As Reverend Jackson says, if you don't want to get caught up in the justice system, then stay out of the justice system.

In your worldview then, there is no system, just individuals deciding to be good or bad? If only it were that simple. The system is full of racism, and you are really going to hate it when you are on the other side in the system. But as long as you can imagine what it will be like, you can have some empathy now.

Do me a favor: go take the test on race here: and then let's talk. It will take about 10 minutes, but you need to be able to focus on the questions (quiet space, no distractions).

Unfortunately, the program couldn't be completed on my Mac due a computer error. From the portion I completed, it appears the questions are supposed to see how you weigh the inherent contradictions within the questions (showing disdain / support for the government AND the church (as though they are the same), "crushing" opposition, or taking care of "troublemakers").

I'll admit my own bias towards "soft" sciences, like social science or psychology, because I believe the "data" is too easily manipulated. Changing a word or the phrasing of a question can have a huge impact on how a person might answer. And the interpretation of the answer is biased by the examiner. Too often the paradigm of the tester determines the outcome of the study. This looks just like another one of those tests.

Wow, I find your dismissal of this science to be shocking. Science isn't "soft" or "hard" because of the topic... science is science. It is the analysis of an experiment or hypothesis, testing exactly what variables are at play, and retesting to see if the results hold up. There is "good" science and "bad" science, and science has a built-in method of differentiating between those: more science. If a study doesn't hold up to peer-review and replication, then it gets revised (or retracted).

If you can make it through those tests, you'll find the results. The short of it is that almost all of us are all biased, and in the way that the majority leans. As the website says: " may believe that women and men should be equally associated with science, but your automatic associations could show that you (like many others) associate men with science more than you associate women with science." That means that even the most ardent, feminist, woman still associates men with science. Similar results for race, age, and weight. These "implicit biases" surely have implications on decisions that we make everyday. This is a glimpse into systemic biases.

Math, physics, and chemistry don't change with societal changes. Popular culture doesn't affect gravity. Two plus two equals four, whether gay marriage is legal or not. There is a difference between different "sciences".  Across all college campuses, essentially everyone passes introductory psychology classes, but an average 21% fail introductory physics. Not the same.

In my little world, there is a system, the legal system, and I believe it unfairly favors those with money. But to say that the system is racist based on outcomes alone fails to consider a huge plethora of variables.  Apparently, you believe the justice system is rotten to the core? Everyone involved is racist? Even in a town like Baltimore, where everyone distributing the justice is African-American?

The justice system needs to be aware of the biases and limits of humans. As I mentioned, implicit bias will affect you in the same way, regardless of your race.

If you make a choice to commit a crime, then your likelihood of entering into the justice system increases dramatically over the person who chooses not to commit a crime.

And I think this is our main point of contention: I believe that individual choice has little to do with the population of prisons. It has more to do with systemic choices and beliefs, such as "which activities are crimes?", "how much time in prison should we incarcerate you?", and "you are probably guilty of something."

Hmmm. We may actually disagree with what it is we disagree about.

I think that our main difference of opinion is one of responsibility. I say you make your choices in life, and you bear the responsibility for those decisions. It appears you believe people are trapped in a biased system, and therefore have no responsibility for what happens. It's no wonder they need an all-powerful government to save them.

But beware, because Big Government is in control of that very system…..biases or not! Where's the justice in that?

Well, I think we can agree that we need to strive to make the system as fair as we can make it.


  1. I don't think Doug discounts responsibility, but I believe he also understands that sometimes our choices are limited by the system we find ourselves in. Many of our choices are not freely made. An example. I might not want to be in a gang, but the neighborhood I live in is run by a gang. I'm 13. I have no control over where I live. My choices are limited to 3: avoid the gang, join the gang, or suffer being beat up or being killed by the gang. If I join the gang, my family gets protection (and I do too, though it certainly comes at a cost). To join the gang and to stay in the gang, I have to commit crimes, some of them horrible. If I don't, I'll be killed or my mother will be killed. Do I have choices here? Maybe. Are they easy ones? Not likely. To escape this situation as an individual would take money and resources I don't have. If I now get arrested for the crimes I commit as part of my gang activity, was that a choice?

    My point is that you can put the responsibility on the individual by putting him in prison, where he'll likely get further criminalized and commit worse crimes when he's out. Or you can say that there's a systemic problem that needs to be addressed and you address that. In my gang example, that might be poverty. It might be bringing in organizations who can help eradicate the gangs. It might be more policing or different policing tactics. Going at it that way might mean fewer people in prison.

    I do believe there are people who willfully choose to commit crimes and those people should be held responsible. But, there are a lot of people--and many of them are poor and brown--who find themselve with tough choices between committing a crime and surviving or not and dying.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Laura.

    Although you give reasons WHY someone may choose to commit a crime, you still agree that they have made a choice, and that people in prisons are criminals.

    I never said the choices are easy, just that there is a choice to be made, and responsibility for the decisions we make. This might be the makings of another great blog!

    Ironically, the people and neighborhoods that could benefit most from increased police involvement are the same ones who are currently throwing rocks at the police, and burning down their own neighborhoods. Those, too, are choices being made.

  3. "... people in prisons are criminals."

    The people in prisons are also our friends, families, and neighbors. They are people that have made mistakes, or perhaps been a victim of circumstances. They may have plotted, or acted on a whim. Maybe they are wrongly accused, or repeat offenders. Some were doctors, police, or teachers. Others homeless or mentally handicapped.

    My point is that labelling them as "criminals" does nothing to solve the issues.

    Increased police involvement is not the solution, and in fact may be part of the problem.

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  5. Don't get hung up in the name. That seems to be a progressive idea: change the label, and the problem gets better. We could call them "penitentiary patrons" instead, but changing the name doesn't solve the problem either.

    We've seen the President try this trick in the Middle East; Call our enemies something other than what they are, and it's just like they aren't really there at all, and the war is going swimmingly. What war? Where?

    Sounds like we need to move this discussion to a new blog, or series of blogs about the problems that lead people to commit crimes, and the role of police.

    We've certainly seen how less police involvement has helped in Baltimore….

  6. Watch "Making a Murderer." Injustice can happen to anyone that is poor and uneducated. I think focus should be placed on education and the prison problem will solve itself.

  7. I think that the jail system in this country is bursting at the seams for a number of reasons. Yes, a subculture that celebrates criminal activity by means of games such as Grand Theft Auto and music such as gansta rap is part of the problem, but it is not the only part. Another part is the war on drugs, which has criminalized the use of certain drugs (and has been about as unsuccessful in dealing with drug addiction as Prohibition was in dealing with alcohol abuse). Mandatory sentencing rules play a role. So does the for-profit prison industry, which has an interest in maximizing the number of incarcerated people, rather than minimizing it.

    Lack of support for children is also a factor. When the adults in a household cannot supervise the children (for whatever reason--because they are out working, or are ill, or are on drugs), and they cannot afford to have someone else supervise them, the children may end up in trouble. They may commit crimes out of boredom or because their peers dared them to do so. Once they're in the justice system, they are grouped with other offenders who teach them how to commit other crimes, increasing the likelihood of their becoming re-offenders.

    Poverty and crime tend to breed poverty and crime. Some children grow up in a neighborhood where, of all the people they know personally, the richest ones are criminals. These children may succumb to the pressure to join a gang (as described by Laura Blankenship above). They don't have access to good schools. They may drop out, or finish high school but not have the grades or money to attend college. The jobs (if any) that are available to them don't pay a living wage. They don’t have enough money or resources to move to another neighborhood. The only way they see themselves making money is through crime, so crime becomes their career.

    I expect that there are other factors not listed here that are contributing to the size of the incarcerated population in the US, just as there are factors besides unconscious bias and poverty that contribute to the fact that the pie chart of the incarcerated population by race differs from a similar chart for the general population.

    It’s not enough to identify and address one factor. We need to identify as many of the contributing factors as we can, and try different ways of addressing as many of them as possible. Once we see which ways work, we need to disseminate information about them, and encourage people to put that information to use. As more and more communities use effective ways of addressing the contributing factors, we will reduce both crime and the size of the incarcerated population across the country.

    There’s plenty of work to be done to address the problem of the size and makeup of the incarcerated population, but I would like to end on an encouraging note. One of the ways that has been shown to help is providing support and mentoring programs for children and families. For example, the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) has had success due to the comprehensive combination of programs that they offer to improve schools, families, and the community. The Practitioners Institute at HCZ offers workshops on replicating the HCZ model. For more information, visit

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, and the link to HCZ. I hadn't heard of that.


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