Archive for the ‘Law enforcement’ Category

I didn’t expect my talk to a class of criminal justice majors at a local community college to be any different from the other workshops, presentations and classes I’d done. The students had read my book for class. I figured I’d talk about the book, about my 10 years teaching high school kids locked up in an adult county jail, and about juvenile justice issues in general. The usual topics. But when I asked the students to go around and say what area of criminal justice they wanted to pursue, I knew this would be a different kind of talk.

Most wanted to be police or correctional officers; a few mentioned probation. I wasn’t surprised then, when several students commented and questioned me on what they felt was my negative portrayal of the prison system and the people who work in it.

Anyone who has been in corrections probably wouldn’t deny the things that I wrote about: how “the system” is toxic both physically—the overcrowding, the noise, the smell, the potential for violence, and morally—the lack of respect, the constant suspicion, the need to be “tough.” Most correctional people would agree that these conditions have a harmful impact on their professional performance and their personal lives. Over my years in lockup, more than one CO ruefully commented to me, “Sometimes I feel like I’m the one doing time.” What they didn’t like was that I said these things publicly:  I was the worst kind of jail scum—a rat.

However, there was a subtext to what I wrote that I suspected the students (and other correctional professionals) might have missed. As I explained in my book, and to the students that day, jail is defined by a hierarchy of power. Who’s got it, who wants it, and what they’ll do to get it. It is a culture based on “us” and “them.” I wrote about how, when I first came to teach at the jail, I had my own version of this hierarchy: the “bad guys” were the correctional staff, the ones with the keys, and the “good guys” were the inmates, the ones who were oppressed, locked up. A pivotal element in my personal prison journey was to recognize how I had been taken in like everyone else by this hierarchy.  Realizing that, I worked to shake off my stereotypes, meeting each person—inmate and staff alike—as an individual no matter where they fit into the pecking order.

I hit pay dirt. Stereotyping was a concept the students had studied in class, and given their future careers, it was an essential one to understand. As I talked about my evolution their own concerns slowly came out about how quickly their stereotypes of inmates kicked in, seeing them all as thugs, predators, as “bad,” getting what they deserved.

And then their worries started to come out. If you go beyond the media stereotypes of criminals then what are you left with? How do you keep your humanity, your openness, yet not get taken advantage of by inmates, eaten up by “the system.”

“What I want to know is how you didn’t get discouraged by the whole thing and just quit?” Jake was sitting in the front row, baggy shorts, sneakers, and backwards ball cap. With his book opened, eager and interested, he’d been asking tough questions. I should’ve known that he’d get to the heart of the matter. “I mean, what with inmate recidivism and the conditions in the prison, what about hope?”

I’m not sure the students bought the “long view” I presented. I wouldn’t have at their age. It sounded too simplistic, downright hokey. But I gave it anyway. Although I saw young kids return to jail time after time, and watched officers and inmates bowed by prison’s oppressive conditions, I never gave up hope because I had a bone-deep belief that no effort to be fair, to be respectful, to be decent in the face of all “the system’s” negativity would be wasted. Early in my jail time I made the decision not to tally my efforts with the results. I’d let others keep score. I just held fast to the belief that small change would happen sometime, somewhere, and that that’s all it takes to turn things around.

At the end of class I’m pretty sure I left the students with more questions than answers. It’s not something I like to do. Maybe it’s a teacher thing. I know Jake wasn’t satisfied. He told me so, quite respectfully, when he came up to have me sign his book.

But looking back at that morning I feel now that Jake’s “What about hope?” was a good question for the class to carry into their challenging futures as correctional professionals—and as people. Too many of us forget, in our professional and personal lives, that there will always be more questions than answers in whatever we do. Maybe the only way to keep hope alive in our jobs and our lives is to keep asking those tough questions and hope we don’t come up with answers.

Originally appeared on Beacon Broadside

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Prison Culture is one of the best sites around on criminal justice. It combines the public side of incarceration with the personal, i.e. the effects of the system on all our lives. Recently Prison Culture posted a graphic representation of facts about the US criminal justice system. Laid out so clearly and simply it’s hard to ignore the impact of our broken system of justice on us as a country. It’s worth taking a look at.

Some issues just aren’t debatable. Like cell phone use or text-messaging while driving. Yet states and municipalities continue to argue about what laws, if any, should govern these practices, despite the many stories we’ve all heard about car accidents, many fatal, that have happened because the driver was talking on a cell phone or was texting while at the wheel.

Using a stun gun (an electric shock device that deliveries an average 50,000 volts to the muscular system causing temporary paralysis) against a child is another such issue that should be nondebatable. According to Lawyers and Settlements website 211 U.S. children, some as young as 6, were zapped by stun guns between 2002 and 2005. A quick Google search shows that this number continues to grow even though children—two 14-year-olds in Chicago; two 16-year-olds, and one 15 year-old in Michigan; to name a few—have died as a result of being stunned.

There are some cases in which these devices are used which are more understandable than others, situations where a young person poses a real threat to others or themselves.

In other cases, however, you are left wondering about the adults involved, their judgments and their motivations.

Take for the example the mother who called the Ozark police because her daughter was screaming and crying, refusing to do what her mother told her to do. When an officer arrived the mother told him to use his stun gun on her. He did. Then there’s the Arkansas cop who used his stun gun on a 10-year-old girl so that he could transport her from her mother’s house to a youth shelter. Or the case of the Wayne County Michigan police being called in to an assistant principal’s office to subdue a 14-year-old who was kicking and screaming because he wouldn’t get off his Game Boy. The stun gun stopped him. (An alarming number of states now allow police patrolling schools, including elementary schools, to carry stun guns.) And in Brooklyn a 19-year-old was jolted over ten times by police. (Youth Today)

Many of us have probably been confronted with a screaming, kicking child, either their own or someone else’s, who just can’t seem to be gotten under control. It’s a terrible place to be. In dealing with that kid—little child or teenager— the amount of rage, frustration, fear, and impotence that gets kicked up and flows through the adult in that situation could easily power a 50,000 volt stun gun. That’s why parents and caregivers physically abuse children, or in some cases why they call in the police to subdue their out-of-control child with stun guns, outlets for all that pent up fury and frustration.

But the police are even less tolerant of those high voltage emotions; and they have no tolerance for what they may see as failure, their failure: After all they were called in to take control of a potentially explosive situation, one, it appears, that they can’t control. Afraid of looking bad, of having their authority questioned, they use whatever force will subdue, and stun guns subdue.

It doesn’t help that, as urgent an issue as this is, very few municipalities or police departments have given their officers clear guidelines about using these electric shock weapons against children. When there are policies, officers are merely told to take into consideration the child’s age, size, and weight. What they are unable to evaluate, however, is the young person’s medical condition, a very crucial factor in surviving 50,000 volts.

Likewise, very few child welfare groups have studied the issue or provided guidelines. It’s a silence that is disturbing, especially considering the growing use of these weapons on youth. The National Institute of Justice has suggested that stun guns be avoided with small children (it did not define “small”); and the American College of Emergency Physicians stated that the use of stun guns against “smaller individuals” should be undertaken “judiciously.” Not much help for cops in the heat of confrontation. Equally absent is research on the long term effects on a shocked child’s physical development, and on his or her emotional development.

Supporters of the stun gun argue that it is better than the alternatives: guns, dogs, batons, pepper spray.  But like the stun gun, dogs, batons and pepper spray were once also considered alternatives to fire arms.

Not too long ago pepper spray was seen as the latest benign way to control someone. Better that than a bullet. But as is often the case, pepper spray has become overused and abused. Westchester County jail in New York State where I taught kids locked up in this adult facility has just been cited by the Department of Justice for excessive use of pepper spray on individual inmates, fired at point-blank-range in amounts allotted for crowd control. And so the stun gun goes the way of all these other alternatives especially when it comes to children.

We have stricter laws about the use of car seats for children than we do for the use of stun guns, even though we now know that a child, zapped by one of these guns, by adults who are supposedly there to protect them, can die.