Saturday, July 31, 2010

Land of 10,000

For tourism purposes, one of Minnesota's slogans has long been the Land of 10,000 Lakes. That's actually an undercount, as geographers put the number of lakes 10 acres or larger at 11,842.

We don't like to think too much, however, about also being the Land of 10,000 Homeless. Yet that is what we are.

Every three years, the Wilder Foundation, a highly respected nonprofit, conducts a systematic survey to identify the number of homeless people in Minnesota. On October 22 of last year, Wilder counted 9,654 people. The number rises to 13,100 - more than the number of lakes - when a formula developed by the federal Housing and Urban Development department is applied.

On any given night, the homeless poplulation in Minnesota includes 600 to 700 youth under 18.

The number of lakes has been stable for millenia, since the glaciers passed through. But the number of homeless has increased 20 percent in the last three years.

How can we, as citizens of Minnesota, get our arms around this enormous problem? Wilder offers resources to start making a difference.

The CO's Initial Checklist

In 1997, the journalist Ted Conover was a corrections officer candidate in New York State, taking a course on chemical agents at the training academy run by the Department of Correctional Services.

The instructor, an officer named Vincent Nigro from a medium-security prison downstate, began the first class with a one-liner.

"What's the first three things you get when you become a CO?" he asked the assembled recruits.

Nigro waited a moment, then provided the answer. "A car. A gun. A divorce."

A humorous line, to be sure, but pointing to the hard realities of the job to come. In exchange for a measure of financial security, correctional officers take on work in a setting that can turn violent at any moment. And the ensuing stress takes a toll on many marriages.

Is there data on this, one wonders? A study comparing the incidence of divorce among corrections workers with the general population?

Friday, July 30, 2010

Walking Within the Walls

Why would one of the America's foremost experiential journalists go through a grueling corrections officer training program and take on harrowing, highly stressful work in a prison? That's what Ted Conover did in the late 1990s in order to research Newjack, his account of life inside New York's notorious Sing Sing prison.

The answer, Conover tells us, has to do not only with the societal interest in understanding what goes on inside the walls. It also involves a fascination, dating to boyhood, with the walls themselves, and the hidden world they conceal.

Conover writes of passing by a small Minnesota town on the way to family reunions, seeing "a prison with a massive brick wall and turret-like guard towers," and thinking about the scene for hours. This uneasy yet intriguing glimpse of the external architecture of incarceraton provided a formative template for later encounters with such high-profile places of confinement as the Tower of London and Pennsylvania's Eastern State Penitentiary.

Every time I read this, I ask myself, "Does he mean St. Cloud?" For I, too, was once a frequent traveler past a turreted prison on the way to and from northern Minnesota. And I, too, felt the fascination Conover describes so well.

Years after my boyhood forays with my family past the stark prison near St. Cloud, I had occasion to see what is on the other side of those turrets. In September 2000, the prison administration and the St. Cloud community organized an outreach event billed as Walk Within the Walls. With the inmates on lockdown for the day (a Saturday), people were invited to tour the prison and its grounds - and formed long lines to do so.

About six months after Walk Within the Walls, I returned to Minnesota Correctional Facility - St. Cloud as part of a research team from the corrections department central office in St. Paul. We were there to administer a survey aimed at eliciting inmates' views on the quality of their healthcare services. Walking among the old-style cells, distributing the paper survey form to inmates, was a rather surreal experience at times. Each member of our team breathed a sigh of relief as we concluded our work and left the prison behind.

Fascination from afar is one thing; the reality inside is quite another.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

AARP-Eligible and Incarcerated

Over 200,000 people over the age of 50 are incarcerated in the U.S.

That's why, on Christmas Eve last year, Human Rights Watch called American prisons "nursing homes with razor wire."

Given the low recidivism rates of older offenders, and their astronomical healthcare costs, one might think compassionate release would be used more often. But our culture, for a generation now, has unrelentingly insisted on getting its pound of flesh - year after aging year.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Searched Out and Known by God - Even in Prison

Last night I took part in my second board meeting of Prison Congregations of America. PCA is a nonprofit group working with inmates, corrections officials, local church communities, and mainline denominations to create congregations within prison walls. These are congregations where inmates gather to worship the Lord and support each other with prayer and - just as on the outside - the mutual consolaton of the saints.

The partnership model employed by PCA, involving close collaboration between a prison congregation and a church in the larger community, has already achieved notable success. There are currently 14 prison congregation in 10 states, with plans, God willing, for many more.

Rich Rienstra, pastor/developer of the inmate congregation at Ionia Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in western Michigan, gave the devotions at the start of last night's PCA board meeting. He read from Psalm 146, which praises the God of Jacob, the creator of all things, who keeps faith forever and executes justice for the oppressed.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind,
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down . . .

Rich also read from Psalm 139, addressed by the Psalmist to the God who has searched him and known him and is prepared to follow him all the way to the depths of Sheol. Both of these passages, Rich said, resonate very deeply with members of the prison congregation.

As the board moved on to discuss the exciting opportunities and significant challenges PCA faces in this still-so-tough economy, these readings from the Psalms were the perfect place to start.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Postpartum Depression and Infanticide: Shades of Gray

A mother struggling with severe postpartum depression leaves her two-week-old son unattended in the bathtub, where he drowns. She then drives to a nearby reservoir, weighs his body down with rocks, and tells multiple lies to law enforcement about what happened.

At her first murder trial, the mother - let's call her Heidi - has an attorney who fails to raise the issue of her mental state as a possible defense, despite the fact that Heidi was hospitalized just days after her son's death for depression, suicidal thoughts, and panic attacks. A female juror refuses to convict on the first-degree murder charge, resulting in a mistrial due to a hung jury.

The prosecution brings the case to trial again and this time convicts Heidi of second-degree murder. She receives a mandatory 50-year prison sentence.

Heidi serves nine years in prison before the state supreme court rules she is entitled to a new trial because her original trial counsel had failed to consider her mental state.

After ten months of freedom, however, Heidi pleads guilty to multiple acts of child endangerment. She is sentenced to up to 50 years in prison.

At sentencing, Heidi's attorney points out that in 29 countries around the world, when a mother who kills a child under the age of one can prove that her mental state was disturbed due to childbirth, the maximum penalty is manslaugher. Most of these countries limit the consequences to probation and counseling.

After sentencing, the judge says he will take the practically unprecedented step of writing a letter urging the parole board to consider Heidi's release. Even the prosecutor, in pursuit of her for so long, acknowledges that she is no longer a threat to public safety and says he will write a letter to the parole board, too.

In this almost unspeakably sad story, Heidi is Heidi Anfinson of Des Moines, who killed her young son Jacob in the third week of September in 1998 - right about the time my wife and I moved to Des Moines to start jobs there. Heidi was ELCA Lutheran, as we were, and about our age, so her case has always seemd quite close to home. Indeed, the older of our two sons was born in Des Moines and spent the first few weeks of his life there before we moved to Minnesota.

"There but for the grace of God go I," a Christian will sometimes say when showing mercy.

The criminal justice system, of course, has a very different point of departure. Yet there, too, the principal actors in this dark drama have struggled to find a proper response. Scott Rosenberg, the judge who sentenced Heidi Anfison on her plea agreement, put it this way:

"We often like to think of things in black and white. But often, it is the gray that is the truth."

What color will the Iowa Board of Parole see in Heidi Anfinson's case, I wonder - and when will it act?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Counting the Beans While Rome Burns

For tweve years, dating back to 1997, the Secuties and Exchange Commission strongly suspected that a billionare businssman named R. Allen Stanford was operating a Ponzi scheme. But the SEC did not bring fraud charges until February 2009,

How could this be?

In April 2010, the inspector general of the SEC attempted an answer. It was not due to "any improper professional, social or financial relationship on the part of any former or current SEC employee," according to the IG's report. This finding came despite evidence that a SEC enforcement official who helped block full-scale investigations of Stanford's activites later served as his legal counsel.

The inspector general did find, however, that "institutional influence" was a factor in the repeated decisions not to investigate Stanford more thoroughly. "Institutional influence" is the IG's shorthand phrase for a stats-obessed metrics mentality that prevailed within the Forth Worth office of the SEC for over a decade. Senior agency officials believed they were being judged by their managers on the sheer number of cases they brought, and therefore discouraged the enforcement staff from pursuing challenging cases. Stanford's case wasn't a "quick hit," so time after time it got shelved - until the changing of the guards to the Obama administration.

I'm not surprised to learn of utter imcompetence bordering on malfeasance during the George W. Bush years. What I'm struck by, rather, is that the inaction in the face of ongoing fraud began during the Clinton era. How does one account for this?

Jason Linkins has very good blow-by-blow account in The Huffington Post.

In terms of the underlying ideology, it surely has something to do with the often-toxic tide of Reaganism that continues to wash through American public life. If government is supposed to be the problem, not the solution, then one option is to "starve the best" - keep cutting the funding, yet still somehow expect the same services.

Having worked in state government in the late 90s and early 2000s, I remember quite well the building pressure to do more with less. Al Gore himself presided over the Reinventing Government initiative that was so popular back then. Small wonder, then, that major balls got dropped while bureaucratic managers counted the beans.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Willie Nelson Makes a Case for Legalizing Weed

At age 77, after six decades on the road, Willie Nelson is an American icon. He's sold fifty million albums, made a slew of movies, and given freely of himself to charitable causes. Even if you don't dig country music, or remember his efforts to organize the Farm Aid concerts a quarter century ago, you've probably heard snippets of his signature song, On the Road Again.

Just in time for the Fourth of July, Parade magazine ran a cover story on Willie recounting his gripping life story. Raised by grandparents during the Great Depression, he has experienced three failed marriages, the suicide of a son, numerous drug busts, and tense tangles with the IRS. Today, however, according to the Parade account, he has found, with his fourth wife, Annie, 50, a level of tranquility he had never previously known.

Willie Nelson believes that his new-found tranquility also has something to do with cutting way back on alcohol consumption and partaking freely of cannabis. In fact, this American icon is an articulate spokesperson for the legalization of marijuana.

"Legalize weed. It's 50 percent of what's causing the problems along the border with the drug cartels. A lot of people who sell it want to keep it illegal because that's where the money is. The cartels are now in hundreds of our cities, growing and selling weed. Legalize it, and it would stop all that immediately."

Is this reasoning sound?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Know 2, Don't Know 8?

In sixteeenth century Europe, when pretensions to absolute certainty made burning supposed heretics at the stake an all-too-common occurrence, Michel Montaigne remained a cool reserve.

How, he queried in his essays, could people be so certain of the truth of dogmatic, abstract propositions, when the human mind is so inherently limited? And, one must also note, the human heart is so potentially treacherous?

A decade into the 21st century, such healthy scepticism remains an important counterpoint to pell-mell orthodoxy. Why are so many people in America incarcerated, and what do we really get for the constant and still increasing drain on our collective coffers?

Let's admit that, to a very great extent, noone knows.

A number of the foremost criminologists have recently moved toward this more Montaigne-like view. Michael Tonry, puncturing holes in the easy explanations of why crime rates fell throughout the 1990s, speaks openly of "mystery." Alfred Blumenstein points out the very low amount of money spent on criminal justice research, compared to medical and even dental research. And Franklin Zimring commented a couple of years ago, regarding the state of criminal justice knowledge, that one could describe the score on that question as Know 2, Don't Know 8.

To recongnize the importance of this epistemological humilty, one could even go two millenia back from Montaigne to Socrates. Admitting what you do not know can be the beginning of wisdom.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Misfit on Crime and Punishment

How do you respond when confronted with unredeemed evil? And where does evil come from?

In Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard to Find, a previously talkative grandmother can muster only one word when she finds herself alone with an escaped convict known as The Misfit. The word is Jesus, and she says it twice - intending it as an invocation of sorts, a call to prayer, but sounding, in practice, more like cursing.

The mention of Jesus' name immediately elicits a revealing reply from her abducter. "Yes'm," he says, "Jesus thrown everything off balance. It was the same with him as with me except he hadn't committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me."

The Misfit does not see himself as blameless. Yet he feels a kinship with Jesus, who knew what it was like to have the full force of the law arrayed against him.

For the Misfit, however, a lengthy prison sentence was not redemptive like Jesus' death. Rather, he becomes consumed by a sense of grievance that the punishment did not fit the crime. "I call myself The Misfit," he tells the grandmother, "because I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment."

When Flannery O'Connor published this story in 1955, the U.S. prison population was a fraction of what it is today, and a character like The Misfit seemed like an outlier.

Today, brutal killings have become so common, and the media to report them so ubiquitous, that the shock value they had a half century ago is largely gone.

My question is this: To what extent have the heavy-handed sentencing policies of recent decades contributed to the creation of a multitude of misfits?