Alternatives to Incarceration: Be Careful What You Wish For

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As awareness is growing of the financial and human costs associated with mass incarceration, we’re hearing talk from politicians on both sides of the aisle (and, believe it or not, even from the Koch Brothers) about the need for “alternatives to incarceration” (ATIs).

The term “alternatives to incarceration” takes for granted that we are talking about ways to handle criminals who otherwise would need to be incarcerated — that incarceration is a reasonable baseline against which to measure “alternatives.” In light of the over-representation of Americans of color and low-income Americans in jails and prisons, however, it’s necessary to be careful about any sort of presumption of correlation between criminality and incarceration. In fact, about a third of people locked up in the US are awaiting trial; that is, they have not been convicted of a crime. Another third are locked up because they violated the terms of probation or parole; that is; the “criminal” act was not sufficiently egregious to require imprisonment but a subsequent action – often simply not showing up for a meeting with a parole or probation officer, or failing to keep up restitution payments or money owed in court fees – was the reason for incarceration. And 97% of federal and state criminal prosecutions are resolved by plea bargain – often accepted by defendants out of fear that if they don’t accept the deal they will be locked up even longer — rather than by trial.

Given these numbers, it’s easier to make a case for abolition than for “alternatives to incarceration.” But that is not the direction in which public discourse seems to be moving. To the contrary, the increasingly popular sentiment goes something like this: A whole lot of people sitting in jails and prisons are mentally ill; they are drug users who need treatment more than they need punishment. Echoing this sentiment, Los Angeles County – the US county with the largest number of incarcerated people – recently approved a $1.9 billion proposal to tear down Men’s Central Jail and construct a 4,885-bed “Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility”. And while “treatment” certainly sounds beneficial, the content of that treatment has yet to be spelled out.

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Over the past five years I followed a cohort of Massachusetts women who cycle in and out of prison as well as a variety of treatment programs. All of the women, at some point in their lives, have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder (most commonly substance abuse, bipolar disorder, PTSD). Overall, these twenty-six women spent far more time in treatment than in correctional settings. Yet, at the end of five years only three women had settled into reasonably secure housing, stable employment and long-term desistance from substance abuse.

Typically, treatment programs include some combination of pharmaceutical, twelve-step and psychotherapeutic components. Most of the women I have come to know are prescribed mind-boggling assortments of psychotropic medication, some of which make them, as Elizabeth (a white woman in her early forties, Elizabeth was homeless for a decade) used to say, into “a space shot” who shuffles around in a daze that puts her at elevated risk for being robbed or assaulted. Whether anti-anxiety, anti-depression or anti-psychotic drugs, these medications are not intended to cure the underlying problems such as sexual assault and homelessness that lead to anxiety, depression and substance abuse. Rather, psychotropic medications are prescribed in order to manage the individual’s response those problems.

While not all treatment programs prescribe psychotropic medication, virtually all incorporate – explicitly or implicitly — twelve step ideology and practices. Treatment facilities tend to be plastered with twelve step slogans such as “Let Go and Let God” and “Cultivate an attitude of gratitude,” and formal AA/NA meetings typically are part of the treatment regime. With emphasis on admitting one’s powerlessness (Step 1) and making moral inventories of one’s faults (Step 4), these programs do not seem to offer the women I have come to know a meaningful script for re-organizing their lives. When I visited Joy, who has been homeless for nearly fifteen years and nearly died as a consequence of a brutal sexual assault, several weeks into her stay in a treatment facility she enthusiastically explained to me that, “I’m learning that my problems are in my head.” Unfortunately, her problems also were in the real world: Less than a year later she was back on the streets where she was sexually accosted by a police officer who then arrested her for solicitation.

Most treatment programs in Massachusetts also include some sort of psychotherapy, and nearly all of the women I know have been treated by multiple therapists over the years, sometimes beginning in adolescence or even childhood. With its focus on the individual psyche, psychotherapy addresses personal flaws such as poor impulse control, allowing oneself to be a victim, and struggles to “get over” past traumas. But as Elizabeth explains, “I don’t need to talk about my problems. I need a place to live so that I won’t be scared all of the time.” This does not mean that therapy is useless; it does mean that “talk is cheap” without the material conditions that permit women like Elizabeth and Joy to build a secure life.

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There is little evidence pointing to long-term success for any particular drug treatment modality. Studies showing positive outcomes typically fail to track program participants for long enough time to establish meaningful rates of success, look only at participants who completed the program, fail to control for confounding variables, or look at very small numbers of participants from the start. The absence of evidence for the success of treatment programs is especially glaring when the treatment is coerced or carried out in a coercive situation. It may be tempting to believe that even if treatment doesn’t help everyone, at least it doesn’t hurt. Yet, as we’ve learned from the past — from efforts to “cure” homosexuality to the tranquilizers (“mother’s little helper“) of the 1960s,  when a patient’s ideas or behaviors challenge social hierarchies of race, gender, sexual orientation or class, treatment that is ostensibly for the patient’s own good may be used to bring the “deviant” individual back into line. As those of us old enough to remember Jack Nicholson’s performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest can attest, therapeutic interventions aimed at “getting inside” the patient’s head can carry heavy costs indeed.

The murky line between punishment and treatment has not been lost on some of the corporations involved in the prison industry. Correctional Healthcare Companies, for example, has expanded beyond providing medical services to prisons and now offers services for the “full spectrum” of “offenders” lives: “pre-custody, in custody, and post-custody,” a timeline that perhaps says more than the company intended about American understandings of criminality.

Read more: Incarceration by Any Other Name: A Return to the Cuckoo’s Nest?

Getting Dumped On: Snowmaggedon, Women’s Health and Human Rights

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A Guest Post by Amy Agigian, Founding Director of the Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights at Suffolk University

AmyAgigianGreetings from Boston, where we are currently experiencing Snowmageddon 2015. We’ve had four storms, accumulating over seven feet of snow, in less than three weeks, making this the snowiest month in Boston’s long recorded history.

But what does our unparalleled snowfall have to do with women’s health and human rights? First, the health effects of extreme temperatures hit those with fewest resources–money, housing, safety, good health–hardest. It makes sense if you think about it: if you’re already sick, or living in a violent home or neighborhood, added difficulty getting around is much more serious than for healthy people who are safe at home. If you are homeless or have precarious housing, finding shelter and keeping track of your possessions is that much harder in the brutal cold. The lower your income, the more you will likely depend on massively-disrupted public transportation. And obviously, if you have little money, you can least afford to miss days of work when businesses shut down during blizzards. People caring for children and other dependents also struggle with the dearth of passable sidewalks, breakdowns in public transportation, inability to rely on the timely arrival of caregivers, and simply being stuck in the house day after day.

In addition to these immediate burdens, this historic weather has longer-term implications. Counterintuitively, Boston’s “extreme weather events” are likely part and parcel of global climate change. Global warming leads to more severe snow and rain storms, as well as heat waves, droughts and wildfires. Instead of this month being a freak outlier, we are likely to suffer more, and worse, extreme weather events as climate change intensifies.

All over the world, women bear the worst brunt of a degraded environment. As  UNFPA explains, women are disproportionately affected by global environmental hazards. Women are the majority of those who stretch the family budget when income is disrupted, take care of family members when they can’t afford or access formal healthcare, and walk farther to gather and carry water or firewood. All over the world, women’s resources and health are taxed by such burdens. These hardships exacerbate violations of human rights including the rights to health, an adequate standard of living, and gender equality.

It follows, then, that women must be central to finding both short and long-term solutions to these problems. Women bring critical perspectives, insights, and priorities to discussions of extreme weather. Women’s health and human rights should be put at the center of all policy discussions and funding decisions, at every stage of planning and implementation of solutions. Snowmageddon 2015 has brought much of New England to a grinding halt. Centering women’s health and human rights can help it from becoming the new normal.

Click here to read about the Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights.

 

 

The “Bitch” at the Welfare Office — Or Why Responsibility Without Authority Makes Us Sick

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feature image via thebluedolphins.blogspot.com

A few days ago I listened while Francesca, a woman I’ve come to know during a decade of working with criminalized women, ranted about “the bitch” over at the welfare office who refused to give her food stamps. According to Francesca, “the bitch” didn’t believe that Francesca had not received the letter telling her that she needed to re-certify her eligibility. This, I thought, is a systematic problem: Access to vital services typically is tied to having a permanent address. As a consequence, the ability to receive services is linked to a level of financial stability that the people who most need these services are unlikely to have. Since Francesca had not had a secure place to live for over a decade, it’s no surprise that the letter didn’t reach her. But for Francesca, at least at that moment, the systemic problem was not on her mind. Rather, she focused her attention on “the bitch” who, so it seemed to her, wanted Francesca and her children to starve. Never one to hold back, Francesca had “let the bitch know what I thought about her” before she stormed out of the office.

Francesca is a fabulous raconteur and as I listened to her retelling of the food stamp office story I shared her outrage, and probably would have joined her had she proposed a return trip to yell at “the bitch”. But when I had the luxury of some time to think over what she’d told me I realized of course, that the welfare worker had no authority in this matter: However much she liked or disliked, sympathized with or looked down on women like Francesca, she was not authorized to give food stamps to someone who had not re-certified her eligibility.

Over the years Francesca has confronted two other “bitches” in my presence. One was a hospital nurse who “refused to let me see the doctor.” The other was a parole officer who told her that if she didn’t keep up restitution payments on an old crime committed by her ex-husband she would be sent to jail. Both times Francesca barraged the “bitches” with pleading, tears and finally curses. I don’t know if they felt fear, anger or shame (probably a combination of all three), but I do know that they are placed in untenable situations like this on a daily basis.

As the public face of social services, they face the despair and rage of people trying to maintain a sense of dignity – albeit sometimes in ways that backfire — in a culture that treats food and housing and freedom as commodities rather than as human rights. Perceived (mistakenly) as the gatekeepers to food, medicine and freedom, the “bitches” Francesca confronts are targets for the anger of hungry, sick, homeless, battered and poor clients who cannot access the help that they need, especially in this era of cutbacks in social services.

In popular culture, “Type A” men drop dead from heart attacks brought on by the stress of their powerful positions. Yet a weighty body of literature shows that the most severe job strain is not characterized by high levels of authority but rather by low levels of authority coupled with high levels of responsibility. Workers tasked with keeping people alive while lacking power over the necessary resources and policies to do so are especially likely to suffer poor health, chronic physical and mental distress, and greater risk of death.

The hundreds of thousands of women who predominate in the lower and middle rungs of the health and social service professions live with the heavy responsibility of granting or denying access to potentially life-saving goods and services to desperate women like Francesca. Deflecting the anger that should be directed at the (usually male, certainly higher paid) policy makers, administrators and supervisors, they are stuck enforcing rules that they have no power to shape or change.

The “bitches” at whom Francesca vents her (righteous) anger are butts of nasty comments about government bureaucrat “fat cats” though they often earn salaries that are barely above minimum wage. As women they most likely carry the double load of paid employment and house / wife / mother work – the impossible task of trying to raise healthy, well-adjusted children in a world of violence, air pollution, aggressive consumerism and 24/7 headsets. It’s likely that they themselves have applied for – and perhaps been denied – food stamps; that they have children or siblings struggling to pay court fees in order to stay out of jail; and that they too can’t get the kind of medical attention that they need.

I’m not sure how I’ll react the next time Francesca blows up at a clerk or a caseworker. I’d like to think that I’ll be able to persuade everyone concerned that the real enemy is not the woman on the other side of the desk but rather the powerbrokers who keep them there. But in truth, I’ll probably be so wracked with feeling both responsible for keeping Francesca in line and powerless to ameliorate her situation that I’ll come down with a migraine.

 

Orange Frosted Hostess Cupcakes

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feature image from Steven Brisson

Maureen Norton-Hawk, co-author of Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility, recently learned that  a participant in our project with poor and criminalized  women has been murdered. Linda’s remains were found  a few days ago in a wooded area near Boston. In light of this sad news, I’ve published a bit of the pertinent article from the local news station, WCVB, followed by Maureen’s heartfelt eulogy. We only wish that as much effort had been put into finding her a home while she was alive as has now been put into identifying her bones.


BROCKTON, Mass. Jan. 7, 2015 —The second set of human remains found in a wooded area in Brockton have been identified, Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz said Wednesday. Cruz said the remains were that of Linda Schufeldt, 51, of Quincy.

Eulogy for Linda

by Maureen Norton-Hawk

You could hear her before she ever arrived at my office door. She was always talking rapidly at least one or two octaves above normal. Plopping down on the office chair she would reach into her rolling suitcase that was her constant companion and pull out a package of orange frosted Hostess cupcakes. With a grin she would hand the confectionary to me as she knew that I had a soft spot for them. I never asked how she, as a poor and often homeless woman, could and would give so generously. But that was Linda.

Given her history, one might expect an angry bitter vengeful woman who had been beaten up by life one time too many. Instead of anger, she was an unusually happy, smiling and trusting person who, because of these traits, often found herself exploited or abused. Each time she was victimized she would pick herself up and start again.

It appears that she was brutally murdered. She did not deserve to die this way. As importantly, she did not deserve to live the way that she had to live. In addition to fighting her own personal struggles, she was faced with well-intentioned agencies that always fell short of what she needed. So she would start down the long road to recovery, fail when support was withdrawn or when she did not live up to the formal regulations and then have to start again. At least you don’t have to struggle anymore Linda. Rest in peace.

The Women of Can’t Catch a Break – Christmas 2014 Updates

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This is the second “Reader’s Guide to Updates” on the women of Can’t Catch a Break. (Click here for the previous update.) Not all of the conversations, observations and anecdotes that I’ve posted here are profound, but I post them to help all of us (my readers as well as myself) remember that these women are real, multi-faceted people who, like us, face challenges both trivial and great, and who, like us, respond to those challenges in a variety of (often inconsistent) ways.

This post centers on their experiences around the Christmas 2014 holiday season. For many Americans, holidays present economic and interpersonal challenges. For poor, marginalized, ill, criminalized and homeless Americans those challenges are magnified. How can one afford to buy gifts when living on a monthly $700 SSI check? How can one put on the kind of family Christmas celebrations that television and movies show (incessantly!) when one doesn’t even have a home, or when one has lost custody of her children, or even worse – when one is sitting in jail or in a closed rehab facility?

But it’s not all bad news. The holidays can also bring out the best in people. Several women of Can’t Catch a Break received donations of toys to give their children — toys donated by generous strangers. One woman celebrated with her children for the first time in a decade. And one woman cooked her first Christmas dinner ever with a group of new friends. Continue reading

Video: Can’t Catch a Break

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My colleague Maureen Norton-Hawk and I recently had an opportunity to speak about our book Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the the Limits of Personal Responsibility at a book launch at Suffolk University.

This link will take you to a four minute segment on our struggles to find an appropriate way to describe the criminalized and marginalized women whose stories we tell in Can’t Catch a Break. In this video we explain why we rejected “criminal” “homeless” and a few other descriptors, and why we decided to go simply with “women.”

This link will take you to the full forty-five minute video that includes a brief reading from the book and well as a few of our funny and not-so-funny experiences as researchers.

Video: Alternatives to Incarceration

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As awareness is growing of the costs (both financial and human) of mass incarceration, we’re hearing more about alternatives to incarceration. These alternatives include various sorts of electronic monitoring, intensive supervision, drug courts and mandated drug treatment.

While I am in favor of almost any plan that keeps non-violent people out of jails and prisons, I think it’s important to take a critical look at what is meant by “alternatives to incarceration” and how these actually play out given the broader contexts of dominant American ideas concerning crime, justice, gender and race. Do ATI really challenge the assumptions regarding who is ‘guilty’ and what it means to be ‘fixed’? Without fundamental changes in how we view human rights and relationships, ATI can too easily become a way to broaden the net of people caught in the correctional system.

This video clip by Meredith Berg includes some of my thoughts as well as comments by two proponents of ATI, one who works with a small not-for-proft organization and one who works in the correctional system.

You can read more about the thin line between ‘punishing’ and ‘treating’ here:
Incarceration by Any Other Name: A Return to the Cuckoo’s Nest?

Eulogy for Elizabeth

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This was a hard week. Threatened with a 60 year prison sentence for firing a warning shot in the presence of her chronically abusive husband, Marissa Alexander agreed to a plea “bargain.” She’ll spend another 65 days in jail, on top of the 1,030 days she’s already been locked up.

Two days earlier, my friend Elizabeth was murdered by a man against whom she had taken out a restraining order. Francesca, a mutual friend, commented when she heard about Elizabeth: “The courts don’t realize that a piece of paper doesn’t save you. It’s exactly what it is — a piece of paper.”

Elizabeth (a pseudonym) was one a group of women I first met more than six years ago as part of a long-term project aimed at understanding the daily lives of Boston-area women who have been criminalized, marginalized and abused. Not always easy to be around, Elizabeth frequently wept from the pain in her life – the death of her sister and of her boyfriend, ten years of homelessness, numerous assaults, rape, struggles with alcohol and depression, a broken collarbone and shoulder that had not healed properly. But at unexpected moments she’d look up from her wad of tissues and, cracking a grin, poke fun at her own propensity to break into tears not only when sad but also when someone did something nice for her. Like buying her a cup of coffee. Or saying “Happy Birthday.” Or remembering that she once won a beauty contest. Or praising her generosity in sharing a cigarette or a dollar with someone who had even less than she had. Or giving her the mass transit pass to which she was entitled for participating in the project. “You are so nice to me and I don’t deserve it. I’m a whack job,” Elizabeth would tell me on a regular basis.  Continue reading

Outcast Island

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October 9, 2014 marked the end of an era for Boston’s homeless, ill and marginalized residents when the sole bridge to Long Island was closed after a state inspection declared it too unstable for vehicles. One of several small islands (“Harbor Islands”) of the Massachusetts Bay, Long Island’s geographic separation from the mainland has made it a prime location for isolating social outcasts over the years. In 1882, the City of Boston purchased property on Long Island for an almshouse, a residence for unwed mothers, a chronic disease hospital, a nursing school and a “Home for the Indigent.” In subsequent decades, a treatment center for alcoholics was added. Recently, it’s the site of homeless shelters, Boston Public Health residential facilities and a variety of residential programs for “recovering” addicts and people involved with the Courts.

According to reports in the Boston Globe, the decrepit state of the bridge was well-known to government officials. But it’s been years since the City or State has invested resources in replacing or fundamentally repairing the bridge to the metaphorical “nowhere” of shelters for the homeless and other social undesirables. Reachable only by limited shuttles, Long Island effectively served to keep homeless and sick people out of sight and out of mind for over a century.

Isolated from the mainland, people who stay at the various shelters cannot get to the Island before 2 PM or after 9 PM; once there, they cannot leave after the shuttles are finished running for the day; and (except on rare occasions such as blizzards) shelter residents must depart the Island no later than by the 9 AM mainland-bound shuttle.

Elizabeth, a woman who has navigated what she calls “the homeless life” for ten years explains, “Everyone knew the bridge was dangerous. I always went on the bus [that crosses the bridge to the shelter] with my heart in my throat and just prayed to God that we’d get across. But I had nowhere else to go.” Francesca, insecurely housed for nearly as long as Elizabeth, declares, “I hate that bridge. I always felt that if it went, I’m gonna be swimming with the fishes.”  Continue reading

Why Brain Science Won’t Cure Poverty

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This article was first published by The Conversation.

Recently I’ve seen news reports with headlines like this one: “Can Brain Science Help Lift People Out Of Poverty?

This particular article described the near miraculous recovery of a woman who grew up surrounded by violence in the housing projects, became a “single mom on welfare” who wasted her money and damaged her health with a pack-a-day smoking habit, and was stuck in an abusive relationship. Then, with the help of “a novel program that uses the latest neuroscience research to help women dig themselves out of poverty” by making better choices, she quit smoking, got rid of the bad boyfriend, earned a business management degree and landed a job as an administrative assistant. It’s not the only article I’ve seen recently that is looking at brain science as a way to cure poverty.

The enchantment with neuroscience to explain social misery has spread among individuals and organizations with longstanding commitments to progressive social change. “What the new brain science says is that the stresses created by living in poverty often work against us, make it harder for our brains to find the best solutions to our problems. This is a part of the reason why poverty is so ‘sticky,’” explained Elisabeth Babcock, chief executive of the nonprofit Crittenton Women’s Union. Recent research from Princeton University has suggested that living in poverty can have an impact on concentration. Other research has found a similar correlation between poverty and neuroscience.

There is growing public discourse invoking neuroscience to re-emphasize that poverty really is bad, that bullying and abuse really hurt children, and that someone who has experienced rape or torture really is suffering. But uncritically invoking neuroscience is a risky propositionContinue reading