Friday, February 25, 2011

3 Rs: Recidivism, Re-entry, and Reinvestment

Recidivism is usually defined, in corrections circles, as a prison inmate being rearrested for a new offense within a given period of time.

Measurement methods vary, but historically the rearrest rate has been quite high. Take, for example, the recent New York Times article on state-level efforts to help ex-inmates to find jobs upon release. The recidivism rate given there is 2 of every 3 released inmates within three years.

States have much to gain, though, by investing money in offender re-entry. As the Times piece points out, it costs about $35,000 to incarcerate someone for a year - more than it takes to send someone to the University of Michigan.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


The word "following" has become a widely accepted term of art in 21st-century social media circles. On Twitter, in particular, you can follow someone's posts merely by signing up for them, without any action of assent by the person being followed.

Social media has many benefits. In Tunisia, for example, and again in Egypt, the platform provided by Twitter helped opponents of the regime to organize more effectively - and therefore helped topple the government.

Let's not forget, however, the potentially voyeuristic associations of "following." Christopher Nolan's darkly lit film by that name, from 1998, is a stark reminder of this.

A protagonist without a stable sense of self starts randomly following people on the street. This soon shades into a string of burglaries motivated not so much by money as the creepy thrill of impermissibly breaking into and entering other people's private places.

It's film noir all the way, but it's not darkness for darkness sake. It's a cautionary tale about the seemy underside of the phenomenon of "following."

Monday, February 14, 2011


I've never been arrested.

But I can recognize similar accounts of it when I hear them - from two quite different political dissidents, of different genders, in two quite different times and places.

Tonight on the public radio program The Story, Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi told of her experience of being suddenly arrested by Egypt's authoritarian regime. It was thirty years ago, but the experience was clearly a seering one - yanking her out of her illusionary comfort zone and thrusting her into the bracing reality of prison.

In prison, she was confined next to prostitutes who lent her the rudimentary writing materials (such as toilet paper) she used to keep writing.

I was struck by the eerie congruence between her description of being arrested and the one given by Aleksandr Solshenitsyn in the very first chapter of his monumental Gulag Archipelago.
"Need it be said," Solzhenitsyn asked, "that it is a breaking point in your life, a bolt of lightning which has scored a direct hit on you?"

Solzhenitsyn's answer to his own rhetorical question would surely resonate with El Saadawi and others who have been arrested unexpectedly. He describes arrest as "an unassimable spiritual earthquake" with consequences so severe that some people go insane.

The natural reaction, then, is to hold on, as long as possible, to the previous reality - as summed up in Solzhenitsyn's patheticly innocent question, "Me? What for?"

Friday, February 11, 2011

Looking Back on Baghdad and Paths Not Taken

Pure, unmitigated, raucous, ecastatic joy on the streets of Cairo. The soldarity of the people deposed an entrenched strongman who had spent nearly 30 years consolidating his power.

Could it have been like this in Iraq?

Both President Bushes made sure this would not happen.

In 1991, following the American-led ouster of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, much of Iraq rose in revolt against Saddam Hussein's dictatorial rule. Yet George H.W. Bush, as commander-in-chief of U.S. forces, allowed Hussein to send helicopter gunships to suppress the uprising.

Twelve years later, George W. Blush recklessly blundered into an Iraqi intervention with planning so non-existent as to be criminally negligent. As Garrison Keillor noted, he was like Melville's Ahab - without the grandeur - hell-bent on sinking his own ship for his own incrutable reasons.

Charles Ferguson has documented much of this folly in his powerful 2007 dbocumentary No End in Sight. Unlike the ironic Erasmus, however, there is no praise; only justifiable blame for the clueless W, chicken-hawk Cheney, and arguably insane Rumsfeld.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Seven Million

Last summer it was Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, analyzing the phenomenon of mass incarceration.

Now it's The Wilson Quarterly, a thoughtful, respected publication from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, covering similar ground.
Why, WQ asks, are seven million American either in jail or prison or on probation and parole? And what should be done about it?

These are the broad questions this blog has been trying to answer, in one way or another, since I launched it in December 2008.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Crime, Delinquency and the Ethics of Investigation

The philosopher Hegel distinguished very carefully between morality and ethics. Moralty (Moralitaet) was more abstract and transnational in nature. Ethics (Sittlichkeit) was about the mores of a particular cultural group.

Stieg Larsson employs both of these terms in describing the actions of his character Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo. Joining forces at last - after over 350 pages - with the other lead character, Mikael Blomkvist, Salander has absolutely no compunction whatsoever about hacking into Blomkvist's computer.

Especially with a high-stakes inquiry into the actions of an apparent serial killer on the line.

Larsson puts it this way: "Salander was an information junkie with a delinquent child's take on morals and ethics."

Salander wanted the info, so she took it. Her action was akin to delinquency in its lack of respect for the other person. If she'd simply asked Blomkvist, he probably would have given her the information without all that much hesitation.

Instead, she risked sabotaging a key relationship by undermining essential trust.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Dragon Tatoo, Dangerous Society

Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo is - as Michael Palin used to say - a "ripping good yarn." The international publishing sensation it's become is evidence enough of that.

Yet it's also a clear critique, written by a man, of a pervasive culture of violence against women permeating Swedish society. Larsson appends short, devastating statements of fact to introduce sections of the book.

Before Part I, for example, is this statement: "Eighteen percent of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man."

The statement before Part II moves from threat to action: "Forty-six percent of the women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man."

Despite these warnings in the section epigraphs, I was shocked when, 200 pages into the book, Lisbeth Salander, the title character, was brutally and mercilessly raped by a man who was supposed to be her guardian.

Outweighing her by over 100 pounds, this man, Advokat Bjurman, forces Salander to suck his cock. And thinking himself insulated from consequences by his social power over her, he doesn't expect her to report it.

The story is set in Sweden in 2002 - a society surely among the most egalitarian in world history. A country with paid family leave for men, many of whom have embraced the role of caregiver.

Yet The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo suggests that there is a spectre haunting this society - the spectre of male violence.