Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Markets and Moral Reasoning

Tonight I happened to catch the end of an interview with the philosopher Michael J. Sandel on the public radio program “Marketplace.” He was being asked how idealistic abstractions about justice can apply to the seemingly amoral hustle and bustle of a dynamic capitalist economy.

In other words, Professor Sandel, what is an ivory tower academic like you doing on a show called Marketplace, even if you are about to take your wildly popular Harvard course on moral reasoning to a national stage through a partnership with PBS?

Without mentioning Adam Smith (he of the often-invoked claim about the market’s “hidden hand) by name, Sandel essentially said that the market simply is what it is − and what it is isn’t necessarily moral. As humans capable of asking questions about justice, we cannot really look to the market to settle questions about right and wrong.

After the financial meltdown and extended recession, are more Americans ready to hear this?

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Greatest

On the way to Capernaum − naively thinking he was out of earshot − Jesus’ disciples argued about who was the greatest.

Jesus would have none of it. The disciples were thinking exclusively in human terms, with a conception of greatness epitomized by Muhammed Ali in his mid-70s heyday: external victory, worldly fame, and existential self-aggrandizement (leavened only partially by a hint of ironic self-deprecation).

They should have been thinking of the type of character shown by Ali in coping with his Parkinson’s disease.

Or, better yet, of his fourth wife, Yolanda (“Lonnie”) Ali, for her humble service in taking care of him.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

One Way To Break An Addiction

After smoking two packs of cigarettes a day for nearly forty years, my mother-in-law quit cold turkey, after only one session of hypnosis.


She began smoking in the early 1950s and kept right on going, undeterred by the 1964 Surgeon General report. The possibility of serious consequences from a behavior counts for little, if anything, when the continuation of the behavior is due to an addiction.

(In the criminal justice context, this is why harsh penalties, particularly for drug crimes, so often have so little effect. When addiction gets in the way, deterence is a non-starter.)

By 1991, Wynne knew it was time for a change. A work colleague gave her a referral to a hypnotist, who was able to help cure her nicotine addiction in one fell swoop.


Addictions are not usually broken in single, scales-from-the-eyes sessions. But, thankfully, this one was. Wynne is still with us, at age 76, doing the crossword every day, patronizing the public library, singing in her church choir − and much else besides.

She surely wouldn’t be doing these things if hypnosis hadn’t enabled her to stop smoking.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Forgotten Fifth

In the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion, Jesus is put to death with a criminal hanging on either side of him.

The two criminals’ responses were very different, according to Luke (23:39-43). One of them derided Jesus, taunting him and mocking his unwillingness to come down from the cross if he were truly the Messiah. The other criminal − called Dismas (or Dysmas) in Christian tradition − answered the first, pointing out Jesus’s innocence.

After this exchange, Jesus turned to Dismas and said "today, you will be with me in Paradise."

Fittingly, ministry to and among prisoners has embraced the Dismas name. One group engaging in this important work is Prison Congregations of America, which helps to develop congregations within prison walls. Several of them have taken the St. Dismas name, including congregations in Maryland, South Dakota, and Pennsylvania.

In July, I had the chance to spend a few days at Outlaw Ranch in the Black Hills with Ed Nesselhuf, a Lutheran pastor who was instrumental in founding Prison Congregations. He spoke movingly of how prisoners are so often “the forgotten fifth” among the injunctions given by Jesus to his followers in Matthew 25:

Feed the hungry
Welcome the stranger
Clothe the naked
Care for the sick
Visit the prisoner

Inmates, in other words, are an integral a part of Jesus’ ministry. They have been right from the start, when Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in his hometown of Nazareth and chose a passage proclaiming release to the captives.

Last year, my friend Mary Mortenson took over as director of Prison Congregations after Ed Nesselhuf retired. The challenge is not only to create congregations inside the walls, but also to link them to those outside the walls to renew and make strong the body of Christ.

Dear reader, do you feel called to get involved in this profoundly Christian mission? Contact Mary at Prison Congregations to ask how you can get involved.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Atul Gawande, Truth-teller

Clay Shirkey’s book Here Comes Everybody is about the current rage for online social networking, not prison conditions. But in asserting that humans are social by nature, he illustrates the point by asking us to consider the consequences of completely depriving someone of social contact during incarceration.

“One of the most severe punishments that can be meted out to a prisoner is solitary confinement; even in a social environment as harsh and attenuated as prison, complete removal from human contact is harsher still.”

Sharkey published these words in 2008. Early in 2009, Atul Gawande probed the soul-destroying experience of long-term solitary confinement in prison and concluded that it amounts to torture. The March 30 issue of The New Yorker contains his disturbing essay “Hellhole,” which should be required reading for all Americans. The depth of the degradation it depicts will not leave you unchanged.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Where Two or Three or Gathered - In a Cuban Prison

The Cuban government has decided to allow group worship for Catholicis and Protestants in its prisons.

How long will it take before other groups are allowed to organize as well? Even in Cuba, after decades of repression, religious expression surely takes many forms beyond Catholic and Protestant. If Will Herzberg's Protestant, Catholic, Jew, a notable book of the 1960s, were to be updated today, it would need a much-expanded title: Protestant, Catholic, Jew - and Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Native American, Animist, Wiccan, and so on.

For me, the opportunity for dialog that this religious diversity represents is welcome. As Peter Hodgson noted in Winds of the Spirit, it is one of the important challenges of our time.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

California's Calamitous Corrections Crisis Continued

The Sacramento Bee’s account described the U.S. Supreme Court’s order as “terse,” and having read the Court’s order I can understand why.

“The application for stay presented to Justice Kennedy and by him referred to the Court is denied. In denying the stay, the Court takes note of the fact that the three-judge district court has indicated that its final order will not be implemented until this Court has had the opportunity to review the district court's decree.” Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, No. 09A234, 9/11/09.

Behind this banal order, an ugly human tragedy has been unfolding for years. California was once the Golden State, to which − paraphrasing Paul Simon on Joe DiMaggio − the restless eyes of the nation turned, In recent years, however, it has become a state that has inmates triple-bunked in gymnasiums, hallways and other unlikely places, with their medical records in chaos, resulting in a sad succession of suicides and preventable illnesses over the past decade − all fully documented in evidence admitted in federal court.

When inmate groups proved their case in a grueling legal ground game, it became clear that things had to change. Finally, on August 4, a special 3-judge district court imposed a population cap. California’s 33 prisons hold more than more than 148,000 inmates today, in a system designed for 80,000. The cap is intended to bring the population to 110,000 within two years, or 137.5 percent of design capacity.

Even with this constitutionally mandated cap being imposed by the courts, the California General Assembly failed yet again to pass a bill to address the endemic crowding problems in any realistic way. A proposal to allow lower-risk, seriously ill or elderly prisoners to serve the last 12 months of their sentences under house arrest with electronic monitoring was defeated, as were many others. The General Assembly adjourned having done little more than rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, with a bill to cut the prison population by 7,500 inmates over two years – a fraction of the 38,000 needed to pass constitutional muster.

In its two-sentence order on September 11, the Supreme Court turned down the state’s attempt to further delay fixing the problems. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has until September 18 to submit a prison population reduction plan to the court that imposed the cap. With or without the governor’s help, the court will act, with the U.S. Supreme Court likely to decide the ultimate constitutionality of the federal intervention into California’s prison system.

As the justices are researching their decision, one wonders whether any of their clerks will have Kate Wolf’s song “Here in California” loaded on an I-pod:

“There's an old familiar story
An old familiar rhyme
To everything there is a season
To every purpose there's a time
A time to love and come together
A time when love longs for air
A time for questions we can't answer
Though we ask them just the same
Here in California fruit hangs heavy on the vines
There's no gold I thought I'd warn you
And the hills turn brown in the summertime.”

When it comes to California’s prisons, it’s passed the time for questions the state can’t answer. With its own state government having failed to do so, the Supreme Court is posed to provide an answer for them.

Monday, September 14, 2009

They do all this when the arrest is on video?

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. had it easy compared to Derryl Jenkins.

Gates, the Harvard professor arrested for disorderly conduct after forgetting the keys to his house and berating a police officer responding to a 9-1-1 report of a break-in at Gates’ house, ended up sharing a beer with President Obama and arresting officer James Crowley.

Derryl Jenkins, a 42-year-old African American man on his way to a riend's house in north Minneapolis last February, was beaten by six Minneapolis police officers after he was pulled over for allegedly going fifteen miles over the speed limit. When he raised questions about the stop, the officers punched and kicked Jenkins repeatedly while he was facedown in a snow bank, breaking two of his teeth and opening a wound above his left eye that required seven stitches to close. They also tasered him three times before placing two sets of handcuffs on him and jailing him for four days.

Neither of the charges brought against Jenkins stuck. Prosecutors dropped assault charges in March, and in July a Hennepin County judge dismissed the charge of refusing to submit to a chemical test.

In August, after obtaining police video of the incident from the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, Jenkins and his attorney released the video to the press.

Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan has sent the video to the FBI for review and ordered that all videotaped use of force incidents resulting in injuries be reviewed by internal affairs. “Punching or kicking for passive resistance is not appropriate,” the chief said. Like President Obama, it seems that Chief Dolan wants to at least make this “a teachable moment.”

Meanwhile, Derryl Jenkins continues to have frequent nightmares and has become fearful of the police. No beer summit here; Jenkins has not brought suit against the Minneapolis Police Department, but he has not ruled out the possibility, either

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Solzhenitsyn: From Samizdat to Required Reading in One Generation

Several Western media outlets reported last week that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's once-banned writings are now required reading in Russian high schools. The press accounts speculated that with a reconstituted communist party gaining strength, using The Gulag Archipelago to call out the epochal crimes committed in the name of communism had become a timely political card for the Putin/Medvedev regime to play.

Will this work as intended? One suspects that "the cunning of history" (Hegel) may show itself again, in ways Putin and Medvedev cannot even remotely conceive of. Indeed, one could quote Marx himself (from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte ) on the gap that can exist between cause and effect: "Men make their own history, but not just as they choose."

Gratitude and Readiness

On September 18, countless Christians and others of good will around the world will mark the commemoration day of Dag Hammarskjold, the U.N. Secretary-General who was killed in a plane crash in 1961 while attempting to negotiate a cease-fire in a civil war in what was then called Rhodesia.

After Hammarskjold’s death, his remarkable spiritual journal was published in Sweden in 1963, then in English the following year under the title Markings. The English poet W.H. Auden assisted in the translation and provided an introduction.

Markings first came to my attention in the summer of 1977, when it appeared on a list of recommended books in a recruiting brochure from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. It was not until 1994, however, when I was working at Holden Village, an ecumenical retreat center in the Cascade Mountains, that I finally read the book. The timing was right – and in a sense it saved my life.

My vocational direction at the time was unclear. I had just left my graduate program in European intellectual history at the University of Iowa, after the adviser I had gone there to study with, Allan Megill, left the U of I for the University of Virginia. Should I follow Megill to Virginia? Should I return to the legal profession, which I had left to pursue my studies at Iowa? Should I do something something completely different? I was in – to employ a Dylan phrase – a state of “mixed up confusion."

Hammarskjold’s poetic musings, combined with the experience of the Holden community, gave me the traction to transcend my trilemma. (If there can be a dilemma, why not a trilemma, as Prof. Guenter Zoeller pointed out in a German philosophy class I took at Iowa.) Night after night, after finishing my six-hour shift in the kitchen and attending Vespers, I would repair to the library and pour over every word of Markings, taking copious notes.

The phrase that kept echoing for me was this: Gratitude and Readiness. With these two words, Hammarskjold helped me completely reframe my entire internal debate. The right question was not why things hadn’t played out differently in the past. It was, rather, what I was ready to do in the present to affirm the many gifts God had given me - and act on them in the service of others.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Empathy at School

School-age children across the country are back in school. It’s an annual ritual that, depending on the school district, comes either shortly before Labor Day or on the day after it.

The behavior expectations for students at the elementary school my sons attend are expressed in the acronym CARES:

● Cooperation (Work together with staff and students.)
● Assertion (Do your best and stand up for what is right.)
● Responsibility (Be prepared to learn. You are in charge of your own behavior.)
● Empathy (Treat others the way you want to be treated.)
● Self Control (Make safe choices.)

After the various fulminations against it by Republicans opposed to President Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomajor to the Supreme Court, it was good to be reminded that empathy is a basic building block of civilized behavior − in schoolchildren, in judges, and in us all.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Tax Evasion is Still a Crime

In 1846, noted writer Henry David Thoreau went to jail for unpaid poll taxes, which he had refused to pay because of his opposition to the Mexican War and to slavery. His aunt paid the taxes for him, and Thoreau was released against his wishes after only one night in jail.

Al Capone, the quintessential Chicago mob figure of the roaring 20s, was famously convicted of tax evasion after government authorities were unable to get him on racketeering charges. He served seven years in prison, much of it at Alcatraz, before being paroled in 1939.

On September 3, 2009, a federal judge sentenced former major league pitcher Jerry Koosman to six months in prison and a year of supervised release for willfully failing to pay taxes. By his own admission, Koosman allowed himself to be influenced by extreme anti-tax rhetoric, and did his own spurious research into the applicability of federal tax laws. He pleaded guilty in May to a misdemeanor charge for willful failure to file in 2002, and he still owes the government about $65,000, according to prosecutors.

The money involved in Koosman’s case is relatively small compared to Wesley Snipes’s. Snipes was sentenced in April to three years in prison for failing to pay federal taxes from 1999 to 2001, a period in which he made over $18 million. At trial, Snipes had argued that he relied on the advice of co-defendant Eddie Ray Kahn, who was also found guilty. Kahn’s organization, American Rights Litigators (later renamed Guiding Light of Guide Ministries) told hundreds of people that they could completely avoid federal taxes.

The Justice Department and the Southern Poverty Law Center clearly have their hands full in tracking and confronting hardcore anti-tax ideology and the groups that promote it. But the Koosman and Snipes sentences should have at least a degree of deterrent effect. Why go to prison like Capone, just because you fancy yourself a modern-day Thoreau?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Unemployment and Crime Rates

On the last workday before the Labor Day weekend, the official unemployment rate hit 9.7 percent, the highest since 1983.

What effect does protracted economic hardship have on crime rates? Inuitively, one might think crime would go up as more people become desperate. At least in Minneapolis, however, serious crime rates have fallen, even as unemployment has risen. For the month by month statistics from January 2006 to February 2009. see this post on the Smart Politics blog.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Puppies Behind Bars

Fresh Air, the long-running interview program on National Public Radio, is very well named.

Tonight’s broadcast (originally aired on August 12) featured a segment on a remarkable program in New York State in which an nonprofit organization called Puppies Behind Bars enables prison inmates to train dogs for work in explosive detection or as service dogs. Many of the service dogs work with severely wounded veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury.

The guests who appeared on Fresh Air to talk about the program were its executive director/founder (Gloria Gilbert Stoga), a former inmate who trained dogs in Puppies for Peace and now works there (Laura Moran), and a wounded veteran of the war in Iraq (Paul Bang-Knutson), who brought his service dog to the interview.

The bond between the inmates who train the service dogs and the wounded veterans who receive them is astonishingly strong, the guests said. Stoga spoke of a meeting between vets and inmates in one of the participating prisons in which both groups were weeping openly. Through the dogs, those imprisoned in response to crime and those relegated to the margins of society by their injuries could come out of solitude.

Why do inmates tend to be such good trainers for the dogs? According to Stoga, the emotional fragility of inmates makes them well suited to the work. A dog offers unconditional love, 24/7, no matter what crimes the inmate may have committed. Caring for the dog − “being fully responsible for a live being,” as Stoga put it − helps the inmate deal with what is otherwise an often incredibly isolating experience of incarceration.

The impact on the wounded veterans is no less profound. The Fresh Air guests told of veterans who, when suffering from a PTSD episode, can end up on the floor in the fetal position. Puppies Behind Bars trains service dogs to intervene in these situations by literally calling 9-1-1 on an oversized phone originally designed for the visually impaired.

For many of us, thinking of dogs in prison implies harsh images of command and control. I'm referring here not just to the excesses of Abu Ghraib, but to ordinary American prisons like the one I visited with a legislative delegation in Clarinda, Iowa, a decade ago. It is truly inspiring to hear about how Puppies Behind Bars has turned this image on its head, making dogs into agents of healing.