04 February 2011


PRISON REFORM. In his article Harm's Way: Understanding Race and Punishment, James Forman, Jr., presents an eloquent and thoughtful evaluation of this country's prison system. Seen through the lens of race, and also through the lens of the history of penal philosophy in America, we see a system bent not toward rehabilitation, but rather toward punishment -- and that punishment has an undeniable component of racism.

Of the 312 million citizens of the United States, roughly 2.3 million are in federal or state prisons, and another 0.8 million are in city or county jails. That translates to one in every one hundred legal residents. The majority of those incarcerated are male, and two-thirds of those incarcerated are people of color, a fraction disproportionate to the demographic makeup of the country as a whole.

At every stage of the justice system -- arrest, trial, decision of guilt, judicial sentencing, and imprisonment -- there is an inherent bias against (a) those accused of violent crimes, and (b) those accused of drug crimes. Starting in 1971's War On Drugs (an "unmitigated disaster") and escalating ever since, our prisons have been burdened to the breaking point by those convicted of (usually minor) drug offenses. Prison overpopulation is partly a result of our focus on drugs, and partly a result of our racial prejudices -- and often the two are indistinguishable.

As Forman notes, "Once a drug offender has a conviction on his or her record, the pain has just begun .... casually, almost carelessly, we ostracize drug offenders, saying 'Do the crime, do the time,' even if 'the time' amounts to a permanent exclusion from civil society. Depending on the state and the crime, a first-time offender may lose his right to vote and to serve on a jury. He will probably become ineligible for federal health and welfare benefits, food stamps, public housing and student loans. Without housing assistance, he may become homeless and lose custody of his children. Without student loans, he cannot go back to school and try to create a better life for himself and his family .... the convicted drug offender enters a 'parallel universe,' a hidden world that 'promises a form of punishment that is often more difficult to bear than prison time -- a lifetime of shame, contempt, scorn and exclusion.' This parallel universe is one manifestation of the new Jim Crow.

".... Just as Jim Crow laws defined blacks as inferior, mass imprisonment effectively stigmatizes black men in general -- especially young black men in low-income communities -- as criminals. And this stigma in turn increases their social and economic marginalization and encourages the routine violation of their rights. Intense police surveillance and the occasional roughing up of black youths become accepted practices. Their misbehavior in school gets reported to the police and leads to juvenile court. Employers are reluctant to hire them. Thus even young, low-income black men who are never arrested or imprisoned endure the consequences of a stigma associated with race."

Forman's emphasis on race does not detract from the brutal unfairness of the legal treatment accorded to whites. But racism is an undeniable, ugly fact of life, both inside the criminal justice system and in society at large. Understanding it is the first step toward eliminating it, and in so doing reclaiming our humanity toward all people.

SEMINARS. In Experimental Error: Lies, Damned Lies, and Seminars, Adam Rubin places tongue firmly in cheek in his cautionary tale aimed at present and future academic graduate students, in this case students in the sciences. From his perspective, "In the idyllic vision of the uninitiated, a seminar tells a story, starting with a clear description of a problem, then outlining a series of steps taken to address that problem, and ending with a special reward: a glistening kernel of new knowledge. The speaker tells the story using vocabulary accessible to anyone with a similar breadth, though not necessarily depth, of scientific knowledge so that all in attendance can bask in the final, glorious revelation.

"In reality, scientific seminars usually consist of quasi-related PowerPoint slides cobbled together from previous seminars and lab meetings, thoroughly and precariously dependent on an impossible quantity of specialized terms .... One key to understanding seminars, should you fail to escape one before it begins, is realizing that speakers couch their abundant jargon in half-truths. Euphemisms fly by so fast that inexperienced audience members may not be able to translate them in real time -- hence this handy guide."

And what follows is a hilarious series of double statements, "When the speaker says" and "What the speaker really means." This alone is worth the price of admission, for it applies to any pontificatory gathering, in academia or business or the workplace. Similarly, Rubin's final plea to do better resonates to communication as a whole: "Seminar speakers, please invest the time to make your presentations coherent and minimize the doublespeak. Graduate students, give the speakers a chance, since you never know when you might learn something. And science, uh .... be more straightforward. Especially the science that influences my own research."

Hear hear.

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